How to Write a Good Op-Ed: Tips from JPost's Op-Ed Editor

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Recently, ROI Community members and fellow members of the Schusterman network gathered at the JPost headquarters in Jerusalem for a professional development workshop about best practices in writing op-eds. The session, co-led by Editor-In Chief, Yaakov Katz, and Op-Ed Editor, Seth Frantzman, was fun and informative! Below, catch up on some of the tips Seth provided to workshop attendees on how to make their thought pieces stand out.

Seth J. Frantzman has been the Op-Ed Editor of The Jerusalem Post since 2011. He holds a PhD from The Hebrew University in Historical Geography and has worked at JDC and The Shalem Center. He lectured on American Studies as an assistant professor at Al-Quds University and is from Maine in the USA.

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

How to Make an Op-Ed Stand Out

Bring expertise: Why do people write op-eds 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 (why is olive oil in Israel so expensive?). It is better to tackle a subject that one has intimate knowledge of or passion about than write about the same issue others have already done before you.

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 op-eds 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? In Israel up until a few years ago around 40% of Ethiopian men in the army were sentenced to prison during their IDF service. Around 3,000 police were deployed during the evacuation of Amona. 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? When discussing “anti-semitism” of the alt-right, isn’t it more interesting to include Milo Yiannopoulos quote claiming that someone he hated was “a sort of thick-as-pig-sh** media Jew.” That’s anti-semitism in the reader’s face that makes them sit up and read, not just saying “Milo is an anti-semite.” We want to see quotes that inspire us as well. 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.

Fact-check: Often op-eds 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 op-ed 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 op-eds about yourself, try to avoid “I.” Personal experiences and anecdotes can be great for an op-ed. 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 op-ed 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. As a Palestinian who’d lived for years as a minority in West Jerusalem, the city’s Jewish side, 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, and in the evening—unlike in Israel, where I never missed the TV news—I started to gape avidly at football games, without understanding the rules.

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 op-ed 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 op-eds 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 op-ed 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 op-ed should be structured. Introduction, examples, conclusion. Throughout it, there can be 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 Israeli 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 provide long and unhelpful op-eds that lack conclusions.

Check out page 29 of the 1944 OSS manual on “sabotage” for a hint on how not to go about things.

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 figured 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: Do you think that Israel shouldn’t exist, but secretly you think you can just say that without saying it, through some sort of generalized, seemingly nice, statement like: “we support justice for the Palestinian people, and a state of all its citizens.” And what does that “justice” entail? Well, we believe in the right of return of 8 million people. And what is the “state of all its citizens”? Well, we think the flag of Israel should be re-designed as a Palestinian flag and Israel should have similar laws as Jordan.

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 Israeli 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: Of course the 1930s and 1940s resonate with us today, but if everyone is a “nazi,” then who were the real Nazis? 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, it means you should be careful not to dismiss the real victims of ISIS, by pretending that every group of people you don’t like is the same. It may be true, for instance, that an IKEA catalogue is similar to Iran’s regime, but it also might be a major exaggeration.

Keep religion out of it: There is a tendency to selectively quote religious sources that agree with us. “We were strangers in the land,” or “we are commanded to do Tikkun Olam” or “be a light unto the nations.” These clichés appear too often and they are rarely useful. There are far more discussions in the Bible about mass killing, such as Samson slaughtering people, than there are about being a “light unto the nations.” The same religious books that talks about “strangers,” talks about executing people.

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.” Perhaps they are Muslim or Christian. Do you want to read an op-ed where it says “Jesus commands us…” Well, a non-Christian can’t identify. That distances the reader and makes the op-ed less inclusive.

Be 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.

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 Mizrahim do Y, or Ashkenazim are Z. Don’t create generalizations about “Haredim” or other groups. 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. Just because you met one person from another group, “I sat next to a Chinese man on a plane,” doesn’t mean she represents all of China. In addition, don’t use sentences such as “as a Jew” or be wary of using your connections to the Holocaust, “as a third generation survivor.”

Don’t write the same op-ed you just read fifty times: If you just read several op-eds about Jared Kushner, don’t write another one about him.

Don’t respond to op-eds, 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.