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CAREER ADVICE

How to generate op-ed ideas

Once you’ve decided you want to jump into the public commen­tary sphere, how can you land on a specific idea?

By MIRA SUCHAROV | MAY 31 2019

This is an excerpt from Public Influence: A guide to op-ed writing and social media engagement, published by University of Toronto Press, 2019. It has been reprinted with the permission of UTP.

Here are 16 ways to help you come up with ideas for op-eds and related pieces in your area of expertise.

1. Watch the news cycle. A real-time event presents the best opportunity to pitch an op-ed. Both good news and bad news can be occasions for analysis. Beware of giving the impression of ambulance-chasing, but in the wake of a tragedy, many readers will welcome sober analysis and some sense of what to do next. The death of a state leader (whether the official is currently in office or not) provides an opportunity to pitch an op-ed taking stock of the person’s impact and legacy. The passage of a new law, signing of an executive order, or a debate over a bill before it becomes law can be an opportunity to weigh in. A key speech from a leader can serve as a launching point for an analytical and prescriptive op-ed. A public apology from an elected official, or calls for an apology about some historical injustice can provide room for contemporary analysis. Consider a much-talked-about anniversary or one that has not been talked about enough. Similarly, elections in most any state, province, or country provide an opportunity for analysis both in advance and immediately after. Perhaps there are appointments or policy decisions that require interpretation as a new government takes shape. Maybe there is a governmental commission that requires a response. A significant global event like a refugee crisis provides an opportunity to discuss and analyze government policy and efforts by the grassroots to sponsor and welcome refugees.

2. Remember: better late than never. Sometimes weighing in later than you wished you had can itself be part of the argument. For example, the case of Hassan Diab, a Canadian citizen who was detained for years in France after having been extradited for a crime on flimsy evidence, had garnered local and national attention long before I turned to it. So my co-author and I wove the idea of not speaking out sooner right into the piece. Six months later, authorities released Diab, and he returned home to Ottawa.

3. Consider partnering with an expected or unexpected co-au­thor. This can be done in a few ways. One is to co-author with someone who you normally agree with, but who brings some sort of identity perspective you feel you lack to make the argument with credibility. Another is to find someone with whom you normally disagree. Depending on the issue, an argument from two writers associated with opposing political parties could be seen to hold even more weight. Consider an op-ed in the Washington Post on what the U.S. should do regarding North Korea, coauthored by Jake Sullivan and Victor Cha. Mr. Sullivan served under vice-president Joe Biden, a Democrat. Victor Cha served under President George W. Bush, a Republican. That they were able to agree on policy advice lends credence to the idea that their prescriptions stem from a policy-informed view of the situation, rather than from a partisan one. (Though beware of political fallout from stating your opin­ions. Six months later, Mr. Cha, widely considered President Trump’s likely pick for U.S. ambassador to South Korea, was passed over after he wrote another op-ed, this one opposing a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea.) On another occasion, I partnered with a co-author with whom I had had robust and informal debates on a different topic. Formulating an op-ed with that person enabled us to approach a vexing issue in a new way.

Another way to leverage a partnership is to pitch, with one or more colleagues, two or more debate-style pieces. “Room for Debate” in the New York Times does this with two or more writers. Then there is Thomas Juneau and Roland Paris taking to the Globe and Mail to debate Canada’s mission in Iraq.

4. Make sure to find a current news peg, even if the piece is evergreen, meaning a piece that could be placed nearly anytime as the topic wouldn’t expire. When my co-author and I in the example mentioned above submitted our piece, the editor noted that it was an evergreen piece. On the one hand, evergreen pieces are good; readers may stumble upon them long after their initial appearance. (I continue to use this particular piece in my Israel-Palestine course syllabus.) But it also means that if you want to give your editor an incentive to move it up in the publishing queue, you have to find a current news peg to hang it on. So we rewrote the lede (the opening sentence) to incorporate mention of a recent appearance of Israeli and American NGO representatives at the UN Security Council. We framed our argument by identifying a policy question that those NGO speeches left out.

Note that an analytical piece lacking a news peg might still be of interest to editors of an academic blog, rather than to an op-ed edi­tor. And if you can lengthen it into a piece with a non-time-specific analysis, you may be able to place it in current affairs magazines and related outlets.

5. Nurture a wide network, and be on the lookout for inside sources who can provide you with data others may not have. This happened to me when a member of a large and prominent Face­book group approached me with screenshots capturing a heated argument about Israel-Palestine. In the resulting piece, I presented the material in an engaging way, tried to inform readers about par­ticular points in Israeli-Palestinian history, and made some politi­cal judgments of my own. (I erased any identifying info from the screenshots so as not to compromise the subjects’ privacy.) Other sources I maintain keep me abreast of NGO campaigns, for example, that I sometimes write about as a window into broader issues.

