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The Op-ed Writer’s 12-Step Program
Writing Tips from John Nichols, The Capital Times
'1. 'STAKE OUT YOUR TURF:
You may have an area of specialty, but that is not where your op-ed writing options begin or end. Think of logical connections, as well as areas into which you can expand your focus.
For instance, if your specialty is economic development patterns in central Africa, you should also be quite capable of addressing a broad array of north-south issues, globalization of the economy, the export and import of culture, the role of the World Bank and the IMF, international trade, foreign aid and a host of other issues. Don’t limit yourself; you have a lot of education and experience that can be put to use.
'2. 'READ ALL ABOUT IT:
It is impossible to be a successful op-ed writer without reading an array of publications on a daily basis.
Start with The New York Times, and then add on your regional daily (Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe and Atlanta Journal-Constitution) and your local paper.
Try and read a foreign daily as well (The Guardian from London, Liberation from Paris, The Times of India, The Globe and Mail from Toronto, and The South China Morning Post are all good, and there are plenty of others available at any good newsstand.)
The foreign perspective is particularly useful in identifying topics that have potential. Read magazines, as well, particularly those that tend to be ahead of the curve – both from a news standpoint and intellectually.
'3. 'THINK LIKE A READER:
Recognize that most people do not have your expertise or your interest in the topics that you are addressing. That means you have to go back to core notions of why something matters. You always must explain this.
Also, you have to write with an eye toward intriguing the reader. Don’t expect that your interest in a topic will lead a reader to be drawn to it – and if readers aren’t drawn to your op-eds, editors won’t buy them.
4. IF YOU CAN’T WRITE FAST, DON’T WRITE OP-EDS:
The best op-eds are current. If a development occurs at noon of Monday, ideally your piece should appear in Tuesday morning’s paper. At the least, it should be in the hands of your editor within a matter of hours.
Once you get the hang of it, a good ‘breaking-news’ op-ed should not take more than a few hours to research and write. You’ll be surprised at how the deadline will give you focus and energy that might be missing if you had days or weeks to put a piece together. And the timeliness will make your piece of far greater interest to editors and readers.
'5. 'DON’T WRITE LIKE A JOURNALIST:
As an academic and a specialist, you have a freedom to write with greater authority and bluntness. You don’t have to limit yourself to ‘just the facts.’ You can use ‘me, my and I,’ and in fact you should do just that. Personal anecdotes that are relevant will make your piece a far better read, as will expressions of your own feelings. Your piece needs to be professional in both style and content, and it cannot be a simplistic polemic. But it should reflect you – most particularly your expertise and your specialization.
'6. 'SAY SOMETHING:
An op-ed should be thought provoking and intellectually challenging. It should contain new ideas, and it should advance them aggressively. Dry analysis is always available; bold new ideas are not. Don’t limit yourself to a recitation of the facts; tell people what they can do with the information.
For instance, don’t just tell us who the players are in Yugoslavia, tell us who’s right, who’s wrong and whether the rest of the world should get involved on behalf of those you have identified as being more noble – or, at least, more victimized.
'7. 'DON’T FORGET THOSE ANNIVERSARIES:
If you’re looking to address broader topics, and to break out of the constraints of the news cycle, you’ll need a hook. Anniversaries and special events often will provide it. For terrific opportunities to reflect on the lingering impact of traditional colonialism and on the way in which globalization is creating a new form of colonialism. Major events – such as the current U.N.-sponsored gathering on a world court – provide an opportunity to look at broader issues, as well, especially if you anticipate the event.
'8. 'REMEMBER THE DEAR (AND NOT SO DEAR) DEPARTED:
The deaths of key figures who have worked within your area of specialty or of prominence offers an opportunity reflect and to instruct.
For instance: “The deaths of Richard Nixon has opened the floodgates on a river of reflection regarding Watergates, relations with China and the Vietnam War, but there has been scant mention of Nixon’s domestic record – most particularly his unique role in the history of America’s environmental movement. In the spring of 1970, Nixon signed a stack of environmental bills that essentially established the protections that exist to this day. Nixon’s actions are less reflective of his own commitment to conservation and environmental protection than of the amazing success of the then-young environmental movement – a success that an older and more bureaucratic movement has not been able to reassert.”
'9. 'KEEP IT SHORT AND SWEET:
Short, well-written op-eds are always more attractive to editors and will be read by far more people than ponderous tomes. Academia teaches you to write long in order to cover all the points, but in op-ed writing you are not going for a grade – your goals is to reach people, and shorter pieces are far more effective.
When a topic in your area of interest arises, try writing a 300-word piece. You’ll be surprised at how much it is possible to say when you cut away all the jargon and get down to a core statement. Think of an op-ed not as a thesis but as a short thesis statement that will provoke readers who are so inclined to look forward. Even when you write longer op-eds, they will rarely exceed the 1,000-word count.
'10. 'STATISTICS AREN’T BORING:
The most powerful tool you have is your knowledge of the field in which you work. Marshall that knowledge in order to make an impact. That means using data in a precise way, in order to make points. Comparisons that people will understand – average earnings of a worker in Uganda versus a worker in the U.S., level of educational attainment in France versus the U.S., etc. – are highly effective for making points to advance your argument. Don’t drown readers in stats, but give them useful information that will help them to embrace your broader statement. Think of yourself as sitting on a barstool and saying, “Hey, did you know that…”
'11. 'THINK OF YOURSELF AS SPECIAL:
Newspapers frequently publish special sections dealing with topics such as education, the law and international trade. Often, these sections feature columns and commentaries from business leaders, local officials and others. There are great opportunities in these sections, since editors are looking for good material. Also, don’t forget about local business journals and other specialty publications that might be open to your ideas.
'12. 'FAILURE IS IMPOSSIBLE, AND INEVITABLE:
If you make a commitment to becoming a serious and regular op-ed writer, you will experience plenty of frustration. Even with editors with whom you have established a good relationship, you will find yourself being turned down when you think you have a good idea and you will find yourself being asked to comment on that which you think inconsequential.
Take it all in stride. The point is not to write one piece that will change the world; rather, the point is to write regularly – developing a body of commentary that will, if you are really successful, begin to shift the center of gravity in the debate.
Keep pitching ideas, keep writing on spec and remain assured that if you take opportunities to write than you imagined possible. That’s the point at which you will be able to begin to define your own course as an op-ed writer and, perhaps, to shift the discourse, change the direction of the nation and, ultimately, save humanity.