Food writer Michael Pollan once jammed the essence of his work into seven words: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” His brevity inspired me as the managing editor of OtherWords, a non-profit editorial service that distributes opinion pieces and editorial cartoons.
Most writers struggle to make their big ideas fit in today’s petite newspaper op-ed sections. Digital spaces are similarly constrained by shrinking attention spans.
So keeping things short is essential. Given that reality — and with apologies to Pollan — here’s what I think it takes to dish up enticing opinion pieces: Cultivate opinions. From authentic voices. With some shelf life.
I mean cultivation in every sense of the word. Op-ed editors win writers over by tilling partnerships, planting the seeds of friendship, and making the text they touch sing.
One of the best things about OtherWords is how it amplifies what people who don’t usually get heard in the national conversation have to say. It’s short on CEOs and policymakers aided by ghostwriters and long on advocates for social and environmental justice who speak for themselves. That’s what I mean by authentic voices.
And aiming for shelf life means expressing yourself in a way that will resonate for weeks, if not months.
Why do that? Writing op-eds and columns takes hard work. It’s tempting to lean on time-sensitive references to boost a commentary’s immediate appeal. But those crutches make opinion pieces go stale fast.
Besides, if you’re aiming for newspaper publication, most op-ed editors are hunting for something to run on rainy days. Or, more precisely, vacation days.
In other words, it’s about meeting your audience’s needs.
And cutting to the chase.
Hundreds of newspapers and dozens of online media outlets run OtherWords’ work. By far, this outfit’s most popular offering is Jim Hightower’s sock-it-to-the-powers-that-be columns.
They average 300 words. He never sounds rushed as he parcels out head-smacking news, original ideas, and Texan humor. I can’t say how Hightower does it. But I tell everyone who wants to write opinion pieces to study his work.
I plan to keep doing that, even though I’m moving on.
While I’m excited about trying new things, I’ll miss connecting with OtherWords contributors and seeing their writing flow through the media ecosystem. And I’ll miss writing my own columns on the shift toward an economy powered by green energy — and knowing people in places like Marshall, Minnesota, Devils Lake, North Dakota, and Union, South Carolina will read them.
In addition to Hightower, I’ve been blessed over the years with the honor of frequently polishing the writing of Donald Kaul, Jill Richardson, John Kiriakou, Sam Pizzigati, and William A. Colllins, along with Khalil Bendib’s cartoons. These folks are as wonderful, complicated, and funny as they sound when they write. Or draw, in Bendib’s case.
Together, that ensemble of unconventional thinkers has won over countless editors, opening doors that might have been shut to OtherWords’ less frequent writers. Some of those contributors, like ice cream entrepreneur Ben Cohen and Congresswoman Barbara Lee, are famous or influential. Most aren’t.
Along the way, they’ve proven that everyone has important things to say in a few of their own words.