How Not to Write an Op-Ed (or Errors Made My 1st Time Out)
February 17, 2023 § 5 Comments
By Charles G. Thompson
I have written and published a number of nonfiction pieces. A personal essay about seeing my dead father shopping at Trader Joes. Another essay about my love life as a gay man in Los Angeles. An article about how my perpetual depression lessened during COVID. But, until recently, I had not tried my hand at an op-ed. Yes, similar to writing more personal nonfiction, but different.
The idea for the editorial was spawned by a headline in the Los Angeles Times, “Growing Fears of ‘Dead Pool’ on Colorado River as Drought Threatens Hoover Dam Water,” which reported that Lake Mead could be at “dead pool” levels by 2025. I’m a constant water worrier, having lived in California most of my life, and Lake Mead is an essential source of water for Southern California. Seeing the words “dead pool” frightened me. Did that mean one of our primary water sources would no longer exist? I found that idea disturbing. I drafted an 850-word piece about California’s ongoing drought, how I worried over a lack of water, a worry my great-grandmother and I both held. In it, I explained how all through my childhood my great-grandmother said over and over, “There isn’t enough water for all these people.”
An op-ed is not a letter to the editor. My first mistake was writing a reactionary piece in response to a specific article in the newspaper. Here are my concerns and the reasons the article bothered me. To improve it, I had to go deeper into my experience growing up concerned about water. How having family members, like my great grandmother, who also worried about water influenced me. But, the editorial needed to have a wider reach as well.
The editor asked me to reframe the op-ed. She asked me to explore the California water ethos. Water is part of California’s identity, especially in Southern California which has both a desert and a Mediterranean climate—we receive much less rain than other parts of the country. Water, the lack of, access to, and management of, has long been an issue in our state. The editorial also needed to show an awareness of current events to be topical. Recently, we’d experienced devastating storms and floods throughout the state. Those needed to be acknowledged. And, I needed to incorporate facts to support my thesis: Water is a resource we use for both practical and pleasurable purposes, and awareness of its slow depletion is important for all of us whether it be within a family or in a state with millions of inhabitants.
After several weeks working with the editor who accepted my piece, the op-ed improved and became more whole. It evolved from a more personal story to encompass larger, global themes—ideas like California isn’t the only place on the planet suffering from a shortage of resources, and by being aware of these issues, by participating in safeguarding our natural resources, we may be able to improve a situation like a diminishing water supply or larger planetary problems. The collaboration with the editor was a joyful experience. Together, we made the op-ed shine.
What I learned in this process is that an op-ed should be more than a personal essay and more than a reported article. A nuance I needed to understand and be able to write. The op-ed is less a reaction to an event and more an exploration of, and a commentary on, how an event came to be and how it affects the writer and the wider world.
In the end, I hoped I would reach others, who might identify with and be encouraged by my ideas and words. Maybe a reader or two may change their opinions about the water challenges we face. I wanted to show how via a prism into my family’s past, the inheritance of my great-grandmother’s worry over water, a personal moment, could also be viewed on a global scale. We all need to be aware of our diminishing resources, no matter where we are in the world, so they’ll be available to future generations.
Charles G. Thompson’s essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, among others. He recently wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times about his inherited worry over a lack of water in California. He is currently at work on a novel. Follow him on Twitter @cgregthompson
Totally made the same mistake when trying to pitch an op-ed. It was a tough learning experience for me, but that’s how we grow.
I recommend any trainings from The Op-Ed Project, which I attended years ago. Superb one-day training with follow-up mentorship by a journalist. Their website is also a great resource for folks wanting to try their hand at op-eds. Thanks for this piece!
Thank you for writing this. I haven’t yet attempted an opinion piece but plan to and the nuances you’ve outlined are very helpful. Congrats on publishing yours!
Reblogged this on B. Lynn Goodwin.
Thanks for the advice. I’ve always struggled to write an op-ed. I wondered what I did wrong.
Also, thanks to Mallory to mention the Op-Ed Project. I just visited the website. That is exactly what anyone would need.