- How Science Works
- Sources and Experts: Where to Find Them and How to Vet Them
- Making Sense of Science Stats
- Editing for Story
- Editing Controversial Science
- Holding Science to Account
- Covering Health Care
- Climate and the Environment
- Fact-Checking Science Journalism: How to Make Sure Your Stories Are True
Illustrating Complex Science Stories
- The Role of Visuals in Science Journalism
- The Process of Building Science-Centric Graphics
- Strategies for Using Visuals to Put Breaking Science in Context
- Special Considerations for Data Visualization
- Uncertainty and Misinformation
- Editorial Illustration, Photography, and Moving Images
- Additional Reading and Resources
- About the Author
- Social Media and Reader Engagement
- Popular Science
- Op-Eds and Essays
- About This Handbook
Embracing Point of View
By Ashley Smart / 2 minute read
I often tell people that they don’t need to have an opinion to write an opinion essay, they just need a point of view. That is, even if you don’t come down hard on one side of a debate or the other, you may have a perspective — a unique way of viewing the issue — that helps to steer the conversation in a fruitful new direction. That, too, is a worthy goal for an opinion essay.
Writers’ points of view — informed by their backgrounds, experiences, worldviews, and other qualities — can bring opinion essays to life. Two people can look at the same problem, and the same set of facts, and come up with completely different insights.
One of my favorite examples comes from a special issue of National Geographic that was published in 2020 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. The issue presented dueling visions of the future of the planet: an optimist’s take, represented in Emma Marris’s essay “Why we’ll succeed in saving the planet from climate change”; and a pessimist’s take, embodied by Elizabeth Kolbert’s essay, “Why we won’t avoid a climate catastrophe.”
Both Marris and Kolbert wrote in exquisite, compelling prose. They each grounded their writing in a shared set of facts about warming, sea-level rise, and the devastating consequences of those changes.
But Marris, informed by her optimism and a passion for climate justice, chose to emphasize humanity’s wherewithal to address the challenges that lay before it, and to come out a better and more socially just species on the other side:
Throughout history, we’ve been both ingenious inventors and quick to adopt new technologies. With popular will and the right policies, we’ll have no problem creating new energy and transportation infrastructures, goods made without toxins or carbon emissions, biodegradable plastic substitutes…
Real climate justice would make Earth more resilient even as it helped humanity heal from historic trauma and pain. In a sense, climate change is an opportunity for us to step up — to grow up — as a species.
Kolbert, on the other hand, wrote with the sober eye of a realist and suggested that even if humans succeed in finding technological solutions to climate change, that success may not be all we’ve cracked it up to be:
Perhaps new, genetically engineered crops will allow us to continue to feed a growing population even as the world warms. Perhaps we’ll find “the interconnected web of life” isn’t essential to human existence after all.
To some, this may seem like a happy outcome. To my mind, it’s an even scarier possibility. It would mean we could continue indefinitely along on our current path — altering the atmosphere, draining wetlands, emptying the oceans, and clearing the skies of life. Having freed ourselves from nature, we would find ourselves more and more alone, except perhaps for our insect drones.
The writers’ points of view gave the storytelling an intimacy and relatability that is rarely encountered in straightforward news reporting. They encouraged readers not only to absorb facts about climate change, but also to feel a certain way about it. And that is the essential magic of opinion writing.