At Stanford: Write to change the world

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Used with permission.

A great way to promote your ministry’s mission is to write opinion pieces for the op-ed page of a newspaper. You can educate the public about an issue, promote solutions to a problem, and raise awareness of your ministry all at the same time. If you have a relevant topic, a clear point-of-view, and a well-reasoned, well-written argument, you can be published. A few Canadian Christians who are regularly published in national newspapers are Bruce Clemenger, Lorna Dueck, John G. Stackhouse Jr., and Don Hutchinson. I’m always impressed with their clarity of thought and the reasonableness of their points. They, and other writers like them, are a credit to the evangelical Christian community and effectively communicate important viewpoints to the public.

You, too, could be a member of this group of great Christian writers. Have you written an opinion piece yet? Back in the Nineties, I wrote my first opinion piece when I was completely unknown to the public and had no credentials to say “Here’s why you should know my opinion on this topic.” I was really surprised when the KW Record ran it, and without any edits at all. The opinion editor told me once that editors are always looking for good thoughtful columns and anyone is welcome to submit one. Over a few years, I had a few opinions published in the Record.

On my last day at Stanford, I took a course called “Write to change the world,” presented by The OpEd Project. This one-day course helps people write persuasively about controversial topics. I can give you the key points, but you should attend the course to have them all fleshed out with details and illustrations. However, here are the key takeaways.

 Five Core Questions

These five questions will prepare you to write an op-ed piece:

  1. What is the source of credibility and how do you establish it? Credibility comes through your knowledge of the topic you are writing about. Say what you know and back it up!
  2. How do you build an evidence-based, value-driven argument (as opposed to rhetoric)? Evidence is built on concrete facts that we all find credible even if we don’t agree on how to interpret them. Controversy isn’t to be avoided. It is precisely because there is controversy that there are opinions. If there is nothing controversial, then there is nothing to write about (from an op-ed perspective)! A value-driven argument is an argument that adds to the conversation. If you are only repeating what others have said, then you shouldn’t write an opinion piece.
  3. What is the difference between being right and being effective? The difference is empathy and respect! You can say all the right things, but if you sound obnoxious or arrogant, you won’t persuade anyone. Respect the people you are trying to persuade and acknowledge their views. An effective way to do this is to include a “To be sure…” paragraph (which I’ll describe below).
  4. What is the bigger picture and how do your ideas fit into it? Start with your ideas, what you know, and then ask the who, what, where, why questions. Enlarge the specifics you wrote about to get to the broader topic. For example, the instructor said that a book about Little Red Riding Hood was written by an expert in fairy tales who tried unsuccessfully to get it published as an interpretation of a fairy tale. When she repositioned her book as an analysis of the story of women as told in pop culture, she got it published right away. She wrote at the micro level, and then integrated her writing into the macro cultural context. When you write about a specific instance or a narrow topic, people may yawn and skip to the next article. Thinking big about your piece and telling the reader how it fits the big picture will establish that this is an important article that needs to be read.
  5. Do you understand your knowledge and experience in terms of its value to others? Underlying all of your writing should be a certainty that you know something that others need to hear. Too many of us discount the value of our thoughts and opinions. They may seem ordinary to you, but that’s only because they are part of you. Others will likely see them as thoughtful or a fresh way of thinking. Speak up!

Structuring your opinion piece

The OpEd Project says there are many ways to structure a persuasive argument, but here is one way they said it could be done:

  • Start with the lede (rhymes with ‘bead’ – there is a good historical reason for the deliberate misspelling of the word ‘lead’). This is the hook and it should answer the question, “Why today?” Why is this opinion piece of interest today? You could tie it to current events, release of new information and so on. The one thing an op-ed piece should never be is a response to another op-ed article.
  • Have a thesis. This is your position. You can state it explicitly or you can imply it. That depends on your strategy. Whichever you choose, the thesis is the foundation of your article.
  • Develop your arguments based on evidence. Three seems to be a good number for your arguments. Each argument is a point you want to make, supported by some evidence and then a conclusion. Then you move on to the next point.
  • A very important part of the structure is the To be sure section that follows your arguments. Here is where you show empathy and respect for your opposition. You anticipate the rebuttals your opponents could make. Acknowledge any weaknesses in your argument, what can be done about them or why your opinion should still stand regardless of its weaknesses. Raise the points you think people of different opinions might use against your arguments and refute them. Or you may say they have some good points but they can be mitigated, or that they are trumped by the power of your argument.
  • Finally, a good conclusion may be a call to action, or it may summarize the lede and let readers decide for themselves what their response will be.

Writing opinion articles will give you a new audience. As leaders, we often speak to supporters and those who are friendly to our positions. Stating your opinion on controversial topics will give you a new audience, and the potential to make a difference by giving people new ideas to think about. You may cause some people to change their minds, and many more may soften their positions and create room for constructive dialogue.

I am inspired to try my hand at this specialized form of writing once again. Will you join me and write about your cause?

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