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Think “outcome” when crafting an op ed

In the middle of delivering an op ed writing workshop recently to a very engaged group of United Way staff and volunteers from across Ontario (organized through Sean Moore‘s fabulous Advocacy School initiative) I was reminded again of the value of a second pair of eyes.

It’s not that I don’t know this already: even though I’ve been writing op eds and columns for more than 20 years, I confess to the people I train that I never submit anything for publication without running it by another set of eyes first. (Fortunately for me, my significant other is a fine writer who is quite willing to flag bits that are confusing or use unnecessarily obscure language. And I frequently perform the same task for him.)

But in the workshop, my explanation of the critical starting point for writing an op ed — identifying the central argument or thesis — wasn’t sufficiently clear to some of the participants. Then Janice Manchee, United Way’s National Director of Labour Programs and Services, rephrased my instructions and encouraged her colleagues to:

Think about what you want people to believe after they’ve read your piece.

I recognize brilliant advice when I hear it. And in fact, when teaching basic communications strategy, I often stress the value of explicitly articulating the purpose of a letter, meeting or op ed — expressly in terms of the desired outcome — before starting to craft the message itself. This seems obvious once you say it, and good communicators often do this unconsciously.

But even for those who are naturally effective in both their written and spoken communication, it’s sometimes really useful to craft into words the precise outcome you want before you start. The act of writing it at the top of your page as a reminder can help you focus your argument and gauge which of the many threads you could include are likely to offer the most compelling support for the case you’re trying to make.

One of the most useful exercises we do in the workshop is to annotate previously published op eds. If the argument being made isn’t clear, participants sometimes have a difficult time identifying the commentary’s thesis. (Which suggests that it’s unlikely that the writer actually achieved her objective.)

Other pieces are aided by a headline that effectively sums up the argument in a few words, such as: “More voices needed on national food strategy” or “Vigilantism no fix for gender violence”.

But when writing a short form newspaper commentary, it’s best not to rely on an attentive and perceptive headline writer to grasp and summarize your point in a few words that conveniently fit into the available space. Because your argument is likely to be much more effective if you write the piece in such a way that everyone who reads it will be clear about what you think and why.