The Essential Structure of Opinion Content
I’ve helped researchers and research-driven organizations with their marketing and communications for more than 20 years.
Which means I’ve edited hundreds and hundreds of opinion pieces by those researchers.
And I cannot lie: Most researchers are pretty bad at this content.
The most common problem: They’re not actually advancing opinions.
Instead, they’re just explaining and promoting some recent findings, albeit with minimal jargon. It’s as if researchers think “opinion” was another genre of “scientific writing” — except for non-scientific audiences.
Opinion content isn’t for promoting your new finding or your organization’s wonderful work. That’s why God invented press releases.
Instead, opinion content sheds light on a) a problem in the world that urgently needs fixing and b) the solutions to that problem that the authors know can work.
What makes opinion content from researchers theoretically so compelling is that they bring the data, analysis and/or expertise to vouch for their solutions and arguments. They play in the open ocean, in deep water. They’re not in the wading pool with the ideologues and the pundits and their soaker guns.
So yes, research is critical. But as a critical supporting element. Not the main attraction.
After years and years of rewriting these drafts from researchers, I’ve gotten a little smarter about how to get more of what I want the first time around.
I’ve developed an op-ed template that I can distribute to my clients.
It requires four fundamental components found in every compelling piece of opinion writing, and one other component that you very well might have to include as well and at least need to consider.
Here are the components:
- There’s a Problem in the World and It Needs to Be Fixed
- What’s Causing the Problem — and Why Haven’t We Solved It Already?
- So What’s Next? Here’s a Solution That Will Work
- Resistance to the Solution and How to Overcome It
- What’s at Stake/The Call to Action
If you read opinion pieces, these elements — and their order — should feel familiar, even natural. Their orientation is problem-solution — the essential orientation of thought leadership.
The template is formulaic, and a lot of excellent opinion writing inverts the order of these components — starting with the solution first, for example, if that solution is under attack from certain quarters or is gaining momentum but needs a push. (To quote Gore Vidal, there is always a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.) The Matthew Desmond piece I wrote about recently, touting the myriad positive impacts of raising the US minimum wage to $15, was such a piece.
However, until you understand the basics you have no business freelancing or trying to reinvent the wheel.
In subsequent posts, I’m going to cover all five of these fundamental components — the basics of any good op-ed or opinion-based essay, talk or video.
By the end, you’ll have my template to guide you when you’re drafting your own opinion content.