How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Writing for the Public

Shira Lurie

Though it’s generally taboo to say, I consider myself a presentist historian. I am interested in history to the extent that it speaks to our current moment and helps us push toward a better future. And so, I am constantly thinking about the connections between past and present, and how to incorporate those links into my scholarship and teaching. Most often, I do this work by writing opinion pieces for news outlets.

There are pros and cons to this type of writing. Of course, it is a less formal, less primary-source-based form of argumentation than academics usually encounter. These pieces also have a much faster turnaround time, which can be a challenge. But the readership is also far larger and more diverse. In fact, though it’s a bit painful to admit, many more people will read an op-ed I wrote in one morning than will read my book that took nearly a decade of labor.

The Panorama has kindly asked me to contribute a piece to this excellent roundtable that delves into my op-ed writing process. I must confess, this is the first time that I have stopped to think about my process (or if I even have one!). I am grateful for the opportunity and, to the extent that it may prove useful, happy to share.

As with most creative outputs, it begins with an idea. But after the idea comes frustration. I usually know it’s time to put pen to paper when a concept or framing seems so obvious to me that I can’t believe I’m not seeing it in the public conversation. How can pundits be discussing wedge issues like “parental rights” without referencing Jerry Falwell, Sr. and the Moral Majority?[1] Why aren’t more people connecting the false narratives around January 6th to the “Lost Cause” ideology that emerged after the Civil War?[2] Once my mind is buzzing with these types of questions, I know it’s time to stop my internal raging and start writing.

Op-eds tend to have a fairly standardized format. They start with a news hook. You want to capture your reader’s interest with a topical issue. This is followed by the delightfully named “nut graph”―the paragraph where you state the argument of your piece. I use the nut graph to make plain the link I see between past and present. In other words, I state how history provides an important insight, context, or framing for the contemporary issue. I then provide a brief synthesis of the relevant history and explain how it helps us understand our modern moment in a new way. The best op-eds end with a punchy line that ties the piece together.

Of course, it’s not just the format, but also the style of writing that makes a successful op-ed. The piece must be accessibly written and free from any jargon. I imagine that I’m writing for my students—this reminds me to define my terms, explain concepts clearly, and not take any background information for granted. But my students are also, of course, intelligent people capable of understanding new concepts and grasping sophisticated arguments. As are my readers. So while accessible writing is a must, arguments can and should be complex and provocative.

There are other challenges. The piece must compress complex ideas, historiographical debates, and nuanced evidence into approximately 800 words―not an easy task. Rather than citations and explanatory footnotes, op-ed writers must rely on hyperlinks and quotations to credit the sources of their evidence. And given that most readers skim rather than read closely, it is important to have short, punchy paragraphs. Never bury an important sentence in the middle of a block of text; rather, have it stand on its own.

With the nuts and bolts out of the way, we now arrive at the fundamental question about opinion pieces: Why write one?  Some historians are uncomfortable with the idea that their expertise extends to modern political analysis. As Todd Estes wrote recently for The Panorama, “My training and years of practice qualify me to make judgments and offer interpretations about the early republic. But when it comes to opining on current events, I see myself as just another concerned citizen.”[3] This is an understandable perspective, and I certainly don’t mean to imply that op-ed writing is for everyone. But I do think that historians, particularly historians of the early republic, have important insights to offer. Especially as politicians, pundits, Supreme Court Justices, and so on offer inaccurate and warped historical accounts of our period, it seems imperative that trained historians enter the fray.

So, for those willing, I say: Be brave. Share your expertise beyond the academy in whatever ways you can. Refuse to cede the shaping of popular historical narratives to non-experts. Use the past to untangle the knots of the present so that we can work toward a better future.


Endnotes

[1] Shira Lurie, “Conservatives Must Stop Importing American Outrage around Pronouns and Parental Rights,” Toronto Star, Sept. 9, 2023.

[2] Shira Lurie, “It’s Dangerous When We Allow the Losers to Rewrite History,” Washington Post, Sept. 24, 2021.

[3] Todd Estes, “Back to the Future; Or, Whenever I Show up to Talk about the Past, My Audience Can Only Hear about the Present,” Panorama, Sept. 25, 2023.

22 February 2024

About the Author

Shira Lurie is Assistant Professor of U.S. History at Saint Mary’s University and author of The American Liberty Pole: Popular Politics and the Struggle for Democracy in the Early Republic.

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