6) An op-ed should never be written in the style of a newspaper column. A columnist is a generalist, often with an idiosyncratic style, who performs for his readers. An op-ed contributor is a specialist who seeks only to inform them.
7) Avoid the passive voice. Write declarative sentences. Delete useless or weasel words such as “apparently,” “understandable” or “indeed.” Project a tone of confidence, which is the middle course between diffidence and bombast.
8) Be proleptic, a word that comes from the Greek for “anticipation.” That is, get the better of the major objection to your argument by raising and answering it in advance. Always offer the other side’s strongest case, not the straw man. Doing so will sharpen your own case and earn the respect of your reader.
9) Sweat the small stuff. Read over each sentence — read it aloud — and ask yourself: Is this true? Can I defend every single word of it? Did I get the facts, quotes, dates and spellings exactly right? Yes, sometimes those spellings are hard: the president of Turkmenistan is Gurbanguly Malikguliyevich Berdymukhammedov. But, believe me, nothing’s worse than having to run a correction.
10) You’re not Proust. Keep your sentences short and your paragraphs tight.
11) A newspaper has a running conversation with its readers. Before pitching an op-ed you should know when the paper last covered that topic, and how your piece will advance the discussion.
12) Kill the clichés. If you want to give the reader an outside the box perspective on how to solve a problem from hell by reimaginingthepolicy toolbox to include stakeholder voices — well, stop right there. Editors notice these sorts of expressions the way French chefs notice slices of Velveeta cheese: repulsive in themselves, and indicative of the mental slop that lies beneath.
13) If you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong. One useful tip for aspiring writers comes from the film “A River Runs Through It,” in which the character played by Tom Skerritt, a Presbyterian minister with a literary bent, receives essays from his children and instructs them to make each successive draft “half as long.” If you want to write a successful 700-word op-ed, start with a longer draft, then cut and cut again. “The art of writing,” believed the minister, “lay in thrift.”
14) The editor is always right. She’s especially right when she axes the sentences or paragraphs of which you’re most proud. Treat your editor with respect by not second-guessing her judgment, belaboring her with requests for publication decisions or submitting sloppy work in the expectation that she will whip it into shape.
15) I’d wish you luck, but good writing depends on conscious choices, not luck. Make good choices.Continue reading the main story
But the essay is mostly about the things children know, the things adults know and the process of reaching beyond everyday perception. It’s better to quote a few passages:
“People who have been away from God tend to come back by one of two ways: destitution or abundance, an overmastering sorrow or a strangely disabling joy. Either the world is not enough for the hole that has opened in you, or it is too much.”
“I suggested she pray to God. This was either a moment of tremendous grace or brazen hypocrisy (not that the two can’t coincide), since I am not a great pray-er myself and tend to be either undermined by irony or overwhelmed by my own chaotic consciousness.”
“As for myself, I have found faith not to be a comfort but a provocation to a life I never seem to live up to, an eruption of joy that evaporates the instant I recognize it as such, an agony of absence that assaults me like a psychic wound. As for my children, I would like them to be free of whatever particular kink there is in me that turns every spiritual impulse into anguish.”
Wiman also nicely quotes the Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I asked for wonders instead of happiness, Lord, and you gave them to me.”
These two essays are not about the events that shook the world in 2016. I’ll get to more of them in the next batch of Sidneys, but in the meantime, the most important — and best crafted — essay of the year was probably Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Obama Doctrine” in The Atlantic. It’s a classic not only on Barack Obama’s mind and the world situation today, but also about the act of foreign policy making.
Nathan Heller’s “Letter from Oberlin: The Big Uneasy,” in The New Yorker, captured the moral awakening (or mania) that is sweeping college campuses. That essay, too, generated an enormous amount of conversation and is worth revisiting.
I’ll end this batch of Sidneys with another perception-altering essay, Charles Foster’s “In Which I Try to Become a Swift,” from Nautilus. Foster writes about swifts, a family of birds a bit like swallows.
Swifts are violent, acrobatic and ethereal. They eat 5,000 or more insects a day. When they hunt for bees they select only the stingless ones. They can select the wasp mimics from actual wasps, even while traveling 50 feet a second.
But the essay is really about Foster’s efforts to enter into the swift experience. Once while driving to a day care center, he saw a group of them exploding from some tree tops. He scrambled up a tree, where “I swayed in a fork just below the top and pushed my head out into the killing zone of the delta. I saw a tongue, squat, gray, and dry; I saw myself, pinched and saucer-eyed. … I snapped a mouthful of nymphs and spat them onto the roof of a brand new Mercedes dropping off a child from a house 300 yards away. It was the closest I ever got.”
Foster enters into the different ways swifts experience air and time, and like all these writers, undercuts the normal way we see the world.
More winners are coming Friday. If you want essays like this all year, I have to again recommend the website The Browser, edited by Robert Cottrell, which gathers eloquence from far and wide day after day.Continue reading the main story