Up against a wall

Shipley writes about his op-ed job at the NYTimes:

These differences are important because Op-Ed, in some measure, is shaped by its neighbors. The Op-Ed editors tend to look for articles that cover subjects and make arguments that have not been articulated elsewhere in the editorial space. If the editorial page, for example, has a forceful, long-held view on a certain topic, we are more inclined to publish an Op-Ed that disagrees with that view. If you open the newspaper and find the editorial page and Op-Ed in lock step agreement or consistently writing on the same subject day after day, then we aren't doing our job.

Our decisions about which essays to publish aren't governed by a need for editorial variety alone. Among other things, we look for timeliness, ingenuity, strength of argument, freshness of opinion, clear writing and newsworthiness. Personal experiences and first-person narrative can be great, particularly when they're in service to a larger idea. So is humor, when it's funny. Does it help to be famous? Not really. In fact, the bar of acceptance gets nudged a little higher for people who have the means to get their message out in other ways — elected officials, heads of state, corporate titans. It's incumbent on them to say something forthright and unexpected. Op-Ed real estate is too valuable to be taken up with press releases.

After all, we don't have a lot of space. On a day with two columnists and an advertisement, Op-Ed has room for about 1,200 words of type. That's it. (Speaking of those advertisements: we have nothing to do with them. They're sold, placed and scheduled by The Times' advertising department.) These unyielding boundaries mean that Op-Ed cannot harbor any aspirations about being encyclopedic. ("All the views that are fit to print?" Not a chance, alas.) For this reason, important subjects, issues and ideas will go uncovered. Op-Ed will inevitably be subjective and idiosyncratic.

These space considerations can be frustrating for editors and contributors alike. Roughly 1,200 unsolicited submissions come to our office every week via e-mail, fax and the United States Postal Service. Many of these submissions are first-rate — and most get turned down simply because we don't have enough room to publish everything we like. How do we know they're good? Because all submissions are read; many are reviewed by the entire staff; some are hotly debated before a decision is made.

Sigh. USAToday told me they get something like 150 submissions per week. At least it's comforting to know someone read my station fire piece, before not contacting me.

What's particularly daunting is that I'm sort of planning for a regular post at some future regional paper. Something I can do in conjunction with seeing patients. Not sure if it'll be a Sci / Health / Tech Chet Raymo sort of column, or broader. But it still takes me the better part of a day to craft a publishable piece. (I suspect my problem is a reluctance to edit my own work so soon after writing it, thus, I ignore Lamott's advice about 'shitty first drafts' and take longer to craft something perfect).

I think pretty much anyone, with a few days' training, can do an H+P on an outpatient. To do twenty a day, years and years of schooling and training are necessary. I suspect it's the same with writing opinions. Which means it's a wide-open question whether any city paper will hire someone who can only churn out a few columns a month.

The good news: this blog has demonstrated there's no shortage of ideas. And there's plenty of opportunity for practice with Worcester Medicine, and maybe studentJAMA. Just like my first H+P's took forever, maybe someday I can crank out the columns. And every now and then, take a column, put some extra polish on it, and try for the NYTimes.