How to Influence People

By STEVEN LUBET

Review of Writing to Persuade, by Trish Hall.

New York: Liveright Publishing, 2019  


 

Every writer needs an editor, but not every editor needs to write a book. For many successful editors, however, there seems to be a nearly irresistible temptation to pass along the wisdom gained over decades of showing writers how to improve their work, even though the advice is often the same: be concise, eliminate jargon, get to the point, don’t bury the lede, be original, use declarative sentences.  The latest entry in this genre is Writing to Persuade, by Trish Hall, the former editor of the op-ed page at the New York Times, which promises to stand apart from most writing guides by offering inside tips on getting opinion pieces published at America’s newspaper of record. After all, the first person a writer must persuade is an editor, who stands as a gatekeeper before she ever takes a blue pencil—or these days, track changes—to your submission. 

True to form, Hall offers the standard advice, which will come as no news to anyone who has ever taken a college writing course. Even then, some of her explanations are, well, unpersuasive. She advises the use of stories, which are more compelling than facts, noting that “comedians, because they are some of the best storytellers, are especially persuasive.” Her example is Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue during the Obamacare repeal debate of 2017, in which he told of his son’s emergency heart surgery, and “pleaded with politicians to make sure all Americans would have access to the kind of health care that saved his child.” The video of Kimmel’s entreaty “was shared millions of times; even Obama weighed in on Twitter” (pp. 116-17). What Hall doesn’t tell us, however, is that Kimmel’s evocative story did not change a single Republican vote. The senators who favored repeal were steadfast, and the three who voted to save the ACA had been leaning that way all along. 

No one doubts that stories are often more effective than logical arguments, but Hall does not add much to our understanding. 

At other points she conveys conventional wisdom, even when it is plainly wrong. In the section on jargon, she frets that 

The language of the financial, medical, and government worlds seems deliberately confusing. Bank accounts, mortgage statements, closing documents for house sales, insurance policies, health insurance rules—rarely are they in plain English. Paperwork is endless and confusing not because it has to be, but because it is usually written to satisfy lawyers or, more nefariously, to keep people from easily understanding their rights and responsibilities. 

Given all of the “fake news” accusations leveled against the New York Times, it is more than a little disheartening to see an editor indulge her own conspiracy theory about the way certain elites try to hide the rights of ordinary people. Is there anything more tired or conventional than blaming lawyers? 

Legal jargon leaves people needing a lawyer to explain what should be a simple contract to buy a house or make a will (p. 144). 

Seriously? There is nothing simple about buying a house, which is the largest and most risky purchase most people will make in their lifetimes. There are countless contingencies to consider, especially for buyers, and they must all be dealt with in the closing documents. A “simple contract” could easily leave the buyer responsible for unpaid bills and taxes, or worse, lacking good title for the property itself. Hall is right to caution against jargon in popular writing, but let’s just say that she has gone well outside her jurisdiction when it comes to contracts and wills. 

But no one is really buying this book for a refresher on Strunk & White, or even an update on George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” first published in 1946. What we really want to know is the secret to placing an essay on the most exclusive page in American journalism. Here we do get some good insights, though hardly a book’s worth. And it is not very encouraging. 

One of the apparent keys is to be famous, preferably with a publicist. “Well-known people have a better chance of being published” (p. 43). Hall and colleagues are more than willing to work on improving even mediocre writing if it is submitted by a celebrity. A coauthored essay by Bono and Mark Zuckerberg was “obvious,” “painful,” and “self-serving,” but the op-ed staff figured “it could be saved” and worked hard to make it publishable.  

 When it comes to “people with power or fame,” Hall candidly acknowledges that “we needed them more than they needed us,” to the point of holding the presses for a promised essay that ultimately never arrived, without apology or explanation (pp. 37-39). For the non-famous, it helps to have an inside contact—perhaps a brother-in-law on the Times reporting staff, or a friend who writes a weekly column—who can pitch the piece (pp. 72, 84-85). 

For the rest of us, Hall offers some good advice, explaining that editors want at least one of three things: “to be surprised by something; to be given a new perspective on an old problem; or to be delighted and impressed by the writing” (p. 162). The first two of these qualities are within the writer’s control. If you cannot say something surprising or innovative, there is no point in submitting an essay to the Times, no matter how well-reasoned or important it may be. “There are always other possibilities and other choices,” and a conventional argument is likely to be dismissed with the observation “Nice piece, but inessential” (p. 163). If you think that your writing alone is sufficiently delightful to win the editor’s heart, go ahead and give it a try—but you are almost certainly fooling yourself. 

It is regrettable that Hall spends so little time on how to get published—where her best insights can be found—as opposed to standard observations about writing, along with advice on persuasion lifted from the social science literature. The “Tips on Writing” section does not arrive until after 100 pages; it is only 70 pages long and would not fill a book. “How to Please Editors” is even shorter, just ten pages of worthwhile instruction. 

Finally, Hall might have given us a fuller disclosure about her current consulting practice, which evidently includes helping clients place pieces in the Times. She mentions it only briefly in the book (pp. 55, 73), but her Linkedin profile offers “editing Op Eds for clients who want to get their opinions out into the world.” It is commendable that Hall does not use the book to tout her own services, but it would be good to know how much help a consultant can actually provide to aspiring op-ed writers. 

A virtue of Writing to Persuade is its relative brevity. At a shade under 200 pages, it is still padded out, but you do not have to skip much to get to the good parts. 

 

Posted on 27 November 2019


STEVEN LUBET is Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law. His most recent book is Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters (Oxford, 2017).