The op-ed challenge: Do you care about quality writing, top outlets, or your voice?

February 5, 2024

I once made a rookie mistake. We were asked to edit and place an opinion essay. I assigned team members, we renovated the piece, and then we proudly sent it to the client.

The feedback wasn’t quite what we expected. The client said we had ruined the author’s voice — the way the author wanted to be read and perceived. We were told to start over, to simply cut the piece down and make as few edits as possible.

What I had forgotten to clarify with the client beforehand was how my team should execute our mission to put their author in the press. We were focused on having the highest-quality writing to put the piece in the highest-quality outlet.

But the client preferred the author’s voice, even at the expense of a higher-quality piece and losing the chance to land the piece at a top-tier outlet.

3 considerations: voice, content, and outlets

There are three crucial considerations to take into account when crafting and placing an essay:

  • What is the author’s voice? This is how an author wants to be understood. What is the author’s point of view, how is that point of view perceived and what impact should the point of view have? Some people and organizations want to be seen as counter-narrative. Others want to simply call the shots as a down-the-middle referee. And others want to be seen as authoritative and in charge.
  • Writing quality is next: How well-crafted is the op-ed? This isn’t just about having interesting content conveying the intended message. It’s also about sentence structure, typsos (ha, ha), the lede, and logical fallacies — the entirety of the piece of media that’s being crafted.
  • Outlet quality examines the quality of the media outlet(s) targeted by the author. But it’s not just identifying outlets based on brand recognition or circulation numbers. Different outlets are better fits depending on the author, subject, and desired audience. For example, a great voice in an excellently crafted op-ed about how AI is changing the tech world belongs in a tech outlet, not a construction trade outlet. And a piece about roofing technology belongs in the construction trade magazine, not Wired or the Wall Street Journal.

Everyone sees these components differently. One client focused on helping women navigate postpartum challenges. Its spokespeople cared far more about precision of voice and writing quality than the quality of outlets. A Washington Post op-ed that that didn’t match its voice would have been harmful.

More recently, a business client wrote an essay in his voice. We chopped it down, restructured it, and changed the tone. He cared more about quality and getting in a prestigious outlet than his “voice.” And the piece was published in a top international business outlet.

Another client doesn’t care at all about voice or quality. Instead, the goal is to put a lot of pieces into targeted outlets over and over again.

 What is the client’s priority?

In an ideal world, all op-eds would have the best writing, get in the best outlets and perfectly match an author’s voice. And, while I’m wishing: I’d be retired, writing a weekly column for The Washington Post, and traveling the world with my family.

But here in reality, there are often sacrifices. That’s why we seek to understand clients’ short and long-term goals, narratives, and target audiences before the writing process even starts. And that’s what I forgot to do with my rookie mistake: ensure that my vision was the same as the client’s.

A version of this piece was originally published by Dustin Siggins at PR Daily.

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