The story behind my first opinion piece

I recently had my first opinion piece appear. I learned a lot during the process – which, in addition to writing it, included getting feedback on it, pitching it, and working to get it ready for publication. My goal here is to share what the experience was like. I still have a ton to learn, but my hope is that talking about what it was like for me will be useful for others who are just starting their scicomm journeys (or who are considered starting one). And, for people who are more experienced, I’d love to hear more about what it was like for you when you started and what some of the key things are that you’ve learned along the way. (Warning: this ended up getting kind of long!)

 

Writing

In mid-January, I attended training by The Op-Ed Project, which seeks to “increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world”. Some of this training focused on the nuts-and-bolts of structuring an opinion piece and pitching it to publications, but others focused on learning to view ourselves as people who could be thought leaders in public forums. So, when I saw this tweet:

https://twitter.com/docfreeride/status/825120515094228997

I was primed to think about whether I had expertise that was relevant. And I realized I did: the lake I had worked on as an undergraduate, Onondaga Lake in central NY, was heavily polluted but recovered due to improved environmental protections, plus the actions of some very dedicated scientists and conservationists.*

After seeing the tweet and realizing I could tell a story that was relevant to what was going on related to environmental protections, I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. So, a few days later, I sat down with the notes I had from the Op-Ed Project training and wrote the first draft of the piece.

After writing the piece, I knew I needed feedback on it, and that I wanted that feedback to come from people who weren’t scientists (or at least, not ecologists), since I was aiming for a broader audience. Fortunately, another advantage of the Op-Ed Project training is that it created a network that I could call upon for feedback. So, I sent the piece to them and got some really useful feedback that way. I also was able to get feedback from a mentor-editor at the Op-Ed Project. Once he said he thought it was ready to go, I panicked a bit. Did I really want to do this? What if I’d messed something up? At that point, I decided to send it to my undergrad advisor, Nelson Hairston Jr., who knows the lake’s history incredibly well. He was kind enough to look it over, which made me feel a lot better about taking the plunge and submitting it.

Pitching

A question I had been thinking about a lot was where I should send it. Some people were advocating for one of the major newspapers. Others suggested that a local regional paper would be better, as people are more likely to trust news they read there. But which local paper? I’m in Michigan but the lake is in New York and the piece talks about legislation led by people from still other places. Still others suggested an environmentally oriented publication.

It seemed like maybe I could help think about where to pitch it would be to think about who I wanted to reach with the piece: was it Congressional staffers? People who don’t normally think about the environment? People who already care a lot about the environment? The problem was that I couldn’t totally decide. Sure, it would be great if Congressional staffers saw it and it influenced their views. And it would also be great if someone who normally doesn’t think about the environment saw it and realized that there can be huge costs of lax environmental protections. But perhaps it was a stretch to think I could really reach either of those groups with this piece, and it also would be great to give people who already care about the environment more information that could help them as they talk with friends and colleagues about environmental issues.

In the end, I ended up pitching it to general publications first – including major newspapers and a regional one. Every time I pitched it, I worked on my pitch (a paragraph where I laid out why the piece was important and timely and why I was the right person to write it) and tweaked the piece, trying to update it to link it to a new news item. Pitches need to be timely. At first, I linked the piece to rolling back stream protection rules. Then to a bill proposing to eliminate the EPA. Then to Scott Pruitt’s nomination. Then to the release of his emails. And then to something he tweeted, indicating that he viewed his stakeholders as being “industry, farmers, ranchers, business owners”. And, finally, I added in a link to Trump’s proposed budget, which proposes devastating cuts to the EPA.

Every time, I spent a while trying to reshape the piece to find a more effective way of pitching it. I also sought advice about where to pitch it. This all took up a lot of time – much more time than I anticipated when I started the process. And, for a while, it seemed like it might all end up being for naught, if publications kept passing on it. This was the point where I wondered if I should give up and just accept that I’d wasted a lot of time on this. But, among other things, I kept reminding myself of a story I heard from one person at the Op-Ed Project about how they had a piece rejected something like 13 times before finding the right pitch, after which it was printed within minutes.

Part of why the pitching process was hard is that I had no real sense of what type of publication would be interested in it. With my research manuscripts, I generally have a good sense for whether it’s worth a shot at the high impact places, for whether it’s better pitched to an aquatic or disease audience, etc. And, when I was first starting out as a scientist and didn’t have as good a sense for that, I had mentors who could help. I don’t have that sense for scicomm pieces, and it was hard to figure out who could play the role of a mentor who could help me to figure it out. (I would love to hear from folks with more scicomm experience about how they developed this sense!)

That’s not to say that people weren’t helpful – I ended up writing several people over the weeks where I was pitching it, asking for advice on how to structure it and where to send it. People were very kind and very helpful. But I felt bad about imposing on their time, and sometimes I waffled about whether I should ask them (since it felt like I was bothering them). But then I would remind myself that there was a chance this piece would change someone’s mind about something that I think is really important, and so I forced myself to ask for help and to use whatever connections I could.

