Do you want to write an op-ed that nobody will publish or read? The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and hundreds of other publications reject thousands of op-eds each year. What is the secret to successfully failing?
First, set the bar low by coming up with an anodyne headline before you begin writing your boring commentary. Here’s one that should do the trick: “How to Write an Op-Ed.” This is a winner because it’s unlikely to provoke dissent, cause offense, spur curiosity or further discussion. The reader will immediately skip to something, anything, more interesting.
Comment on something that has already been covered in the op-ed pages of whatever publication you are pitching your commentary to. Even better, don’t read the op-ed or news pages of your target publication for a week before you start writing.
If you insist on commenting on something in the news over the last few days, you can still turn off op-ed editors and readers alike by providing a lengthy summary of that same news that they’ve already read instead of giving the highlights in a sentence or two and getting to your point.
Lukewarm Is the Right Temperature
Make sure to take a position no different from most others in your industry. In temperature terms, think lukewarm: not hot enough to burn anyone but warm enough to induce slumber.
If you’re going to take a contrary position anyway, a surefire way to guarantee your op-ed won’t run is to not address the likely arguments others would make against your position. Op-eds without backbones get deleted.
Don’t forget that most readers are unlikely to read something just because the writer is famous. Fortunately, like most op-ed writers, you’re probably not famous, so most people, besides your mom, won’t care what you think. So the more you can insert yourself or, even better, your company into your commentary in a self-promotional way, the more likely you will succeed in failing to publish your op-ed.
The More Words, the Better
If the publication in which you seek to publish your op-ed provides guidelines for writing and submitting commentary, don’t read them. Or, even better, read them and then convince yourself that you’re the exception to guidance from the Washington Post’s op-ed editors, for example, that pieces longer than 750 words “are unlikely to be accepted.” Whatever you can say in 750 words, you can also say in 1,000 words.
How to Successfully Fail
As you write your commentary, keep these guidelines in mind if you want to successfully fail.
- Use the passive voice wherever possible because having something done to you is way less interesting than doing it yourself.
- Tell, don’t show. If you’re writing about why the number of men who have died from lightning strikes in the U.S. over the last 10 years is more than three times the number of women, make sure not to share the details of a single incident or the name of a single victim.
- Speaking of making assertions, a truly unprintable op-ed makes no mention of sources to back up each one.
- Use as many adjectives and adverbs as possible and, if you really want to bomb, toss in a cliché or two. The more time an editor has to invest in making your commentary concise enough to print, the less likely that it’s going to be printed.
- Don’t explain to readers why they should care about your opinion. If you can’t avoid this, then put that explanation somewhere towards the end of your piece. Journalists call this burying the lede, a mark of success in bad writing. If you’ve adhered to all of the other guidelines here, readers are unlikely to make it that far anyway, assuming that editors haven’t already rejected your piece.
- The best writing is rewriting, which means that a truly awful op-ed will tend to be a first or second draft with few edits or changes. The more you rewrite, the better your piece will become. So avoid rewriting at all costs. If someone gives you guidance on how to improve your commentary, ignore it.
Don’t Read This
Finally, one of the best ways to not get your op-ed published is to not read other op-eds published in the publication you’re targeting. Here’s a great one from Bret Stephens of The New York Times. Don’t read it.