By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Sometimes people ask me for tips or advice on what make opeds stand out. Here’s some advice:
DON’T invent imaginary speeches people should give. “The speech John Kerry should have given.” But John Kerry already gave a speech, and that wasn’t it. Why would you invent a speech for someone else who obviously isn’t going to give that speech. “This is what Rouhani should say.” But that’s not what he is going to say, and he’s not going to read your oped anyway. Do you honestly think that the speechwriters for the Iranian President or US Secretary of State sit up at night trolling opeds and thinking “maybe tonight is the night we’ll find a good one, because for the life of us we can’t think what to write.” No. If you want to imagine whatever moronic speech you think someone should give then that’s fine, then you should write an analysis of why the actual speech that was given was such a failure, precisely because it didn’t fit with the kind of speech you’d like so-and-so to give.
DO bring expertise. Why do people write on topics they know nothing about? It’s unfortunate large numbers of people are not experts, but it’s better to write about something you know, or something you researched or experienced, than to try to tackle something that others have tackled far better than you. Unless you have a truly original insight, bring the expertise, not the banality.
DON’T regurgitate the opeds you just read. You may think you are being original, but if you’ve just watched MSNBC or CNN or FoxNews, and you want to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard, you’re probably just going to react to what you saw. That’s probably not going to be too original. Be careful not to just write what everyone else just wrote. How many opeds claimed that the US election was similar to the 1930s. Well, in the 1930s there were man who were willing to be partisans to oppose fascism, as they did in Spain. So are going to pick up a rifle to fight fascism? Oh, you mean you just wanted to shout “1930s are here” but not actually do anything about it? Oh, you mean, actually, you know it’s just a literary flourish, you know it’s not the 1930s and you’re lying to the readers.
DO factcheck. It’s your job to check sources independently, not just repeat them. Often fake news grows because people keep repeating “facts” that are not factual. Don’t spread lies and misinformation. Don’t encourage ignorance, stereotypes and racism.
DO use “I” sparingly. The existence of just one “I” in an oped is jarring, like planting a giant wall between one part of the sentence and another. It takes away from the general flow. Who are you? Why do you have to remind us that you wrote this? Some opeds consist of “I” in almost every sentence. “I can’t remember the last time I listened to a great Opera. Last night in New york I was struck by how happy I was listening to it. It spoke to me and I said to myself.” Are you kidding me?! Shut up about yourself. Why do we, the readers, have to be penalized by listening to you drone on about yourself and your pretentious life? Maybe you’re right, maybe it’s nice to listen to a good opera. The nonsensical “it spoke to me and I said to myself” as an intro to a sentence can all be deleted, because whatever you “said to yourself” and you seek to convey to the reader, can be conveyed directly to the reader without reminding the reader you said to yourself.
DO go beyond the traditional narratives. The general trend in politics is to present the public with too simplistic narratives that are based on straw men, manipulation and lies. The debate over the Iran deal is a good example. On one side the public was told that those who oppose the deal were war mongers. They were even called traitors. On the other side supporters of the deal were said to be giving Iran the bomb and betraying America’s allies. Iran, supposedly, was very close to building a nuclear weapon. But a more nuanced approach might be to ask whether Iran was close to building a bomb and whether those who oppose the deal support war or simply oppose Iran’s aggressive role in the region. What if the bomb was just a distraction from Iran’s more quiet policy that has longer term consequences. During the healthcare debate in the US a similar binary narrative was presented. Either you support health care for the poor or you support a free market. What was never discussed was why health care was so expensive in the first place, because that question would lead to discussing why prices at hospitals and for basic drugs were so exorbitant. Since no one asked these questions, the “fix” for health care has never address costs, it has merely addressed where and how to pass those costs on and how to subsidize insurance for the poor. Subsidizing something doesn’t change it’s cost. You can subsidize housing costs, that doesn’t change their overall value, just like subsidizing skyrocketing tuition fees doesn’t change them either.
