Three questions to ask yourself before writing opinion

May 24, 2021

At the beginning of the pandemic, in March of last year, I received any number of calls from people who wanted my help in writing commentaries for publication.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. We were at the beginning of a global cataclysmic event, one that was about to condemn us to watching Netflix from our couches for months on end, not to mention shutting down large portions of our economy.

When big stuff occurs, people form opinions. Many want to see them published in a top newspaper or website, and they call experienced opinion writers like me for help.

I’m not into ghost-writing. I can make suggestions and edit copy to make writing more effective, but at the end of the day, their words, not mine, had to impress opinion editors enough to get published as an op-ed, so-named because it is opposite the editorial page. And, with some help, everyone got published.

I give anyone who wants my help writing opinion the same speech at the beginning of our work together. I start out by asking three blunt, obnoxious questions. I do this not merely because I am a blunt, obnoxious person, but because exhausted editors with far too much to do will ask the same things, if only by muttering to themselves and between curses as they read your pearls of insight:

Why you?
Why now?
Who cares?

Let’s go through these questions, one by one.

Why you? It gives you credibility in the eyes of an editor if you are an expert, but you don’t have to have a degree from Oxford or have published a shelf of books to prove it. Rather, you have to have done enough research to be able to speak with authority on the subject of your op-ed. That means digging; reading other articles, picking up the phone, and doing some interviews. Without research, you are just like any other bar patron spouting off while guzzling your third Bud Lite of the afternoon. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it won’t get you ink.

Why now? To most people, this means you have to have a news “peg” based on what is happening. And indeed, the folks who called me last year all used the pandemic as the springboard for their commentary. But you don’t need this morning’s headlines. You can have an idea, an “angle” on your opinion that is so different, so creative, that it alone would spark interest. In this way, you can “manufacture” a news peg.

Here’s an example. Suppose you want to write about global warming, but you are also fascinated by history. You could write about Eunice Newton Foote, whose experiments with gas led her to theorize, in an 1856 Scientific American article, that increasing amounts of carbon dioxide would change our climate . Foote was born in 1819, and around the 200th anniversary of her birth, the webpage of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration used her birthday to write about climate change, and this fascinating woman.

Other angles are also easy to brainstorm. Using her example, and the fact that her paper was ignored, you could also write about the need for diversity and how the disregard of women’s knowledge and opinions gave Foote’s work less credence when we could have used some advance warning.

The point is, given enough creativity, a news peg isn’t really necessary for an effective opinion piece. Above all else, you have to be interesting – no matter what. Boredom is the kiss of death.

Who cares? The answer must be a combination of the answers to the two questions above. Your research, and all the brainstorming you did to find an interesting angle on your topic, will be so compelling that you will make those obnoxious editors (like me) sit up and actually care about your opinion.

You will get ink. You will gain fame, Twitter followers, and Russian bots will begin to friend you on Facebook. Go for it! And just think: If you don’t completely piss off your in-laws by your op-ed, you might even impress them for a change.

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