Composition & Creative Writing

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What It Means to Write

What It Means to Write

Creativity and Metaphor
also available: eBook
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Adam Pottle on Writing with Deafness
also available: Paperback
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Making Sense

Making Sense

A Student's Guide to Research and Writing
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Public Influence

Public Influence

A Guide to Op-Ed Writing and Social Media Engagement
also available: Hardcover eBook
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How to Use This Book


The book is divided into 12 chapters covering the landscape of public-commentary writing and its extension to social media. Some chapters focus more on one half of the ledger than the other; some chapters combine both. The first half of the book, roughly, focuses on developing your voice and getting it out there through formal op-ed and related channels. The second half covers how to manage the ensuing conversation via social media. I am aware that some readers may want to hone their public-commentary publishing skills and forego social media engagement; others, perhaps nonspecialists who nevertheless want to engage in deeper and more productive conversations, may simply want to improve their social media engagement skills without contributing to op-ed pages. Still others, those who define their public engagement in an activist way, may appreciate the opportunity to see many of the dynamics they are already encountering be placed into a more analytical context. Most readers, I hope, will find the analysis of the interlocking landscape—between public-commentary writing and social media engagement—to be useful and informative. Here is a brief chapter-by- chapter summary so you can jump right in.


Chapter 2 introduces the idea of being a public commentator by helping leverage and expand your expertise. In this chapter, I suggest how to find your way into an ongoing conversation. I also lay out the differences in style, scope, and aims between academic writing and public-commentary writing and flag some risks in speaking out in these public forums.


Chapter 3 focuses on public-commentary publishing by demonstrating how to generate op-ed ideas and how to pitch them to a relevant outlet. The chapter also discusses rejection.


By analyzing four published op-eds, chapter 4 maps the terrain from idea to pitch to writing to publishing, focusing on the nuts and bolts of writing an effective op-ed and managing the ensuing conversation, even when the public reaction is unexpected. Understanding the dynamics of social media, something I cover in later chapters, will help prepare you for the various reactions you may receive to your ideas so you can amplify your message and help influence debate effectively.


Chapter 5 describes the features of various public-commentary platforms and provides examples, including social media, blogs, op-eds, podcasts, and additional outlets like current-affairs magazines.


By analyzing various op-ed writing styles using examples from several regular columnists, chapter 6 discusses how to select an effective public-writing voice. Which styles appeal to you and which do you think are most effective? Does storytelling invite? Does rage entice? Does sarcasm sell? This chapter will help you find your public voice.


Chapter 7 shifts the discussion from more formal public commentary writing to social media engagement. I frame the chapter by discussing the emotional challenge and allure of social media engagement to examine the endemic problem of confirmation bias and suggest some tools for escaping echo chambers. Then I turn to the question of how to communicate your ideas to an evidence-resistant audience, before looking at the rising problem of social media interference through trolling and "bots" and examining the phenomenon of "fake news" (including suggesting why that phrase might not be the best term to use) and the particular role scholars can play in mitigating the spread of false content.


Chapter 8 surveys the ground of public-commentary writing and social media discourse to investigate the culture of political labels. While labels are a convenient way of organizing and categorizing perspectives, they can get lost in translation. Chapter 8 will examine six terms—white supremacy, privilege, Zionism, Islamophobia, ableism, and rape culture—to demonstrate how they are used and understood (and sometimes misunderstood) in popular discourse. The chapter suggests ways of transcending the polarization that language debates can evoke by demonstrating how to adopt a critical and clarifying stance, something that scholars are particularly well positioned to do.


Extending from a discussion of particular labels, chapter 9 examines some of the more diffuse dynamics motivating social media activism and how public engagement can be harnessed to make change. The chapter introduces and investigates concepts like "outrage culture," "virtue signaling," "slacktivism," "shaming," "tone policing," the charge of "white fragility," and the tactics of "calling out versus calling in" and concludes by laying out some concrete strategies for running your organization’s social media presence, for those who currently are, or may one day find themselves, in a social media leadership position. The language and ideas underpinning online debate are changing quickly, and this chapter will both identify pitfalls and suggest ways to avoid them as you seek to influence the public conversation in productive directions.


Chapter 10 is about dealing with the emotional aspects of social media. Putting ideas out there, whether through formal public commentary writing or whether in the more informal forums of social media discussion, can lead to heated exchanges. When should you get angry? When should you step away? When should you resort to "blocking" someone altogether? And what happens if you get doxxed (the phenomenon of people publishing others’ private information online for the purpose of intimidating and harassing)? The chapter analyzes some cases of employers reacting to controversial social media posts from faculty members and students and concludes by discussing the practice of taking a "social media detox," an increasingly popular phenomenon as many social media users seek to contend with the toll that consuming social media for so many of our waking hours can take on our personal lives.


Chapter 11 looks at how to best engage with social and professional networks in a constructive way on social media while navigating and maintaining actual friendships. It begins by tracing how social media platforms have evolved and thus how social media use has shifted. Drawing on personal examples, I identify strategies for how best to communicate ideas, both through formal channels and informal debate, with an eye to keeping personal relationships intact. Public engagement provides the opportunity to not only have elected officials and policymakers hear your message but also to sway the hearts and minds of people close to you. Figuring out a way to accommodate personal relationships will help broaden your reach in constructive ways.


Chapter 12 concludes the book. In this chapter, I recount a personal example of where public engagement led to a rupture with a particular audience and what I learned from that episode. I then discuss how the academy can better account for public commentary as an indicator of faculty productivity.


The appendix outlines how professors can adapt an op-ed course assignment to suit a more research-intensive course and reproduces the practice exercises I’ve inserted throughout the earlier chapters. The purpose of these exercises is primarily to help you help your students master the craft.

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