Former New York Times Op-Ed editor Trish Hall spoke on campus Wednesday evening about the elements of a great op-ed at an open class session hosted by Telecommunications, Media, and Communications professor Claudia Dreifus.

Bwogger Alan Wang, who will probably never have to write or edit an op-ed, attended the event to see what masochistic editors other campus publications have to endure.

In a room crowded with hopeful journalism students, Trish Hall, who formerly worked at the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, delivered an impactful discussion on what a great op-ed entails. Over the course of an hour, she described the various failings of many op-eds her staff had reviewed during her tenure and laid down some sensible points that the overzealous kid in your CC class with too many opinions should probably listen to. 

“Everybody has opinions,” Hall noted at the beginning of her session, “But you really need to do a little more to shape it [into an op-ed].” While the op-ed represents the rare opportunity for profound openness and expression of opinions, Hall, who noted that her office regularly received over a thousand op-ed submissions per week, first commented on the legitimacy of those opinions. While having a unique story or belief that most people haven’t heard before is a vital first ingredient to a successful op-ed, ensuring the author has the authority to tell that story is equally important. In other words, “Don’t talk about Syria unless you grew up in Syria.”

Another critical consideration for all hopeful op-ed writers is who their potential readers are. “Understand your audience: what they want, how they think, and how to move them,” Hall said. The first audience, unsurprisingly, is the editor themselves. At a publication as large as the NY Times, younger staffers would sort through hundreds of potential op-eds each week, selecting ones that were worthy of further review and passing those along to editors for consideration. After that, though, the op-ed had to meet several criteria effectively to finally be selected for publication. “Most op-eds are 700 to 800 words,” Hall stressed, critiquing op-eds she’d seen that tackled topics which required over 3000 words to fully address. 

In addition, Hall sought out a “wide range of viewpoints” as she crafted each week’s selection, noting that she prioritized the voice and engagement of a particular author over their ideological leanings. Above all, Hall was looking for different viewpoints articulated in ways that she felt that people could relate to, regardless of their background. “We have a tendency to surround ourselves with people we agree with…we like having a tribe for protective reasons. People don’t like to change their minds or do a ton of research.” Good persuasion, Hall argues, requires a keen sense of others’ value systems, and their emotions on the topic.

Hall, who created the “Sunday Review” section during her tenure at the Times, also dived into some of the specifics of what it was like to work as the Op-Ed editor at the New York times. One of the notable differences that distinguished the Op-Ed section was the lack of guaranteed publication. “People didn’t pay for op-eds, and would request op-eds without guaranteeing publication…you could go ahead and write something but there would be no guaranteed pay-off or kill-fee”. Hall added, however, that the digital age of journalism has added significantly more arenas for op-eds to succeed, and that there’s a lot more appetite for op-ed today, almost more than reporting. 

Audience members also raised insightful questions during the Q&A section of the discussion. For example, do recent Op-Eds by global figures such as President Erdogan deserve publication simply because of their author’s fame? Or are they merely thinly-veiled press releases that national newspapers are mistaken in publishing?

Overall, I really enjoyed the experience of listening to a former NY Times Op-Ed editor speak and realizing that any op-ed I ever tried to write would probably never be good enough for publication. Although moments of the discussion were a bit too focused on some of the more common pitfalls of opinion writing, Hall’s unique experience working for one of the most widely-read Op-Ed sections is unparalleled. Her advice was constructive and well-tailored, forming a solid foundation that future opinion-sharers and policy influencers can easily build off of. 

NYT op-ed via flickr