Op-ed Writing: Tips and Tricks

The suggestions below are simply that -- suggestions. This is not a forumla, but a guide to help you as you formulate your ideas. 

  1. Getting Started: The Basics
  2. Questions To Ask Yourself When Writing
  3. Structure
  4. Ledes and News Hooks: Catching Attention
  5. FAQs

Getting Started: The Basics

+ Own your expertise

Know what you are an expert in and why - but don’t limit yourself. Consider the metaphors that your experience and knowledge suggest.

+ Stay current

Follow the news – both general and specific to your areas of specialty. If you write about Haiti, read the Haitian press. If you write about pop culture, read the media that cover it.

+ The perfect is the enemy of the good

In other words: write fast. You may have only a few hours to get your piece in before the moment is gone. But also…

+ Cultivate a flexible mind

Remember that a good idea may have more than one news hook, indeed if the idea is important enough it can have many. So keep an eye out for surprising connections and new news hooks – the opportunity may come around again.

+ Use plain language

Jargon serves a purpose, but it is rarely useful in public debate, and can obfuscate – sorry, I mean cloud – your argument. Speak to your reader in straight talk.

+ Respect your reader

Never underestimate your reader’s intelligence, or overestimate her level of information. Recognize that your average reader is not an expert in your topic, and that the onus is on you to capture her attention – and make the argument compel.


Questions to ask yourself when writing

+ Why should we readers trust you?

Are you authoritative on your topic? Are you accountable to what you say you know? Can you provide evidence of your expertise? You don’t need to have a famous name, a big title, or a fancy degree – but you do need to be well positioned to speak on your topic, and able to convey it.

+ Can you back up what you say?

Is your argument based on evidence – solid material and logical building blocks that will be acknowledged as credible even by those who may disagree with your interpretation?

+ What’s new?

Is your argument different, particularly original in the way it is delivered, or is it backed up by substantially new information or reporting? What is compelling about its contribution to the conversation?

+ So what?

Why should everyone else – including those of us who are not experts in your area – care?

+ What’s the difference between being “right” and being “effective”?

Does your language tend to write off the people who would disagree with you, or do you employ empathy and respect in the pursuit of changing minds?

+ How will your ideas and arguments contribute to the conversation, and be helpful to your audience?

Do you see your knowledge and experience in terms of its potential value to others?


Structure

*Note: this structure is not a rule! This is just one way of approaching it. 

+ Lede (Around a news hook)

A lede is what sets the scene and grabs your reader’s attention – it is your introduction. A news hook is what makes your piece timely, and often is part of the lede. More Information on ledes and news hooks is below.

+Thesis

Statement of argument – either explicit or implied

+Argument

Based on evidence (such as stats, news, reports from credible organizations, expert quotes, scholarship, history, first-hand experience)

+ 1st Point

  • evidence
  • evidence
  • conclusion

+2nd Point

  • evidence
  • evidence
  • conclusion

+ 3rd Point

  • evidence
  • evidence
  • conclusion

Note: In a simple, declarative op-ed (“policy X is bad; here’s why”) , this may be straightforward. In a more complex commentary, the 3rd point may expand on the bigger picture—historical context, global/geographic picture, mythological underpinnings, etc.—or may offer an explanation for a mystery that underpins the argument– eg., why a bad policy continues, in spite of its failures.

+ “To Be Sure” paragraph

In which you pre-empt your potential critics by acknowledging any flaws in your argument, and address any obvious counter-arguments.

+ Conclusion (often circling back to your lede)


Ledes and News Hooks: Catching Attention

A lede is what sets the scene and grabs your reader’s attention – it is your introduction.  A news hook is what makes your piece timely, and often is part of the lede.  Be bold, but incontrovertible.  Tell an anecdote, if it illustrates your point.  Use humor, if appropriate. Use clean sentences.  A few possibilities (from real op-eds):

+ Use the News

This Wednesday evening Frances Newton, 40, will be put to death for the murders of her husband and two children 18 years ago…

+ Tell a dramatic anecdote

Ten years ago, I asked Bosnian civilians under siege in Sarjevo where they would go if they could escape…

The marketing campaign shows real women, rather than anorectic teenagers, in white bras and panties posing next to the slogan “New Dove Firming. As tested on real curves”…

+ Turn conventional wisdom on end

Sex and the City’s main characters are witty, glamorous, independent and sexually liberated – in short, who wouldn’t want to be them? Me, for one.

+ Use wit and irony to point out a contradiction

So now we know what “noble cause” Cindy Sheehan’s son died for in Iraq: Sharia. It’s a good thing W stands for women, or I’d be worried.

+ Use an anniversary

Fifty years after the Supreme Court banned school segregation, the battle over the racial composition of America' s schools continues in courtrooms across the country.

+ Cite a major new study

According to a new nation-wide poll, 60% of women have cheated on their husbands at least once.

+ Get Personal

College admissions officers around the country will be reading my applications this month, essays in which I describe personal aspirations, academic goals -- even, in one case, a budding passion for the sitar. What they won't know is that I actually graduated from college more than a year ago, and that the names attached to these essays are those of my duplicitous clients.


Frequently Asked Questions

+ Q: Where should I submit?

