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Tips for Op-ed writers

November 22nd, 2004

Andrew Leigh has some tips for Op-ed writers (PDF file). Most of them are sensible, and I’ll add my own, which is that a good Op-Ed piece should contain, on average, 1.5 ideas. That is, the piece should have a main argument that is spelt out and defended in full (there’s an art to doing this in less than 750 words), and an offshoot from the main argument that is stated or hinted at, but not fully developed.

This isn’t a universal rule. A decent piece must have at least one idea (a large proportion of opinion pieces fail these test) and can have two or three. But 1.5 is a good average.

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  1. Spiros
    November 22nd, 2004 at 13:24 | #1

    Is the extra 0.5 so you get invited to write another piece where you develop it fully?

  2. November 22nd, 2004 at 14:44 | #2

    There is also an art to making a piece seem complete. To refute counterarguments without being obvious or descending to straw men. If I start to think “but what about..”, the opinion writer has lost me.

    Also, a good opinion piece contains facts, and at best some sort of spin provided by the experience of the writer. An opinion piece is reflective journalism.

    While the online journals currently have much smaller readerships, I wonder who actually reads the op-ed pieces in papers. Exposure – 200,000, readership – four, including the writer’s psychiatrist. I could quote you an example but it would be terribly indiscreet.

    Both the online journals and blogs are giving a whole paddock of new commentators the practice to develop and prove themselves. That is an absolutely invaluable resource – rather like public radio in the 1980′s with comedians.

    Unlike Andrew’s slightly snarky examples, there is a way of being funny that works on the real contradictions and frustrations of someone’s position.

    “What is Mark Latham to do? A certain taxidriver taught him that Wild Mark doesn’t play in federal politics. Now he has been a good boy and a credit both to his Mum and his minders.. and that hasn’t worked either. ”

    That works, because it uses language that makes his dilemma both funny (well, enough for this example, anyway..) and real. Couple of beers and a morose night on the verandah by himself and he probably does ask himself these questions.

    I don’t have any answers by the way. Wish I did.

  3. stephen
    November 23rd, 2004 at 12:46 | #3

    good suggestions all…but there is one point where I differ a bit from Andrew Leigh’s otherwise great summary. In my experience it is useful to have a really catchy heading that summarises the article in 3 or 4 words. not that your head will be used – subbies like to exercise their own creativity – but because it gets the attention of the people who accept or reject the article. Not only that, it makes a good subject line in the email (assuming like most people you send the piece by email). the subject line may make the difference between the proposed piece being opened and read or trashed without opening. this is frequently true even if you have discussed the piece in advance with the relevant editor – they may have several competing options for that day.

  4. John Quiggin
    November 23rd, 2004 at 16:32 | #4

    Spiro, in my case I have a regular spot, but the function is much the same, to alert regular readers to an idea that will be developed in a later piece.

    David, you’re right. The trick is to allude to objections in a way that takes them seriously but indicates you have an answer, while not being diverted from the main point.

    Stephen, I agreed with Andrew on this point, but I hadn’t thought of your idea. Of course, there’s a difference between a good headline and a catchy email header

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