The Magic Word
A Duke professor recently used the magic word in an op-ed article she published, resulting in an invitation to visit a U.S. Senate office to discuss legislation affecting millions of children.
The magic word was "I." It's a word academics should include more often when writing op-ed articles for audiences beyond their campuses.
The professor wrote about her research showing orphanages in developing countries to be better than many Americans believe. She argued that well-intentioned legislation now before Congress would close too many orphanages and harm children unlikely to be adopted by nurturing families. The senator, one of the legislation's sponsors, was among those who saw the article.
That's impressive impact for a 750-word op-ed article, which requires far less time to write than a scholarly journal article or book. A well-written op-ed can change minds, sway hearts and affect policy. It can advance the author's career and the university's reputation. It also can serve the public interest, bringing faculty expertise to debates about everything from national security to the arts.
For faculty to play this role, however, they need to become more willing to use the word "I."
In the case of the orphanage op-ed, which our office edited and placed in several papers around the country, the author had the advantage of making an interesting point about a timely issue affecting children. What made her article compelling, however, was how she opened with a story about a Cambodian teenager who was forced to leave an orphanage and ended up becoming a "karaoke girl" who has sex with customers. The author wrote that this teenager illustrates the problem she has seen in several countries.
She maintained her first-person voice through her final paragraph, where she expressed satisfaction that Congress is addressing this issue and hopes the bill will be modified to continue supporting orphanages. To describe what she did in movie terms: She started with a "tight shot," pulled the camera back to show the "long shot" and used a character throughout to propel the narrative.
This approach is dramatically different than in most journal articles. There the author typically reveals the conclusion only at the end, festooned with caveats, after requiring the reader to wade through pages of experimental protocols or dense analysis. That approach simply doesn't work with a newspaper reader who is sitting half-awake at the breakfast table, flipping through the editorial pages en route to the local news and sports scores.
Academic articles also eschew the use of "I" or "me." Their authors learn in graduate school to rely on the power of their data and the brilliance of their arguments. Pundits should dazzle with their intellect, they're told, not with anecdotes or emotion. As scientists and others like to point out, the plural of anecdotes is not data.
That's true, of course, but also self-defeating when it comes to placing an article with the editors of op-ed pages, where competition can be intense. This reluctance of academics to come down from Mt. Olympus and share their stories is one of the biggest reasons why so many of them are disappointed when editors reject their articles. It's certainly possible to address an issue effectively with a third-person "voice of the expert," but academics should not consider this their only option.
My colleague Keith Lawrence and I have helped Duke faculty members and students place dozens of op-ed articles every year, something I also did while running an op-ed service for a decade at the National Academy of Sciences. We've learned that, all things being equal, articles fare better when authors share their own experience along with their professional analysis. If you are a physician-scientist who is concerned about national health policy, this means telling us what happened yesterday to Mrs. Jones, the woman who said she can't afford the medication you prescribed. If you are concerned about fracking, describe the homeowners who told you their water tastes strange.
You shouldn't violate anyone's confidentiality and you don't want to sound like a reality TV star. When you share your own humanity, however, your words ring truer. Readers care more about what you are saying. This is why presidents of the United States, regardless of party, place "real Americans" next to the First Lady when they deliver their State of the Union speeches. They know viewers will pay more attention to Lieutenant Smith, the brave soldier who just returned from Afghanistan, than to an abstract discussion about military policy.
Why do we have the Ryan White CARE Act and other laws named for individuals? Why do politicians on the campaign trail inevitably tell us about the family they met yesterday? For better or worse, human beings make sense of the world through examples. Academics who recognize this are not trivializing themselves or disavowing the intellectual rigor of their research. Rather, they are embracing reality and engaging readers effectively.
Americans who read op-ed pages are not stupid. They are more educated and engaged than the public as a whole. Many have expertise of their own. But they're also busy and, like all people, are wondering how an issue affects them personally. As they gulp a cup of coffee and race through the morning paper before heading to work, they want to hear real stories and voices.
They also want to feel a connection with the author. If you are a professor at Penn hoping to place an op-ed with The Philadelphia Inquirer, for instance, look for a way to mention something that makes clear you're a neighbor.
Many academics approach op-eds as an exercise in solemnity. Frankly, they'd improve their chances if they'd lighten up. Newspaper editors despair of weighty articles -- known in the trade as "thumb suckers" -- and delight in an academic writer who chooses examples from popular culture as well as from Eminent Authorities.
Most of all they want to see the magic word "I." More academics should use it.
David Jarmul is the associate vice president for news and communications at Duke University.