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You Too Can Write Good:
Writing about Archaeology for Local Newspapers

Anthony L. Klesert

Editor's Note: This paper was originally presented at the 1998 Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Seattle.

For the past year and a half, I have been contributing periodic "op-ed" columns on archaeology to a newspaper in northwest New Mexico with a diverse rural Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo readership. Armed with a few acquired tips and tricks, what seemed initially to be a daunting task turned out to be relatively easy and rewarding, and well received by (the often misinformed) lay readers. Archaeologists must actively pursue such professional promotion and should know that it is easier than it appears. It is in your own best interest to do it.

SAA has coproduced a great pamphlet, "25 Simple Things You Can Do to Promote the Public Benefits of Archaeology." It is full of excellent suggestions, but I want to concentrate on the first set, lumped under the heading, "Spread the word enthusiastically." There are four items here: (1) Include public outreach in all of your projects, (2) Hone your writing skills . . . Write letters to the editors of your local newspapers, (3) Talk about the values of archaeology, and (4) Cooperate with the media. All four can be accomplished at once by writing about archaeology in "op-ed" columns for your hometown newspaper.

I was inspired to do this after hearing Brian Fagan speak and then buying a book of his collected essays. Reading them, I was struck that they were really good--interesting and readable--but (and I do mean this in the most positive possible way!) they weren't that good. I thought "Hey, I could write this stuff!" I took the plunge and have found that I can. The point I am trying to make here is that you don't have to be Dave Barry or Ellen Goodman to write a column about archaeology for your local paper. In fact, it probably helps that you're not Barry or Goodman. You just have to want to do it.

Why? Newspapers are desperate for things to print. They produce an edition every single day and they are especially eager for "local interest" material. It helps to have a subject matter--like archaeology--that is inherently fascinating to the public. And, it probably helps a lot that your column is offered free. When I approached the Gallup (N.M.) Independent wondering if they might want to run some columns "to promote the public benefits of archaeology," they were happy to run whatever I gave them and as often as I could get it to them.

The Independent runs my pieces on its editorial page as an "op-ed" column. I made it clear that I wanted them to give me feedback on subject matter, style, length, or anything at all that caught their eye or that should be done differently. And they sure did. Here, in no particular order, is a "Top Ten" list of things I've learned about writing a column--from the paper, reading Fagan, and from AltaMira Press, who has a handy set of "rules for the archaeological writer":

(1) Keep jargon out. Make it understandable by using common terminology, but don't confuse this with "dumbing down." This can be a tall order, for instance, when writing about federal laws. But it can be done. Interpret rather than quote from laws and regulations and don't be afraid to simplify things, although not to the point of introducing error. Avoid buzzwords, such as "n-transform" or "ideotechnic" or "systematic unaligned sampling," like the plague. On the other hand, some technical terms are worth using--"mitigation" and "data recovery" come to mind, since defining these terms helps make the important points that we dig sites in order to mitigate the effects of their imminent loss and that archaeologists are (or should be) more interested in "recovering data" than artifacts per se. Use feet instead of meters.

(2) Use the active voice. We were all taught to write in the passive voice, and we use it in all our technical work. But people don't speak in the passive voice, and it comes off as stilted and clumsy in newsprint. Say, "The site has 500 rooms," not, "A total of 500 rooms were recorded at the site."

(3) Keep it short. Op-ed columns are generally around 1,000 words. I have found that a 700-800 word article on a topic is fairly easy to write and is an unimposing length to read. Feature articles are often considerably longer, of course, but those are best written by professional journalists with archaeological technical input. Along the same lines, try to keep paragraphs, and especially sentences, short. Convoluted sentences will surely confuse and lose your readers. WordPerfect has a handy device called "Document Info" nested under "File," and it can provide valuable information like word count, average word length, average words per sentence, and maximum words per sentence. If your longest sentence is, say, 55 words, find it and break it down to two or three sentences. A good average sentence length might be around 20 words.

(4) Have a hook and tell a story. Instead of just describing a project or the legal requirements involved, add a human element or a plot. People like to read about people, even if they are anonymous composites or fictitious. Write about yourself and your own experiences. It is much easier to recount actual events than it is to invent a story. You should, however, be careful when writing about court cases or Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) investigations; for these you might want to change key facts to fictionalize and generalize actual cases. For your own sake, be properly circumspect in print regarding your clients. Be serious when you need to be--although you should never harangue or pontificate--but also tell amusing or exciting stories. Don't be shy about admitting your own foibles or limitations.