A: See a list of contact and submission information for major outlets here. Keep in mind that outlets come in a wide variety of flavors; don’t limit yourself to one or two publications only. Major outlets such as The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal are obviously very selective when it comes to op-ed pieces, so instead of reaching only for those, take a moment to think about where your ideas will be of greatest contribution and will have the greatest odds of being published. Remember, certain submissions work better for certain outlets, so be sure to research and understand your target publisher before submitting. If you decide to aim for The Wall Street Journal or New York Times first — great. It's good to aim high. But don't stop there. Have a plan B, C and D ready, in case The Times doesn't bite. You may have better odds at a smaller or local publication or an industry publication that specializes on your topic. And creating a track record of success at smaller outlets can eventually increase your odds at larger outlets.

+ Q: How long should I wait to hear back from an editor? (What do I do if I don't hear back from an editor?)

A: If you have plenty of time (that is, if your idea is evergreen or, e.g., pegged to a holiday a month away) you might give an editor a week or more before you check in. However, if your idea has a very short shelf life (pegged to breaking news or a news hook that will only be good for a few days) you need to check in fairly quickly — with 48 hours, or perhaps even within 24 hours. The trick is to be appropriate, not demanding. You might write a follow up email telling the editor you are checking in on the status of the op-ed you submitted, and hope they are interested in running it; however since the news hook is timely if you don't hear from him/her by the end of the day (week, whatever), you will assume they have passed and you'll be submitting your op-ed elsewhere. The key is to be polite and not presumptuous – remember that editors are busy and juggling lots of ideas at once – you are not the center of their universe, but if your idea is timely and good for their readers, they will appreciate you checking in.

+ Q: Can I submit to multiple outlets at the same time?

A: Most national newspapers will not consider your piece if you submit to more than one paper at the same time.

+ Q: Can you help me pitch/submit?

A: At The OpEd Project we do everything we can to make it easy for you to succeed – but we don't do it for you. In fact, we think the lack of women and other under-represented experts submitting on their own is part of the problem. Check out more tips and resources above, as well as our "How to Pitch" page. More importantly, consider attending one of our core seminars or continuing workshops for in-person guidance and individual feedback. OpEd Project alums are also eligible to be matched with a high level Mentor-Editor, after they complete a core seminar. In these cases you may ask your Mentor-Editor for feedback and advice on your pitch. In some cases Mentor-Editors may, at their discretion, suggest specific editors or outlets they think would be interested in a particular op-ed; but alums should not expect this.

+ Q. How often can I submit?

A: As often as you want. Many outlets will not publish the same author more than once every few months. Also remember, for most op-ed pieces there exists a brief but strong window during which editors would be interested in the topic you discuss. Continuously submitting a piece regarding, say, US and Middle Eastern policies across the spectrum of outlets might not be the best idea, especially if you aren't getting responses from editors. Plan submissions carefully pegged to specific news hook. Listen carefully to the feedback (including silence from the editors – which can signal something you're submitting is too far off base).

+ Q. How often can I submit to the same person?

A: As often as you like—provided you have a good, timely idea that would appeal to that editor/outlet. You don't want to pepper an editor with bad ideas, and thereby earn a reputation as someone who is not useful/generative. However, if you have had a successful experience with an editor, the best strategy may be to continue your conversation with that editor, try to pitch as many good ideas as possible, learn as much as possible about what s/he is looking for in an op-ed, and see if you can collaborate on additional pieces.

+ Q. My piece wasn't accepted. What now?"

A: First off, relax. Even the best, most experienced writers receive rejections constantly. "No" is devastating when you think it is the end of a conversation. It's no big deal when you realize it can be the beginning of a conversation that leads to "yes." So: take rejection as information, and run with it. Consider why your piece wasn’t accepted and focus on improving those areas. If the editor responded to you personally, thank him/her — and see if you can find out what would have made your piece more valuable, and whether there are other ideas they would be interested in hearing from you on in the future.

+ Q. What is the actual submission ratio of men and women?

A: One of the best hard data points on this comes from a 5-month tracking done by the Washington Post in 2008, in which they found that 90% of submissions to the op-ed page during that period came from men, and 88% of their bylines were male. The data was reported in the Post, under late ombudswoman Deborah Howell, in May 2008. In addition, The OpEd Project has collected estimates from editors/outlets of various sizes. Most of them report a range of 80-90% submissions by men, with the higher ratios mostly applying to the more prestigious outlets. At smaller outlets, the ratios seem a bit better. For example, Josh Burket, Op-Ed Editor at the Christian Science Monitor estimates that women are under 20% of those submitting. The San Francisco Chronicle's Deputy Editorial Page Editor Lois Kazakoff found, in an unscientific survey, that during a weeklong period in June 2008, 8 out of 25 publishable submissions came from women, or 32 percent. However, she also added that The Chronicle is generally in line with the lower percentages of published pieces by women found in other studies. NOTE: Except in the case of the Washington Post survey, we are relying on editors' impressions. It would be helpful and probably motivational if outlets/editors did a periodic survey to find out who is submitting, in terms of men, women – and perhaps other things as well. That would help editors to know if and how much they might want to reach out to different groups of potential under-represented thought leaders.