The other side of the page

Today in The New York Times is an excellent piece by Bret Stephens offering advice to aspiring op-ed writers. Stephens is a columnist, and much of his counsel is aimed at those who’d like a job like his. “The purpose of an op-ed is to offer an opinion,” for example. “It is not a news analysis or a weighing up of alternative views. It requires a clear thesis, backed by rigorously marshaled evidence, in the service of a persuasive argument.”

But, much of his advice applies to writing in general. All writing. Your writing.

Here’s tip No. 7, from a list of 15: “Avoid the passive voice. Write declarative sentences. Delete useless or weasel words such as ‘apparently,’ ‘understandable’ or ‘indeed.’ Project a tone of confidence, which is the middle course between diffidence and bombast.”


Stephens also offers up some good and long-standing cautions such as avoiding cliches, sticking to the active voice, and if you find writing easy, you’re doing it wrong. Right, right, and damned right.

But what really grabbed me was his advice to be “proleptic.” It’s a word, he says, that comes from the Greek for anticipation. “Get the better of the major objection to your argument by raising and answering it in advance,” Stephen tells his opinion aspirants. “Always offer the other side’s strongest case, not the straw man. Doing so will sharpen your own case and earn the respect of your reader.”

The art of being proleptic, however, isn’t just for pundits. Your writing will improve if you anticipate what your readers want, or in the case of a novel or narrative nonfiction, what they expect to happen. You shouldn’t always give it to them–some of the best literature confounds expectations–but you should always have a feel for what it’s like on the other side of the page.


About maxmccoy

Novelist and journalist. Author of a few books. Won some awards. Plays guitar. Writing a biography of the Arkansas River and some other stuff. Teaches at Emporia State. Director of the Ad Astra Writers Conference.
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