How to Advocate for Entomology by Writing an Op-Ed
By Helen Spafford, Ph.D.
Not everyone feels comfortable going to the state capitol and speaking with policymakers. That isn’t the only way to advocate for entomology. We can promote our research and discipline through writing.
Optimize Your Op-Ed
Op-eds are short, opinion essays written by experts and leaders on a relevant topic and, traditionally, printed on the page opposite the editorial page of a newspaper or magazine (hence, “op-ed”). Here are some how-to points to consider while writing your op-ed.
1. Before you begin, choose your audience. Getting an op-ed published in The Washington Post or The New York Times is great, but these outlets receive hundreds of submissions per day. Your local newspaper will reach a smaller audience, but the article may have a greater chance for acceptance and more impact. Once you have decided on your audience and outlet, always check the guidelines at the media outlet. They will provide you with information about style, length, and contact information.
2. Identify your topic, theme, and goal. We all have opinions. You need to pick one topic to write about. It is very useful to tie the topic to something currently or recently in the news. Make sure you have a look to see what has been written on the topic recently, particularly in your chosen outlet. Editors are looking for a different perspective on something in the news cycle.
Keep the topic focused and identified in the first paragraph. For example, you think people don’t care enough about insects (an opinion). This is very broad. Is there an issue to focus attention on? Let your readers know what you think is important about this topic and why they should care. Op-eds ought to have a clear message, ideally with something actionable. What do you want people to know and do as a result of reading your opinion? What is the one key message for readers?
3. Don’t forget the lead with a hook. Set the scene and grab the reader’s attention with a compelling lead (introduction). Have you made an interesting discovery with your research? The hook might be something timely and relevant such as the anniversary of a historical discovery, a bill under consideration, an upcoming vote, a holiday, or an observation such as World Mosquito Day.
4. Keep it concise and simple. Avoid jargon. Op-eds are short essays, often from 600 to 800 words (each outlet will have its own guidelines). I recommend that you start by writing without worrying about the length. Then cut, edit, and reshape the piece while keeping in mind your goal and audience. Keep sentences short and straightforward. Ask yourself if each statement is essential, true, and defensible.
You are writing for a general audience, so use everyday language. Imagine talking to your nextdoor neighbor, the person at the checkout counter, your local police officer, or a 10th grader. If the term hemolymph is essential to your essay, then you will need to define it, but if it isn’t then don’t use it. Find a substitute. Avoid using clichés. Not everyone understands them.
5. Be concrete and give examples, preferably from personal history. The column should be grounded in solid research. You do not need to justify every statement with an in-text citation, but you do need to properly credit sources. Statistics are useful to provide support for your message, but avoid bombarding readers with a slew of numbers.
You want readers to connect with your message. There is power in a story. Share one that will mean something to those who are reading.
Get it Published
You’ve written it, your friends love it, and now you are ready to pitch the essay to an editor.
To submit your article, prepare an email to the editor. Only pitch and submit your op-ed essay to one outlet at a time.
The email should open with an introductory pitch, which should answer these questions:
- Why this? How does this topic and issue affect the audience? How is your opinion new or different from what has already been offered?
- Why now? What is timely about this topic? What is the political, economic, social context?
- Why me? Why are you an authority or credible messenger about this topic?
Include a short 1-2 sentence biography in your communication. Include your full name and contact information (email, telephone). You may attach a photograph of yourself. In your email, let the editor know that if they do not respond within a few days (specify the date) you will offer the piece to another outlet.
Paste the full article in the body of the email.
Congratulations! Your op-ed has been published. Space is limited in newsprint and the editor chose you. Write a short note of thanks.
Then, share the piece on social networks. You can use the op-ed to connect with policy makers. Send a copy to your local, state and federal representatives who are working on this issue. You may even request to meet.
There are numerous resources to support you in writing your op-ed piece. I recently attended a very helpful workshop offered by the Scholars Strategy Network. In addition, the sources below were referenced in writing this article.
- Op-ed Writing: Tips and Tricks, The Op-Ed Project
- Writing op-eds that make a difference, Indivisible
- How to write an op-ed or column, Journalist’s Resource
- Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers, The New York Times
“Entomology Advocacy Week 2019,” August 18-24
Entomological Society of America
Helen Spafford, Ph.D., is an entomologist, a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at the University of New Orleans, and a member of the ESA Science Policy Fellows Class of 2015. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.