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Audrey Watters

Advice from TNC

3 min read

We had a substitute teacher last night for the first session of our seminar on Opinion Writing. Professor Jelani Cobb couldn’t make it, so he sent his friend Ta-Nehisi Coates.

I should have taken notes. Instead I sat there starstruck as TNC graciously answered the class’s questions on writing. Those questions were wide-ranging: how long does it take him to write a book; what’s that process like; where do his ideas come from; how has celebrity changed how he works; how does he choose his subject matter; and so on.

Strangely, being in the room with such greatness helped me feel better about my own position as an opinion writer. I’ve been really feeling anxious about my fellowship, feeling like I don’t belong at this prestigious J School. I signed up to for Jelani Cobb’s class on opinion writing – even though that’s largely what I do for a living already – because, while many of the other Spencer Fellows sit in on education classes, I felt like I needed to do much more to hone my craft in journalism itself. I’m not a journalist by training, after all.

I do have plenty of ideas and plenty of opinions. But turning those into long form isn’t so easy. And frankly, sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t have “takes” on everything that happens in ed-tech, even though I certainly have thoughts on all of it.

TNC talked a bit with us about the difference between opinions of the sort you toss out in conversations with friends – on- or offline – and those that you develop into an article. He talked too about how he writes in anger – I can relate – but how he doesn’t feel compelled to weigh in with a knee-jerk response but rather builds on that anger until there’s a deeper, richer, more powerful argument. (He’s out today with a new article “The First White President” that really exemplifies this.) There’s a difference between the kind of opinion you tweet, he told us, and the kind of opinion that’s worthy of building out into an opinion piece.

There’s something about the demands not just of social media but, more structurally, of the job of an “op-ed writer” (particularly those columnists at The NYT – you know who I mean) that almost requires people write silly stuff. When you’ve got to come up with two opinion pieces a week, there’s no time for research, no time for contemplation, no time for much more than a very routine and empty 800 words. A waste of time, and TNC insists that he never wants to waste anyone’s time.

I don’t want to waste my own time this year. It’s a huge privilege to have 9 months to think and to write and to not have to worry about my usual hustle. After last night, I’m feeling more confident I can do this, and I’m feeling less pressured to just publish because the Web demands more “content.”