By Dustin Hornbeck
It is difficult to underestimate the importance of written opinion as an expression of agency and civic participation within a democratic society. Editorial writing has been central to the development of Western political life; Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Jefferson may have changed his mind about this later in his political life when editorials accused him of all kinds of mischief and moral corruption. Nevertheless, editorials like, The Federalist, have sparked public debates and dialogue that has greatly contributed to public deliberation. This blog offers some broad suggestions for blog and editorial writing for intellectuals and academics who want to “go public.” It is a primer for a workshop to be held at the upcoming annual meeting of the John Dewey Society.
Historically, the public distribution of written word has driven democratization and shared knowledge with citizens. Self-rule is contingent upon an educated and motivated citizenry. The modern concept of representative democracy as well as the larger Deweyan conception of democracy as society, as “way of life” as well as elections, hinges on the ability of citizens to have access to information and to develop the skills to integrate it. this has historically come from the circulation of newspapers, pamphlets, public speeches, and meetings. Public writing also has a broader purpose. In The Public and its Problems, John Dewey warns against over-reliance on the traditional governmental rituals found in classical liberalism, and calls for experimentation and open dialogue and collaboration with “citizen experts,” drawing on their experience and local knowledge, to further democratize society. Cultivating a diversity of perspectives and kinds of expertise in a variety of written formats is part of Dewey’s vision of a robustly democratic society beyond the narrow confines of representative government
Printed editorials have long been the norm, but blogs and other electronic outlets have become a new prominent medium for conveying written opinion in the last two decades. Submitting editorials to blogs and online newspaper outlets can be an important way to promote discourse and generate deliberation about topics in education. Last year, Amy Shuffelton, a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, wrote a compelling piece probing into the intent of a three-hour series aired by PBS that promoted school choice. Her piece was subsequently shared by education reform giant, Dianne Ravitch, which opened a dialogue about something that may have gone unnoticed by many who had encountered the program.
Included below are a few thoughts about writing an op-ed or blog post. When deciding to write an opinion editorial, it is important to consider the potential publishing outlet, and to harness personal experience and expertise to have a unique take on the issue.
Choosing an Outlet and Audience
First and foremost, it is important to know what you want to say in your piece; this will help you determine where to submit your work. There are numerous online websites that run the gambit on topics, with some very specific and some incredibly broad. One example of a narrowly focused blog from Philadelphia is called, The Notebook, this blog is dedicated to news and ideas specific to the Philadelphia city school district. People use this independently-run blog to share opinions and ideas specific to issues faced by the public schools in Philadelphia. Local newspapers are also great outlets for opinion writing and reach a varied online and sometimes print audience. The Conversation, is an up-and-coming news outlet that is written primarily by academics as a way to display research in a public outlet. The op-ed project is a great place to sift through various opinion outlets and find instructions on how to submit to each site listed.
Once you determine where you want to submit your editorial, the next step is to set yourself apart from other opinion submissions. It is incredibly difficult to get a piece accepted to some large national blogs and newspapers, but not impossible. According to a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, your chances of getting published in a major national outlet increase if you are already famous in your field, your editorial is about a popular topic, and if your piece adds a unique spin on the issue about which you focus. Many prominent websites, news magazines, blogs, and newspapers have regular opinion writers, and it with subscription services on the decline, space in papers is diminishing, but online blogs are prevalent and can be great places to circulate opinion about critical issues of the day. Starting small is a great idea, and publishing in a local outlet about a local issue is an important way to contribute to democratic debate.
State your Position
When writing academic papers, we are often trained to avoid sharing our own positions and opinions. In some disciplines, positionality is frowned upon, and writing in third person is the only legitimate way in which to write. Inversely, editorials take a strong position and can be written in the first person. In an article offering tips for aspiring op-ed authors, The New York Times suggests that all opinion submissions be written for a general audience, and should include the writer’s’ opinion and perspective. Writing in relative simple and understandable language is a way to reach a large audience and can help add to the important field of public scholarship. As well, keeping sentences short and to the point is keeps readers engaged in the argument. Referencing your personal expertise and experience signals your credibility and is a powerful tool of persuasion.
Photo by Austin Chan
There is no correct way to write an op-ed, and it’s hard to say what might strike a chord with an opinion editor. It might be frightening to think about writing your opinion, but it’s nothing more than a written conversation; Fear not! Take a deep breath, collect your thoughts, and just write. Your opinion will likely resonate with others and help spark deliberation, perhaps sparking an idea that can further bring us closer to a just society. Give it a try!