Bret Stephens: Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers

Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers

1) 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

I think these would have been great tips 10-15 years ago and or if you are already well-known, but there are too many counterexamples. As I explain in the posts Internet Journalism in a Post-2013 Era: Writing Articles that Go Viral and In Defense of the Journalistic Method, the trend noways seem to favor longer, more circuitous and obscurantist writing (such as Nick Land, Moldbug, The Last Psychologist, Scott Alexander, Wait But Why, etc.) than easy-to-digest 500-word opinion pieces. In the post-2013 era, assuming you are unknown, you have to use a verbose, wordy style to standout among high-IQ influencers, whereas a decade ago a terse, succinct style would have been more successful. If you already have a large brand, then you have the discretion to use whatever style you want and still have success. It’s counterintuitive how a longer and indirect essay is better than a shorter and more direct one, because the assumption is that the reader has less patience for a long circuitous essay, but a long, complicated essay is more likely to be taken seriously as a substantive piece of work and it’s more likely to be shared by those invaluable high-IQ influencers who hold the keys to viral success.

2) The ideal reader of an op-ed is the ordinary subscriber — a person of normal intelligence who will be happy to learn something from you, provided he can readily understand what you’re saying. It is for a broad community of people that you must write, not the handful of fellow experts you seek to impress with high-flown jargon, the intellectual rival you want to put down with a devastating aside or the V.I.P. you aim to flatter with an oleaginous adjective.

But that is not true. People of average intelligence are likely to be watching TV or Netflix. People of at least above-average IQ read op-eds. It also depends on the topic itself: an obscure literary journal or a complicated physics journal is most certainty going to have an above-average IQ readership, compared to,say, Sports Illustrated. Using an IQ-100 writing style on a readership of 120+ IQs will not get through the editorial process.

3) 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.

But as explained before, your credibly rises if you’re cognizant of the opposing arguments, than just dismissing or ignoring them and hoping the reader doesn’t notice. High-IQ readers and influencers will know if you’re evading the obvious counterexamples, and hence credibility lost. Scott and others have had huge success by writing to the smartest, most perceptive possible reader in mind, than just ‘preaching to the choir’ as Ann Coulter and Paul Krugman do. Coulter and Krugman’s columns are successful because they built huge readerships in the 90’s and 2000’s, when the demand for ‘evolved’ discourse was much lower, whereas Scott and Moldbug started much later (in 2007) from the ground-up without the backing of major media properties such as World Net Daily, National Review Online, New York Times, etc.

WND, NRO, and Fox are relics of the 90’s. Even if they are on the ‘right side’ of the culture wars, they just don’t resonate, for the same reasons why Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, despite their popularity, don’t affect narratives either. Journalism and writing , much like everything else, evolves. Tastes change, influencers change. Instead of writing with Drudge in mind as one would have done in the 90’s and early 2000’s, now it’s the ‘shitlord’ on Twitter who has ans IQ of 130+ and 13,000 follows, in mind. Granted, the shirtlord can’t send nearly as much traffic as a Drudge link, but the shitlord’s readers, who are about 10x as engaged and 10x as smart as Drudge readers, will share it, and then the high-IQ media like Vox and Quartz and people on Reddit, 4chan, and Medium will pick up on it, and the story will become actually more viral than the Drudge link in terms of affecting narratives. It’s weird how all this works, but we live in a world where a first-grader was sent to detention for misgendering a classmate, so sometimes one must suspend disbelief to try to make sense of it all. Look at Andrew Anglin and The Daily Stormer. Using a combination of shock value and humor, he injected himself and his website into the ‘national dialogue’ in ways that other right-wing sites weren’t able to do. Then on the other extreme you have comparatively mild-mannered Jordan Peterson, who instead of being just another generic ‘culture warrior’, found a huge following discussing self-improvement from a philosophical and psychological angle [and the irony of Canada’s ‘Canadian Human Rights Tribunal’ that inhumanly presumes the guilt of anyone brought before it].

4) 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.

Completely agree. That’s why you have to use the techniques outlined here to build your authority the way Scott and others did. That can mean arguing both sides of an issue to build credibly as an ‘impartial arbiter’, than being just another predictable, single-minded, shrill partisan hack (as if the world does not have enough of those).

5) Younger writers with no particular expertise or name recognition are likelier to get published by following an 80-20 rule: 80 percent new information; 20 percent opinion.

Agree, but doesn’t that contradict #3?

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.

That works if you’re on the NRO staff and are writing to the converted. It does not work when writing to to skeptical, who have no reason to trust or believe you. In the post-2013 era, skepticism and nuance is the new earnestness and sincerity. Bombast and overconfidence is dismissed, even if you’re writing to an audience that should be ‘on board’. The high-IQ influencers, even if they are on your ideological ‘team’, are repulsed by demagoguery, hype, unfounded and sweeping generalizations, and choir preaching. They want to be challenged…which is what separates intellectuals from ordinary people, who seek consensus over correctness and challenge.

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.

Agree, but again this contradicts #3.

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.

No, what is worse is readers knowing you’re wrong but being too polite to tell you, so the mistake is broadcast for the world to see all while you’re oblivious.

10) You’re not Proust. Keep your sentences short and your paragraphs tight.

See reply to # 1. To stand out in the sea of low-information, forgettable mediocrity, longer is almost always better. James Damore wrote a 10-page memo, full of data and charts, and took the world by storm, possibly even changing the narrative. Had he written a 500-word rant, would anyone had cared as much? Likely not. Also relevant: Do big words make you look dumb? How BS spreads on the internet.

I would also add: shared narratives are everything, specially if told through a story. For example, consider Gamergate. The wrong approach is to frame it as a battle between ‘left’ and ‘right’, when this is incorrect. A better approach is to invoke a childhood anecdote of having, say, a club and then other children want to join this club perhaps in order to seem ‘cool’, but then these entrants start dictating how the club is run, which is off-putting to the original members, and the entire focus of the club is derailed. For example, if women want to enter STEM, fine, but problems arise when they want to impose a separate set of standards or begin to accuse men of ‘sexism’ for failing to adhere to such standards. Everyone, regardless of their political orientation, can relate to having their ‘movements’–whether it be punk artists ‘selling out’, a TV show ‘jumping the shark’, or the unnecessary injection of politics in an otherwise apolitical format in order to advance a narrative–co-opted by mainstream at the cost of authenticity. In addition, writers need a unique ‘angle’ that not only sets them apart from other writers, but gives the reader a reason to become invested in the writer. For example, Moldbug’s angle is his poetic verbosity and extensive knowledge; Spenrell: his knowledge of Asian history; Tyler Cowen & Bryan Bryan Caplan: economist; Scott Aaronson: a quantum computer scientist; Vox Day: his knowledge about history, game design, and sci-fi & fantasy writing; Scott Alexander: his knowledge of clinical psychology, storytelling, and ability to entertain opposing views; Nick Land, being philosopher who invokes Lovecraft in his writings, and so on.