Jonathan Zimmerman: Why—and How—I Write Op-eds

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Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of education and history at New York University. He is the author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education (Princeton, 2015) and four other books. Zimmerman has published over 300 op-eds in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other newspapers and magazines. He also appears every other week on WHYY, Philadelphia’s National Public Radio affiliate, to discuss current events in historical perspective. Zimmerman conducts an annual workshop on writing op-eds at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. He is an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

“And what do you do for a living?”

The speaker was an elderly gentleman, seated next to me on a train. When I told him I was an historian, he beamed. “I love history!” he exclaimed. He proceeded to list his favorite historical books, movies, and television shows. The books included No Ordinary Time, by Doris Kearns Goodwin; Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose; and Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris. His preferred films were Gladiator (“Five stars!” he gushed) and Braveheart. He loved Ken Burns’ TV documentaries, especially The Civil War and Baseball. But his all-time favorite historian was David McCullough. He had recently completed McCullough’s massive biography of Harry Truman, and he was just now starting the same author’s equally hefty tome on John Adams.

“And what do you think of McCullough?” my new friend asked.

I was embarrassed to admit that I had never read a word by David McCullough, whose Truman and Adams biographies both won Pulitzer Prizes. So did Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time, about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, but I hadn’t read that either. I hadn’t seen Gladiator or Braveheart, even though each film earned a Best Picture award at the Oscars. I did attempt to watch an episode of Burns’ Civil War with my wife, many years ago, but we both fell asleep before it was over.

“And you call yourself an historian?” my friend asked.

Yes, I said, I do. But I’m a . . . what, exactly? An “expert?” A “professional?” Or, God forbid, an “academic?” I stuttered, searching in vain for just the right word. All I knew was that this kind, smart, and thoroughly engaged citizen would probably never read the type of historical monographs that I write.

That’s why I also write op-eds. They’re works of history too, drawing on the past to illuminate the present. But they’re written in broad strokes and brief word-counts. And they’re read by people like my friend on the train who aren’t exactly like me.

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So, how do I do it?

Every morning, after I wake up, I read the New York Times. I look for stories where a little historical context might cast new light on the events of the day. I also look for an angle that I haven’t seen elsewhere in the press. Cops are arrested in Baltimore for killing an unarmed black man, for example, but three of the six accused officers are black themselves. The Islamic State beheads a captive, eliciting charges of barbarity from nation-states that have engaged in the same practice. Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner is hailed as the first transgendered celebrity, despite a long history of other notable ones.

Then I’ll request a few books from my university’s library to explore the relevant history. Regarding African American police, I discovered that black officers were barred from arresting whites in many cities into the 1960s and 1970s. France didn’t outlaw the guillotine until 1977, and some of our other allies—most notably, Saudi Arabia—still use beheading as a form of capital punishment. And in 1952, just three years after Bruce Jenner was born, an ex-soldier named George Jorgensen made national headlines when she became Christine. I flag useful facts like these with sticky notes in the books for later reference (but please don’t tell our librarians about that).

Then it’s time to write, keeping in mind the Three P’s of op-ed journalism: Punctuality, Pithiness, and Persistence. The first might be the most important; in this game, one who hesitates truly is lost. I was able to publish pieces about the three topics above—black police, beheading, and transgenderism—because I found time to write when they were still on the front page. Once they leave the headlines, it becomes much harder to get editors interested in op-eds about them.

Then comes Pithiness, which runs counter to so many lessons that we learn in academia. We’re taught to write in long paragraphs, each one groaning with footnotes and other references to works in our field. But in the op-ed world, brief is always better. Paragraphs should be no longer than three short sentences or—even better—two longish ones. You should get to the main point of your piece—what journalists call the “nut graph”—no later than the third paragraph and ideally earlier than that. And footnotes are definitely out! They mark you as an “academic,” which is the kiss of death in this enterprise.

So do words like “imbricate” (I’m still not sure what that means, after all these years), “unpack” (except if you’re describing the end of a vacation), and even “discourse” (please, no Foucault!). Jargon is one way that academicians signal their in-group identities and loyalties. In an op-ed, however, you’re trying to engage readers outside your profession. So leave the fancy terms at the office.

Most of all, write about events in the world rather than in your field. There are many good ways to begin an op-ed piece, but you simply cannot start one—as a participant in my op-ed workshop did, many years ago—by noting that “scholars have long debated” a given issue. Of course they have. But the op-ed is about the issue, not the scholars! And, sorry to say, nobody really cares about the scholarly debate except us.

Last—but definitely not least—there’s Persistence. You’d think that historians would be experts on that, because our books and articles take so long to produce. But when we write an op-ed, we’re too quick to jettison it after somebody turns it down. That’s a huge mistake. If a newspaper or website rejects your piece, that’s not necessarily a reflection on its quality! It might be a simple matter of space—the paper is full-up for that week—or maybe the editor already booked an op-ed on the same subject as yours. So don’t despair; instead, send the piece to another venue! And keep persisting until someone picks it up. They will.

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“Why write histories that only few hundred people read?” my friend on the train asked.

Because that’s how we create new knowledge, I replied. The most important measure of a history book isn’t how many people buy it. It’s how it revises what we knew—or what we thought we knew—about the past.

I still believe that, which is why I continue to research and write historical monographs. But it’s not enough, at least not for me. I also want to contribute to a conversation that extends beyond the narrow confines of my guild. Teaching undergraduates is one way to do that; writing op-eds is another.

“Can I read your latest book?” he kindly asked.

Of course he can, I thought to myself; the question is whether he would. I still haven’t found a way to present my own historical research in a manner that can entertain and edify people like my friend on the train. Surely, though, he would read—and enjoy—one of my op-eds. Maybe he already has.

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