(5) Keep to the point. While it is remarkably easy to write 700 words on just about any given topic, the real trick is to keep it short. Resist the temptation to go off on tangents. Each article should have a single focus, summarized up front, fleshed out and exemplified with an anecdote, and then brought home with a moral at the end. I like to begin and end a column with one-sentence paragraphs when I can, introducing and rephrasing the major point of the piece. Compile all your tangential ideas for future articles.

(6) Avoid repetition. You may have a particular axe to grind, but don't dwell on the same topic (like pot hunting) over and over. There is a tremendous range of interesting topics in archaeology, and you should tackle as many as you are comfortable with: ongoing surveys, excavations, ARPA investigations, conservation, the 106 process, methodology, discoveries, exploration, analysis, grad school, the scientific method, specific finds, training, and on and on. Turn to associates for additional ideas and experiences.

Also avoid repetition of your style. Write in the first, second, and third person, present your own point of view, and that of others (such as Native Americans or clients). Use flamboyant adjectives. And despite my prior advice, you should vary sentence length, and you can even (occasionally) write in the passive voice.

(7) Know your audience and write for it. My audience is a mixed bag of Anglos, Hispanics, and (mostly) Indians. I tend to focus on issues like the difference between "grave robbers" and archaeologists, the importance of conserving cultural heritage, and the importance of Indian participation in archaeology. By the same token, I am aware of incendiary or delicate topics. For example, I know how many Indians feel about (and often misconstrue) excavation, especially of burials. So I'm always careful to discuss excavation as a last resort after avoidance measures have failed, and stress that human remains are treated respectfully and in keeping with traditional tribal preferences. Don't be afraid to discuss sensitive issues or present the archaeological ethic, but keep in mind that the last thing you want to do is antagonize or alienate your audience.

(8) Set your own pace. Don't let the newspaper enforce their deadline, and don't put yourself on one. Take the time to draft your articles, set them aside, and then rework them. I generally submit a column every two or three weeks, but I let it vary. If you get tied up with work or run dry on topics to write about, take a break. You'll come back to it with lots of new ideas.

(9) Don't sweat things you can't control. When dealing with newspapers, there are certain things beyond your control. Their typos can drive you nuts, there is no opportunity for you to edit their copy before it goes to press, and it does no good to complain about it after the fact. You also have no control over the headlines their copy editors sometimes slap onto your articles; often they will miss your point or even contradict it. I once wrote about our Navajo student training program, emphasizing its survey and analysis and computer training aspects. In passing I once carefully mentioned the sensitive issue that students could volunteer during the summer to work on excavation projects, but only if they wanted to. The headline: "How to dig."

(10) Make good contacts and use them. Writing articles is fun and beneficial, and especially if you keep your contacts interested and involved in what you do. Get to know reporters, columnists, and editors, and invite them to visit your projects or your office. If they know you and your work it's that much easier to involve them in other things--more exposure, more information flow, better PR for your organization and for the profession--and it may be a way to expand your writing beyond the occasional column. Readers may ask you to give talks, slide shows, or site tours. Regional or topical magazines may be looking for contributions, so cite your column experience. Use these same writing skills to contribute an introductory pamphlet to a local high school. The possibilities are endless.

That concludes my Top Ten List for newpaper writing. The point is it's relatively simple to do, but you have to commit the effort and time to do it. If you can write a competent technical report, you can--and really should--write popular accounts.

I would like to emphasize that this is something that is in our immediate and pragmatic best interest to do. Archaeology receives a great deal of press; much of it is negative and one-sided, and a lot of it is just factually incorrect. By keeping silent we tacitly agree to claims that archaeologists are nothing but educated grave robbers, ripping off the federal taxpayer, single-handedly holding up needed progress over useless esoterica. Such stubborn perceptions demand persistent and widespread rejoinders. In the September 1997 Anthropology Newsletter, Margery Wolf wrote persuasively about the need for anthropologists to become more active in the public forum, including writing op-ed pieces. The same advice can be offered to archaeologists to help combat the negative image held by the public.

While I write these columns for a small rural paper, it has a daily circulation of nearly 20,000. If 100 members of SAA wrote columns for even backwater papers we would be reaching as many as 2,000,000 people a day. This strikes me as worth the effort.

Finally, writing proactive, cogent copy for local consumption is good for you. It helps clarify and organize your own thoughts on important issues. It serves as free advertisement for your organization, yourself, and the profession. So there is really no reason not to try it (other than apathy or misplaced complacency) and every reason to "just do it."

Anthony L. Klesert is director of the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department.


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