Saturday, May 16, 2009

How Writing an Op-Ed Can Change You and The World

Leadership Is Influence: A continuing series
While browsing Stanford alumni courses, I came across a one-day course offered by The Op-Ed Project, a non-profit organization that trains women on the nuts and bolts of crafting and submitting an op-ed (opinon / editorial article for a newspaper). Fewer than twenty percent of op-eds are written by women, one arena where participation by women still lags.

The best op-ed's educate, change minds and move people to take action. Although newspaper readership is declining, op-eds continue to be a critical source for public dialog. As the founder of Op-Ed Project, Katie Orenstein states, "We need a full range of voices to engage in public discourse to develop the best options going forward."

I was intrigued by the premise since improving my writing and influencing skills were key to my green work. I signed up. Our instructor was the founder, Katie Orenstein, who is also a published book author and frequent op-ed contributor.

She started the class by asking each of us to describe why we were an expert. Thankfully I was near the end of the line, since most of us --- despite our accomplishments --- had difficulty articulating our rationale for being an expert. The first students stammered, "Well, I'm not sure I qualify as an expert, but ...." Orenstein harangued us to be bold and confident.

Although this may sound a bit "touchy-feely", this had a concrete purpose to highlight that we each had special expertise that would benefit a larger audience. Once our teacher had elicited the details from a future op-ed writer, we fellow students sincerely "oohed and aahed" at her deep background.

After the exercise, we started with the mechanics. First, Orenstein highlighted the importance of the "lede" or introductory paragraph to grab the readers' attention. Followed by the "nut" paragraph that encapsulates the main point of the piece. The subsequent paragraphs provide evidence as to the arguments or point-of-view. Finally the summary should circle back and touch upon the introduction to provide closure for the reader.

Rather than a day long lecture, after each lesson we implemented what we learned by starting to write our op-eds and receiving immediate feedback. 

In addition to mechanics she continued to inspire us by sharing examples of famous and alumni op-eds throughout the day.

Orenstein also provided practical tips and shared her own experiences
  1. How to define a topic with broad enough appeal for newspaper audience
  2. What is the protocol to submit to newspapers
  3. How to pitch your idea to the editor. We used our learning from the introductory expert exercise to develop our pitch.
The teaching did not end with the class. Once a student completes her op-ed, Orenstein has recruited professional writers and editors to review the student's work and offer suggestions on how to improve for publication.

This was the best class I have ever attended. In a few short hours, I felt armed with sufficient knowledge and basic skills to start. Knowing that I had support available to read and review my efforts added to my confidence that I was capable of writing a solid op-ed. Seeing the evidence that previous students had succeeded also gave me a boost.

The class was instructive for one other reason. It was a model for how to teach any new skill.
  1. Analyze. Orenstein had completed an in-depth analysis of the most critical skills for getting an op-ed published and the obstacles that hold most would-be contributers back.
  2. Show. She then taught us those skills without any fluff. 
  3. Practice and feedback. She had us practice immediately to give us a feel for the new skill.
  4. Motivate. There was sufficient inspiration to get us to the next step of refining our piece once the class ended.
  5. Continued coaching. Orenstein then continued the learning with op-ed mentors and regular email updates of op-eds published. The website her team established is also a great resource.
I believe each one of us has at least one op-ed in us. Stay tuned.

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