Saturday, June 6, 2009

How Writing an Op-Ed Can Change You and the World #2

Leadership Is Influence: A continuing series

A few weeks ago, I shared my experience with The Op-Ed Project, a non-profit that trains women to write op-eds. Since then my op-ed was successfully published by the San Jose Mercury News, the second largest newspaper in California and covered by USA Today.

In this post, I will review the process of writing and pitching my op-ed along with specific feedback that I received from my op-ed mentor.

I wanted to start work immediately on my op-ed after the inspiring class, but the topic I had used during the practice session during class --- wood burring fireplaces --- was a poor fit going into the summer months. So I started searching my blog for other potential topics. I decided on paper reduction since I had experienced first hand how Cisco Systems could change the office environment to make paper reduction a natural outcome.

Since my original paper reduction piece was just a blog post, I felt I had to lengthen it and make it more sophisticated and broader. This is a typical newbie mistake.

My op-ed mentor, Reshma Kapadia who is a writer for the Wall Street Journal's monthly magazine Smart Money and a graduate from Columbia University School of Journalism, gently pointed out my blunders and provided some great tips. She also polished some of the prose that was merely pedestrian.

Kapadia shared that "If this is aimed at a general interest publication, write it in a way that is easier to digest for a lay person. My editor always says to write for your mom or your sibling who is unfamiliar with technology and didn't go to business school." One other great tip to avoid sounding too ponderous is to "read it aloud --is it something you'd say in conversation if you were trying to make this point?"

Kapadia also suggested restructuring the piece. I had learned that irony is one way to engage the reader, which I had included, but in the second paragraph. Kapadia encouraged me by stating, "I really liked the irony of your second paragraph and think that idea might offer more of a hook and better lead into the piece."

Finally she told me to cut the extras I had added when she saw my original blog entry. "Focus on just the latter half. That's your strongest material."

With Kapadia's recommendations implemented, I was ready to pitch my piece. I selected the San Jose Mercury News, the paper of Silicon Valley, since Cisco is a Silicon Valley leader. The editor, Barbara Marshmann, is a woman which I hoped was a good omen. From LinkedIn, I learned she is also an alumni from Stanford University as a Knight Rider Fellow in Journalism. I was a Sloan Fellow in Business in the same era at Stanford.

My pitch was brief and to the point as I was taught during my class and included below

Summary: 645-word essay. The paperless office was first predicted 40 years ago, but was slow to materialize. Business is finally positioned to reap the economic and environmental rewards. Cisco is used as a case study.

• Business – Cutting 60% of average worker’s paper consumption yields $360 annual savings.
• Environment - Of U.S. manufacturing, pulp and paper production is the second largest user of energy and water and third largest contributor to pollution.

Author: Claudia Girrbach is an expert at enabling emerging technology and held IT Leadership roles at Gap and Rite Aid. She was a Sloan Fellow at Stanford University. She is currently Vice President at Integnology, an IT consulting firm.

I had prepared myself that my first pitch may not be accepted, but in less than an hour, I was thrilled to hear from Marshmann that she would like to run the piece, if I was willing to run it as an exclusive and trim it to 600 words. Finding how to shorten the piece by ten percent was a challenge but in the end, it made the piece flow better. 
The entire process was a personal gamechanger, where in less than a month, I could acquire a new skill and with able coaching could successfully put it into practice. Stay tuned.

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