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You can find good opinion writing in unexpected places.

I REMEMBER MAKING THE CALL with great trepidation.

New to the job of editing a Sunday opinion section, not to mention being somewhat younger and less experienced, I had decided after much editing and not a little agonizing that my first commissioned opinion article -- by a nationally known economist -- wasn't publishable.

The details of that conversation are only a blur now, but I recall its awkwardness and my feeble attempt to suggest that, hey, maybe a Q&A was the most appropriate way to convey his economic theories, then in the national news. Mr. Economist was cool to my proposal. The whole embarrassing affair ended when I sent him a "kill fee" for his trouble.

More than a decade later, I continue to commission articles, of course, but still finding it distasteful to make those "bad news" phone calls, I try to choose my targets with care. I do so for another reason, too: I enjoy the editing process, but I can't afford to invest unnecessary hours heavily editing or rewriting a contributor's opinion piece. On occasion the subject is so compelling or newsworthy or the author's name or position is so significant that I give an article, solicited or unsolicited, that kind of attention. Nonetheless, I don't go out of my way looking for trouble.

And fortunately -- or unfortunately, depending on my mood and the pile on my desk -- I am inundated with unsolicited articles, thanks in part to the fax machine. They provide a choice alternate source of provocative and timely opinion articles.

I offer up no simple formula for commissioning opinion pieces, but here are some points that I hope will prove helpful.

Don't assume anything

I have found good writing in unexpected places and, too often, bad writing in quarters where one would think the art of writing would thrive. I remember a university history professor whose article needed major restructuring. Or the college president whose offering was dull, bureaucratic, and unoriginal. Or the prof who wrote page after page of gobbledygook -- nice words, but what did they mean?

Then again, there was the used car salesman, a Vietnam veteran still trying to find his way, who wrote a wonderful piece about his wartime experience. Or the precocious sixth-grader -- now a young medical student -- who wrote delightful pieces from a student's perspective. In the case of the latter two examples, their initial articles were unsolicited. But the point is, don't give undue weight to title or age or social position. Look in unexpected places.

Evaluate your prospective contributors

The process is not unlike a job interview. Have you heard your potential contributors speak? Have you seen samples of their writing? Are their books and articles (if any) readable? Does their writing or conversation reflect clear thinking? If quoted in the news pages, do your prospective sources provide insight, offer solid analysis, or speak with authority? What do your colleagues know about them?

But this word of caution: How easy it is to dismiss someone because we don't agree with his or her opinions.

Remain noncommittal as long as possible

Whenever possible, don't make a firm commitment to publish an article in advance of seeing it. Sometimes you'll call a potential contributor and tell her you're thinking about acquiring an article about a particular subject, explore the subject with her, obtain her thoughts about the merits of commenting on this or that issue, and then in the course of the conversation decide that, yes, she is just the person who ought to write for you. You may even find that you've been living right and she volunteers to write with no obligation to use it if it's not to your liking!

On the other hand, you may be uncertain about the quality of the opinion article that she would produce. This is a time for candor: tell her you're not sure you can commit to publication without seeing it, but if she'd like to give it a try, you'd love to consider it. She may pass, but if not this will give you some leeway should editing not make it acceptable.

Be alert for potential contributors

As you read your own newspaper or national newspapers and magazines, watch television, hear speeches, or converse with someone at a social gathering, a church event, or a school function, take note of particularly knowledgeable, articulate, and insightful people. Encourage them to consider writing for your opinion pages. Or make a mental note for the future.

Most of us promote diversity on our pages by avoiding overuse of the same contributors. But don't overlook authors of articles previously published. The nature of the news and deadlines may suggest turning to someone you know can produce.

Widen your horizons

If your subject is about a very local controversy, your pool of potential contributors may necessarily be limited. But the widespread availability of fax machines, overnight delivery, and computer modems makes it possible to consider contributors from anywhere.

Once I took dictation via a bad phone connection from Belfast, Northern Ireland. But now I frequently receive faxes from places such as Moscow, Prague, Berlin and Tel Aviv -- or computer transmissions from Washington.

Raise your sights

The size and location of your newspaper will be factors in determining who can be persuaded to write. But aim high. You may be surprised. And if they decline, they may suggest other names. The best people usually know of other good candidates to write for your pages.

Provide guidelines

Many potential contributors are, say, professors or lawyers first, writers second. Some may need guidance. Talk through the article if possible: Encourage the avoidance of jargon, suggest a length, make explicit your deadline, discuss the logistics of transmission. (We encourage writers to send electronically or provide diskettes whenever possible to reduce our clerical workload.)

All this won't guarantee a camera-ready article, but it may minimize difficulties later.

Let them see your editing

Offer contributors an opportunity to review their edited copy. I know editors who do extensive editing and cutting without consulting the authors before publication. But I have made it a practice to let each author review his or her work if it has been edited heavily or cut extensively. (Of course, I retain final control over content, but I don't want to publish unless the author is satisfied.) The fax machine makes the process less of a burden than in the past.

I do this first as a courtesy; after all, the article has the author's name on it, not mine. And I'm well aware that editing can unintentionally obfuscate as well as clarify meaning. In any case, it saves me unneeded headaches on Monday morning and promotes good will.

Be persistent, not unlike a reporter

The election of the first Polish pope was a major news story, and certainly of great interest to South Florida's large Catholic population. I perused the wires, talked to some knowledgeable people, racked my brain for names of people who might write about John Paul II's selection. Each way I turned I failed, or someone would suggest I make a call else where.

Then, 24 hours from my deadline, I called a Catholic seminary in the upper Midwest. The person whom I was calling was not available, but the seminary professor who answered the phone was a Polish-American priest who had studied in Warsaw, Poland. Despite academic commitments, he said he would write overnight because of the subject's importance. He produced a timely and thoughtful piece about a Page 1 news event.

Pay your contributors if possible

Most of us have modest budgets. I call my payment an honorarium because of its modest amount.

Many of my contributors are surprised to learn they will receive a check. Some place more value on seeing their name and views in print than on receiving payment, while free-lancers writing to earn a living see it quite differently. On occasion a writer asks that I send the honorarium to a designated charity.

In any case, I think it's a good policy to pay contributors, even if modestly.

By the way, I later published an article co-authored by Mr. Economist. He had either learned something about how to write for a newspaper, had been well coached (perhaps by his co-author) or had hired a ghostwriter --but that's another issue.

NCEW member Rich Bard is editor of the Sunday opinion section of The Miami Herald.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Bard, Rich
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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