DON’T mislead us with your exaggerations. “The author is obviously educated enough to know he is being deceptive,” a sub-editor said recently while going over a piece. Authors make a lot of propagandistic assumptions hoping no one will notice. “Accused of extrajudicial killings.” Who is accusing them of doing that? “Extrajudicial” is a fancy way of saying “state-sponsored,” it’s a nice way of saying “state policy to sanction murder.” How often do we have to hear that something is violates “free speech,” when in fact it does not. Do you hear the Chicago Review of Books was violating the free speech of the alt-right by refusing to review a book by one of their leaders? But it’s not a violation of free speech to say a person won’t review something. And for that matter what is the “alt-right” and when someone is “leading” who exactly are they leading? Often in opeds we see people’s importance inflated in order to paint who groups as evil, we see misleading assertions of proximity in order to tar people with their associations, such as “Clinton’s Muslim Brotherhood advisor,” except she had no advisor with any real connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. When a reader realizes they are being misled they will be offended by the attempt to assume they are too stupid to notice. “Hate crimes are skyrocketing.” Can we see some evidence of that? “A neighborhood faces expulsion,” someone wrote to me recently. Which neighborhood? Oh, you mean several homes. But it’s boring to say “three families face eviction,” it’s more interesting to claim they are being expelled and a whole neighborhood “uprooted.”
DON’T name drop some philosophers unless there is some point. Faux-intellectuals like to show off their minimum of familiarity with civilization by throwing in references to philosophy or historical figures who sometimes have no relevance.
DO provide facts and quotes. It’s nice to see a writer has done some research for their topic. “Palestinians support terrorism” and “Brexit voters are racist” a nice sentences but they provide no information based on facts. What percent of Brexit voters express racist views? What percent of Palestinians support terrorism. “Trump supporters are homophobic.” Are they? What percent of them express homophobic statements? Oh, wait, you mean there’s actually no statistics about that? Is there a Trump quote that you can provide that is homophobic? Or you just thought that claiming that, no one would check, because you want it to be true. “Women are stoned in Iran.” Are they actually stoned? How many have been stoned in the last year? None. So, actually, they aren’t stoned in Iran. “Scandinavian countries are overrun by anti-semitism.” Overrun? Are people being routinely murdered? How many actual incidents were there. “I abhor ISIS terror as much as abortion clinic bombers.” That’s great but whilst statistics on ISIS attacks may be easy to find, can you provide any information on abortion clinics being bombed. I know you abhor them both, but isn’t one example just a straw man, since it almost never happens?
DON’T bring religion into it. I don’t want to read cherry-picked nonsense from the Bible, the Quran, the Tao Te Ching or whatever else. It’s very nice that someone said “there shall be no compulsion in religion” or that someone said “treat the stranger kindly,” but actually all these texts have 100 statements of intolerance for every nice quote you’ve found online. And personally I’d prefer not to have a soft-sell conversion while trying to read something that’s interesting. I don’t want to hear about religion because it means if I disagree with your view then I’m against your religion, at least in the fake, misleading way, you’ve presented it. How often when discussing smoking laws in America do we have to have a quote from Jesus? Not very often. When discussing homelessness do we seriously need a biblical lesson? If the only reason you’re advocating giving to the poor is because your religion told you to then why don’t you go write that up for some sermon or publish it in a religious newspaper. In short, keep your religion out of my secular space. Often it is just a cover to push a false agenda.
DON’T compare everything to the Nazis and ISIS. In 2013 before ISIS what did everyone compare things to? It’s like ISIS. But in 2013 you couldn’t say that, so what unoriginal, stupid, banal comparison did you make. It makes one wonder what people did in 1929 before they could compare everything to the Nazis. These days it’s always a lame comparison. Everyone is a “fascist” and every time a country doesn’t open its doors to immigration that country is re-enacting the Nazi period. If you can’t explain why something is bad without claiming that something is like the Nazis-ISIS, then you haven’t explained why it is bad.
