If you don’t know Nicole Hemmer, @PastPunditry on Twitter, you should.
She is the author of the book, Messengers of the Right; an Assistant Professor at the Miller Center; a Contributing Editor to US News & World Report; a columnist for Vox; a host of the Past Present podcast; a Research Associate at the US Studies Centre, University of Sydney; and a columnist for The Age.
Her writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Politico, and The New Republic and she has been on CNN’s Reliable Sources.
And if that wasn’t enough, she is also a founding editor of a new history blog on The Washington Post, Made By History.
An experienced and prolific writer, she is a historian who knows what it takes to communicate history through the press, particularly op-eds. Below, she shares her op-ed tips…
How To Op-Ed (for Academics)
Nicole Hemmer, Washington Post, Made By History
So you want to write an op-ed. And you should! As a scholar, you have a vast expertise that extends well beyond the subject of the books and articles that you’ve written. Whether you’re pitching[*] a piece to the new history section at the Washington Post or to any newspaper, magazine, or news website, here’s some general advice to help you navigate the unfamiliar terrain of op-ed writing.
The first thing is that the old op-ed genre is being transformed. For print publications, writers are still limited to somewhere between 700-900 words (generally; there are exceptions) but so many established places like the Washington Post, New York Times, the Atlantic, New Republic, and Politico have online spaces that allow for longer, more in-depth pieces.
There’s also more of an appetite for history writing than there used to be. When I was a fellow at the Miller Center in 2008, the person who taught me the art of op-ed writing cautioned against anything more than a dollop of history in any op-ed. Probably good advice for academics, who like to overexplain, but think about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” which was essentially an extended historiography essay, or Mason William’s brilliant piece for the Atlantic, “The Crumbling Monuments of the Age of Marble.” Loads of history in both.
All of which is to say that there’s more freedom and innovation in the genre of argument-driven, analytical writing than there used to be.
Still, the op-ed genre requires some things we don’t do as much in scholarly writing. First, brevity. If you can’t make your argument in around 800-900 words, you either need to recast the argument or rethink how you’re making it. Editors will often allow you more words if you’re publishing online, but it’s worth mastering the discipline of short-length writing.
Brevity also extends to sentence and paragraph length. That means fewer examples (pick one stellar one rather than three). It also means less hedging. You can certainly qualify statements, but don’t get too in the weeds. It helps to step back and think about it from the perspective of your audience: it’s less about what you know and more about what they need to know in order to follow your argument.
And speaking of arguments: they’re absolutely essential. Op-eds are a persuasive form of writing. Just because something’s interesting doesn’t mean it’s enough to hang an op-ed on. Sometimes you can write your way to an argument; I usually talk or text my way to them, to the annoyance of my friends. But once you have that — that one line that explains why conventional wisdom is wrong or why history is essential for understanding some contemporary development — then you’re good to go.
Structurally, that sentence will appear in what is called the “nut graf.” Most op-eds will have a short paragraph, occasionally two, that set up the piece, and then the nut graf: the paragraph that lays out your argument. Then the rest of the piece is about developing that argument — again, as briefly and as tightly as you can get away with.
A few other things:
—Timing: Generally you need a news hook, and that means either writing quickly, or working up a draft and waiting for a suitable hook. Over time you get a sense of what’s ephemeral and what’s going to be in the news cycle for a while. The ephemeral stuff you have to hop on immediately, and it’s very easy to miss the news cycle. Covering the White House or an election is nice, because it’s pretty easy to write up a new hook based on the ever-evolving events.
—Placement: You get a sense for this over time, but I recommend pitching wonkier pieces to Washington Post, Politico, and Vox, and lengthier, more idea-driven pieces to places like the Atlantic and the New York Times. The New Republic skews more political; Slate, more contrarian. If you’re on the culture beat, the Atlantic is doing good stuff there, too. And almost all these places are expanding their sections and coverage, so you will likely find good opportunities in unexpected places.
—Pitching: Different editors like different things, but there are basically two ways to pitch: a short email with your argument, evidence, and credentials, or a shorter version of that with a draft of the piece pasted into the email (no attachments — editors are wary of opening them, and they’re more likely to get you routed to spam). Remember that the pitch email is itself an audition, even if you don’t include a draft of the piece: you’re showing you can make a concise argument, that you can peg that argument to the news, and that you can write.
—Rejection: I don’t have as much opportunity to pitch new outlets these days, because I’m writing so many regular columns. But I still get rejected regularly when I do. I published the first op-ed I wrote, a stroke of good luck, and then spent the next several years getting far more rejections than acceptances. A “no” — or silence — often indicates a problem of fit or timing (or that it went to spam, or that an overburdened editor overlooked it, etc. etc.). Sometimes it means that you need to refine your pitch, but you won’t often get that feedback from an editor. When you do, treat it like the valuable advice that it is.
But the most important piece of advice is to keep at it. The public conversation needs more informed voices, and as a scholar, you’re sitting on more information and insight than most. Don’t let fear or inexperience prevent you from engaging the public and sharing your perspective.
[*] “Pitching” means submitting an idea or draft for an editor to consider for publication.