6. If you strongly disagree with an op-ed, consider pitching an opposing piece. Many editors welcome pitches representing a different view on something they have recently published. Publish­ing a range of opinions helps insulate an editor from being accused of being one-sided, and also ensures a broad readership.

7. If you have just published a new book or the results of a sig­nificant new study, consider boiling the findings into an op-ed, especially if you can hang it on a current news peg. Consider the example of Zeynep Tufekci, whose book, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest, was forthcoming at the time, writing about the 2017 Women’s Marches in light of her research. Or James Loeffler, who condensed the arguments of his recently published book Rooted Cosmopolitans: Jews and Human Rights in the Twentieth Century, pegging the piece to Israel’s 70th anniversary. Both op-eds appeared in the New York Times.

8. Watch the buzz on social media. Watching debates unfold on social media platforms will give you a window into how people are talking about particular issues. Understanding how society thinks about issues can sometimes be just as important as the con­tours of the issue itself. Policy topics, whether health-care reform, legalization of marijuana, refugee intake, gun control, or boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, largely depend on public opinion. A specific emerging social media trend, such as the #MeToo movement, can occasion a piece from your own experience shedding new light on the phenomenon. Before #MeToo hit, I had written two pieces, one spurred by allegations against Bill Cosby, and later, one by allegations against a prominent Israeli journal­ist, stemming from my own experience of being a victim of sexual harassment and coercion. Pegging my experiences to the head­lines was a way of positioning my piece, which was really an ever­green piece, in the news cycle. Once the #MeToo hashtag emerged, I could repost those pieces in my social media feed if I wished. (If you do repost old material, it’s important to tell readers that the piece is from a previous month or year.)

Noticing a more obscure hashtag emerge, especially one that is not getting a lot of media attention because it may be specific to one country or subculture, can be another opportunity for a pitch. I wrote another piece stemming from an Israeli hashtag aimed at raising awareness of sexual assault in the Israeli military.

9. Related to the examples above, did something upsetting, dis­turbing, or surprising happen to you that pulls back the veil on broader social or political forces at work? Take the example of an op-ed writer who took his experience of being turned away by Israel’s airport border control and wrote a piece about Palestin­ian identity, human rights NGOs, and the boycott movement. Charles M. Blow, a New York Times columnist, gave a harrowing account of his son being stopped on his university campus at gun­point, an incident that starkly illustrates contemporary racism. We are a species of storytellers: sharing a personal story draws the reader in, is more likely to wedge in audience memory, and can make what seem like abstract issues into something concrete. As psychologists have shown, compelling stories not only draw and keep our attention; they also motivate us to take action.

10. Annual events like holidays or other seasonal happenings pose an opportunity for an op-ed on some pressing issue. The back­-to-school season can be an opportunity for professors to take stock of an educational, campus, or pedagogical issue. Christmas lends itself to discussing issues ranging from the role of religion in the public sphere to multiculturalism to consumer culture to poverty and hunger to issues around loneliness and mental health. Ameri­can Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to write about topics including Indigenous issues, food ethics, and how best to navigate political conversations around the dinner table. Canadian Thanks­giving could be an opportunity to ask whether this is a truly ecu­menical holiday or not.

11. If you’re traveling, consider finding an off-the-beaten track tour that enables the telling of a less understood story about some­thing of historical, social, or political relevance with contempo­rary implications. I have done this when I asked the founder of an NGO in Israel to show me the sites of destroyed Palestinian villages in the Tel Aviv area. I wrote another piece after visiting a coexistence school in Jerusalem and followed it up by interview­ing some alumni. Interviews can also be done by phone or Skype, once you’ve returned from your travels.

12. Make your travel local. Virtually all of us have access to some potentially illuminating places in our own cities or towns. These might be a historical site, a museum, a visible example of a knotty urban planning issue, or even a resident with an intriguing story that sheds light on some larger issue of public interest.

13. Watch for the release of films in your area of expertise. Even if newspapers run separate reviews, opinion editors may welcome an op-ed style piece hitting on a particular theme raised by a new film.

14. Watch for the results of new surveys being published. Opin­ion pages require analysis and prescription from subject experts when these emerge. I wrote a piece when the Pew Research Center surveyed Israeli Jews.

15. The fallout from an op-ed you have written might give you an occasion to write another piece about that first experience. This has happened to me more than once.

16. Keep an eye on your own day-to-day experiences, and lis­ten closely to your mental observations. What might start off as a private rant could turn into a well-argued piece if you build the argument carefully. One of my earliest op-eds was a piece I pitched to the Ottawa Citizen stemming from the three days I spent at the Ontario Universities’ Fair, meeting with prospective students and their parents, and privately feeling bemused by how often parents spoke on behalf of, and instead of, their kids.

Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University.

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