Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Taubman Center

Stephen Kinzer Stephen Kinzer’s Top Ten Tips on Writing a Strong Op-Ed

October 1, 2015

Stephen Kinzer

Stephen Kinzer, foreign affairs columnist for the Boston Globe, recently presented “Breaking Out of the Academy: How to Write Opinion Pieces for the Mainstream Press,” his tips on writing short-form for those in the Ivory tower. Kinzer, a senior fellow at Brown’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, addressed a packed room of students and faculty at the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy, which sponsored the late-September talk. In his hour-long, off-the-cuff presentation, Kinzer shared his own take on how to capture readers’ attention and make a cohesive argument within the constraints of a single column.

Column writing is unique in its limited length — Kinzer recommends no more than 750 words — as well as its wide and public readership. As a journalist with more than twenty years of reporting experience from more than 50 countries for the New York Times, Kinzer’s primary principle is simplicity.

 “You are making one point. It should be clear what the point is. Your purpose is to hold attention all the way through,” said Kinzer.  

He illustrated a number of practical tips for mastering the calculus of opinion writing with vivid anecdotes from his time as a foreign correspondent — from questioning American complicity with Salvadoran death squad leaders to why he wrote a column arguing that for some countries, a dictatorship might work better than democracy.

Here, unvarnished, are Kinzer’s tips for effective opinion writing.

Be clear and conciseTell readers your message at the beginning of the piece, back up your point with several paragraphs that logically follow each other, and restate your point at the end of your piece, with a twist. Keep your message consistent. “Don’t be wishy-washy,” said Kinzer.

Draw your readers in with new angles and provocative opinions. “Columns should wake people up in the morning. I want my readers to see my column at breakfast and spit out their English muffins,” joked Kinzer. If you want to write about something that has had a lot of press, try to find an angle that has not yet been explored, or a perspective that is more controversial.

Break complex topics into smaller arguments  that an audience can digest easily. Focus on that smaller piece to bolster your complex point. For example, a column about improving public secondary education in the US is far too broad a topic, said Kinzer. Take a narrower view, such as how eliminating federal income taxes for teachers would attract better candidates to the field.

You don’t have to be objective, but you want to be fair. You don’t have to present alternative sides of an issue. Use your best judgment — this is a place where opinion writing strays from the objectivity of hard journalism. In a column, you’re making an argument, and you can choose what to use as evidence.

Avoid phrases that trigger a “My Eyes Glaze Over” (MEGO) response. These are phrases which immediately bore the reader. MEGOs include (but are not limited to) “federal deficit reduction,” “conference,” and “a recent study found that….” Avoid jargon.

Sprinkle pieces with short sentences of three or four words. Changing tempo helps keep a reader’s attention, and can punctuate important points.

Borrow ideas from smart people. Use evidence from academia and share wisdom from other writers. Explain those ideas in your own words.

Pay attention to what you tweet. It’s likely you could expand it into a timely column.

Rants are good — often a rant serves as the basis for a column. Address your impulse, research your opinion, and expound on it to educate your readers. They probably have the same feeling, but haven’t done the research to back it up.

Publish anywhere and write often. There is no substitute for practicing writing, no matter the topic or the form. Do it regularly, in whatever form, and you will improve.

— Eli Motycka '17