YOU SHOULD WRITE AN OP-ED. Yes, you. Why? Simply put, learning to write op-eds will transform your writing. While the ways in which it will do so are many, the top five are that writing op-eds will clarify how you feel about something, teach you to relate an argument clearly, grant you enormous exposure to potential publishers, give you a chance to test your material on readers and influence them regarding your point of view. And if this sounds like a great training for that book you are struggling to write, that’s because it is. Writing op-eds is marvelous experience in publishing for those of you who are working on book-length memoirs. Let me count the reasons why.
What is an Op-ed?
First, let’s establish the definition of an op-ed. The term op-ed comes from the newspaper tradition. American newspapers began as organs for advertising revenue and political propaganda. In post-World War II America, they became less partisan and more broad in content. Editorial pages, however, continued to reflect the views of that newspaper’s staff, specifically the editorial board.
The op-ed page – literally, the page ”opposite” (or facing) the editorial page — developed as a way to broaden the opinion content of the newspaper. These days, the news pages of most American newspapers present coverage that doesn’t reflect bias. But the op-ed page is where readers get a chance to offer their views on social, political and community affairs.
The mistake that many writers make is in thinking that the op-ed pages are only for former Joint Chiefs of Staff, doctors who head large medical associations, politicians or others writing from prestigious professional positions. In fact, while the op-ed pages reveal the writers’ area of expertise, the question you need to ask yourself is: From which of my many areas of expertise should I write? As you know, I have a particular point of view about writing from one area of your expertise at a time. For more on that, or to refresh your memory on just how many areas of expertise you already possess, see this post on how to become a writer.
What’s the Difference Between an Op-ed and an Editorial?
Specifically, the opinion pages of the newspaper break down as follows:
- EDITORIALS reflect the opinions of the newspaper’s publisher and its editors. They usually are unsigned, and their voice tends to be impersonal.
- COLUMNS may be written by local staffers or syndicated columnists (Dowd, Brooks, Gerson, et al).
- OP-EDS are pieces submitted by readers, or commissioned by editors, that reflect personal views on the issues confronting the nation or the community.
Writing an Op-ed Will Transform You as a Writer
So how about those five things that writing an op-ed will do to transform you as a writer? Here they are:
- Writing Op-eds will sharpen your argument.
As you well know, all pieces of non-fiction contain an argument, even if that argument is that gardening will make you happy. In memoir writing, the argument is essential, not only because it is the spine on which you build your structure, but also because without one you are merely writing autobiography. Writing an op-ed, a well-edited, short piece of non-fiction from one area of your expertise, will help you clarify how you feel about something.
Consider this: You probably love somebody, whether it is your child, partner or dog. Ok. When you say aloud, “I love my husband,” to another human being, what are you really saying? But if you tell the listener a tale of something that this person did for you that bonded you forever, using an illustration from your marriage that fully informs that listener about the value of that bond, what does it do for you? Doesn’t it remind you of the foundation of your love? Now apply that to anything else. Tell me a story instead of merely telling me you love someone and you will be reminded why you do. It will clarify things for you. Try it. You’ll see.
- Writing op-eds will teach you to relate an argument clearly.
“Oh, you should get a dog. Dogs are great. They are like so great. Really, really great.” What did you learn in that dialogue? Nothing, right? Well, maybe that the speaker’s favorite word is great, but other than that, little else, yes?
So, let’s just pretend that you are writing that piece about the value of living with a dog, using the illustration of your own beloved canine friend. Perhaps you want to publish it in your local newspaper in time for the next Westminster Dog Show, which happens every February. So now you’ve got your deadline and you’ve got some vignettes about how your dog enhances your life that you think you’ll use to illustrate your point.
But what is your point? What is your argument? Take that dog for a walk. Watch how you two move together and wordlessly communicate; see how much better about life you feel, and after some consideration you realize that you think that no other relationship in your life is like this, and that, in fact, dogs do things for people that people cannot do for themselves. Nice. Good argument.
See what just happened? You thought through your argument, made it tight. Doable. And guess what? That argument would work beautifully for a book-length piece of memoir, meaning that if you write and publish that op-ed, you might attract some attention for the book.
- Writing op-eds grants you enormous exposure to potential publishers.
Years ago, I had a new writer in one of my memoir classes. She had never published anything, and brought to the first class a long and complicated piece that she work-shopped tirelessly, perfecting it every week, eventually rewriting and editing it down to be a powerful, terrifically engaging op-ed that she then sent to her local newspaper. That local newspaper offered that powerful piece to The New York Times newswire, meaning it was offered to every newspaper in the country that subscribes to that syndication. The day it was published, that piece appeared in 500 newspapers across the country.
4. & 5. Writing op-eds gives you a chance to test your material on readers and influence their opinions.
See the previous example. That writer was exposed to millions of potential readers. Yes, she is now a very well-published author.
So, how to write an op-ed?
Convinced that you should write an op-ed? Good, because later this month, I’ll be offering a new class on how to write powerful op-ed pieces that get published through popular media outlets.
Teaching the class will be the editor of a metropolitan newspaper who writes a weekly column, has a syndicated radio show on public radio and who has been in the newspaper business for more than 30 years. I would offer you nothing less. This will be a genuine treat.
It will also be a live class, but in order to offer an in-depth Q&A, we’re only taking 75 students.