Short for “opposite the editorial page”, an op-ed refers to commentary written by columnists or freelance writers. Though few newspapers still separate pages expressing the editors’ views from those of other writers, the name lives on. Here, we use op-ed to include 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/or local issues, and many will not consider submissions from outside their local market.
We have created a guide to draft persuasive op-eds for publication in your local, regional, or even national news outlets. Follow the tips below to create a solid argument, position, or opinion piece to submit to a print, online, or periodical outlet.
Before You Start
- Persuasive writing is a unique craft. Study the op-eds and syndicated columns that appear in regional or national papers. Note how they begin and close, the length of sentences, and any persuasive tools they employ.
- Op-eds typically are 600-700 words, though some papers may ask for longer or shorter pieces. Before writing, see if your local paper publishes submission policies and guidelines. Are these guidelines different for print or online versions? If you cannot find these guidelines, ask the op-ed page editor for their writers’ guidelines.
- Take note of whether your local paper publishes op-eds on national issues or only local issues. When writing for a local or regional paper, always tie local/regional 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 currently in the news, a major anniversary or event. However, avoid the topics generating front page news unless you have a unique angle to present — you don’t want to compete directly with nationally syndicated columnists.
- Use active, concise language. Strong writing uses descriptive nouns and active, informative verbs. Activating language eliminates almost every instance of “to be” (e.g. has, have, is, was, be, were, etc.) Each time you find one of these words in your draft, reword your sentence with active verbs. Similarly, the word “that” should usually be eliminated. Strunk’s The Elements of Style is an excellent guide on clear and 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 probably need to think some more.
- Create a compelling headline. Even though editors usually will create 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…
- Make sure your main point is introduced by the beginning of 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 way for making an argument is to state your thesis, present evidence to support it, and then offer a summary of your argument with a recommendation.
- Support your case with a sprinkling of facts or authoritative quotes, but don’t bombard readers with facts. Attribute your facts if they’re not items you expect to find in an almanac–preferably citing the original source. Just because a fact appeared in a major news outlet doesn’t mean it should be re-published without verifying!
- Speak to your target audience using language that everyone can understand.
- Keep paragraphs short — a maximum of three sentences typical in newspapers. Vary the length of paragraphs. A 1-sentence paragraph can emphasize a key point and provide variety.
- Offer direct recommendations and solutions to the problem you raise, though sometimes your aim may be simply to provoke thought.
- Find two people representative of your target audience who are willing to criticize your draft. At least one must 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 generalized 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 (generally one sentence) 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 within a week 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 (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 before submitting to a competitor.
- Do not submit a footnoted article, but providing embedded links to sources is recommended. Any research citations should be credited within the article.
- Don’t overstate. The reader will discount much of what you say if she suspects exaggeration. Let facts speak for themselves.
- Don’t bother to pitch a newspaper editor ideas. Every editor wants to see finished op-eds unless you’ve written for the publication before. (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.
- Start with your local paper! Getting published in the The Washington Post is not realistic until you have published several op-eds in local, then regional publications.
- Most papers will edit for minor grammar and style issues, but aim to have two people proofread thoroughly before submitting. Editors rarely make any substantive changes without consulting a writer.
- Small newspapers rarely pay for op-eds and many larger ones pay little, so write out of a passion for the issue, not expecting to earn a sum.
- There are 1000s of “how-to” writing articles on the web, but here’s one favorite.
Work with Us!
Reclaim Democracy! is eager to help writers hone their skills and publicize issues we address. Prospective writers must already possess strong composition and competent grammar skills. We have helped several writers break into larger markets, but this requires hard work and persistence.
If you’d like feedback on a piece, contact us after completing your outline. Please include two published samples of your writing (letters to the editor are OK if you have not written op-eds). Query letters are preferred to completed articles. Please do not send articles longer than 800 words.
Please consider working in a reference to ReclaimDemocracy.org in the article (a quote is often the easiest method) or the byline.
Publications in which Reclaim Democracy! staff and volunteers have published feature articles include: The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Newsday, Christian Science Monitor, Inc. Magazine, La Opinion, The Ecologist, The Korea Herald, Adbusters Magazine, Baltimore Sun, Z Magazine, La Prensa, San Francisco Chronicle, Black World Today, Arizona Republic, Rocky Mountain News, San Jose Mercury News, Sacramento Bee, Kansas City Star, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Albuquerque Tribune, Billings Gazette, Salt Lake Tribune, Providence Journal, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Arizona Star, CommonDreams.org, the Denver Post and more.