Get Opinionated: Write and Publish Persuasive Op-Eds for a National Audience
Catherine Orenstein, founder of The Op-Ed Project, journalist and author
Laura previously edited syndicated columnists.
Catherine: Larry Summers speech about women not being in math and science led to other debates including why more women aren't on the op-ed pieces. One woman accused the LA Times of institutionalized sexism, Maureen Dowd said women were afraid of being called bitches, a woman at the Washington Post took offense at being called a woman journalist.
3 out of 4 submissions from men. At WaPo, 9 out of 10 submissions came from men. 88% of bylines were from men.
In the 90s I was targeted by the Progressive Media Project. They noticed that a lot of conservative think tanks were creating impressive journalism. Catherine was in Haiti at the time writing pieces for small publications. They taught her basic ideas on how to write an op-ed and published her on the the Knight-Ridder newswire. Ended up doing radio, television, met with Clinton's Latin-American advisors. They spent no more than 2 hours tutoring me. Target women with credentials and expertise. They are not rocket science or secret. It tends to get shared with people who already are involved in the public debate.
Why does op-ed matter? We're not talking about print first of all. Newspapers are in the business of news, not paper. The opinion forums of our nation drive all other media and create thought leadership. The spectrum of forums in the public debate are about the same: 85% of op-ed bylines are male. 84% male in talk shows. 83% male in Congress. Continuation of male thought leadership in the United States. You could look at best-selling nonfiction authors, Hollywood and radio producers, boards of Fortune 500 companies. These are the forums where people report not just what is going on but what we should do about it. This is currently the most powerful way of delivering thought leadership regardless of the delivery mechanism. It is over-whelming white, privileged, and male.
This information is easy to share and if we have a lot more women submitting, editors would have a broader selection to choose from. Maybe if women submitted more, we wouldn't need quotas. Maybe we're helping public debate to allow half of the best minds and ideas be part of that debate. Wouldn't editors and anyone concerned with public knowledge be eager to hear these voices?
The idea is not just to target and train, but also to create networks of mentor editors. On a one time basis, a very experienced editor will review an op-ed from every woman who comes through these workshops. Couldn't we increase the numbers to a tipping where we're not necessary? This is a hypothesis, but research suggest that a tipping point happens at a third.
Two examples of why I think this is important: absence of women in these forums creates the wrong ideas that women aren't leaders and don't have something to say. Two, public debate is lacking without half the best minds. Three, the people who tell the stories create the history.
I wrote a book about the fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood." It's an epic story across multiple genres. There are various endings: first, 1812 she's cut out by the hunter. 1697 version, she dies. Does anyone know what spawned that fairy tale? The original Mother Goose fairy tales were parables about aristocratic life. It was parable about losing your virginity: a wolf was a parable for a man. Hunter was her father cutting her out of the belly of the beast allowing her a second chance at following a straight path of obedience. The earliest known version of the story, wise tales told by women: the heroine always escapes by her own wits and it's a story of coming into your own. If you'd like to read some of those early versions, read my book.
Gloria Steinem wrote an essay on "If Men Could Menstruate." If men could menstruate, they would research nothing about heart disease and everything about cramps. It's funny because half of that statement is true: it's true that cramps aren't researched, but women aren't protected from heart disease. It's the number one killer of women. The symptoms are different in women and men: women didn't know they were suffering heart attacks because they and their doctors didn't recognize the symptoms.
Questions to Ask:
1. What is credibility and how do you establish it? Credibility is accountability to knowledge. Don't just say what you know, but how you know it.
2. How do you build an evidence-based, value-driven argument? Evidence is the concrete-building blocks that you all agree is credibility even if you disagree on the conclusions. E.g. don't use a tiny, opinion laden newspaper as the basis of all your evidence. Are you a better person to say it? What is the value that you add?
3. What is the difference between being right and being effective? Example: A few years back, I wrote a piece on Sex in the City that ran in the NYT. I hated the show. They shopped a lot, had no causes that they cared about, and didn't seem to care about their jobs. The mail came in 4 to 1 against me. I thought about how I had just alienated 4 out of 5 people I was trying to reach.
A zone that has two qualities: empathy and respect. You need to believe that the people who disagree with you are both moral and intelligent. For a worthy opponent, those are the qualities that lead to efficacy.
4. What is the bigger picture? No matter how quirky your areas of care seem to be, the ability to understand how your concerns fit into a larger human picture will make you more valuable.
5. Do you understand your knowledge and experience in terms of the values of other people? It is more powerful to understand your worth in relation to other people. You have things that are not just important, but truly important to other people. If you think about that, if you let your value to other people be the driving force of how you communicate. You'll have a much more powerful platform from which to communicate from.
Laura: Op-ed is short for opposite editorial (as in opposite the editorial page). I think I have a unique perspective and could persuade people, not that I'm the only person who could write about it.
To make cookies what do you need? You need a couple of ingredients. You could get special ingredients and make it far more sophisticated and expert driven. Or you could get your butter, milk, and flour and make a damn fine batch of cookies. The recipe for an op-ed is extremely simple. You don't have to get sophisticated
2. timely argument
3. a piece (have to have it written)
4. a pitch
Everything else is chocolate chips.
Expertise: you don't need to know more than everyone else in your field. Because you're willing to put forth your opinion is the reason you should write. E.g.: "the universities have more and more graduate programs in media, journalism, and book development." I think this is terrible. Because the people who go to these graduate programs and spend a ton of money for jobs that pay very little are primarily white and privileged, leading to a more privileged media core.
