State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Coming This Fall: Opinion Writing Workshop for Alumni

headline from an opinion piece
Example of an opinion piece co-authored by Jason Bordoff and Meghan O’Sullivan of Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy

With guest essay columns proliferating, the world of opinion writing is open to the public as never before. Publications from the New York Times to the Atlantic and CNN.com are seeking the ideas of their readers and viewers.

Columbia University alumni, working professionals in their respective fields, often have strong ideas about sustainability and climate, but lack the journalistic skills to make their voices heard. Moreover, there’s an extra high bar for writing about climate and sustainability topics; they are often quite technical and writers need to make extra effort to communicate complexity in a popular format. The media may be more open than ever to the work of non-journalists, but citizens need to know the forms and conventions that will get their work into print and pixels. A boot camp in opinion writing can help.

This fall, a five-week non-credit workshop will help alumni of the Climate School and affiliates of the School of Professional Studies to hone their opinion-writing skills. The course, taught by Claudia Dreifus, takes place on Wednesday evenings from 6:10-8:00 PM ET.

Dreifus is a science journalist and professor at Columbia’s M.S. in Sustainability Management program. For more than 20 years, she has been writing a series for the New York Times’ science section column called “A Conversation With,” which focuses on her interviews with leaders in health and science, such as Jane Goodall and Stephen Hawking. Prior to joining the Science Times in 1998, Dreifus started working as a contributing writer for The New York Times Sunday Magazine in 1992. Aside from her work at The New York Times, her writing has also been featured in the Smithsonian, The Nation, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The New York Review of Books. Dreifus has also published two books about the art of the interview: “Interview,” published in 1997, and “Scientific Conversations: Interviews on Science.”

In 1997, Dreifus began working at Columbia’s School of International Affairs as an adjunct professor. One of her most well-known courses, called “Writing About Global Science for the International Media,” pioneered journalism courses for scientists in the U.S. The five-week workshop will be a slimmed down version of that class. More information and a tentative schedule are below.

Who can register? Alumni from Climate School + SPS-affiliated programs

The platform: In-person

When? Wednesday evenings (6:10-8:00 PM ET)

Tentative schedule

First session: What is an op-ed or a short personal essay? What columnists do you read and like? Assignment: Write a 750-word opinion essay about a sustainability or climate topic you feel strongly about. Deadline: One week.

Second session: What are the rules and special elements that make for a successful opinion essay? We’ll read several topical op-eds and take them apart forensically. We will analyze some of the students’ submissions, too. Some of the students will be asked to rewrite their work according to the guidelines offered in this discussion. 

Third session: All op-eds are about making a convincing argument. In this session, we will discuss how to build a successful argument on a public policy issue. Workshop members will debate the pros and cons of various climate and sustainability questions that are currently in the news. Students will be asked to present the best arguments and resources they can find for positions that they may disagree with. Research resources will be discussed.

Fourth session: Marketing your op-eds. What publications accept them and how to get your work considered—a practicum on submissions. An editor will make a guest appearance to talk about what she responds to and what she passes on. Assignment: Students will be asked to submit their op-ed to an appropriate market that they select.

Final session: Blog posts, tweets, and letters to the editor. How do they differ from opinion essays? What are the rules for producing successful ones?

Readings:

  • “Writing to Persuade,” by Trish Hall
  • “Making Sense of Science: Separating Substance from Spin,” by Cornelia Dean
  • “The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks,” by Susan Shapiro
Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
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