I don't really know when my love of the op/ed page started, but I know that by my senior year in high school, I was a student of the form. And a pretty good one. That year, an opinion piece I wrote for our high school paper, The Proconian, won an award from the press association. I was hooked.
Despite my advocacy for the form ever since, I still don't get why more people don't take advantage of it. It's free advertising for your ideas. And it's not just for print anymore. Radio and TV stations have audience "commentaries", too.
Because they're typically driven by passion, I also think they're just about the easiest things in the world to write. But in truth, that seems to make some people kind of afraid of them. They worry that they're so worked up about the topic that they won't be able to be calm, rational and influential.
OK. I'll give you that. But the fear doesn't have to keep you from sharing your ideas.
How to write an op-ed piece
Getting a good op/ed down is as easy as 1-2-3. We call it the Content-Purpose-Audience Strategy™:
- Distill your purpose: Take a second to really dig into your purpose -- the one or two things you want your readers to think or do after they finish your piece. Write this on a piece of paper and tape it to the wall by your computer if you have to. But nail it down and stay focused on it as you write. This will help you void extraneous details that dilute your message. A lot of times, this is where the start of your piece starts to form. Many op/eds start with a think and end with a do.
- Write to a person: Who are you writing to? Who's the person or persons who can most effect the change you want to see? Who cares the most? Who will come along? Or who needs to hear this message the most? It's best to pick one person/group as your target. Visualize them. As you write, remember that you're "talking" to them, and choose the words and ideas that will resonate with them the most -- while accurately conveying your purpose. It's also a good idea to think about the questions they might have about your topic. Write these down, too.
- Choose the right details: From a clear purpose, you can craft a main idea. This should be one sentence that conveys the most important thing you want readers to know.. Don't worry about making it the best sentence ever at first. Just make it clear and concise. Then choose three to five key details that really back-up this main idea. Think about the evidence, examples and explanations your readers will need to "get" what you're saying. Then look back at those questions your audience might have. If any need answering, include those details in your three to five. Jot down a few bullet points to see how the details feel in writing.
Think first, then write
With this pre-writing strategy, you get a lot of the thrashing and gnashing of teeth out of the way before you begin actually writing. It'll be much easier to draft quickly, leaving you tons of time to revise, to hone those details and pretty up those sentences so they really impact your reader.
The next time something's stuck in your craw, write an op/ed for your paper or local broadcast station. With these tips, you really have no reason not to!
We're presenting our A Matter of Opinion op/ed writing workshop at the Insurance & Financial Communicators Association annual conference in Montréal next month, and at the Equality NC annual conference in Greensboro in November. We can present it for your trade or advocacy group, too! We're now accepting bookings for 2011. Email me for details.