- 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
Finding and Honing a Thesis
By Ashley Smart / 3 minute read
To the extent that the goal of an opinion essay is to start a conversation, one question an editor must ask about any pitch is whether the conversation it aims to provoke is one that’s worth having. Is the argument new, or has it been made before? Is it relevant to a broad readership, or to just a small club of insiders?
Recent news headlines are often a good place to find topics ripe for opinion coverage. When I’m trawling for story ideas, I’ll often browse the science-news sections and ask, Does the reporting raise questions that aren’t fully answered in the reporting? Does it present information that we, as a society, should be responding to in some way — perhaps with new policy, or maybe with indignation?
News headlines aren’t the only place to look for opinion ideas. Browse academic publications for research papers that cast new light on some issue; it may well be that the researchers themselves are willing to break down the work and its implications in an opinion essay for a general audience.
Sometimes small, seemingly disconnected stories that have been covered only in bits and pieces add up to a trend that’s worth opining on. At Undark magazine, where I am opinion editor, we once ran an essay by a physician who noticed that online, direct-to-consumer prescription-drug medicine seemed to be becoming more popular. He argued, convincingly, that this emerging trend warranted the public’s attention — and a more nimble approach from the Food and Drug Administration on drug regulation.
Don’t Leave the Reader Guessing
Whatever an essay’s raison d’être, the editor should make sure it’s clearly conveyed in the piece. I encourage writers to do so — either in the lede or, soon after, in the definitive “nut graf.” In my view, the nut graf in an opinion essay is essentially a sales pitch, foreshadowing where the writer’s argument is going and why it’s worth the reader’s time to come along for the ride. It previews the essay’s thesis and gives the reader a sense of why that thesis is interesting, important, and perhaps counterintuitive.
There are many ways to pull this off. Nut grafs can be blunt and straightforward, previewing the case like a prosecutor making an opening argument. But they can also be subtle and understated, “flicking” at the themes of an essay without shouting them out. The important thing is not to leave the reader guessing for long.
In a September 2021 essay, The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat cited a question raised by the MSNBC host Chris Hayes: “What if Covid Were 10 Times Deadlier?” Here’s how Douthat frames things up top:
I like this question because I’m interested in Covid counterfactuals — whether ideology and identity and in-group loyalty determined everything about the pandemic response and whether there’s a world where Donald Trump went all in for strict disease-fighting measures and liberals turned anti-lockdown in response and one in which Trump won re-election and hesitation over the “Trump vaccine” ended up stronger on the left.
Douthat then speculates about a counterfactual scenario in which not just 670,000 Americans die from Covid during the first year and a half of the pandemic, but 6.7 million. He argues that a deadlier pandemic would have been harder for lawmakers and the general public to ignore — even those who were inclined to downplay the severity of the disease.
What Douthat did not do, however, was explain to readers early on why his hypothetical question was important to ask in the first place, beyond his own personal interest in counterfactuals. On social media, readers reacted with confusion and, in many cases, disgust. (A passage from the essay, tweeted out of context by the Times, that seemed to minimize the fact that one in 500 Americans had died of the disease did not help matters.) Wrote one Twitter user, “‘If things were worse it would be even worse’ is not a particularly insightful observation.”
It turns out, there is a legitimate reason to ask the question Douthat was posing, but the Times columnist didn’t get to that until his final paragraph:
And since the one thing we don’t seem to be doing yet is preparing for the next pandemic, my fear is that within the next 20 years we’ll encounter an invisible enemy that puts the Hayes counterfactual to a test.
In other words, it is important to speculate about how society would respond to a deadlier pandemic, because we may well have to prepare for such a scenario. That strikes me as a conversation that’s worth having. But I suspect that before many readers got to that paragraph — never mind all those who had already bailed on the essay — Douthat had already lost them. I can’t help pondering my own counterfactual: If Douthat had explained this rationale for his essay 10 paragraphs earlier, in a nut graf, would readers have responded with so much ire?