Public engagement: Writing an opinion piece

Dr Meagan TylerDr Meagan Tyler is a lecturer in Sociology at Victoria University, Australia. She is currently on secondment to the Centre for Sustainable Organisations and Work (CSOW) at RMIT University, conducting research for the Bushfire CRC project: “Effective Communication: Communities and bushfire.”

Meagan has written pieces for The Drum and The Conversation, has been quoted in a variety of publications (including The Age, The Times [UK], and Cosmopolitan), and recently appeared on the TV current affairs program, The Project.

She tweets @DrMeaganTyler.


Academics want their work to be read, and public engagement can be a very useful way to make sure this happens.

There are three main reasons why getting your research out to wider audience can be a good idea:

  1. you have expertise to share on a particular issue in the news,
  2. you want to get the results of your work out to the public, and
  3. you want to raise your profile.

As a researcher, it can be infuriating when you read a piece – in a newspaper or online – that deals with your research area, and it turns out to be misleading or inaccurate. It can be difficult, particularly as an early career researcher, to know how to add your voice and expertise to the debate.

There are several ways you can become more involved, including starting your own blog, getting active on Twitter, putting profile pages up on sites like Academia.edu, and writing opinion pieces. These take time and patience, but they will help raise your profile, thus improving your chances of being quoted in papers, interviewed on radio or TV, or invited to write.

A soap box (Photo by MonsieurLui - http://www.flickr.com/photos/monsieurlui)

A soap box (Photo by MonsieurLui – http://www.flickr.com/photos/monsieurlui)

All of this means that your research will be more widely read, and the possibility that you might actually influence public debate on a topical issue is much greater.

If there is a particular issue in the news that relates to your work, it’s always helpful to contact your institution’s media unit as a first port of call. In fact, if you have just started in a new position or have recently completed a major piece of work (funded project, PhD etc.), it can be valuable simply to let your media unit know you exist and are able to comment on certain areas. They may be able to direct media queries to you in the future, or help you get opinion pieces published.

Many university media units also offer writing and media engagement workshops to help you figure out what the mainstream media are looking for in an op-ed. These can be a great place to start, and are a helpful reminder that academic writing is often a world away from conveying your point to a broader audience in only 600-800 words.

Writing a piece

Writing an opinion piece is not like writing an academic paper. That may seem obvious, but it can be surprisingly tricky to put that knowledge into practice.

It involves doing things that you’ve probably spent years circling in red-pen as ‘wrong’ in thousands of undergraduate essays. Fun things like: using contractions, starting sentences with conjunctions, and throwing around the odd colloquialism.

Rather embarrassingly, sitting down at the computer to try to write an op-ed for the first time, I found the only reference point I had was Carrie from Sex in the City, sitting in her apartment, writing her latest piece of post-feminist nonsense. This meant I thought sticking lots of questions in (rhetorical or otherwise) made for excellent, and insightful, prose. I’ve since been kindly advised that this is both a common problem, and a bad idea.

In terms of structure, academic and op-ed writing are very different, too. In academic work, we tend to hold off on the big guns until the end, building our overall argument with evidence, then providing a bang to bring it all together in the conclusion. An opinion piece is the reverse; the big guns come first. It is important to draw readers in from the opening sentence.

Engaging online

So, let’s assume all of these steps have gone to plan. You want to engage, your piece is (brilliantly) written, it’s accepted by an editor somewhere, and it’s published in print or online. Congrats, great job!

But it doesn’t end there.

If the piece is online, then odds are there will be a comments section. Almost inevitably, some of the comments will be nasty and some will be personal (‘Are they giving away PhDs with Happy Meals now?’ is one I remember almost fondly now), even on moderated sites. This is especially the case if you are writing on something controversial, that everyone else thinks they are an expert on, or that readers are likely to have strong personal feelings about. I write on porn, the sex industry, and feminism – a veritable hat-trick.

There are two basic schools of thought regarding comments: engage or don’t engage. Some writers believe that it is useful for the author to respond to genuinely interested commenters, and to let other readers know that you are keeping an eye on the comments section. Others take the view that you should not even read the comments, let alone engage, as it is sometimes impossible to tell an interested reader from a troll. Or you just might not fancy reading some of the strange, and occasionally defamatory, things people will say about you.

It ultimately depends on what you are comfortable with and, of course, the context and content of the piece. Sites like The Conversation, for example, are generally well moderated and the editors try to create an environment where authors can connect with readers in a genuine exchange of ideas. But there are other sites (e.g. Online Opinion) where engagement is probably ill-advised unless you have a strong stomach.

If you do want to join in on the comments, but you come across trouble, the most important thing is to keep your cool. Some commenters, particularly on sites where users can maintain their anonymity, just want a fight. The best advice I have ever received for dealing with this problem is to adopt the electronic equivalent of giving someone a smile and wave after they’ve sworn at you; just take a deep breath, and type: “Thank you for your comment.”

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