Writing workshop with Seth J. Frantzman

Notes based on a writing workshop with Dr. Seth J. Frantzman, Oped editor of The Jerusalem Post (seth@jpost.com , Twitter: @Sfrantzman)

How to write a good oped?

Basics: Length: (700-1100 words).

            Headline: Provide an interesting and short headline

            Byline: Author name

            Tagline: The author is… Twitter handle? Email? Website?

            Contact information: For the editor, not for the public

(please forgive typos in the text below, like an oped, it has not been copy-edited)


How to make an oped stand out

Bring expertise: Why do people write opeds on a subject they know nothing about, rather than concentrate on something they are an expert in. For instance why do they write on “the Iranian threat” when they work at a bank and may have expertise on the how rising interest rates will affect the housing market? Many people do not realize that they actually have expertise in something or a unique insight into a subject that is not being covered. In everyday life we encounter issues that should be addressed, such as failing infrastructure, over-crowded daycare, or overpriced products

 You can become a limited expert on something through a minor amount of research. For instance comparing crime rates between Israel, the US and Sweden. Information tends to be readily available online. Public bicycle rentals? There is ample information online about programs in other countries that might be of interest to someone writing about whether Israel should expand the program that was attempted in Tel Aviv.

 Killer facts and killer quotes: Many great opeds can be structured around a few basic points of information.  For instance is it more interesting to read that one in ten Iraqis have become internally displaced people, or that 3 million of them have? Which fact is more shocking? Are people really more likely to die in their bathtub than from a terrorist attack?

Quotes are also interesting and important. A great quote by someone can bring the reader into the article and make it personal.  For instance one can write about the “brutal” regime of Bashar al-Assad, but isn’t it more interesting to include a quote from a victim of Assad’s prisons who recalls being tortured? Don’t say Mandela inspires, us, go find a quote from his Rivonia trial that speaks to the reader. His speech can be found here: http://www.news24.com/NelsonMandela/Speeches/FULL-TEXT-Mandelas-Rivonia-Trial-Speech-20110124

Fact-check:  Often opeds will including information that isn’t entirely factual. For instance “Israelis support Trump.” Do they? What percent of them do? Is there a study?  Perhaps an oped on why to be a vegan will claim “red meat is bad for you.”  How bad is it? Am I two times more likely to die by the age of 50 if I eat one steak a week?  Be careful with some “facts.”  I once read that people eat 500 times more chicken today than 1,000 years ago. That “fact,” if you think about it, is impossible. An individual person cannot possibly eat that much chicken. Overall the population has increased, and so have the number of chickens, so perhaps it is logical when explained in a way that makes sense.

Don’t make the opeds about yourself, try to avoid “I” (*there are exceptions).  Personal experiences and anecdotes can be great for an oped. If you’re writing about Hezbollah and you fought in Lebanon, it might be great to bring in some of your own experience. But it can also become self-centered and lose the reader in a forest of “I did this and I did that.”  Be careful and try to edit out the “I” and make the oped about “us”, so that the reader and you are together, not apart. Here’s an example in a very good publication, of what seems to be too much I.

In 2014, when I moved with my family from Jerusalem to a pleasant Midwestern town, I promised myself that, come what may, I wouldn’t get emotionally involved with America. I’d grown increasingly fearful for the safety of my family in Israel. I escaped to America in order to find tranquillity in a flat land, surrounded by walls of corn, soy, and bitter cold, and I made a covenant that I would ignore American politics. For almost three years, I did. Driving the children to school, I preferred to listen to the chauvinistic jokes of the “Bob & Tom Show,” rather than to the morning news. I didn’t want to know anything about the country in which we were only guests. I didn’t read newspapers

Escape the traditional, banal, cliché, narrative: Media operates in waves, such that we will have numerous stories about Iran or Trump and then no stories about it.  It is important to be ahead of the curve, while still taking part in the conversation. The concept of a great oped should be to make the reader think in a new way, to challenge the reader and convince them, and to move the argument forward. The most important opeds are those that make us question the things we take for granted. For instance, why is army pay so low in the IDF, and why are subsidies for rent so low? 

Provide a clear argument: A good oped should begin with a thesis and stick with it throughout.  Shoe-laces are archaic. Here are three examples of why they should be abolished (check out Salomon’s Quicklace innovation), and here is a conclusion that re-states the thesis. That’s how an oped should be structured.  Introduction, examples, conclusion.  Throughout it, there can be a personal anecdotes and some facts and quotes.  Each paragraph should build toward a conclusion.

