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Instruction of The Op-Ed

The Op-Ed.   Op-ed essays are short arguments designed specifically to accommodate the needs of newspapers, particularly the needs of “hard-copy” newspapers.  Typically, the op-ed column appears in the editorial section of the paper, directly across from the paper’s editorials (those short essays in which the “official view” of the paper is announced).  In fact, the op-ed gets its name from its usual placement in relation to those editorials: opposite-the-editorial.

Op-ed essays have the potential for wide circulation; not only do major newspapers have millions of readers of their own, some also have a syndication service that other papers subscribe to.  Hence, it is the form that promises intellectuals the greatest opportunity to reach the widest and most diversified sampling of the public with the sharpest presentation of their ideas.  However, because it was developed to accommodate both the marketing needs and economic constraints of print media (pre-cyberspace), it is also an excruciatingly restrictive form of the essay: the op-ed is the haiku of intellectual combat.  In the real world, truth claims may never be supported and arguments may never be developed unless such material is an organic or inescapable feature of the essay itself.  (In the slightly unreal world of the classroom, however, we will keep ourselves intellectually honest by continuing to document our sources.)   Moreover, it may not evince a high degree of argumentative complexity.  That is, it must restrict itself to one line of argument.  (By way of illustration, Bob Berger—former Op-Ed editor for the Los Angeles Times—once critiqued a piece of mine, saying that it read too much like “broccoli” when it needed to read like “asparagus.”)   Nevertheless, even without the chance to contextualize or explain, this form must still evince a high degree of textual autonomy—it must be able to stand alone, to be read and understood by reasonably informed readers without the benefit of background exposition.  Stylistically, although the op-ed form may lend itself to a wide range of voices, in actuality, unless the writer has an established reputation, those choices may be constrained by a publication’s house style.

For this assignment you will write two op-ed essays, and post them on separate dates.   Please consult the syllabus for the exact due date of each.

In your “Major Statement” written for the second assignment, you developed a position paper that reflected a broad set of concerns that showcased the scope of your expertise. Though you will certainly not have “said it all” in the paper, it is likely that you will have organized several ideas into a complex, sophisticated and coherent argument.  It is also likely that you will have written at a level of abstraction and depth generally characterized as academic discourse.

In this assignment you will need to shift rhetorical gears to present some aspect of the work in your major statement to a mainstream (albeit sufficiently educated) audience. In this essay you will write an op-ed that may emerge out of some aspect of your major statement—though you are certainly not limited to the issues of your major statement alone.  If you do decide to work from your major statement, doing so does not mean that you should simply restate its thesis in op-ed form.  Rather, it means that you will pick up on one important element suggested or developed in your major statement and fashion it into an op-ed.  To some extent this will require you to recast one of your concerns into a discussion that will appeal to the immediate interests of the general public (in other words, you will need to find a good current events “hook”).  You will also need to develop rhetorical strategies that help you connect immediately to the reader—and to the audience gatekeeper: the harried, overworked, impatient person who must maintain the intellectual standards of the journal while publishing works that help to sell it: the editor.

Tips on Writing the Op-Ed

On Content:
1.    Be timely.  Write about an issue in the news, or link your subject to a current event.
2.    Avoid tired, often discussed issues unless you can freshen them up with your own novel twist.
3.    Foreground your special expertise or pivot on a personal experience.
4.    Offer specific solutions, if applicable.
5.    Don’t respond to previous op-eds.
6.    Raise the stakes.

On Form:
7.    Focus on one idea.
8.    Avoid subtlety.
9.    Hook the reader in your lede.
10.    Announce your thesis quickly, in the first sentence if possible—but no later than the second or     third short paragraph.
11.    Use sharp, powerful, provocative language; don’t use the passive voice.
12.    Use quickly drawn anecdotes (sparingly).
13.    Write short paragraphs.
14.    Write a punchy conclusion.
15.    Limit yourself to around 750 words (600-900).

It all begins with the “lede,” the first paragraph or two in which you hook the reader, link to current event or hotly debated issue, and announce your thesis:  Here are a few ledes from recently published op-ed essays.

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