Ten Rules of Thumb for Op-Ed Writing

by David V. Johnson

As a former philosophy professor turned journalist, I have firsthand experience of both academia and the news industry, and the unwritten rules that govern both worlds. There’s so much I know now that I wished I had understood more than a decade ago, when I was an assistant professor and part-time blogger with hopes of writing for the public.

The APA Committee on Public Philosophy asked me to present what I knew about op-ed writing to the Central APA in Chicago last March. My talk was based on the following ten rules of thumb, which I offer in the hope that they will be useful.

1. Opinion pieces are arguments.

Is this obvious? Perhaps to you, dear philosopher, but not to journalists. Many in the industry instead view op-eds as wholly subjective commentary. “An opinion may be wrongheaded, but it is never wrong,” longtime New York Times columnist William Safire once said in response to a demand for a correction. (See this for why he was wrong.)

No, we live in a world in which right is in the eye of the beholder and validity has no currency. The result is our absurd presidential campaign. Journalism — nay, the country! — needs you to help establish superior standards for opinion writing and popular debate. Until philosophers write op-eds or op-ed columnists learn philosophy, our opinion pages will never have rest from their evils.

2. Avoid the slush pile: Get to know editors.

When you approach a publication about writing for it, target a specific editor whose name you know. Avoid emailing the general query address, because your message will end up in the slush pile, the heap of unsolicited pitches that may or may not be reviewed — and if reviewed, likely by an intern instead of an editor.

How can you get to know an editor? See whether you can find someone you know who has written for the publication you’re targeting and ask for an introduction or contact information. Or seek out the name and email address of the appropriate editor.

3. Pitch well and pitch often.

To save the hassle of writing a whole piece that may not be published, writers typically pitch or query publications first. A pitch offers an editor the chance to commit to a piece before you write the whole thing. It is typically 1-3 short paragraphs on what you want to argue (typically the first 1-3 paragraphs to the piece you want to write, so long as one of them offers the ‘nut graph’ – i.e. the paragraph that summarizes your argument), plus one more on why you’re the person to write it. (Feel free to link to examples of your published writing). Once you’ve established a working relationship with an editor, you can pitch them with much briefer messages.

Every time you address an editor in prose, your writing is being evaluated for quality and style. Always try to present your best writing and always reread your email before sending. Never write a boring or sloppy email to an editor. You want to grab the editor by the lapel from the very first sentence.

Finally, don’t take rejections personally. There are all sorts of factors beyond your control that go into editorial decisions. If you’re committed to writing the piece, go back to rule (2) and find an editor at another publication. And keep pitching editors who reject you: confidence, determination, and hunger are rewarded.

4. Timing is everything.

When editors are considering what to commission, they typically have two questions in mind: Why us? Why now? In other words, why is this piece appropriate for our publication and why should we be running this today (or this week, or this month)?

I cannot stress enough the importance of the second question. In journalism, timing is everything. One of the worst tendencies of philosophers is perfectionism at the expense of the good. “If I just took one more day, my argument would be perfect.” Twenty-four hours may be the difference between your piece being published and not. (n.b. Your editor is a barometer of the public’s interest.) Keep in mind that your piece will be edited and you will have at least one more chance to improve the piece before publication. Pitch timely, write timely.

5. Don’t ‘back in’ to your argument.

Always make sure that the main point of your argument is high in the piece. Don’t assume the reader will be willing to read to the end to discover it. That is the op-ed equivalent of burying the lede — the journalistic sin of sinking the major news deep in an article.

As a philosopher, I picked up the bad habit of writing as a meandering inquiry, in which the reader is walked through the thought process the writer used to understand the argument. In my experience, the act of writing itself was the process by which I came to understand. But who would claim that the way someone comes to understand an argument is the best way to present it to others? A lazy writer, perhaps.

6. Trust your editor.

Philosophers are typically not used to being edited closely — i.e. being line-edited for style, having sentences cut, or even being rewritten. Some may take umbrage, spoiling the budding relationship with the editor and publication. As you come to work with editors, keep in mind that they are the middlemen between you and the readership. Editors have to make sure that your piece is both understandable and interesting to the average reader, and that it conforms with the style of the publication. If you don’t want to cooperate, the editor has the right to refuse publication after initially committing.

At the same time, the editor has no right to put words in your mouth that you don’t agree with or that you wouldn’t say. The editor-writer relationship is collaborative: you are working together to publish the best piece for that target audience. If you disagree with an edit, say so and state your case politely. If you don’t understand an edit, ask for the reason. Editors have reasons for making changes, but sometimes they fall into a gray area of subjective preference. Often you will find that you and the editor had different concerns and once those concerns are on the table, you can come to a suitable compromise that satisfies both of you.

You will also probably find that even if you disagree with your editor on this or that change, your piece is much better off being edited than not.

7. Writing for public ≠ writing for academia.

When philosophers take up the pen, they are typically writing for other philosophers, who share a language and background assumptions. As a matter of habit, philosophers can have difficulty putting aside jargon or arguing for things without offering proper context. Never make assumptions about what your audience knows. Aim for writing in a way that your non-philosophical friends and family would understand.

8. Find your voice.

Consider the best prose stylists in philosophy. One thing they have in common is a unique voice. Their essays never read as cold, clinical, or canned. Rather, they read as if the author is standing in the room with you, making his or her points, and it could be no one else but that person saying it that way.

The same holds for public writing. The best writers cultivate a unique voice that makes their arguments come alive. It will take time to find your voice, but always be striving to realize it.

9. Fact-check yourself.

Philosophers don’t have a reputation for caring deeply about real-world facts; they tend to resolve factual disagreements by stipulation, so they can move on to what interests them — the logic of the argument. But if the goal is sound argument, and if sound arguments have true premises, then philosophers should care about real-world truth, even if that isn’t their specialty.

This is especially true for journalistic writing. Philosophers may care more about non sequiturs, but nothing undermines a writer’s credibility more than factual errors. When writing for the public, you should care just as much about facticity as validity.

The best publications (e.g. The New Yorker) have fact-checkers on staff to review your writing, and the best editors will be very careful about your facts and sourcing. If you get these perks, consider yourself lucky. In this age of shrinking budgets and editorial staffs, the onus often falls on the writer. (After all, it is your byline.) Be sure to go through your piece once before publication, double-check all factual claims, review sourcing, and make sure all links work and all proper names, dates, and numbers are correct.

10. Keep to word limit.

Editors typically tell writers how many words they are allotted to write a piece. (If the editor doesn’t say at the outset, ask.) Try to stick to that as a ceiling, or at the very least, keep within reason. If you turn in a draft way over the word limit, you are basically passing the work back to the editor, who is likely swamped with drafts from other writers who have probably kept to their word limits. If you can’t help the editor out on this, why should he or she want to work with you again? If you want to build happy working relationships with editors, be nice to them.

David V. Johnson was, until recently, the senior opinion editor at Al Jazeera America. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University and taught at University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), Stanford, and University of Michigan.

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One thought on “Ten Rules of Thumb for Op-Ed Writing

  1. Thank you, David! This is a wonderful set of rules, and will be helpful to anyone who wants to write for the public. Thanks also for coming to the APA to meet with us!

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