I've worked in newspapers, magazines, and book publishing. I don't have a graduate degree. I have street cred that says I've worked with reporters on all levels and my expertise speaks to that more than enough to speak on this issue. Stop looking to see if other people have more credentials.
You don't have to get a graduate degree in something to be an expert in the area.
Timely argument: what's going on now that you can write about anchored in what's happening now? I could write a piece about how "these days poor reporting is happening." 3 days ago might be too late for the op-ed page.
You can manufacture the timely anchor in a way that's a little bit more creative. Back-to-school, September: This week people are going back to school. Pitch times to Valentine's Day: a piece about broken heart syndrome which is not just about being upset about breaking up with your boyfriend. Anniversaries of historical occasions.
A day or two after an event is the threshold, unless an event metastasizes (e.g. James Frey) you'll have more time. Or a local event can be stretched into a national story. Most of the issues you care about can be pinned to timeliness. You need to do the work of anchoring it to time: find the time hook.
Word count is key. There are no ads on op-ed pages. Really tight spot. In the 90s the count was 750, now it is 650. Regional newspapers are below 500. National newspapers were take a little more. Almost every, if not every media outlet has an online space. E.g. the NYT has a balooned online space and a smaller print space.
Attention span changes: 600 words should be a declarative statement on a piece of policy. 1,200 words or longer should give context.
Do not submit a piece that is longer than the maximum word count. If you really can't get it down to 600 words, maybe the NYT is not the forum for you. Really focus in on what the piece is.
Basic Op-Ed Structure
Lede: the news hook to get your attention. We forget that people don't know as much about our subject matter or care about it. Find a way to get people's attention.
News Hook: cultivate a creative, flexible mind about what is timely and important. If you have a good idea, it is probably going to be timely lots of times. Avoid the obvious: a piece on love on Valentine's Day. Anniversaries on 5th, 10th, not 37th. On the 50th anniversary you're competing with people who have waited 49 years to have their opinion heard.
Thesis: Explicit or implied
Argument: make 3 points.
"to be sure" paragraph: acknowledging what the opposite side of the argument thinks (don't actually lead with those words or people will know you're a rookie). This is a chance to be much stronger because it gives you a chance to frame the opponent's argument. The problem comes when you don't make it very clear where that thinking is faulty. Don't just be courteous: acknowledge and dismiss or acknowledge and dismiss, de-prioritize while you validate the opposition argument. The qualities of empathy and respect can be given free reign here.
Conclusion / kicker: tell people what you would have them do differently. If you want to make an effective case for the solution, give people something specific and do-able. Beats grandiose and vague every time.
The op-ed page shouldn't be used just to raise awareness. If there's no implication that something needs to be done, then it's really just me saying "I'm really upset about this." Practically speaking, if there's no solution explicit or implicit it's less likely to be run.
A lot of journalism spelled are purposely miss-spelled. Lede and graf and tk (to come) are purposely miss-spelled so that if you're searching an article, you know that these things are to come out before their printed. This gives you some insider cred.
How to Pitch
When you try to get fancy with the lede, it is distracting and annoying. You're really looking for short, quick. This is what I want to write about, this is what I believe, and get out.
E.g.: "Dear editor, I would like to offer you a piece how the expansion of media graudate programs is a detriment. I am a book editor with experience in newspapers and magazines. The piece is 600 words and is embedded below." If you go too far into your entire bio that's too much.
The pitch just gets attention. Here's a piece tied to this event, love for you to consider it, piece and bio below.
Can you pitch a piece multiple times? Never pitch a piece twice to the same editor and don't pitch concurrently to more than one editor. Recast the piece if you want to offer the same piece 6 months later.
What areas are good to start out in if you're new? It's not a simple question. It's not about climbing a ladder. Find your expertise, your area of passion. I need to know what your field is to suggest publications. E.g. what do you read a lot of? That's probably the thing that you know the most about and that you can offer an expert opinion on. Those are probably the places you should pitch to first.
National Writer's Union in Boston meets about writing on social justice issues, including op-ed pieces.
Pitch should basically be 3 sentences in first paragraph, 3 sentences in second paragraph and go onto piece and bio.
Everyone is hurting for content. The internet is such an opinion-driven environment. The ability to express an argument with evidence makes your writing extremely valuable. There's a hunger for that kind of grounded argument rather than just screech and wail. In old media, content is much more expensive, so there's a high demand everywhere.
The key is to do it well. So many of them are poorly done and immediately discarded. People who want to write book are so intimidated. The point is that all those thousands of people who want to be published are doing it wrong, so if you're doing it right, you're ahead of the game.
What is credibility? Accountability to knowledge. One of the things we've discovered in this project is that it's extraordinarily gendered who describe themselves as experts. The reasons that women have such a problem with the term, I should ask why. Women often think it's immodest, self-promoting, or someone else knows more than me. I see an abuse of those values: selflessness to the point of self abdication. We have an ethical responsible to share what we know.
What's an evidence-based value-driven argument? It's not enough to have an opinion, you must have evidence.
What's the difference between being right and effective? If you want to end a conversation, great choose to be right.
What's the bigger picture? In our sessions we do an exercise to think about the larger connections and metaphors of your issue.
What if you thought of yourself as a resource to other people? So many of us walk around thinking that the things we spend our lives on are not important.
It could just be a numbers game that women aren't being published. We speculate that we need 15,000 new women submitting every year to reach a tipping point. I know I could not possibly do this without the staff that's helping us and with all of you. What matters most is what you do when you walk out of this room.
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