One thing that was good for the piece but depressing at the same time was that it was evergreen. Every week, there was a new thing I could link it to (as described above). That also helped me realize that it was important to do what I could to get this piece out there. But I still had doubts that it would ever get published.

Accepted!

Now that I look back, I didn’t actually pitch it to that many places – 6 in total, including Ensia (where it was published). But it felt like a ton. I think it’s a bit like when you first send a manuscript to Nature or Science. If it gets rejected at those places and at PNAS and Ecology Letters, by the time you are ready to send it to Ecology, it feels like you’ve been working on it forever and like it will never get published. I was at that place before I pitched it to Ensia, and was considering self-publishing it on Medium. But then I realized that I hadn’t tried an environmentally oriented publication yet, and that one of those probably made the most sense as a place to publish it. I am really glad I decided to try Ensia!

Before sending the piece to Ensia, I changed the hook, to focus on us as stakeholders when it comes to clean water (linking it to Pruitt’s tweet), and to emphasize that Onondaga is the most polluted lake in the US (remembering that superlatives tend to be compelling). I have no way of knowing whether it was those changes that made it so it was accepted, if it was that it was the first environmentally oriented publication I tried, if I lucked out with reaching an editor who saw value in the story, or some combination of all of those. Whatever it was, it felt great to have it finally be accepted!

Two reasons I am really glad I sent it to Ensia instead of self-publishing on Medium are:

1) The piece reached a much broader audience. When I was thinking of Medium, I was thinking that I could just work really hard to try to promote the piece via social media. But Ensia has over 33,000 twitter followers, plus I know it popped up on some people’s readers – reaching all those people in addition to the people I could reach with my own social network was really nice.

2) The editing and fact checking the piece received after acceptance made for a better piece. This process was perhaps the most interesting part to me. In addition to edits for readability and clarity, a fact checker looked it over. There were some things that he couldn’t find information on, and so I then went back to my sources (especially Steven Effler’s Limnological and Engineering Analysis of a Polluted Urban Lake, which I was pleasantly surprised to discover was on the shelves in the UMich library) to make sure everything could be backed up with data. This process was good because I realized there were some places where I hadn’t been clear or where edits had made it so that something was no longer fully accurate. It was really nice to know we’d caught those before publication.

There were a few rounds of edits right at the end, and then I heard that it was likely to be published the next day. That day, I kept refreshing my email and the Ensia website to see if it was up yet. It ended up appearing while I was at lunch, and I saw that it was out when I checked twitter while walking back to my office. I was excited to see the illustration that had been made to accompany it and was so happy that it was out in public!

Post-publication and concluding thoughts

After it appeared, I emailed the link to people who had helped me along the way, posted it on social media, and emailed it to family and friends encouraging them to share it. I might have thought I’d be embarrassed to do that, but I wasn’t. After spending so much time on the piece and after the repeated threats to environmental protections, I wanted as many people to read it as possible. And I’ve heard some feedback from people saying that the story surprises them – especially that it was so costly (over $1 billion) to clean up one lake. I also received an email from a retired teacher from Virginia who had enjoyed my piece — that was neat to get!

In the future, if I see something that I feel like I can speak to in a way that few others can, I will be likely to write and pitch an opinion piece on the topic. But this time I will have a better idea of what I’m getting myself into, including how much time and effort it can take to get the piece published. I’ve already written a piece on the overuse of road and sidewalk salts. (I actually wrote this one first, during the Op-Ed Project training.) After pitching that to two local papers (without hearing back from either one), I’ve decided to shelve it until next year. April is not a good time to pitch a piece on sidewalk salts.

I think the key thing I will continue to struggle with is where to pitch things. As I said above, I would love to hear from people with more experience writing and pitching these pieces about how they developed a sense of where to pitch a piece. Next December, when it comes time to pitch that road salt piece, I’m not sure if I should I try regional papers again or try an environmentally oriented publication. But, even though I’m not exactly sure of where to pitch and, and even though I know that it might take a lot of effort to get it published, I am willing to put that in because I can see the environmental consequences of the overuse of sidewalk salt, and that will keep me going.

The process can be frustrating and takes a lot of time, so I don’t see myself writing a lot of opinion pieces. But, if I feel like I can call attention to an important problem, or tell a story that might motivate people to tackle one, I will gladly spend the time to get that out there. Given how things are going for science and the environment, I’m pretty sure I’ll find myself writing more opinion pieces in the future.

 

*My first scientific paper was on Onondaga and now my first scicomm piece was, too. I think that’s pretty neat.

