Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Art of the Op-Ed

Around the time of the publication of my book, The Sit-Ins, I decided to give more attention to something I had mostly avoided up to that point: writing op-eds. I was looking for ways to draw more attention to the book, and this seemed a good way to do that. I placed an op-ed in USA Today that ran on the anniversary of the seminal 1960 lunch counter sit-in in Greensboro, North Carolina. I also wrote several pieces for the Washington Post’s “Made By History” section.

I have two takeaways from this experience. One is that an academic writing an op-ed should know some basic tricks. The other is that a historian writing an op-ed faces distinct challenges. Effective op-ed writing often demands the kind of presentist orientation to the past that conflicts with the essence of effective historical writing.

The Tricks

I quickly learned there are basic tricks to writing pieces op-eds. The most important is to remember your audience. Op-eds are aimed toward a general readership, and you need to make sure to pitch your prose at the right level. Make it accessible. Don’t assume knowledge. Avoid abstract concepts and technical terminology. Use details selectively, and then only to illustrate or to add texture to the point you’re trying to make.

A related trick: Don’t try to do too much. Figure out what the point of the piece is and stick to it. Avoid excessive qualifications. Accept that nuance is not the coin of this realm. For scholars who dedicate their careers to the complexity of historical material, who carefully craft article and books by threading together subtle arguments and sub-arguments, this can be a difficult and painful process.

And then there is the always-looming word count. You need to cut, cut, and cut some more. You might get some more space if you’re writing an exclusively online essay, but if you have a chance to get into actual print, this requires even more cuts.

The Challenges

Beyond figuring out how to express yourself in accessible 800-word form, there are more substantive concerns that historians face when writing op-eds.

If you want an editor to pick up your op-ed, you need a hook. What do you have to say that will make a general reader stop to take a detour into history with you? Sometimes the historical material itself is the enticement. But if you’re trying to get the attention of an editor receiving hundreds of submissions every week, you probably need something more. And often that something more is a “lesson” of history. You’re a historian, and you want to show the world that you have something to add to the discussion. And what clearer, more relevant way to declare your importance than to say that history provides special insight on some issue of contemporary importance?

In navigating this terrain, there are two basic moves the historian can make: critique and construction. The historian as critic might simply seek to correct some historical misconception that has entered into public debate. Or, the historian as critic might seek to undermine present-day assumptions, to destabilize established certainties. The historian does this by showing that the status quo was constructed out of lost alternatives, that the present does not need to be the way it is. History shows us that things have changed and that things can change again.

The other move is probably more appealing to op-ed editors, but it is the one I find far more challenging and more potentially problematic. This move involves the historian extracting a lesson from history that says something about the way the present should be.

Some lessons of history focus on lineage. The historian shows how present debates are the legacies of past debates. Understanding the past illuminates the stakes of the present. So, for example, liberal historians argue that the embrace of a “color-blind” reading of the equal protection clause by segregationists in the 1960s and 1970s illuminates the sins of modern-day color-blind constitutionalists. Conservative historians critique modern liberalism by tracing its lineage to the paternalistic, racist, and eugenicist strands of the Progressives.

Another kind of lesson of history is comparative. The historian places the past alongside the present so as to illuminate the present. This was how I framed my op-eds on the sit-ins. One described lessons the sit-in movement offered for present-day protest efforts. The other compared the 1960 student movement to the recent student-led gun rights movement.

The reason I find this kind of writing challenging is because Rule #1 for any serious historian is that past is different from the present. The most common mistake for nonhistorians engaging with the past is anachronism and presentism. Recovering the past requires attention to the distinctive circumstances and worldviews of historical actors. Finding ourselves in the past is easy—probably because it says more about us than about the past. The best historical work tends to show difference.

Extracting lessons from the past that are useful to the present is an exercise in selection in which the selection criteria is as much about present-day utility than about historical fidelity. To make history serviceable to the present also requires compromise and simplification. Richness and complexity of history inevitably is lost in the process.

So, for example, to reduce modern color-blind constitutionalism to the legacy of segregationism requires placing aside many other strands of historical influence that played a role in its rise to conservative orthodoxy. My comparison of the lunch counter sit-in protesters to the post-Parkland student gun-control activists required me to pick out points of intersection and push aside points of differentiation. The comparison was driven by my admiration for the students and what they were trying to do, both then and now. I want the students today to succeed, and it was this desire, as much as or more so than my knowledge of history, that moved me to compare them to one of the most inspirational and successful students movements in history.


These are the tricks and challenges of writing op-eds. The tricks I found sometimes frustrating, always time-consuming, but readily manageable. The more substantive challenges I found harder to navigate. I had to recognize that the art of the op-ed simply requires tapping into a different skill set than that of an academic historian.

In the end, I was proud of the op-eds I wrote. I felt I was able to minimize the inevitable trade-offs of the genre. They drew attention to historical material I felt deserved more attention. And the linkages I drew between the past and the present hopefully enriched some readers’ understanding of both.