Spare Me the Bombast: The Art of the Op-Ed
By Dex McLuskey
Being quoted in a story in a respected media outlet is undoubtedly a beneficial form of PR. Being named as the author of an article kicks your kudos up several more notches. Landing a gig as a regular bylined contributor lifts your authority into the stratosphere.
Op-eds provide one of the highest returns on an organization’s content marketing investment, which is why it’s also among the toughest things to achieve. Leading media outlets get inundated with pitches for guest articles, so it should be no surprise that the overwhelming majority get rejected, Nor should it come as a shock that, as with so many things, it helps to have a prior working relationship with the editors, like the ones professional writers enjoy.
Apart from tapping into their networks, another reason it makes sense to hire an established writer is that editors expect submissions from outsiders with no journalism experience to be excessively long, self-promotional, self-aggrandizing and punctuated with flowery, complicated, jargon-laced language, sins that a journalist will avoid.
While it’s tough to get an article published, there are ways to improve your odds of success. Obviously there’s little point in tackling a subject that isn’t topical, since the point of op-ed pages is to provide timely insights and analysis of current events.
It’s also crucial to adhere to the basic tenets of good writing. Keep sentences and paragraphs tight, use active rather than passive verbs, avoid cliches and favor short words over long ones (only weather forecasters talk about precipitation, everyone else says rain.) Nouns and verbs are your friends, while adjectives and adverbs add little, if anything, to an argument.
Rather than trying to prove how smart you are, it’s better to focus on ensuring that every reader, the professional and layperson alike, understands you. Op-ed pages aren’t the place for bluster, invective or pomposity, so spare readers your bombast. That’s the realm of the columnist, whose role is to entertain and sometimes enrage. Your job is to provide valuable perspective on significant events.
Since nothing makes a reader stop faster than “on the one hand this,” but “on the other hand, that,” don’t be mealy-mouthed. Think like a prosecutor. Pick a theme, take a stance and state your case forcefully and convincingly. Use hard evidence — data and facts — rather than relying on polemic to bolster your argument. However, while a prosecutor would ignore anything that doesn’t support their case, you should address any viewpoint you know of that might be used to attack your position.
But rather than being a tub-thumping know-it-all who thinks they have all the answers, it’s often much more stimulating and memorable to start a debate by raising thought-provoking questions.
As in all forms of journalism, it’s critical that your evidence and data points are defendable and your story is accurate. While editors expect to do some work to ensure articles adhere to house style, don’t present potential legal problems and are on topic and publishable, they do not want to rewrite every word and check every data point and fact.
But it’s not enough to be right, you also need to be engaging. About a year ago, Reuters’ influential Breakingviews.com published an op-ed that I ghosted that began by outlining how an 18th-century mathematical principal called the Taylor Series supports the idea that the speed at which interest rates rise matters more than the start and eventual end levels.
I hear your yawns.
While trying to work out how to explain the link between Federal Reserve monetary policy and an obscure, 300-year-old mathematical model in an engaging way, I hit on the idea of leading with Tommy Lee Jone’s first speech from the movie The Fugitive, in which he said:
“Our fugitive has been on the run for 90 minutes. Average footspeed over uneven ground barring injury is four miles an hour. That gives us a radius of six miles. What I want out of each and every one of you is a hard target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse or doghouse in that area. Checkpoints go up at 15 miles. Your fugitive’s name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him.”
It worked well.
And when at last you’ve finished writing, walk away for an hour or two (like I’m about to do). When you return, cut the article again and again until you are comfortably within the publication’s word limit (which you should never exceed). Because in the end, good writing is all about editing.
But that’s just my opinion.