Should historians who write opinion pieces, or “op-eds,” consider topics related only to their primary area of research? Will op-ed writing advance your career as a historian? Are historians peculiarly well-equipped to write op-eds?
These are some of the questions that Chris Beneke asks historian Jonathan Zimmerman about writing op-eds. Zimmerman, the chair of the history department at New York University, has written over 300 op-eds in major newspapers and magazines. Here is a taste:
And that brings me to my most important suggestion. Whatever you write, you need to link it to what editors call a “news peg”—that is, something that happened VERY recently. In the 24-7 media world, things become yesterday’s news—to borrow another cliché—more quickly than you might guess. So if you see something in the paper that you want to write about, you need to write about it as soon as humanly possible
And when you do write, make sure to put the point of the piece—the reason you’re writing it—no later than the second or third paragraph.
That’s what editors call the “nut graph”—the paragraph that establishes the central claim of the piece. Editors get hundreds of these things per day, so if they don’t get to your nut graph right away . . . they’ll stop reading.
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