Even in today’s divisive society, opinion writing can effectively influence, challenge and educate a wide range of audiences. In a 2016 study, researchers found that “op-ed pieces have a lasting effect on people’s views regardless of their political affiliation or their initial stance on an issue.” Whether in the New York Times or a local newspaper, an op-ed can be an instrumental tool in making a grassroots or issue advocacy campaign successful.
However, there are significant obstacles impeding writers’ abilities to garner and sustain readers’ attention.
To put it bluntly, society has a severe attention problem. We are surrounded by technological distractions that can pull us in a thousand different directions at any moment — 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Consequently, our ability to stay committed and focused on one task at a time has been in a downward spiral for decades. According to a Microsoft study, humans have an eight-second attention span, which is shorter than a goldfish. Clearly, op-eds face an uphill battle.
So, what’s a writer to do?
Organize your thoughts and structure
As you prepare to draft your op-ed, spend time organizing your central messages and overall structure. Op-eds are typically restricted in word count, so you have extremely limited space to make your case. Consequently, every word must serve a tactical purpose in furthering the goals of the piece.
Whether it be a written outline or simply a mental framework, be sure there is some form of organization and preparation before drafting your piece.
Simulate the reader’s experience
As a writer, you cannot regulate the external factors that take away readers’ attention. However, you can control the grammar, style and structure used to maintain their focus. Therefore, writers must simulate a reader’s real-time experience and see where their attention could go off the rails. For instance, is a sentence too long or is a paragraph comprised of too many sentences? Every sentence you write is in competition with endless alternatives, so there is little room for error. Take a few moments and experience your op-ed like a reader, not a writer.
The quickest way to lose a reader’s attention is to make the op-ed overly complex and hard to read. For example, do not use words that require the average reader to look up the definition. You are not persuading or impressing anyone if they can’t understand what you are trying to say. Thomas Jefferson put it best: “The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.”
Keep it simple. Period.
Take an editing hiatus
In preparing your op-ed, plan to let your work sit without a viewing for a day or two. It’s tempting to look, but be patient and vigilant. This time away will allow you to clear your mind and look at the document with a fresh perspective upon returning. You may end up catching embarrassing errors and holes in your argument that you missed while writing.
Criticize yourself first
When soliciting feedback from others, be critical of yourself to the reviewer. According to Professor Adam Grant,
“When people shy away from giving constructive feedback, it’s often because they’re afraid of hurting your feelings. But if they hear you talk about what you did wrong, the fear melts away. If you cover a criticism they were planning to raise, they know you won’t feel blindsided.”
Give the reviewer a personalized red pen if you have to. Encourage honest pessimism!
When executed correctly, an op-ed can provide the necessary platform to unpack complicated societal issues and problems. However, as evidenced above, writers face increasingly significant human and technological challenges.
Even so, writers need not be dissuaded. Putting these principles into practice gives your op-ed a true opportunity to alter preconceived ideas, spur substantive conversations and create real, transformative change.