How to Write an Op-Ed in 15 Minutes — with 20 Authors (for real)

At the second convening of our Public Voices Fellowship at Dartmouth, on the theme of CONNECTION, our journalist facilitators gave the group an assignment, hung up flip chart sheets, and left the room.

The assignment: to write an op-ed as a team. In fifteen minutes flat.

The charts were labeled with some basic elements of persuasion:

  1. Lede
  1. News hook
  1. Argument
  1. Evidence
  1. To be sure
  1. Conclusion

The newshook was ripped from that day’s paper: on the latest Apple developers conference. The argument, proffered by fellow William Cheng, from the music department: that while Apple “i”s cane be found in most student hands in class, another “I” — the first person — is largely barred from their writing, extinguishing their unique voices.

IMG_3750The rest was up to them, as a team. We set a timer — on an iPhone, as it happens — for fifteen minutes and closed the door.

It seems absurd, perhaps, to think that 20 professors from fields as disparate as spectral geometry and Latin American theatre, at only their second gathering together, could in fifteen minutes, write and op-ed as a team. But when the timer went off, there it was. Not fully written. But sketched out in a way that all it required was Cheng to bring it back to his office, polish it up, and submit it.

Which he did, to Slate.  Where it ran shortly after.

You’d think this might be a fluke, perhaps, or a product of something unique to the small college culture at Dartmouth.  But we’ve conducted this same experiment, with the same results on campuses across the country. At Columbia this year, the fellowship took a truly absurd real-life headline announcing National Termite Day, linked it with the scourge of homophobia, and in ten minutes — at least a quarter of which was spent laughing — an op-ed was born. It too, was published soon after, sans termite peg, in no less than the Washington Post, by Jennifer Hirsch, in sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health. We’ve done it coast to coast, everywhere from Cornell to the Dallas, with the same results.

The idea behind this live experiment is simple:  Ideas develop slowly when left in one mind.  We can greatly increase the velocity of development of ideas if we share and exchange them.  In this case, we can develop a piece primed for the public conversation in 15 minutes flat.

columbia-public-voices-fellows-deconstruct-hunches-and-explore-the-power-of-intuition-theopedproject-publicvoices_14982780730_oBut there’s something else afoot as well. We’re not only connecting thinkers to each other but we’re connecting an idea to an event in the news.  Sometimes it doesn’t stick, it simply becomes a prompt with timely urgency behind it that gets the thing done (National Termite Day doesn’t last long, people!). But more often, like in the Dartmouth piece, it creates an opportunity to take a timeless idea — what editors call “evergreen,” and I bet you can figure out why — and make it timely.  Its’ not enough for something to matter: why does it matter today?

So connection is multidimensional: it means linking people together to develop and sharpen an argument — and the opposition an argument might face, which is just as important.  It means linking knowledge across fields to increase and ballast evidence. And it means linking what matters, and why we know it to be true with a moment in the news cycle that makes people feel urgency, what we call the “why now?” every editor needs to make a case for in their busily populated publications.

Yes, all in fifteen minutes flat.

Post by OpEd Project Journalist Facilitator, Lauren Sandler.


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