15 thoughts on “The story behind my first opinion piece

  1. Really interesting post, Meg – thanks. I’ve wondered about this kind of thing. Although to be honest, I find your tale more discouraging than encouraging. As scientists we are often encouraged in strong terms to leave the ivory tower and engage by doing this kind of thing – the world needs our input! But the prospect of having our input rejected 5 times out of 6 (or 12 times out of 13) is hardly an incentive to do so. My primary tasks (i.e., the ones they pay me for) are teaching and original research, so I accept rejection of research publications as par for the course. If there is a demand for our voices in the public discourse, I’m happy to contribute. But I’m not too enthused about volunteering for frequent rejection. (The closest I’ve come to writing something like your article was a piece invited by American Scientist – really gratifying, but I doubt I would have done it with the prospect of having to “sell’ the final product.)

    • Yes, no matter what you write about or what audience you write it for, you’re in a severe competition for attention whether you like it or not. Nowhere is there unsatisfied pent up demand for stuff to read on any particular topic, or by any particular sort of author. Someone who says that “the world needs our input” really means “I think the world would be a better place if scientists, and writing about science, won the competition for attention more often.”

    • Yeah, I realize it might not be the most encouraging post, and that, for some people, the take away will be that it’s not worth the time. But I decided that it was still worth getting the info out there on what was involved!

      • I am definitely glad you wrote the post (hope I didn’t imply otherwise). Realism is good. And of course one could take away the more encouraging message that if you persevere, this is totally doable! I suppose what I object to is the message, heard not infrequently, that we all have some kind of societal obligation to be out there trying to “win the competition for attention” (nicely paraphrased, Jeremy).

      • Don’t worry, I didn’t take it as you implying I shouldn’t have written it! I completely agree with you that the message that we receive is that we should be doing more of this, without the acknowledgment that this can take a lot of time. One of my goals was to make it a little more clear to people what they might be getting into if they took on something like this.

  2. Very interesting Meg. I was aware of how competitive editorial space at major newspapers is. But I hadn’t realized that it’s so competitive at other outlets, or that customized pitches matter so much.

    • Yes, part of why I felt like this was worth writing is that I think there’s a general impression that, unless someone is aiming for a place like the NY Times, publishing it is straightforward. That wasn’t true for me — it was a lot of work! — and that experience seems consistent with that of some other folks I’ve spoken with.

  3. This is really interesting. I’m primarily applying to extension and science communication/dissemination positions at the moment, and I’ve thought a lot about these types of pieces and whether or not they are “worth it,” so to speak. I’ve never heard of the Op-Ed Project, which is something I’ll definitely be checking out now. Thanks for sharing your experience, and congrats!

    Just an aside related to that tweet – I worked on Peabody Wildlife Management Area in Kentucky for my MS. Yep, the site John Prine sung about in his song, “Paradise.” Our study site was split by the Green River and the Paradise Power Plant was about a mile away! It was pretty incredible the wildlife and plant species that showed up on an old surface mining site that had been in some state of “being restored” since the 60’s.

    • I found the Op-Ed Project training really useful! I was lucky to attend a workshop hosted by my university (meaning that I didn’t need to travel or pay for it), which made it all pretty convenient to do.

  4. Thanks a lot for this, and congratulations!

    I do a lot of writing for public audiences, and I’ve found that the rejection process is (happily) much different for newspapers etc. than it is for scientific manuscripts. I generally get one of two reactions: “Thanks, but we’ll pass this time. Please keep us in mind for future pieces” or “Wow, we love this! We want to publish it right away!” So I don’t have to deal with a string of comments on What Is Wrong With My Paper (and by implication, with me). It is completely different from being rejected by 5 journals before getting a ms into the 6th. So don’t be too discouraged.

    • Journals sometimes do something analogous to “Thanks, but we’ll pass”: rejection without external review. Is that something you’d like to see journals do more of? Honest question.

      Of course, they never do *acceptance* without external review as far as I’m aware (accepting an ms based on reviews it previously received at another journal doesn’t count).

      • When journals do it, it seems quite different to me, because if the LA Times says “pass” it could mean a ton of things, including “we just had an article on that topic” or “we have a big backlog right now and need to get stuff out” or “you don’t seem like you have a very exciting take on the issue.” None of that matters to me as a writer, but as a scientist it seems like an editorial reject means “your ms doesn’t fit in with what we want to see in our journal” and that *is* an evaluation of my work. And since peer review doesn’t exist for magazines or newspapers, that makes the analogy even less applicable.

        I do definitely agree about the fact-checking and editing, though; as with Meg, I usually find that very helpful in clarifying my thinking.

    • That’s a really good point that the lack of feedback can be a good thing in some ways! The downside of the lack of feedback for me was that it left me wondering how much of the rejection was that it wasn’t the right venue for the piece vs something “wrong” with the piece.

  5. Pingback: How can scientists engage with policy makers? | Dynamic Ecology

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