Last month, New Media Foundation organised a seminar on "Opinion Makers: Writing op-eds for newspapers and online magazines". Below is the contribution of MercatorNet's editor.
If you fancy yourself as a writer and if you have strong opinions, you’ve probably dreamed of reading them on an Op-Ed page. You may have fantasised about the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. A lot of people share your dreams. Almost none succeed. Why? The most common explanation is editorial bias.
Sorry to disillusion you, but normally the reason is the quality of submissions. Editors have prejudices, to be sure, but the oxygen of journalism is controversy. Newspapers are always ready to publish contrarian arguments – if they are good. So, if you have eagerness, expertise, a willingness to follow the rules, and a little literary ability, it is possible to make the op-ed page. Here are a few hints.
First, the op-ed is a literary genre, an infotainment art form, with a unique rigour and discipline. The author has to capture his readers’ attention, inform them about a complex issue, set out options, and persuade them of his own views — all in 600 to 1,000 words. The best op-eds unpack arguments quickly and use rhetorical tricks to lead the reader to an inevitable conclusion. They are like a tsunami which begins with a distant tremor, generates a gigantic wave of indignation, and finally dumps its vital message on a distant beach.
Like a haiku or a sonnet, the op-ed has rules which can only be learned by wide and careful reading of newspapers and successful columnists. My favourite is The Economist, which is widely acknowledged as the best news magazine in the world. Its leaders (editorials) are exemplary. I also admire Paul Krugman at the New York Times, Peggy Noonan at the Wall Street Journal, Philip Adams at The Australian, and Boris Johnson at the London Telegraph. I often loathe their opinions, but do they know how to write!
Speaking of rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, let’s consult Aristotle. Rhetorical analysis really hasn’t advanced far beyond his savvy observations on the speeches his countrymen used to give at their assemblies back in ancient Greece. He shows that the secret of a successful speech (or op-ed) is not rigorous logic. How many times have you read a provocative op-ed and screamed, "that’s not logical!". Well, the author wasn’t trying to be logical; he was trying to be persuasive.
Aristotle identified three elements of rhetorical persuasion. The first is ethos: character and credibility. The second is pathos: emotional appeals to win an audience over. The third is logos: the use of reason and evidence. All three are at play in an op-ed.
What is ethos in today’s media? Normally it is "expertise". But if yours is thin, you are not necessarily disqualified from speaking out. Pathos and logos can compensate; a sparkling wit can outshine boring credentials. Sometimes lack of expertise can even be a qualification for speaking. Editors are always on the look-out for fresh, provocative voices.
There are different ways to establish professional credentials. My own experience here is encouraging, I think. For several years I have been editing a newsletter on bioethics, BioEdge. When we launched this in 2001, I knew nothing about bioethics. Nonetheless, I had a title: I was the editor of an international bioethics newsletter. On the strength of that, I wrote an 800-word comment on President Bush’s decision to restrict funding for embyronic stem cells and emailed it to The Australian – before the first edition of the newsletter had even appeared. They took it. Why not? I was an "editor".
Barack Obama is a master of pathos. I often find his speeches vacuous, but they touch hearts with a kind of rhetorical music. Learn from him: play to your audience. It is for them that you choose the tone, the images, the arguments, and the style of what you write. Know their prejudices so that you do not waste time proving what needs no proof. (These incomplete syllogisms which incorporate the prejudices of the audience are what Aristotle called enthymemes.)
And your first audience, by the way, is the editor of the op-ed page. Some op-ed pages are populist, some are dry and cerebral, some are quirky and opinionated. You have to study them to know what the editor likes. It should be too obvious to mention, but you will also be judged on correct spelling, good grammar and scrupulous fact-checking. For a busy editor, these may count for far more than a good argument. Be concise, too. Editing 300 words out of a 1,300 word article is hard work.
Finally, the logos, the argument. Do you have something original to say? Can you explain it in three crisp sentences to a jaded editor? Is it timely? newsworthy? fresh?
Let’s assume that that you do have one. You need to package it according to the rules of the genre. It must have three things: an arresting introduction, a clear sequence of supporting arguments, and a memorable conclusion. You may be a big shot; you may have flair to die for. But if you do not follow this template, you will not succeed.
If your introduction is boring, readers will move on. If your supporting arguments do not have a clear and simple structure, readers will lose the thread. And if the argument dribbles away without a final trumpet blast, readers will feel cheated. Sly humour, vivid anecdotes, startling assertions add spice, but they are not enough. You must follow the template.
So far, so conventional, but here’s my own advice: adverbs. Long ago, I was talking to a young journalist who has since become one of Australia’s most successful columnists. He told me of a marvellous discovery. "It’s amazing," he said. "Sometimes my copy doesn’t hold together. So I sprinkle in a few adverbs – moreover, however, indeed, and (best of all), obviously – and voilá, everything seems perfectly logical."
So these are the secrets of scoring a berth on the editorial page. Now that you’ve got them, stop moaning about prejudice and drown bias in a torrent of good writing.
Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. This article is exactly 1,000 words long.