Writing blogs and opinion articles

Blog posts, comment pieces and opinion articles can be a great way to share your research and expertise with a new audience.

Many media outlets are increasingly publishing comment pieces written by academics as they seek to keep their readers interested and offer them something more than traditional reportage (see, for a good example, the Comment is Free section on the Guardian’s website).

The Conversation

The Conversation is funded by several universities – including Sussex – and is run by very experienced journalists, who work with the academic contributors to craft articles and opinion pieces that are timely, interesting and relevant to a wider audience.

The site has more than two million readers, and its reach is further extended by the fact that other news organisation can use its content free on their own websites.

Several Sussex academics are now regular contributors to The Conversation and you can read their latest articles on our news and events page.

If you are a University of Sussex academic and have an idea for a piece you could write for The Conversation, please contact Contributors are given their own profile page on The Conversation from which you can link back to your University of Sussex online profile and vice versa. Linking between the two sites helps people to find you on search engines.

Other blogging platforms

You would need to send a short and engaging pitch to the blog editors, suggesting an interesting and original angle on the subject and give reasons as to why you are qualified to write it.

As a member of staff at Sussex, you automatically have the facility to write blog posts on the University’s SPLASH web resource.

In addition, you can write blog posts using one of the many free sites on the internet (WordPress and Blogger are popular ones).

You can use a well-written blog post or opinion article to excite, engage and challenge readers with your expert take on a topical issue.

However, a poorly timed or unfocused piece may result in frustration if you don’t get the response that you would have liked.

If you have been asked to write an opinion piece or are thinking about writing a blog post about your work/expertise, read the guidelines below to help you make the most of your opportunity.

State your main point or stance in the headline and opening sentence

People can choose to read from thousands of articles published every day on the internet and they only have a certain amount of time to do so – why should they read yours? Try to summarise your article into one short sentence describing your main point or argument. This should then become your opening line and the basis of your headline. If you can summarise it in 140 characters or fewer, even better – this then makes it easy to share on Twitter.

For example, a headline such as “My thoughts on the UK’s rules on student visas and their implications for higher education” is making the reader do too much work – they have to read your article to get an idea of your thoughts.

Instead, you could draw people in with a more gripping headline, such as “New student visa rules risk creating ’Fortress Britain’” (and you can actually read an Independent piece with this headline, written in 2009 by Sussex’s former Vice-Chancellor, Professor Michael Farthing).

Express an opinion – don’t sit on the fence

The best opinion pieces provoke an emotional response, which could be anything from anger to amazement or disappointment. They challenge readers and may make them question their own beliefs.

However, many opinion pieces and blog posts become victims of “death by committee”. They’ve been vetted by so many people that they end up saying nothing at all. Often writers will try to soften the blow of their piece by using phrases such as “while we applaud the work of …” or “while we cautiously welcome”.

However, the reality is this: nobody is going to read an opinion article that doesn’t contain any opinion.

If you have something to say, say it. If you don’t feel comfortable taking a bold position in public, then writing a blog post or comment piece is probably not the best move for you.

Find a hook

Before you start writing, try to answer this question: why would somebody be interested in reading this article at this particular time? You need to have something new or topical to “hook” your piece on to. For example, you may be a researcher who focuses on French politics – a good hook for you would be during an election in France.

Don’t focus on promoting your work

A blog post or an opinion article can be a great way to promote yourself, your work, your research centre, your department and the University as a whole. The most important thing to remember, though, is that readers are not necessarily interested in what you do; they are interested in what you have to say. So don’t pad out your piece with long descriptions about the work you do at Sussex. The fact you are deemed interesting and well-informed enough to give your opinion will do far more for your reputation than any advertorial-style writing. If people are interested in what you have to say, they’ll make it their business to find out more about you, your work and the University.

Write in a journalistic style

Just because blogs (in particular) enable you to write as much as you want on a given topic, it does not mean that you should do so. Just like when writing a news story, keep your writing brief, simple and to the point for maximum impact.

If you have new research findings, you need to put them in the first paragraph, which is the opposite to how you would write an academic paper. And you should make analogies and come up with examples that people can relate to. Don’t imagine you’re talking to your peers, otherwise you’ll use terms that won’t be familiar to most audiences

Take a look at these blogs on the Guardian website to see how some Sussex academics use a journalistic style to reach wider audiences:

Be prepared to engage in conversations

By publishing a blog post or an opinion article, you are inviting people to interact with you and your ideas. Indeed, many blogs – including those on the University’s website – have a facility to allow people to leave comments at the end of the post. You should be prepared to engage with people who take the time to ask you questions or challenge what you have said. Publication of your piece is often only the beginning.

Blogging about events

When writing about events, people sometimes fall into the trap of just describing what happened at the event.

To make a blog post really fascinating you should focus on what is being said and decided at your event. From a reader’s point of view, the most newsworthy aspect of the event is what was discussed and agreed, rather than where it was held and who turned up (although you need this info too).