We got the chance to ask OEP Mentor-Editor Tom Zoellner (TZ) about everything an up and coming writer wants to know: what makes a topic good, who’s an expert and, of course, why he mentors.
On Peak Credibility (The Expertise Game):
TZ: Hi, my name is Tom Zoellner and I’m an expert in minerals and mining because I’ve written two books on the topic, one dealing with diamonds and the other with uranium.
TZ: A lack of academic credentials should never stop anyone from pursuing the chance to say something important. That’s part of the journalistic gist is that, although we may not be experts, we have the ability to talk to the experts. Everyone started from a baseline of zero knowledge. That said, some kind of platform or worldly credential does help get the attention of an editor.
TZ: Mentoring is a chance to meet interesting people from all over. It’s a chance to hear about unique research that’s going on. It’s a chance to think about the world in a new way. And it’s always a pleasure, even when the op-eds don’t get published, it sort of helps them think about their argument–perhaps come up with a new angle, move a piece maybe away from conventional ways of thinking and sort of into something else, a little more counterintuitive.
*Check out two of Tom’s successes as a Mentor-Editor: Martha Southgate: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/11/opinion/water-damage-more-blacks-lack-swimming-skills.html?_r=0 and Maya Paley: http://www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/print/Commentary/Opinion/2012/0827/In-shunning-African-refugees-Israel-ignores-Exodus-call-not-to-oppress-the-stranger
TZ: As much as possible, you’re going to want to read the piece as though you were casually flipping through the newspaper and didn’t know anything about the topic. And ask yourself, would I be convinced by this argument? Would I be bored by this writing? Does this op-ed appear like its just sort of propaganda for a particular organization or is this drowning in acronyms and jargon?
On Choosing a Topic:
A really bad reason to write anything is just for the sake of having written it. You want to make sure that there’s something new to say. You want to make sure that you’re not wasting the reader’s time and, if there’s a really rich sort of untold story that you can bring a unique stamp to, then it’s worth investigating whether there’s a book there. But it has to be a subject of genuine passion and genuinely adding something to the world that does not yet exist.
On First Writing Op-Eds:
TZ: I don’t think that I was very good at it at all because I had spent ten years as a newspaper reporter. Having an opinion in print was heresy, but then I took Katie Orenstein’s class in op-ed writing at Mediabistro–mainly because she was a friend. That’s really when I started, and it really took several tries to get it right. [I learned the importance of] brevity, confidence, intuition.
On His Next Book (“Train: Smoke, Iron, and the Invention of the Modern World”):
It’s a narrative history and travelogue about some of the world’s greatest railways and how they influenced the course of history.