Anatomy of an Op-Ed: What Goes Behind Those 800 Little Words
Writing is a terrible profession and I highly urge no one to go into it. If I hadn’t already opened my big trap to tell the world I was “off” to “become” a “writer,” I would have gotten out long ago, too. But here I am, so I thought I’d share the–well, my–writing process, in all its inefficiency.
Today I had an op-ed piece published in The Guardian! In the article, I call for an end to stigmas attached to blue-collar workers. This was a particularly gratifying experience because (1) I wrote about a topic I feel passionately about, (2) it’s the freaking GUARDIAN!, and (3) this 800 word article was one of the quickest pieces I’ve ever written: it took me (only) about 50 hours last week to write and research, not counting the time it took to come up with the pitch, deliver the pitch, and secure the commission from the editors.
Pre-Process: Macro Vs Micro:
What motivates me to write are two things: the macro and the micro. The problem is trying to reconcile these two disparate elements, and wrestle them into one coherent piece.
The larger, macro part is abstract, usually just floating about in my psyche. Sometimes it’s a rant: hipsters need to stop acting like bourgy snobs! Academics should go work a factory job for a week and then come back and talk to me! Whatever it is, it’s a nebulous wisp and there’s nothing I can hinge it on (or hinge anything to it).
Then there are a whole series of the micro: miniature scenes, specific human gestures and interactions that are particularly telling of a person’s character. These little anecdotes all pile up in a heap and I keep them stockpiled away for years, wondering how the heck I’m going to string them into a narrative.
Both the micro and macro percolate–usually for years–before the actual writing, and it’s sometimes a guessing game as to which of these anecdotes matches up to the big idea. But usually the big idea needs to be honed down and pegged to a more practical matter.
It was only after I had drinks with a friend around Xmas, and the subject of vocational work came up (along with a rant re the unemployed being too hoity-toity for certain kinds of work), that I knew: I found the crux of my argument. And I would have to wait for the right opportunity–and outlet–came along for me to secure the piece.
And…50 Hours and 9,000 Words Later:
One reason why writing is such a terrible undertaking is that you generate so much waste, for so little return. Waste of time (50hrs, or 3 10-12hr days, 2 half-days, then an hour or two each day doing little edits), waste of words (9,000 discarded words), no guarantee of publication. I can hardly think of one single sentence that comes to me in perfect form. Each sentence in this op-ed has been rewritten at least 5 times. I keep an Outtakes file for each piece I write, and the word count is at least 10x as much as the finished piece.
In my op-ed, I start out with two tiny paragraphs, detailing an anecdote of working at a grocery store. Those moments have stayed with me for almost a decade. I wrote a whole 20 page essay focusing on just those moments. Apparently it was 20 pages too long because every magazine rejected it and it’s still sitting unpublished in the Nonfiction folder on my computer to this day.
Here’s a little analogy for you: being a writer is like running a marathon while designing the marathon course. Who the heck wants to run a marathon that’s a simple, flat, out-and-back? or 105 laps around the same loop? You need to give the writing the right structure/shape so there’s a build-up to drama, and it’s exciting for the reader, etc. Then, to add insult to injury, after all your test-runs, your exhausted self has to then go out and pitch, then publicize the stupid marathon (err, article), knowing all the while that even if you build it, they may not come.
There were some memorable moments I would have liked to work into the piece. But as the old adage goes: kill your darlings. E.g., this gratuitous poke at hipsters:
Maybe we should take a cue from the hipsters of Portland and Park Slope, with their pickling, their metal working, their cheesemongering.
But then I thought: Park Slope’s not really hipster. I mean, there are hipster elements, but the first thing that comes to mind when people think “Park Slope” is stroller mom. The second: Tea Lounge with their bed bug scare. (Or maybe that’s just me.) People associate Williamsburg and now Bushwick with hipster. But if I say Williamsburg, I lose the alliteration with the P’s. And that’s assuming people have even watched that episode of Portlandia Season 2 where I’m referencing both hipsters going into trades, and hipster pickling. And on that note: maybe I should change the “maybe” to “perhaps,” to make it a whole panoply of plosives!
So then I went back and forth about this for longer than it takes most people to make a cassoulet.
Then I researched and found that there was a pickler in Gowanus. And I think Gowanus is inherently a doofy sounding word, so then I wrote:
Perhaps the hipsters of Gowanus and Portland are onto something in reviving the learning of a trade. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics has yet to release average earnings for artisanal picklers or urban chicken farmers, there is something to be said about considering alternatives off the tried and no longer true career path…
Then I worried that the BLS actually DID publish stats for picklers, and due to my inferior research skills, I just couldn’t find them. Also: I was hoping to set up the urban chicken farming reference, so I could then introduce the lucrative career of chick sexing. THEN I thought the joke fell flat, and maybe the humor wasn’t established early on enough in the piece.
In the end, I decided to cut the hipster line altogether; there was no way to make it fit into the piece without a jarring tone shift and content shift.
Another line that made me titter to myself: They call it ‘White Collar,’ not ‘Dirty White Collar.’ Bc, you know, the show is about con men. And bc, you know, ring around the collar. But the only one laughing was me.
I had another bit about addressing my own personal “fulfillment” at the grocery:
I don’t love working at the grocery. It is a job that comes with its own stresses, and requires a certain agility (physical, arithmetical) that has atrophied in my time in the academy.
Basically this line was there to show how I am a spaz at the grocery store, and I am in a constant state of suspended cognitive dissonance, like some horribly Proustian character overwhelmed by a deluge of sensory images and unable to act. Or: a deer in headlights. And how the world of the blue-collar is snap decisions and everything is chop-chop! Whereas working in literature has made me a lot slower on the uptake, because I am concentrating on a particular sensory detail, at the expense of missing the larger picture.
So I cut it.
Here’s another deleted (para)graph:
Like most of my cohort, I thought a college degree came with the guarantee of a respectable, meaningful career, for which I would be well-compensated. But I graduated into a weak economy, and my former classmates and I had no choice but to squabble over the handful of unpaid internships left on the market. Then I went on to get a graduate degree and once again faced similar prospects. Only recently have I begun to wonder what our earnings potential might have looked like if more of us had foregone college altogether—saving ourselves a whole lot of money and a whole lot of precious time.
But then I thought the whole op-ed became about me, and less about the issue. Also, I wasn’t sure if people would pick up on the “whole lot of money…whole lot of precious time” echo (cf, “I Got My Mind Set on You”), and if they DID pick up on it, would it even be a relevant reference? Prbly not. Also: after I finished grad school I went straight into a Fulbright grant, so I got to skip out the economy for a little while…on the taxpayers’ dime! (Ka-ching.) I also couldn’t find a way to turn the article back to the stigma of blue-collar work, so I said, CIAO.
So that’s what went on behind the scenes to write my op-ed in The Guardian. I hope this answers the question of what the heck it is I do with my day, when I’m not teaching or bagging groceries. If you made a decision tree of the tiny million little insignificant choices I make in a day (“a” or “the”? To semi-colon, or not to semi-colon?), it would look sadder than this:
If anyone cares to share his/her more efficient writerly patterns, please do.