[On the OActivists mailing list, someone asked for tips on how to get OpEds published. This is a slightly edited version of my response. -- PSH]
I’m not a writing expert but I can offer a few suggestions for anyone who is interested in writing and who also wants to publish OpEds.
Using these methods, writers at Front Range Objectivism were able to publish 3 article, 57 OpEds, and 48 LTEs in 2009. For the first 3 months of 2010, our output was 2 articles, 22 OpEds, and 11 LTEs. Most of this work was generated by people writing in their spare time, outside of their regular day jobs.
I first want to emphasize that there is a legitimate and important division of labor in activism. For example, I choose to write but I don’t care much for public speaking or radio/TV appearances. In contrast, others love giving lectures but are less keen on writing. Yet others do a terrific job of disseminating content via e-mail, blogging, and social media. And others are good at organizing events such as Tea Parties. Successful activism requires many kinds of people doing many kinds of work. Pretty much everyone who wishes to engage in activism can find a niche where they do what they genuinely like in a non-sacrificial way.
Anyways, on to writing. Here are some tips from my own experience:
1) Get in the habit of writing regularly, preferably daily.
In fact, that’s the real value of the FIRM blog for me. Of course, I’d like my posts to get traffic. But I primarily use it as a place where I commit to writing some commentary on some aspect of health care (usually based on a news story) every day — even if it’s short.
This forces me to keep up on the issue and also helps me set what Ayn Rand called a “standing order” in my mind to always look for something to say. Plus it gives me a chance to practice formulating my ideas.
2) Get others to review your work
When Lin Zinser started FIRM in 2007, we mostly concentrated on writing short LTEs to our local newspapers. Almost all of us were novices at this kind of activism except for Ari Armstrong who had already done lots of writing for newspapers.
So prior to submitting LTEs to newspapers, our group of Colorado Objectivists would send drafts to each other for critique. And most of us received and gave good suggestions to each other, which boosted our confidence.
3) Start small and then work your way up
After we became comfortable with LTEs, some of us decided to tackle writing longer OpEds (600-700 words) as opposed to 100-150 word LTEs). These take more work. The purpose of an LTE is to communicate one (or at most two) points succinctly, typically in response to someone else’s article or OpEd. The purpose of an OpEd is to be a stand alone piece where you articulate a theme and then explain/defend it with reasoned arguments.
There are a couple of good guides on the ARI website on how to write LTEs and OpEds:
Also, I’ve found that my regular blogging and LTE writing helped prime my subconscious for writing longer OpEds. Often, I could take a theme that naturally developed over 2 or 3 blog posts, then integrate them into a single OpEd. So that’s where the regular writing and the “standing orders” really paid off!
4) Respect your audience’s context
Too often, Objectivists write for other Objectivists assuming a whole context of ideas that isn’t necessarily shared by the average American.
When I write for the general public, I try to imagine as my audience one of my coworkers who is a decent thinking American, intellectually honest (in the sense that he will give my ideas a fair hearing), but who otherwise knows little-to-nothing about Objectivism. Most of you probably know someone like that in your own set of friends and family.
I try to aim my writing for that person.
It also means that you have to tie concrete examples to broad abstractions and principles in a way that the reader will say to themselves, “Yes, that makes sense”. Which means that you have to have a sound grasp of both the particular concretes and the broad principles in your own mind. If you hold some Objectivist idea (such as “individual rights”) in your own mind as a semi-floating abstraction, then you’ll have a hard time communicating it convincingly to a non-Objectivist.
And one of the big benefits of writing is that it helped me see gaps and deficiencies in my own understanding of Objectivism, thus helping me see where I needed to better understand an issue myself.
5) More Miscellaneous Tips
[These are adapted from a separate OActivists webpage.]
For specific guidelines and contact information for particular newspapers, see their websites or consult lists such as “Submission Information for the Top 100+ Newspapers“.
1) Keep under the word limit.
2) Include your name, address, phone number, and e-mail address.
3) In general, send to one newspaper, responding to a specific story they ran. Cite the article and its date of publication in the body of your text. (On occasion, you can send a more general letter/op-ed to multiple non-competing papers, but then state explicitly in your cover letter that your submission to them is nonexclusive.)
4) Your best chance of getting published is in your local/regional newspapers. It can worthwhile to attempt submissions to the large national publications (such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times or USA Today), and FIRM activists have been successful in getting published there. The chances of getting published are smaller, but the potential greater effect may make it worth the effort.
1) Know your goal. In particular, ask yourself, “What are the one or two critical ‘take-home’ points I want to the reader to get from my letter?” You will not have enough space to make a full detailed argument supporting every element of your case. But you can state a brief argument and indicate a line of thought with pointers toward appropriate evidence.
2) Focus on clarity and brevity. Make your points short and sweet. Use a concrete to illustrate an abstract point. Humor and analogies are fine but don’t let them get in the way of your message.
3) If a word, phrase, or sentence doesn’t advance your take-home point (i.e., doesn’t advance your overall goal), then eliminate it.
4) Keep under the word limit.
1) Be persistent. As Yaron Brook says, for our ideas to gain traction, people have to hear them over and over again. Throughout history, the spread of good ideas has required both truth and persistence. The anti-slavery abolitionists had both and they prevailed. We can too.
6) Obligatory inspiration closing
Before 2007, I had never written an OpEd and I had written one LTE (over 10 years ago). But over time, I found that I liked writing LTEs and OpEds, and that it was a pleasurable way to fight for my values. Plus it is enormously satisfying to see ones ideas being discussed and debated by non-Objectivists in a serious fashion. Even if people don’t agree with you, you are part of the debate.
And for us, that’s half the battle. Because our ideas are right, the hardest part is just getting them injected into the debate. Once they are part of the debate, then active-minded people who take ideas seriously will note their quality. But we have to be willing to articulate and defend those ideas to the best of our ability.
Fortunately, we don’t have to come up with the ideas from scratch. Greater minds than mine (like Rand and Peikoff) have already done that hard part. We just have to work to understand them and then work to communicate them. But if we are willing to do so, then we can have a positive influence in the culture far out of proportion to our otherwise small numbers.
Many of the better Americans have a decent implicit sense of life (which we can see at the Tea Party protests). But they lack a coherent explicit philosophy that tells them that it’s good for them to pursue their own happiness and seek what’s best for themselves. They are ripe for an explicit philosophy that tells them that. Hence, those of us who are already aware of that philosophy have to be willing to make that case.
Right now, we have an American public that is desperately hungry for good ideas that give voice to their sense of life that tells them that individual responsibility is a virtue, that pursuing their happiness is a noble end, and that our government should leave them free to do so.
What they most need to hear now is someone telling them that those ideas are good. If we tell them that and give them an explicit conceptual defense of those deeply-held but implicit values, then we will win. As Victor Hugo once wrote, “There’s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come”.
Our future and the future of this country are really up to us. If we act on our values and promote our ideas, then some day we will look back on politicians like Obama and Pelosi say, “We never had to take them seriously, did we?” But only if we actually act.
We have a golden opportunity to shape the future in the direction we want. We just have seize it…