Wednesday, July 12, 2006

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So you want to publish an op-ed....

In the latest issue of International Studies Perspectives, Douglas Borer has an essay entitled, "Rejected by the New York Times? Why Academics Struggle to Get Published in National Newspapers." Here's how it opens:

At one time or another the bug to write an editorial strikes many in our profession. Our motivation is driven by disgust in what we see in the media, where many of the pundits are, for lack of a more nuanced description, idiots.
Fortunately, Borer then focuses most of his ire at academic folkways:
The first hurdle to overcome is schizophrenia when it comes to following rules. While academics suffer no hesitation when placing limits on students' term papers, professors generally do not like to follow similar restrictions. Because our first foray into editorial writing is usually for a local newspaper, bad habits form quickly. A decade ago, my colleagues at Virginia Tech informed me that the Roanoke Times would publish essays of almost any length that a Tech professor submitted. If I had something to say, and needed 1,500 words to say it, I simply sent my over-stuffed story, and presto! I was playing the smug role of public intellectual. Move over Tom Friedman, this was easy!

As the years went on, my ambitions grew. Yet truth be told, each sample of brilliant analysis and clever prose that eventually appeared in the local mullet wrapper had first been rejected by one of the major national newspapers (the New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and the Wall Street Journal). U.S.A. Today does not accept unsolicited op-ed submissions; however, in 2002 they asked me to write a piece explaining why Afghanistan was going to be another Vietnam. When I expressed my judgment that the U.S. incursion into Afghanistan had fewer potential similarities than differences with Vietnam, the editors lost interest in my "expertise." A day or two later, the story they wanted told duly appeared courtesy of another professor. The U.S.A. Today experience was instructiveŚeditors "editorialize" by thematically selecting the content their publishers wish to convey....

If changing one's spots is difficult for a leopard, teaching an old academician new tricks may be even more tricky. Successful op-ed writing requires academics to move tepidly into the realm of rhetoric and imagery. Why? As noted above, space is limited to approximately 700 words, therefore the use of rhetorical and metaphorical words that mentally catalyze the reader to generate even more words in his/her mind's eye is indispensable. For the most part, we academics are trained to play a very different gameŚwe really do not want our readers to think freely for themselves. Certainly we do not want to use words that might foment an emotional response in our peers. Therefore, we avoid words that are open to interpretation, and we go to lengths ad nauseum to define terms. We require the members of our tribe to assemble narratives consisting of analytically rigorous but alliteratively sterile words. We know that use of that ever-loaded term "democracy" in a journal article entails a commitment of four or more pages of literature review in order to dodge the finely honed machetes of peer reviewers. In an op-ed you can explain democracy in a sentence, and readers will get the gist of your definition. Indeed, getting to the gist of things is all you need in editorials.

That last line applies to blogs as well.

posted by Dan on 07.12.06 at 05:55 PM


That it took Borer over a thousand words to say "Academics are too longwinded" rather proves his point, no?

posted by: James Joyner on 07.12.06 at 05:55 PM [permalink]

Good point James, but remember that I am an academic writing specifically to a professional academic audience. The chosen venue, be it the NYT or International Studies Perspectives, has a great deal of impact on how an author crafts a piece (which is my real point). In the article, I make 4 relevant observations. Academics are too long winded, they are too slow, they don't write using emotive language, and they need keep writing. Drezner's blog does not reproduce the entire piece (I would guess because of potential copyright infringement issues) thus, if you don't read the original piece, you really don't get the entire picture I am trying to paint. If you do not have access to ISP, send me an email and I will reply with the .PDF file.

posted by: Doug Borer on 07.12.06 at 05:55 PM [permalink]

-Academics are too long winded, they are too slow, they don't write using emotive language, and they need keep writing.-

I just hear a Tony Robbins speech (yes go ahead and laugh it up) that was actually quite impressive and engaging. Blog away Doug, I do believe that there is beginning to be a shift in academic journalism in an effort to keep up with the shifts in media.

posted by: Ben on 07.12.06 at 05:55 PM [permalink]

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