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Most Common Errors Made by Aspiring Op Ed Writers – part 1

by Shari Graydon

Whether you’re picked last for the ball team, get rebuffed on the first date, or fail to elicit a positive response from an editor, rejection stinks. That’s why Informed Opinions offers online editing feedback (free to our workshop participants, but available for a fee to others).  We’ve found that many aspiring op ed writers – even if they’re great communicators in other arenas — often misjudge the degree to which the exercise requires the use of a few writing muscles their day job doesn’t demand. Here are a few of the errors we help people to correct most often, linked where possible to previous posts that provide additional context.

  1. You’ve opened with information that is neither newsworthy nor interesting: Don’t devote your first sentence or paragraph to reiterating the details of an already published story, regardless of when it happened, or how central it is to your own argument. You need to demonstrate right off the top that you’re not rehashing old news, but providing a new angle or perspective that people haven’t read before. If you need to remind them of a few details, do so a couple of paragraphs in, as briefly as possible, in the context of giving them something unique and different. Otherwise, why will they bother reading your piece?
  1. You’ve buried the most compelling lede somewhere in the commentary: This is often the companion error to number 1. Although four paragraphs into the op ed you may offer an astonishing and relevant anecdote that makes clear how people are affected and/or why readers should care, many in your audience will never get that far without sufficient motivation to keep reading past the very first paragraph. So look for a way to start with the anecdote, or conundrum, or provocative analogy.
  1. Your thesis isn’t clear: The point of writing an op ed is to provide insight and analysis not previously available; to provoke readers and possibly change the way people think about an issue or a story. To achieve that, you’re going to want them to have a clear idea, by the end of your piece, what it is that you believe or are advocating. If they get to the last paragraph and don’t know, you’ve wasted your time and theirs.
  1. You’ve used inaccessible, insider language: Your degree, research, publications or years in the field make you an expert, and that authority will be referenced in the slug that describes your credentials or affiliation. But most readers of the newspaper or website on which your analysis appears don’t share your particular expertise, and using language they have to work to understand is likely to irritate or bore, not impress. If your neighbour or an intelligent 9th-grader isn’t going to be able to follow your argument, you’ve probably used too much jargon. Take it out.
  1. Your word choice and phrasing are repetitive: When you use the same word or expression repeatedly in a commentary, readers who are scanning the piece will start to feel like they’ve just read the same sentence over and over again. Consult a thesaurus in search of substitution words or phrases, or restructure a few sentences so one builds more directly from the previous one, avoiding the need for repetition.
It’s sometimes possible to convince an editor to publish your piece even if you’ve made one or more of these mistakes. But the editor — although critically important as your first reader — is only the gatekeeper. And you want to engage or persuade the potentially hundreds of thousands of other readers once the gate has been opened.