How to turn your research into an op-ed
You’ve spent weeks, months, or years researching a topic and you’d like to share your findings with a wider audience. You’re an expert academic writer and know how to bulletproof your work against peer review. But to reach a wider audience, the research needs to be presented a different way – a way that may not feel natural to somebody trained in the academic world.
The Washington Post defines an op-ed as “an opinion piece by a guest writer that makes a clear argument about a topic usually (but not always) in the news. The name is derived from the traditional placement of these pieces opposite the editorial page of the printed newspaper.” Op-eds are typically around 750-800 words, though we at Binding Hook allow them to be longer (between 800 to 1,200 words) to allow people to develop their argument fully.
Pick one argument
When it comes to translating your research into an op-ed, it is not about condensing all 30,000 words of your thesis into 1,000 words. Instead, select a particular aspect of your article or thesis to focus on. In 1,000 words you can’t make more than one main argument with three points. The OpEd Project has a beautiful schematic for how a piece should be structured:
+ LEDE (AROUND A NEWS HOOK)
A lede is what sets the scene and grabs your reader’s attention – it is your introduction. A news hook is what makes your piece timely, and often is part of the lede.
+ 1ST POINT
+ 2ND POINT
+ 3RD POINT
+ “TO BE SURE” PARAGRAPH
In which you pre-empt your potential critics by acknowledging any flaws in your argument, and address any obvious counter-arguments.
+ CONCLUSION (OFTEN CIRCLING BACK TO YOUR LEDE)
There should be a clear position running through the draft. It is usually easier to write if you create an outline first. You can easily use the structure above for that.
If you’re short of ideas, here are a few questions that could help trigger inspiration:
- Is there something that you’ve discovered that is often misunderstood? Clarify it in an op-ed.
- Is there a trend underway that everyone seems to be missing but will have an impact in a couple of years? Sound the alarm in an op-ed.
- Do you have a different perspective to offer on a mainstream issue? Outline it in an op-ed.
How to start
The first paragraph should be a mini-summary of the issue you will be talking about. Tell the reader why you are writing about it. What is at stake? What are the implications? You can even start your sentence with ‘I’m writing this because…’ and then delete this part once you’ve written out the reasons.
The first sentence of this paragraph is centred around a ‘hook’ or a ‘peg’ (or a ‘lede’ as mentioned above). That’s usually a news story for traditional op-eds, but also can be a personal anecdote or some hard-hitting statistic. It is an important part of your piece as it must persuade the reader to keep reading. Don’t overstress about this though—the more important thing is to tell the reader what you will be talking about in the article. A news hook can often be inserted after the main argument has been written and edited.
Shorten paragraphs. Paragraphs in an article published online are not the same as paragraphs in a long academic piece published in a journal. Articles of 1,000 words can’t have paragraphs that are 300 or even 200 words long. As a rule of thumb, paragraphs should have no more than four sentences. It makes it easier on the eye as well as when reading on mobile devices.
Shorten sentences. If you have a long, complicated sentence, see if you can split it into two (it can be done, trust me). One long sentence should not be a paragraph by itself.
Avoid acronyms. Beloved of MBAs, general management, and technical writing, acronyms can make articles look like unappetising alphabet pasta. They save space but usually do so at the cost of confusion and frustration on the part of the reader. Unless the reader already knows the acronym before they read the piece, they will have to rack their brains to recall what it means every single time they read it. Or they’ll just give up and look for something easier to read. So find a shorthand word that describes the acronymed thing and use that instead. You can abbreviate using words, not acronyms. For instance, rather than abbreviating the full name of a committee to ‘CPPCCSC’, you can shorten it to ‘the Committee’ instead.
‘Translate’ academic words. The purpose of an op-ed is to reach a wider audience, so avoid using technical words that most people won’t already know. Instead, opt to paraphrase them, or use a simpler word that may not be as precise as one would need in an academic setting, but conveys the general idea more easily—because the general idea is what an op-ed reader wants. If you really must use a technical term, take the time to explain it. If it doesn’t seem important enough to explain, then the acronym is probably not crucial.
Give less detail. Academics often need to qualify their arguments or be extremely specific to avoid being misunderstood and drawing criticism. If you’re accustomed to writing that way, not doing it can leave you feeling exposed. But readers of op-eds are much less demanding than an academic audience in the level of precision and rigour they expect. Those who decide they need the ‘grown-up’ version of your work will look it up and read that too.
Use simple words. Use the simplest words you can find to convey your argument. The thesaurus is your friend but opt for the simpler, more often-used words. Your average reader would prefer to read ‘everyday actions’ rather than ‘quotidian agency’.
Use topic sentences. The first sentence of every paragraph needs to tell the reader what the rest of the paragraph is about. Then give data and examples to back up the initial sentence. A lot of readers will skim. We hope they won’t, but they do, so we need to give them signposts that help them decide where to slow down and take in all the detail.
Give context. We best understand situations in comparison to others, especially when we’re unfamiliar with the issue. So when you tell us that Azerbaijan improved internet access by 25%, it doesn’t say much. Tell us also what level of internet access it had in 2020. What is it now? How does it compare to other countries?
Explain concepts the first time you mention them. Not everyone knows what ‘Information Theory’ is. Use shorthand explanations for anything that is not general knowledge, including policies, theories, strategies, etc.
Hold the reader’s hand. The reader won’t necessarily make a conceptual leap from evidence to conclusion by themselves. You’ll need to ‘hold their hand’ and guide them through your reasoning (or, put another way, to ‘spoonfeed’ them the argument piece by piece). It might feel patronising to break it down so much, but the knowledge gap between writer and reader is usually much greater than we imagine.
State the obvious. Once we have expertise in a certain area, it is difficult for us to read from the point of view of someone who doesn’t know much about the subject. You might feel uncomfortable stating the obvious, but what’s obvious to an expert like you will often be a revelation to people without your background. It’s okay if you feel like you’re dumbing it down—you should be!
Give the reader a ‘takeaway’. Whether they realise it consciously or not, a reader wants to come away from an op-ed feeling like they’ve improved themselves in some way. Perhaps they now understand a topic that previously confused them, have been armed with an argument they can use in debates, or are better equipped to solve a problem, make a decision, or overcome a challenge. This is the ‘takeaway’. The lesson you’re teaching them. The moral of the story. It’s what everything leads up to. It’s what makes the article satisfying.
How to end
End the article with the argument you wish to leave the reader with or circle back to the beginning. A prediction about what the future may hold or implications heading our way also work well. Readers often prickle at direct prescriptions (‘we should do X’) because they don’t like being told what to do. But what if you want to tell them what to do? A call to action can be implied (if X doesn’t happen, then some Bad Thing will). This is perhaps the one place in the article where it’s better to imply something than state it outright!
More writing tips
There are many other great writing guides about how to write articles or op-eds.
In addition to the Washington Post’s above, check out Harvard’s ‘How to Write an Op-Ed’ and The Op Ed Project. My main recommendation is to read a short but brilliant book that’s been around for a while (for good reason) called The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. It is readable, inexpensive, and will give you all the rules that govern good writing.