In which I tackle a titan.

Typewriter keyboardA conversation unfolded at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s place yesterday regarding the difficulty of writing 800-word opinion pieces, and whether or not the form itself dooms the entire enterprise to failure.

I found myself taking the conversation personally (which, I will admit, is not the first sign of wisdom!), because writing 800-word opinion pieces is what I do. It’s what I’ve always done, and I do it a lot more than folks might realize, because I also write stand-alone op/eds for other people, too.

Work that I’ve produced has appeared under other people’s names in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and USA Today, just to name a few. On any given day, I might be writing about Israel/Palestine for Open Zion, about domestic politics or popular culture right here, and about some Hot Button Issue for a client, someone who’ll never meet me but who trusts me to put their policy goals into words. I produce some version of an 800-word opinion piece at least three or four times a week, often more.

I did the same thing when I was a freelance commentary writer, but my by-line reached a much broader audience back then. I wrote for the Des Moines Register about abortion and the Baltimore Sun about oil; I wrote for the Dallas Morning News about whiny rich people complaining about tech in their lives, and for the Chicago Tribune about the norms and mores of wearing shoes in the house. I wrote for a whole bunch of places about Israel/Palestine.

Almost every time, I had to hit a 750-word limit (I would have killed for another 50 words, frankly). Over the course of several years I added a new publication to my clips file about once a month, which is considered pretty darn successful in the rarefied world of freelance commentary writing. I was being considered for syndication just as the bottom fell out on print in 2008 and newspapers and agencies started hemorrhaging writers like America was about to start hemorrhaging money.

I’m Midwestern, so the following doesn’t come easy, but I’m going to say it: I was successful because I was good.

Writing to an 800 (or 750) word length is a skill, and the newspaper essay is an artform. Just like any other profession — arts, sciences, or home improvement — my field boasts its fair share of people who are bad at their jobs, or who are but middling-good. They can crank out words, but the words don’t hang well. They can crank out words, but their thought process is sloppy. They can crank out words, but they long ago confused opinion with fact. They’re bad at their jobs.

But a well-honed short essay, produced by someone who respects the craft and the readers, is a beautiful thing. It introduces one idea, whether a policy goal or a vision of little girls playing on a hot summer’s day, and tells the story of that idea. It conveys what that idea means for the big world, and what it means for individuals. A well-honed essay finds the universal in the personal and shines that out for the reader to hold and consider.

If the idea is meant to change lives or policy, it has to be supported by hard details — numbers, expert opinion, news — so that the opinions attendant upon the idea cannot be dismissed. If the idea is a cameo of human life, the details must be “soft.” They must look like life, not argument. They must bring forth something shared, or there’s no point.

And sure it’s hard to do that well. Sometimes I literally moan and I literally groan and I become absolutely convinced that I will never be able to write a lede ever again.

But just as bad novels don’t render novels themselves a dubious undertaking, and bad poems don’t throw all of poetry up for grab, bad 800-word essays do not condemn the form. A particular reader might not like the form — I, for instance, don’t much go for poetry — but that’s the reader. Not the form.

Ta-Nehisi raised the idea that part of the problem lies in too many writers having to produce those 800 words too regularly, and I might well agree with that. I’ve never had to maintain a daily column and I don’t think I’d want to, because that does guarantee a certain failure rate. Furthermore, I’ve never been paid to be a generalist at any single place, so I don’t honestly know what challenges that would bring.

I would love the chance to try, though. When the bottom fell out in aught-eight and it looked for a good while like I’d never get to write under my by-line again, I truly mourned, and one of the things I mourned was that I was never going to get a chance to get better.

I love this thing I do. I love the letters, the words, the structures I build with them out of pixels, and I love building, block by block, word by word, until I’ve formed something cogent within the limitations of that box on the newspaper page.

I struggle within the form (if you check, you’ll see I abused the endless space of the internet to go over my word limit here), but all writers struggle. Getting good at something is hard.

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