Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Saving that op-ed: 5 fixes for a lame opinion piece

I don't offer writing and editing services very often anymore, but recently, a client approached with a problem to solve. Her nonprofit had results to report from a big initiative, and the PR firm hired to do a variety of tasks just couldn't pull an op-ed together. They'd done all sorts of prep--from interviewing the leaders to writing a draft--but it just wasn't hanging together. Could I take a look and perhaps fix it? In less than a week?

The client was good enough and smart enough to allow for the possibility that the op-ed was beyond repair, but really wanted to try again. So I looked at the resource materials, compared them to the most recent draft, and threw out all but a few sentences with data points in them. The result, after a bit more research, writing, and editing was a draft that yielded this comment: "Thanks again. We didn’t know if we could make this op ed happen.  Now I know we can."

What exactly did I do? I just followed my five favorite tests to guide the fixing of an opinion article:
  1. Does it have an opinion or distinct point of view? Most lame or overblown or ineffective opinion articles are missing just that: An opinion, or at least, a distinct viewpoint on an issue. The "op" in op-ed stands for "opposite the editorial page" in newspaper parlance, not opinion. But there's no quicker way to get yours rejected than to leave out a clear opinion. This one made a common mistake, talking about the program and the fact that it worked, not how it worked in a novel way, nor why it worked despite the odds against it. Talking about the fact that it worked is a description, not an opinion. Handily, the leaders of this project had decided points of view, expressed in the background material I had to work with. I tossed a lot of declarative sentences and put in the opinions.
  2. Does it included the detail needed to keep it from getting puffy? This particular draft had an overabundance of jargon, summary sentences, and vague groupings in it, largely rearranged from existing documents. But it was short on specifics. Fortunately, there was plenty of data available to bolster the position we were going to take. It helps to remember that your op-ed is not a brochure, nor should its contents draw from a brochure.
  3. Were you judicious with your data? This piece was short on data, but the opposite problem is another litmus test for me, as too much data is as bad as not enough. You don't need to drown the op-ed in every number you possess. My challenge here was to avoid adding too much data to make up for the lack of it in the original draft.
  4. Can we see your viewpoint early and late? If we don't get a good whiff of your point of view right at the start, and again at the end, your op-ed isn't doing its job. Don't hope that the reader will stick with you as you build your case into a crescendo at the end or the middle. Make it clear, first and finally.
  5. What's holding it together? Have you used something to keep us interested throughout? That might be a metaphor or analogy that winds all the way anecdote that helps prove your point early and late...or some other storytelling device that makes it easier, even interesting or fun for your reader to follow along. I found a metaphor that worked for this initiative, illustrating its risk-taking and results, and wove it throughout so the approach made a bit more sense, faster.
The assignment was another reminder of the value of these five factors, since most of them were missing from the draft. You'll do much better if you plan them into your op-ed from the beginning. If they're missing, you may have a draft, but you'll have much more trouble getting it published. For more tips right from the source, check out Op-Ed and You, a useful article from the New York Times on what it's looking for in your draft.

(Creative Commons licensed photo by Bart Everson)

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