How to be an opinion writer
Some thoughts on what I do, and how you can do it too!
The other day, Jordan Schneider of the excellent blog ChinaTalk asked me “How do you do what you do?” Which was kind of funny, because he and I have the exact same job. But what he really meant was how I write so often and on such a broad array of topics.
Well, it’s a slow news week, so I thought I’d write a post about how I approach my job as an opinion writer. In fact, this will be the third in a series of posts I’ve written on this general topic — the first two were about how to be a professional writer, and the second was about how to make a Substack newsletter successful. This one will be less about the process and the marketing, and more about how I actually create the content. I’ll cover:
My general conception of how an opinion writer adds value
How I decide what to write about
Where I get my information — what I read and who I talk to
How I actually communicate my thoughts
Some pitfalls I try to avoid
The opinion writer as public-domain CIA analyst
“Opinion writer” is not really a good term for what I do. Although Americans tend to use the word “opinion” to mean anything that people argue about, what I mostly offer are actually assessments — explanations for why I think the world works the way it does, forecasts for how I think things might go in the future, conditional predictions about the effects of various policy choices, and recommendations about how to achieve certain goals.
This has to do with my own goals as a writer. Some writers are basically crusaders for a certain ideology or point of view, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just a little different; I have a certain way I’d like the world to be, but most of all I just want to see the world be better-informed. Basically I’m just the guy in this famous XKCD comic:
This doesn’t mean I’m a dispassionate robot who just tells people the facts and lets them decide what to do with them. I do actually include a fair amount of true opinion in my writing — if I think climate change is an important problem, or a more egalitarian society is good, or Chinese military power is a menace, I’m going to let you know. But I see this as also being part of the process of informing people — if you know what kind of world I’d like to achieve, then you’ll have a better idea of whether to listen to my recommendations.
As I’ve written before, I think of what I do as being closely akin to what a CIA analyst does. I didn’t have any idea what CIA analysts did until I read the book The Revolt of the Public, by Martin Gurri, who held that role himself. Basically, what CIA analysts do is to take in a large amount of information from CIA agents, figure out what it all means, and synthesize it into a fairly simple, comprehensible, and actionable narrative for their higher-ups.
When I read that, I realized that I basically do the same thing — I read a bunch of books and papers and blogs and social media posts, and I try to synthesize those into narratives that the general public understands. Journalists and academics are like my agents in the field, gathering the primary information. Sometimes I dig into the details to check what they send me, but I can’t always afford to do that; usually I have to decide which information-gatherers to trust. And instead of higher-ups in the government, I have you, the public.
I am the middleman, and you are my boss.
Informing the world isn’t just what I want to do; it’s also what you pay me to do. It’s the value I provide, because people want to feel better-informed. I think this is true even of the more ideological opinion writers out there — if you’re a socialist reading Jacobin or a libertarian reading Reason, you still want to understand the world better, you just want to understand it from a certain ideological vantage point. So if you’re an aspiring opinion writer, this should be the first question you think about: “How can I make the world better informed?”
The first step is to decide what to inform the world about.
What to write about
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