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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Erin Aubry Kaplan and The Art of The Op-Ed Essay

By Alana Saltz

If you have a lot of strong opinions, writing an op-ed can be a great way to share your ideas and passions with the world. And nobody knows more about op-ed's than Erin Aubry Kaplan!

Erin is an award-winning journalist, columnist, and op-ed writer who has written about African-American political, economic, and cultural issues since 1992. She is currently a contributing editor to the op-ed section of the Los Angeles Times, and from 2005 to 2007 was a weekly op-ed columnist – the first black weekly op-ed columnist in the paper’s history.

Erin knows all about how to find, research, and tell a good story. If you want to learn how to write, pitch, and publish your own op-eds, check out Erin's Writing the Op-Ed Essay class starting July 23rd! She'll help you finish and publish two 800 word op-eds.

In the meantime, Erin graciously answered a few questions about how she got her start in the field, what makes a good op-ed piece, and the future of the industry.

How did you get your start in the field of journalism?

I kind of took a circuitous route. I always wanted to write, so in college I majored in English and later got a graduate degree in acting because I thought I wanted to do that. I have a good friend who was a staff writer at the L.A. Times who started his own independent paper in the late ‘80s and recruited me to write for it. It was there that I learned how to be a journalist, how to report and be edited. I learned how to write columns and use a more personal voice to address big issues. Because of that experience, I was able to start writing for the Times in 1992. My friend Ed was and still is a great mentor.      

What exactly is an op-ed, and how is it different than an essay or article?

An op-ed can come close to being either one of those things. The main difference is length—they’re usually about 800 words at most, while traditional essays are longer and articles can be any length, from a 300-word news brief to a 5,000-word feature story. A newspaper op-ed is essentially a brief, focused argument or opinion about something, frequently but not always a current event or topical issue, written in the first person. There’s no set format—some read like essays, others like news analysis, still others like satire. But they all have to make a clear point, move from to A to B.    

You have written a lot of op-eds. How do you keep coming up with ideas for op-eds?

I used to write a weekly op-ed for the Times, and coming up with ideas was sometimes challenging; there were some weeks that I just thought I had nothing to say. Of course I was always wrong. I once asked my friend Ed about what made a good news or feature story, and he said, “Actually, anything that interests you can be a good story.” I think the same thing applies to op-eds—if it interests you, or makes you angry or passionate or excited, it’s probably worth writing about.

What qualities do you think save an op-ed from the slush pile?

The op-eds most likely to be published are those that are clear, well-argued and well-written. And they should be within the required word count—no editor is going to read 2,000 words, no matter how brilliant, when the paper can only run 500. If it’s that long, it’s a different kind of piece. Having some personal experience or expertise in what you're writing about is also helpful. In other words, having some connection to the topic raises the stakes and makes the op-ed more compelling and therefore more likely to be published.        

What advice would you give writers hoping to break into the field of journalism?

Print journalism has been downsizing for years, newspapers have been closing, and while virtually all papers and magazines have websites, they don’t tend to pay very much for pieces, if they pay at all. The good news is that journalism is something that will always be in demand and will always survive for that reason—it’s the only profession mentioned in the Constitution! So it’s one of those things that a democracy really can’t do without. All the websites and blogs in the world can’t substitute for reporters whose job it is to research, report, write and make sense of things. No offense to bloggers (I’m one!) but journalism is a big and important job that needs to be done well, with the backing of a news operation.    

Thanks, Erin! That was very helpful and interesting. We can't wait for your op-ed class in July!

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