Thursday, November 08, 2007

So, you want to write an op-ed?

Here's what you mustn't do


When you read them for a living, it's natural to form some opinion about what makes a good op-ed. For me, it's clear writing, a focused argument, the introduction of fresh facts, top-notch analysis and a good opener.

Perhaps it's easier to detail the makings of a bad op-ed: long, complex, meandering sentences, plodding prose, pretentious or jargon-heavy language, categorical statements that can't be backed up, or the absence of a clearly enunciated opinion. You'd be surprised how many writers beat around the bush, insinuating, without actually saying outright, what they want readers to believe.

Finally, op-eds that fail to take into account the opposing view, or do so in a cursory, condescending or dismissive way, also get a poor grade.

Former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Bret Stephens, now back at the Wall Street Journal, drummed into his staff that an op-ed has to be proleptic - anticipating what the other side would argue, and then knocking down its claims. Such an approach demonstrates that your stance is based upon substantive reflection.

Another no-no: Writers who make use of exclamation points! or CAPITALS. They're like the guy poking his finger in your belly to make a point; all you want to do is create some distance from them.

The same is true of shrill writing that's replete with name-calling, exaggerated (or patently untrue) claims, and the manipulation of statistics. Savvy readers intuitively sense when they're being hoodwinked.

I'M BORED by writers who are completely predictable, who preach to their own amen-corner and whose product is intended primarily as "red meat" for true-believers. Hey, what about the rest of us?

Granted, there's no shortage of folks who keep coming back for what amounts to a slight variation of the same argument, week in and week out. Which means columnists with a purposefully narrow repertoire had better be extra good at what they do.

This isn't to argue that all ideological writing is inherently bad. The views of, say, a Maureen Dowd or a Paul Gigot may be foretold - but they are invariably well-argued, informed and entertaining. Plainly, there are writers who push a coherent, consistent view of politics and people, yet nevertheless manage to deliver columns that are almost always engrossing.

At the end of the day, good op-ed writing is a combination of art and skill; you may be able to deconstruct a piece to explain why it works (or doesn't), but there's no off-the-shelf template for novice writers to follow.

WOULD-BE op-ed contributors need to consider very carefully what they're going to write about. Most of the unsolicited op-eds we receive at The Jerusalem Post fall broadly into two subject categories: the Arab-Israel conflict (and related issues), and the intramural wars of the Jews (over identity, theology, the nature of the Jewish state, and the like).

Thus if everyone is writing about, say, Annapolis, unless you happen to be a world-renowned Mideast expert you should probably find another topic to address. (Assume, too, that our regular columnists won't let this little conference go unmentioned.)

I'm amazed by how many unsolicited submissions we get that simply cover old ground, regurgitate stale arguments, or fight yesterday's ideological battles when the rest of the world has moved on.

Then there are the folks who write about a topic that has no immediacy, neither news nor chronological hook - in fact, nothing to pique the readers' interest.

But don't lose heart. We sometimes reject a piece not because there's anything inherently wrong with it, but because (a) there is no available space; or (b) to maintain the range of our pages. Regular readers know that Post policy is to provide viewpoints from across the political and religious spectrum. And we trust local readers will have noted that their newspaper also publishes op-eds on music, art, science and popular culture - because there is a world out there, and we can't obsess about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for example, to the exclusion of all else.

EVERY OP-ED writer develops his or her own voice. The question of who's worth reading - and emulating - is largely subjective. Over the years I've found myself drawn to the work of an eclectic bunch of op-ed writers, even though - looking back - I can't honestly claim they meet all the criteria outlined above.

I'm excluding Jerusalem Post columnists and contributors from this discussion for obvious reasons: I don't want to get beaten up in the hallway.

THE FIRST columnist I recall making it my business to read was Pete Hamill. This was when I was in high school and the street-smart Hamill was writing something like three or four columns a week for Dorothy Schiff's New York Post.

I enjoyed Hamill's down-to-earth style. He wrote with a liberal passion that appealed to my adolescent sense of justice. Hamill penned a column in 1970 endorsing Bella Abzug in the Democratic congressional primary on Manhattan's Lower East Side for the US House of Representatives. He argued that Abzug would actively oppose the war in Vietnam, while the incumbent, Leonard Farbstein, was an old fuddy-duddy who wouldn't stand up to Richard Nixon. Because of that column, I went out and volunteered for Abzug's campaign, handing out leaflets on East Broadway near my yeshiva.

Some time later, however, when Hamill wrote a column which - if memory serves me all these decades later - excused the behavior of a punk who mugged his mother on the grounds that the root cause of crime was poverty and discrimination, I abandoned Hamill and never really warmed to him again.

Fortunately, in the natural course of development, adolescent liberals mature into healthy adult centrist pragmatists.

THERE WERE some writers I used to read because they wrote fluidly and I agreed with them. The late Eric Breindel, who was editorial page editor and columnist after Rupert Murdoch took over the New York Post, fell into that category.

Others I read today because they have interesting insights even though I might not agree with them, such as the Paris-based William Pfaff, who publishes in the International Herald Tribune.I'll make time to read Frank Rich of The New York Times even though almost every column takes up most of the op-ed page and is devoted to bashing George W. Bush. Rich is one liberal polemicist who can't be ignored because he marshals his facts so skillfully.

Some writers I read for the sheer pleasure of enjoying their carefully crafted and reported opinion. For instance, Roger Cohen, who writes the "Globalist" column for the Tribune. I always ask myself how a guy so good on other topics can be so wrong about the Palestinian Arabs.

I also read Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal, for the same reason I like a good glass of wine, or a fine cigar.

Then there are the op-ed writers I'll keep an eye out for because their work often contains tidbits of information unavailable elsewhere. These include: John K. Cooley (who first caught my attention when he reported on, and championed, the Palestinian cause for the Christian Science Monitor); Robert D. Kaplan, who traverses the world to produce longish op-edy features for, among others, The Atlantic Monthly; and The Washington Post's Jim Hoagland, for his knowledgeable inside-the-beltway reportage on US foreign policy.

In other words, I prefer columnists who research, report and synthesize rather than exclusively pontificate.

Finally, a word about brevity: Do as I say, not as I do. Almost any argument can be effectively made in roughly 750-850 words. If you are just starting out - and especially if you want to reach people under 30 - aim for staccato writing and paragraphs of no more than a few short sentences.

We're several decades into the Internet age, so keep in mind that many of your readers won't be mulling over your words in hard copy while sipping a cup of coffee; they'll be gulping them down in a frenzy of click-and-scroll.One wrong move, and you lose their attention.

REGARDLESS of your intended audience, to achieve an op-ed worth the readers' time, carefully edit what you write. Few writers can produce anything worth reading on the first draft.

One last thing. Publishing your opinion carries with it the danger that you will contribute to your readers' ignorance. To paraphrase the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan, some people use a point of view as a substitute for true insight. Don't contribute to their stupidity.

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