Keep quotes short: Quotes are great, but not when they are three sentences long and the reader forgets who is speaking.

Provide solutions: It’s easy to claim that “anti-semitism is rising in Europe,” but so what? What should be done?  Give us a solution, not just a problem. Do you think that society is becoming less democratic.  Ok. So how do you propose to fix that? What can the public do differently. Housing prices are too expensive?  Yes. So how can we lower them. Don’t engage provide long and unhelpful opeds that lack conclusions.

History and comparisons: A bit of context, some history and comparisons are always good. You want to cut down on alcoholism among the youth?  Perhaps France has already figures out a way to do it.  Provide a comparison of why something is worse or better. Why should the public have access to the beach? Because it works well in Barbados maybe.

Don’t over-edit: The more people write, the more they tend to write. Once you become comfortable in writing your ideas down, you’ll find it flows better.  The worst mistakes people make is over-editing. Pieces generally flow well when you write them in one sitting, not one paragraph a day. It’s essential to edit and cut the “fat” off of an article and trim and check facts, but endless re-arranging of an article will turn it into a kind of Frankenstein monster that is unreadable. Don’t over-think things. Follow your instincts and passion.  If you care, the reader can be encouraged to care also.

 Don’t lie to the reader: It’s better to be honest with the reader, than try to mislead them through complex and generalized language that is actually a form of propaganda. It’s better to say exactly what you think and let the reader decide than use words that are open to interpretation. Words like “justice” are meaningless without explaining what they mean.  Do you think asylum-seekers should be “integrated” into society?  How?  Through work permits? Through permanent residency? Citizenship. Provide examples and clear ideas. “I support peace.”  What is peace? Is it the absence of war? Everyone supports peace in that context.

Be careful about protecting people’s privacy:  Sometimes writers like to use their relatives or some cab driver they just met as a foil for an article.  “My aunt is a racist,” may seem like a nice anecdote, but what about your aunt?  “At a recent dinner party someone said X and Y.”  Are you violating their trust by exposing them?  Is every taxi driver a good model for how “the average person thinks”?

Don’t exaggerate and compare everything to the Nazis, ISIS and fascism or Stalin’s gulags. If everything is fascism, then what is fascism? It’s better to provide some nuance and not exaggerate how bad something is, in order to keep it in perspective. That doesn’t mean that you can’t describe how awful something is.

Keep religion out of it  It’s better to keep religion out of it. What if the reader is not your religion, then suddenly they are not part of “we”. Do you want to read an oped where it says “Jesus commands us…”  Well, a non-Christian can’t identify. That distances the reader and makes the oped less inclusive.

 We careful with assumptions about the reader: Don’t assume that the reader is from your community. The more you make assumptions about who “we” are, the less approachable what you write is.

Tone down nepotism: It is easy to write about one’s parents or grandparents or boast about one’s children. Don’t do it. (***on the other hand connections, especially through family, friends and colleagues can be essential for getting your foot in the door and your oped published***)

Don’t write “Open letters.”  Unless you are very famous or the representative of a huge organization, it is best not to write an “open letter to Trump” or an “open letter to Netanyahu.” Open letters tend to be too self-centered.  Their only real purpose is when they are sent by an actual organization, or famous philosopher, and they have been “opened” to the public for a specific reason to raise awareness.

 Don’t write imaginary speeches or imaginary futures: “This is the speech John Kerry should have given.”  Well, he didn’t give it, so let him decide what to say and don’t decide for him. Also don’t write things like: “In the Middle East in 2025 there is peace and love. We have solved our water problems. Blah blah.”

Don’t be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc: Be very careful before making generalizations about groups. Don’t write that Arabs think X or do Y. In general it is best to avoid writing about other groups, unless you are from the group and even then your view may not be representative.

Don’t write the same oped you just read fifty times: If you just read several opeds about Jared Kushner, don’t write another one about him.

Don’t respond to opeds, respond to ideas: It’s better to respond to an idea than a person.  Perhaps a writer angered you and you want to respond.  That’s great.  But don’t write a rebuttal and don’t mention the writer you are responding to more than once.  Write about ideas, expand ideas, if you just respond to a person, then only that person matters, and you have put yourself down at their level.

Think about your audience: Who are you trying to convince. What is the point you are trying to make. What do you want people to do.

Don’t mention your organization again and again: Maybe you’re trying to do PR for your NGO. Don’t mention the NGO in every sentence, let the examples of the good work speak for you and then readers will want to know who you are and who you work with. Readers aren’t stupid. When they see the words “and we at GBC did X and GBC helped a poor person and GBC held a conference,” they will stop reading.

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