Your Copy Sucks: Ode to the Op-Ed

portrait of a mid adult man with his thumb on his lips

As PR professionals, we often deal with placing a client’s op-ed with what we hope will be a reputable, widely read publication or platform. However, as anyone who reads small-town newspapers for fun and schadenfreude knows, many op-eds are pretty much unreadable. One can only assume they’ve been printed because there wasn’t any news about angry, window-smashing McDonald’s customers that week.

While I was back in my hometown for winter break, I came across an op-ed that must be shared here with some (I hope) small suggestions for improvements so that you and your clients can see what makes a good op-ed and what makes a bad op-ed.

Disclosure: the author of this op-ed is my priest. I’m not a fan. But I think most communications professionals would agree that his writing could be more effective, my personal feelings about this political, religious topic aside.

Backstory: this op-ed is in response to a previous op-ed. Here’s the opener.

The argument is categorically fallacious and hence a non sequitur.

I think you see where I’m going with this. One of the problems with poorly constructed op-eds is a lack of brevity. I’m all for pulling out the big guns when the situation warrants; y’all know this. But there’s no reason to use sixteen syllables when two will do. After all, the most powerful Bible verse ever written was also the shortest: Jesus wept.

If I were the PR flack in charge of vetting all of the Church’s press materials, I might have changed that opening sentence to something like:

The argument is false.

There’s nothing wrong with just saying what you mean. I would posit that it lends more credibility to the author than a lot of tenth-grade vocabulary words.

Further along in the op-ed, we come across this:

In these days, when nihilism and positivism have coalesced in a surreptitious cunning of deceitfulness, the “man is the measure of all things” attitude continues to hold sway across this great country that was founded on the very principles that today are being relegated to nothing more than mere nostalgia.

If you were able to follow that sentence all the way to the end without going back, then congratulations. You win a prize, Professor Hawking.

Why not just say how you really feel? For example:

I think we, as a culture and a nation, are losing sight of important principles that are being usurped by warped, secular views.

See? I even threw in a ten-dollar word because it fit. Not because it was fancy; because it fit.

And then there’s this. Perhaps the greatest mess of a sentence ever made. In order to show what little meaning there is, I have to include the previous sentence as well.

[V]oting the wishes of one’s constituents is not a moral imperative. To not be pusillanimous upon the battlefield where war is being waged for the very soul of our country and her citizenry is!

Jesus weeps for that poor verb, dangling out at the very end of that exclamation. Can’t you just hear how the author desperately needed to include the incredible (and incredibly difficult-to-read) word “pusillanimous,” if only to negate it? What’s wrong with saying “to be brave” instead?

That sentence could easily be rewritten for the sake of the readers’ headaches.

Politicians should stand up for what’s right for the good of the future of our country, even if it goes against the popular opinion of their constituents.

I don’t mean to heap the hate onto my priest; he’s just doing his job, I guess. But so am I, and every fiber of my being rails against writing, especially writing meant to speak on behalf of an entire group, that is less than what it could be. All op-eds, which by nature touch upon controversial subjects, should be carefully scrutinized before submission. It’s not an interview, it’s not a review, it’s not a profile piece; it’s the raw words straight from the author’s mouth, and if the op-ed falls flat, there’s no one to blame but the author. And maybe his flack.

If you’d like to see the op-ed in its entirety and you don’t have a copy of The Treasure Coast News handy, it’s also been posted on this blog. The blogger bizarrely calls it concise, but whatdayagonna do? These guys probably think Revelations is a short story compared to the rest of their recommended reading list.

And with that, before I go straight to hell, I say unto you: be clear, be brief, be correct in all your op-ed work.

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