STOP abusing the people you meet on the street for opeds. There’s nothing more annoying than opeds that purport to reveal how some taxi driver gave you some sort of prophetic insight. There’s a kind of noble savage, orientalist motif built into these stories that can’t be fact checked, but involve the narrator supposedly meeting a “man on the street” and being told “the truth” about something. Except in rare instances, this is basically an abuse of a private conversation, it’s also possible that most of these “stories” are actually based on an author’s imagination, but editors don’t bother to wonder about that. An author has a pithy folksy insight into something, and instead of simply explaining it, wants to give it authenticity by laundering it through “my drycleaner told me.”
DON’T exaggerate coexistence simply because you saw two different people at the same place. The fact that a woman in a hijab works as a cashier next to another woman who doesn’t wear a hijab is not a phenomenal story of Muslim “integration” and coexistence and “women’s empowerment.” First of all, stop passing off as “empowerment” people having a low level job. If she was a professor, that’s empowerment. Working as a cashier is a normal entry-level job. The fact that two people work in the same place doesn’t say anything about what they think. Blacks and whites often worked alongside eachother in walks of life in the Old South, that didn’t mean they all coexisted.
DON’T tell us about your racist relatives. Sometimes people embellish opeds by claiming that their racist relatives didn’t like X or Y. Their relatives didn’t vote for Obama, or like Trump, or their relatives are “fearful” of Muslims. Maybe their relatives are or aren’t. Often their relatives are just a foil. Maybe the relatives weren’t racist at all. My relatives weren’t racist, in the opposite they taught me not to be a racist. My relatives supported the freedom riders and fought to end segregation. So it could be that your relatives were racists, but it could also be that they weren’t. Half the time it seems authors simply invent stories about their relatives because they need to create a personalized foil for a story.
DO provide a concise and clear argument throughout. Some opeds wander off-topic or start off on one issue and end somewhere else for no apparent reason. A good piece should begin with a clear point. “Time to sort out the South China Sea” should begin by laying out the problem. It should then provide examples, evidence, facts, quotes, history, comparisons, assessment of importance. It should conclude where it began, summing up the evidence and hammering home the point. If, along the way, you want to add some story about how you sat next to a Chinese man on an airplane, don’t. If you want to mention that your dad fought the Japanese over some barren atoll in the Pacific and in those days he said all the fishing there was done by Vietnamese, that might be of slight interest.
DO keep quotes short. Quotes that drag on for more than a sentence are obnoxious. If they are too long it leads the reader to wonder why they are not simply reading the whole piece the quotes are from, if you need so many to back up your view. That’s why an essential quote should be used, but kept short. So-and-so said X and so-and-so noted Y, is fine. Not a whole paragraph.
DO provide history and context. Ahistorical opeds are intolerable. I waded through an oped about a Palestinian prisoner once and it never explained what he did to end up in prison. From the piece you’d think he just sort of parachuted into prison. We need history. We need facts. How many Syrian refugees has America taken in. Are you complaining that America doesn’t take in enough “Christian Syrians”? How many Christian Syrian refugees are there. What is the history of migration policies? When we have to hear the endless stories about “asylum seekers” we need to know more. I read a piece about an asylum seeker from Bangladesh in Italy who claimed to be illiterate and poor. How did an illiterate and poor man get all the way to Italy. No idea. Why are people jumping on truck to get to the UK? Because they need asylum from French baguette? No, because they are English speakers who don’t want to remain in France because the benefits are worse and/or they have family in the UK. There’s a myriad of reasons, but at least give the reader something.
DON’T over-edit and over-think things. Some writers go back and re-write again and again and again, until the mangled, distorted, abused, text is left a lumped, unhappy, mass of words that read like a mechanical failure. Don’t do it. Trust yourself. Check your facts. Get inspired. Keep your “I” to a minimum. Find an exciting subject.