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Section 3-4: Identifying Your Areas of Expertise

What makes an argument powerful? What do you need to know to write persuasively, and to get published?

To start, an op-ed works best when it's written by the right person. By this, we mean someone who is well-qualified to write credibly and persuasively on a given subject. Someone whose opinion we trust, or at least respect. Someone who knows what she or he is talking about. In other words, an "expert."

You Are an Expert

What do you know about—a lot about? And why? Are you an expert in violence against women because you have been trained as a guidance counselor handling rape, assault, and sexual-harassment cases? Are you an expert in childbirth because you're a midwife who has delivered babies? Or maybe you are an expert in small business because you baked and sold pastries to put yourself through school.

Whatever you choose to claim as your expertise, be specific. If you have a pen handy, write it down. No need to summarize your life story, no need to name everything you know; just pick one thing you're confident you know well, and write it down.

What did you write? What reasons did you give? How specific were you? Think again about the core of your expertise, and the source. What are the reasons for your knowledge? Now, keeping that source in mind, see if you can make logical connections to other topics or themes you might be qualified to write about. Can you expand on your expertise? See new angles?

To write persuasive op-eds, you need to be an expert on your topic. This should be clear to your editor and to your readers. Don't worry—we're using the term "expert" loosely, here. You don't necessarily need to have a fancy degree, a famous name, or an important job to be an "expert." But you do need to know your subject very well—well enough to be able to contribute in a meaningful way to the public conversation. You need to be able to write with authority. (Note that "author" and "authority" share the same root.)

So what makes someone an expert? Some possibilities:

  • a well-reviewed book
  • a PhD
  • a background researching or reporting extensively on a topic
  • a title or job experience
  • first-hand experience

Pay close attention to the last item on that list: experience. Often, we know a lot about something simply because we were there—we've experienced it, or observed it, firsthand. For example, Stacy Sullivan wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about having her identity stolen ("How I Lost My Good Name"). Sullivan's expertise came from her experience. We call this "citizen expertise"—or sometimes I refer to it as "experiential authority." By that, I mean you know something valuable because you've been there, done it.

Another word on expertise: If you're not already an expert on your topic of interest, you can become one. How? By doing your homework: researching and reporting. Occasionally editors will publish op-eds by ordinary people (that is, people without any special background or title) who have a good, timely idea, and research and report it very well. Remember: There's no substitute for research and reporting—even in op-ed land. Rhetoric alone won't work on the Op-Ed page. An op-ed is not just an opinion: An op-ed is an argument backed up by evidence. By extension, we might say that an expert is someone who has the evidence to make her or his argument persuasively.

Little Red Riding Hood, Women and Popular Culture
A note from Katie Orenstein, Founder and Director of the OpEd Project

I consider myself an expert on the fairy tale "Little Red Riding Hood," because I wrote a book entitled "Little Red Riding Hood Uncloaked: Sex, Morality and the Evolution of a Fairy Tale." This is my starting point for this exercise—the core of my expertise and the source of my expertise. It's not the only thing I consider myself an expert on, but it's one area that I've chosen to write about. Originally I saw my expertise as very specific—as specific as the title of my book. I felt qualified to write only about fairy tales, and fairy tale heroines. But as you can probably imagine, that understanding of myself as a writer and thinker was very limiting.

Eventually I began to frame myself more broadly. I began to see that I could write knowledgeably about heroines of all kinds (not just fairy tale heroines). From there I realized I could write not just about heroines, but about all kinds of women—after all, my book was not just about a fairy tale, it was about women, and ideas about sex and morality and women, over 500 years. Because of my book research, I know a fair amount about marriage and single women in 17th century Versailles, where the literary fairy tale began. I know about Victorian-era storybook heroines, who reflected the era's patriarchal mores. I've followed how feminists reinvented fairy tales, and why; and how the porn industry has created a booming sub-genre of fairy tale porn. In sum, I realized that my book gave me a strong foundation to write with authority about women and about ideas about women over time. (Note that I don't have to know everything there is to know about women! But then, who does?)

Likewise, I originally saw myself as an expert only on fairy tales, not on other genres or contexts. But eventually I began to expand my thinking here, as well. I began to see how fairy tales are a form of popular culture—indeed, they are among the most widespread stories on earth. I began to see myself as someone who had an expertise in, and thus could write interestingly about, popular culture. I began to see myself, and present myself, as someone qualified to write knowledgeably about women and popular culture narratives (among other things).

Questions to think about:

  • What topic do you know a lot about?
  • How does it translate into broader issues and themes?

Materials created by The OpEd Project exclusively for World Pulse.

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