Last month a professor at East Tennessee State University read a column I wrote on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and thought enough of it to invite me to speak to her journalism class. She asked me to speak on what I think makes a good op-ed.
Of my own writing, the column that caught the professor’s eye is one of my favorites. It probably won’t win any awards on its own, but it’s one that stewed in my mind so long, I was happy to finally get it out. That piece presented an opportunity to combine two of the things that got me into writing and journalism in the first place: scene-setting history and finding a perspective that most people probably don’t consider.
It started with a vivid image: the re-lighting of the marquee on a storied, small-town movie theater. But, tucked into the shadows — literally painted to gray so that it would become part of the marquee’s background — was a door that opened to all sorts of memories for people different than me, and different from most of my newspaper’s readers. The moment when the idea came to and the day the column published was several months. But I’m glad I waited to write it; I needed that time to write the piece in my head before I put words to paper.
If you want to read it — and I hope you do — here it is.
Here are some of the the guidelines I talked to the group at ETSU about regarding good op-eds:
- Go out and report. Opinions are cheap, especially in an age where we all have blogs and social media accounts (oh, the irony of writing this on a blog). Good opinion writing is informed, first, by good reporting. You need to tell your readers something they didn’t know before. That may come through statistics and data. It may come through first-person narratives (as my example did). But if you’re relying only on your own opinion to move the piece along, it probably won’t move for very long.
- Good writing is still good writing. Many forget that what makes good news reporting, or good writing in general, applies to opinion writing. Strong verbs and precise nouns. Active voice. Tight construction. Opinion writing isn’t an excuse to bloviate. As an editor, if I don’t think you know how to command the written word, I probably won’t be reading you for very long. If you sound like an academic (sorry, academics), your piece likely won’t connect to a hurried and distracted audience. Make the writing pop.
- Find your voice. Readers return to their favorite writers not just for factual insights or sharp arguments; the return because of their unique voices. We’re not just reading a byline. We’re reading your byline. We want to understand what you think, why you think it, and how you say it. My favorite columnist is the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan. She not only brings years of experience in Washington, D.C., to whatever she writes. She brings her personality, her wit, and her unique style. She has a way of saying things in a way no one else does. That’s voice.
- Start with a strong lede; end with a good kicker. Again, good opinion writing isn’t all that different from good news writing — or good writing in general. When one of my first editors, Ryan Harris, wanted me to rework a lede, he’d bring me my marked-up copy and say, “Make it punchy, Reno.” In other words, get the reader interested in the story in a hurry. Op-eds are the same. Each word needs to justify its own existence, or else the reader won’t continue to the next. The beginning paragraph — the lede — is when the reader decides if it’s worth his time to keep reading. Conversely, give thought to the line you want echoing in your readers’ minds at the end of your column. That’s what’ll stick. Make it punchy.