The Lowy Institute has launched its first-ever undergraduate op-ed competition (the deadline is 24 May, so plenty of time to enter; you could win a $500 Westfield voucher), so I thought this would be a good time to reflect on what I think makes a good opinion piece, having written several dozen, edited several hundred and read several thousand.
Note, this is nothing so formal as a set of rules or guidelines for the competition (though I am one of the judges). And note also that these are my tips for op-ed writing, not blog writing, which is a subtly different discipline (op-eds tend to have a more authoritative and declaratory voice, while blogging is more contingent and conversational). Here goes:
1. Think about your audience.
2. Now think about them again. Odds are, when you thought about them the first time, you thought about your peers. And the truth is, most of us do write for our peers. But if you want to move public opinion, resist this urge. Why? Because focusing on your peers nudges you to write in an insiderish way which excludes the bulk of your readers. You'll be tempted to pander, and to insert endless qualifiers in order to head off potential disputes on obscure topics only a tiny group of experts care about. (Of course, you should always try to be accurate. But don't be pedantic.)
3. Grab the reader's attention early. There's an old joke about the structure of university essays that's sorta true: a student essay goes 'intro, body, conclusion' or 'say what you're gonna say, say it, then say what you've said'. Forget that structure when writing an op-ed. Don't set the scene, don't define terms; that stuff can come later. Just grab your reader by the lapels and shake. I've read countless op-eds which could have been improved simply by moving the concluding paragraph to the top.
4. Get personal. The alternative style of opening an op-ed is to grab the reader with an anecdote which serves as a platform or metaphor for your larger theme. This can be a very powerful tool, as readers tend to respond on a more emotional level to stories about actual people (notice that TV news reports about medical breakthroughs invariably begin by introducing one specific sufferer). The convention in op-ed writing is to return to the opening anecdote in the closing paragraph, as a way of rounding off your piece. It's a cliché, but can work if executed well.
5. Should you make predictions? This is a tough one. On the one hand, chances are, your prediction about any given political event will be wrong, which could make you look foolish. Then again, pundits who make sensational (but inaccurate) predictions are often rewarded with more media attention, so it could be good for your punditry career. Whatever you decide, don't take a middle path. Tentative, mealy-mouthed, qualifier-riddled predictions make for dull copy.
6. Should you offer solutions? Another toughie. Many op-eds identify a policy problem, but don't say anything about how to fix it (in fact, you could argue that op-eds have no real-world value whatsoever).
If you do want to suggest a solution to a policy problem, make sure it's practical. A dead giveaway for impractical solutions is when a writer appeals to 'political will' or 'leadership' to solve a given problem. 'Political will' is like policy fairy dust, to be sprinkled over any problem, no matter how bafflingly complex, controversial and intractable. So if your op-ed argues for urgent breakthroughs in climate change, energy security and non-proliferation, don't go on to say that 'in all these areas political will and global leadership are vital', because then we'll know you don't really have any idea how to fix these things. (BTW, that's an actual quote from a Kevin Rudd essay.)
7. If you don't know the solution to a given problem, why not try saying so?
Sometimes the most honest and helpful thing a writer can do is to acknowledge that some problems are insoluble, that life is hard and there aren’t going to be any answers, that he’s just as screwed-up and clueless as the rest of us.
8. Find a 'hook'. The obvious way to do this is to write about some current news event, which allows you to ride off the publicity which that topic is receiving. But the news media is not always right about what's important, so if you want to write about something that's not getting any media attention, you need to tell busy readers quickly and compellingly why they should care.
9. Look for a conceptual scoop. You're not a journalist, so the chances that you are going to uncover a scandal which has been hidden from the public are low. And even if you did, the story would belong on the news pages, not the opinion section.
But not all scoops are about publicising secrets. Where you as an analyst excel is in lending new meaning to facts that are in plain view. For instance, Lowy Military Fellow James Brown had a scoop in January with his discovery of a maths error in the National Security Statement. And last week in the US, New York magazine published a contrarian take on the Obama Administration's environmental record which upended the conventional wisdom. In both cases, the scoop consisted in creating new meaning from existing information rather than unearthing new facts.
10. Don't demolish straw men: look for the strongest arguments against your case, and present them fairly.
Photo by Flickr user Drew Coffman.