book writing

Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers

5) Younger writers with no particular expertise or name recognition are likelier to get published by following an 80-20 rule: 80 percent new information; 20 percent opinion.

6) An op-ed should never be written in the style of a newspaper column. A columnist is a generalist, often with an idiosyncratic style, who performs for his readers. An op-ed contributor is a specialist who seeks only to inform them.

7) Avoid the passive voice. Write declarative sentences. Delete useless or weasel words such as “apparently,” “understandable” or “indeed.” Project a tone of confidence, which is the middle course between diffidence and bombast.

8) Be proleptic, a word that comes from the Greek for “anticipation.” That is, get the better of the major objection to your argument by raising and answering it in advance. Always offer the other side’s strongest case, not the straw man. Doing so will sharpen your own case and earn the respect of your reader.

9) Sweat the small stuff. Read over each sentence — read it aloud — and ask yourself: Is this true? Can I defend every single word of it? Did I get the facts, quotes, dates and spellings exactly right? Yes, sometimes those spellings are hard: the president of Turkmenistan is Gurbanguly Malikguliyevich Berdymukhammedov. But, believe me, nothing’s worse than having to run a correction.

10) You’re not Proust. Keep your sentences short and your paragraphs tight.

11) A newspaper has a running conversation with its readers. Before pitching an op-ed you should know when the paper last covered that topic, and how your piece will advance the discussion.

12) Kill the clichés. If you want to give the reader an outside the box perspective on how to solve a problem from hell by reimagining the policy toolbox to include stakeholder voices — well, stop right there. Editors notice these sorts of expressions the way French chefs notice slices of Velveeta cheese: repulsive in themselves, and indicative of the mental slop that lies beneath.

13) If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong. One useful tip for aspiring writers comes from the film “A River Runs Through It,” in which the character played by Tom Skerritt, a Presbyterian minister with a literary bent, receives essays from his children and instructs them to make each successive draft “half as long.” If you want to write a successful 700-word op-ed, start with a longer draft, then cut and cut again. “The art of writing,” believed the minister, “lay in thrift.”

14) The editor is always right. She’s especially right when she axes the sentences or paragraphs of which you’re most proud. Treat your editor with respect by not second-guessing her judgment, belaboring her with requests for publication decisions or submitting sloppy work in the expectation that she will whip it into shape.

15) I’d wish you luck, but good writing depends on conscious choices, not luck. Make good choices.

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