Bret Stephens is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who has penned hundreds of oped essays and news columns that have been read by millions of people. He recently joined The New York Times as an oped writer, after a long stint at The Wall Street Journal as one of their most widely read commentators on politics.
In a recent article in The New York Times, Stephens shared a list of writing tips which, while intended for potential oped contributors, are relevant to writers crafting other types of material.
Of the 15 tips he shares, I pulled out seven insightful and incredibly practical ones that I thought would be worth sharing here. You can read the full article on The New York Times website (paywall).
1. Get to the point.
"A wise editor once observed that the easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading. This means that every sentence has to count in grabbing the reader's attention, starting with the first. Get to the point: Why does your topic matter? Why should it matter today? And why should the reader care what you, of all people, have to say about it?"
2. The purpose of an op-ed is to offer an opinion.
"It is not a news analysis or a weighing up of alternative views. It requires a clear thesis, backed by rigorously marshaled evidence, in the service of a persuasive argument. Harry Truman once quipped that he wished he could hire only one-handed economists --just to get away from their "on the one hand, on the other" advice. Op-ed pages are for one-handed writers."
3. Authority matters.
"Readers will look to authors who have standing, either because they have expertise in their field or unique experience of a subject. If you can offer neither on a given topic you should not write about it, however passionate your views may be. Opinion editors are often keen on writers who can provide standing-with-surprise: the well-known environmentalist who supports nuclear power; the right-wing politician who favors transgender rights; the African-American scholar who opposes affirmative action."
4. 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."
5. 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."
6. Kill the clichés.
"If you want to give the reader an outside the box perspective on how to solve a problem from hell by reimagining the policy 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."
7. 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."