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The power of writing to communicate knowledge

ASU workshops, courses emphasize importance of relaying intricacies of complicated subjects to general audience


paper with edits on table

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February 10, 2017

A roomful of teachers are huddled in groups around pages of text, hurriedly highlighting, circling and underlining certain words and phrases. This isn’t a paper-grading marathon, though — it’s a writing workshop, and the pages they’re marking up are op-ed letters.

Find Your Voice: Using OpEds to Tell Your Story and Fight for Justice, sponsored by the Central Arizona Writing Project (CAWP), brought together elementary and high school teachers from across the Valley at ASU Prep Academy’s downtown Phoenix campus in February to learn practical lessons for both personal writing and teaching writing to their students.

ASU associate professor of English and director of CAWP Jessica Early was on hand for the event. She said learning how to write op-eds can impart “really important, practical skills that help people to be participatory citizens, and also help students learn how to write for a real audience.”

ASU courses geared toward communication

An awareness of the value in teaching students to be better communicators is evident at ASU across disciplines. Several degree tracks — including those in the fields of sustainability, science and health — require or offer courses geared specifically toward learning how to communicate the sometimes-complicated intricacies of a subject to a more general audience.

Gregg ZacharyGreg Zachary is a professor of practice in ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society; Barrett Honors faculty; affiliate faculty in ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious studies; affiliate faculty in ASU’s Department of English; journalism disruptor at the Imaginary College, part of ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination; editor of the “Rightful Place of Science” book series for ASU’s Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes; and author of “Married to Africa” (2009), “The Diversity Advantage” (2003), “Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century” (1997) and “Showstopper: the Making of Windows NT” (1994)., professor in ASU’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society, serves as acting director of the certificate in nonfiction writing and publishing, currently offered by the School of Life SciencesThe certificate in nonfiction writing and publishing will soon transfer from the School of Life Sciences to the School for the Future of Innovation in Society..

“I think it’s part of your obligation as a learned person … that you make your knowledge or the work you’re doing understandable to others,” Zachary said.

He points to School of Earth and Space Exploration Foundation Professor Lawrence Krauss as an example of an academic who “writes very effectively and clearly about science subjects.”

School of Life Sciences Regents’ Professor Stephen Pyne, an expert on fire history, teaches courses in the certificate program and has also written and published widely, including several op-eds for the New York Times. He cited wise words from fellow SOLS professor Brian Smith, who said, “If we don’t start communicating better with the public, we’ll be out of business.”

Communication a way to change the world

Heather Grimm, who teaches science at ASU Prep, admits she didn’t know much about persuasive writing or communicating expertise with the public before coming to the CAWP workshop but that she sees the value in it.

woman teaching class

ASU Prep English teacher Ashley Yap leads a workshop on op-ed writing in downtown Phoenix.

Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

“Great ideas start very small,” she said. “People used to think the world was flat. Allowing people to voice their knowledge and opposition can change opinions.”

Tracie McMurray, an English teacher at Mountain View High School in Mesa who also attended the workshop, said she sometimes worries that misinformation perpetuated by the media can “make it harder for people to understand what’s really going on.”

Fighting misinformation

Misinformation is all too common in the media, agrees ASU professor Carol Johnston. She serves as associate director of the nutrition program, which offers a bachelor’s in nutrition communication.

“There is a lot of miscommunication and misconception out there, and nutrition is one of those topics everyone has an opinion about,” she said.

The nutrition communication program was started so that nutrition students could train in the area of media and communication in order to combat falsities and half-truths about the field.

“Training people to be good communicators to help set the record straight with factual information is so important,” said Johnston, “especially now with social media,” which can spread bad information very quickly.

More structure than social media

Attendees at the workshop expressed similar concerns about social media, saying that they felt that learning to write persuasively in a more structured way, as in an op-ed, lent more credence to their points of view.

Ashley Yap, an English teacher at ASU Prep and one of the workshop leaders, added to that sentiment.

“We have outlets like social media, but those are bite-sized,” Yap said. “Op-eds force you to pause and consider what you want to say and how to say it. It’s this special place that’s different from just firing off a tweet or sharing something that’s already been written.”

ASU journalism professor Julia WallaceJulia Wallace is a professor of practice and the Frank Russell Chair at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The Frank Russell Chair was created in 2000 through a $1 million gift from Central Newspapers Inc. said op-eds can be a valuable tool for everyday citizens who want to be more informed.

“What op-eds do is allow us to hear from many different voices on any given topic,” she said, giving readers an accessible way to grasp the pros and cons of an issue. “They can be a really effective way to get people to think a little more about their position.”

Tips for an effective op-ed

Wallace shares her advice for those who hope to write an op-ed — and get it published:

  • Be clear. The main thing is clarity of thought. A big reason op-eds don’t make it into newspapers is because they try to make too many points at once. Figure out what your point is, what is the one message you want to leave the reader with.
  • Be concise. Write clearly and concisely. You want to cram as much information in there as you can. Give specific examples, but keep it short and sweet.
  • Be interesting. You’ve got to figure out how to make it interesting. Tell a personal anecdote, make it come to life with an example. Give people something that makes them want to keep reading.
  • Know your audience. Depending on the publication, you may want to adjust your style. Read what kind of op-eds get published there. How to write an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal will be different than how to write an op-ed for USA Today.

Top photo: ASU Prep biology teacher Camila Tompkins points out some weaker arguments in an op-ed during a writing workshop at ASU Prep in February. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

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