By Jeff Milchen
Short for “opposite the editorial page,” an op-ed refers to commentary written by columnists or freelance writers. Here, the term includes commentaries targeted for magazines or online publications.
Most newspapers publish freelance op-eds, but some use only staff writers and syndicated columnists. Almost all regional or local newspapers give preference to local writers and local issues, and many will not consider submissions from outside their print market area.
Before You Start
- Persuasive writing is a distinct craft. Study the op-eds and syndicated columns that appear on news sites or in larger newspapers. Note how they begin and close, the length of sentences, and persuasive tools they employ.
- Most op-eds are 550 – 750 words, though some outlets may require slightly shorter pieces and many online outlets are less strict. See if your target publications publish guidelines.
- When writing for a local or state audience, make local connections to national issues.
- Ask yourself: Who you want to reach and what you aim to accomplish? Write from a perspective your average reader can identify with and don’t assume knowledge.
- Plan a timely piece. Relate your piece to something in the news, a major anniversary, or event. However, you may want to avoid competing with nationally syndicated columnists on the biggest news items of the week.
- Use active, concise language. Strong writing uses descriptive nouns and active, informative verbs. Activating language eliminates almost every instance of “to be” (has, have, is, was, be, been, were) Each time you find one of these words in your draft, reword your sentence with active verbs. Similarly, the word “that” should almost always be eliminated. The Elements of Style is an excellent guide to clear, concise writing.
- Create a basic outline of the points you want to make before you start to write.
- Write about one thing. A good test when you are starting to write is to try to say what you want to say in a headline. If you can’t phrase your thesis in eight words or less, you need to think some more.
- Create a compelling headline. Even though editors usually will choose their own, it could make the difference between grabbing the editor’s attention and being bypassed.
- While a straight-to-the-facts approach may be used, most larger publications prefer anecdotal leads. This means telling a story, using a colorful quote, surprising statistic or other “hook” to grab the reader’s interest. The best columns strike the reader as a story. However…
- Introduce your main point by the second paragraph, then back up your opinion with facts. Don’t just stack up the evidence and save your opinion for the conclusion. The standard format is to state your thesis, present evidence to support it, and then offer a summary of your argument with a recommendation. This is a rule you might break occasional, but do so deliberately.
- Support your case with a sprinkling of facts or authoritative quotes, but don’t bombard readers with facts. Just because a fact appeared in a major news outlet doesn’t mean it should be re-published without verifying! If a fact is distinctive enough to cite, be sure to cite the original source.
- Speak to your target audience using language they understand.
- Keep paragraphs short, but vary the lengths. A one-sentence paragraph can emphasize a key point and provide variety.
- Generally, offer direct recommendations and solutions to the problem you raise, though sometimes your aim may be simply to provoke thought.
- Find two people willing to criticize your draft. At least one should be somebody not steeped in the issue you are covering and who is not among “the choir.”
- The most effective persuasive writing appeals to both emotion and logic — try to incorporate an element of each. Memorable anecdotes followed by verified facts make a potent combination.
- Aim to hit the reader with at least one little-known fact, quote, or story that will elicit surprise.
- At the end of the article, include a short byline (1-2 sentences — see what’s standard for the publication) about yourself and your organization, if applicable. For larger publications, tell the editors of your relevant expertise on the topic.
- For local and regional papers, follow up with a phone call or letter to the op-ed editor in a few days to ask if they have received your submission and made a decision. Have handy the time, date, and email address to which you sent the piece (many editors receive 100s of submissions per week).
What to Avoid
- Avoid submitting an op-ed to competing publications simultaneously — know your targets’ market area and wait for a decision or a few business days before submitting to a competitor.
- Do not submit a footnoted article, but providing embedded links to sources is recommended. Any research citations (rarely useful in an op-ed) should be credited within the article.
- Don’t overstate. The reader will discount much of what you say if she suspects exaggeration. Let your facts speak!
- Don’t bother to pitch op-ed ideas to newspaper editors. Unless you’ve written for the publication before, almost every editor will want to see your finished draft. (The converse is true for most magazines).
- As a general rule, don’t repeat a point except in closing.
- Avoid clichés, sarcasm, pejoratives, and jargon. Spell out acronyms the first time you use them, followed by the acronym in parentheses.
- Eliminate words like very, quite, etc. They indicate either a weak adjective or are superfluous.
- Unless you or your organization was directly attacked, op-eds do not respond to specifics articles or other op-eds, that is the role of letters to the editor. If you were misrepresented or attacked, ask the editor first about publishing a rebuttal.
- Read your draft aloud — it will usually reveal things you didn’t catch by reading alone.
- Finally, the most important thing your proofreader can tell you often isn’t what needs correcting, but what’s missing!
- Start locally! Getting published in local, then regional publications is the best path to getting your ideas out to larger audiences.
- Most papers will edit for minor grammar and style issues, but proofread thoroughly before submitting. Editors rarely make any substantive changes without consulting a writer.
- Few newspapers or online outlets pay for op-eds and even larger ones pay little, so write out of a passion for the issue, not expecting to earn a sum commensurate with your time investment.
- There are 1000s of “how-to” writing articles on the web, but here’s one favorite that complements ideas here.
Jeff Michen has written commentaries for the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, Christian Science Monitor, Inc. Magazine, La Opinion, The Ecologist, Washington Times, Adbusters, Baltimore Sun, Z Magazine, La Prensa, San Francisco Chronicle, Black World Today, Arizona Republic, San Jose Mercury News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Denver Post, and many more outlets. Engage him on Twitter at @JMilchen