Do you have an interesting opinion to share? If you can express it clearly and persuasively in an op-ed article, you may reach millions of people, sway hearts, change minds and perhaps even reshape public policy. In the process, you may also earn recognition for yourself and your department, all for less effort than it takes to write a professional journal article.
University Communications has a strong record of placing op-ed articles in many of the nation’s leading news outlets. Our team developed these guidelines to help you write an article that media outlets may accept for publication.
As you think about writing opinion pieces, please keep in mind that competition is fierce at top opinion outlets such as The New York Times and the Washington Post. That’s never been truer than right now, so it’s smart to remain flexible regarding where your piece may land.
If you’re a faculty member with an idea in the works, please reach out for guidance to the communicator in your school or unit, or to our team at University Communications, to improve your chances of success. At University Communications, contact Alison Jones or Eric Ferreri: Alison.firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com.
Track the news and jump at opportunities. Timing is critical. When an issue is dominating the news — whether it’s a war, a stock market panic or just the latest controversy on a reality TV show — that’s what readers want to read and op-ed editors want to publish. Whenever possible, link your issue explicitly to something happening in the news. If you’re a researcher studying cancer, for instance, start off by discussing the celebrity who died yesterday. Or, look ahead to a holiday or anniversary a week from now that will provide a fresh news peg (and enable editors to plan the story in advance).
Limit the article to 750 words.
Make a single point, and do it well. You cannot solve all of the world’s problems in 750 words. Be satisfied with making a single point clearly and persuasively. If you cannot explain your message in a sentence or two, you’re trying to cover too much.
Put your main point on top. You have no more than 10 seconds to hook a busy reader, which means you shouldn’t “clear your throat” with a witticism or historical aside. Get to the point and convince the reader that it’s worth his or her valuable time to continue.
Tell readers why they should care. Put yourself in the place of the busy person looking at your article. At the end of every few paragraphs, ask out loud: “So what? Who cares?” Will your suggestions help reduce readers’ taxes? Protect them from disease? Make their children happier? Explain why.
Offer specific recommendations:
- An op-ed is not a news story that simply describes a situation; it is your opinion about how to improve matters.
- An op-ed is not a journal article. It needs to be personal–both in terms of having your personal voice and perspective come through, and also in covering a topic that is personal to the readers.
- Don’t be satisfied, as you might be in a classroom, with mere analysis. Op-eds are, by definition, opinions and they should advocate persuasively for something. How exactly should your state protect its environment, or the White House change its foreign policy or parents choose healthier foods for their children? You’ll need to do more than call for “more research!” or suggest that opposing parties work out their differences. The best opinion pieces have a clear, persuasive and well-argued call to action. They should answer the question: What do you want the reader to do, think or feel as a result of your piece?
Showing is better than discussing. You may remember the Pentagon’s overpriced toilet seat that became a symbol of profligate federal spending. You probably don’t recall the total Pentagon budget for that year (or for that matter, for the current year). That’s because we humans remember colorful details better than dry facts. When writing an op-ed article, therefore, look for great examples that will bring your argument to life.
Embrace your personal voice. The best of these examples will come from your own experience. If you are a physician, describe the plight of one of your patients, and then tell us how this made you feel personally. If you’ve worked with poor families, tell a story about one of them to help argue your point. In so doing, your words will ring truer and the reader will care more about what you are saying.
Use short sentences and paragraphs. Look at op-ed articles in your target outlet and count the number of words per sentence, then use the same style, relying mainly on simple declarative sentences. Cut long paragraphs into two or more shorter ones.
Avoid jargon. If a technical detail is not essential to your argument, don’t use it. When in doubt, leave it out. Simple language doesn’t mean simple thinking; it means you are being considerate of readers who want to learn something by reading your piece.
Use the active voice. Don’t write: “It is hoped that [or: One would hope that] the government will …” Instead, say “I hope the government will …” Active voice is nearly always better than passive voice. It’s easier to read, and it leaves no doubt about who is doing the hoping, recommending or other action.
Avoid tedious rebuttals. If you’ve written your article in response to an earlier piece that made your blood boil, avoid the temptation to prepare a point-by-point rebuttal. It makes you look petty. It’s likely that readers didn’t see the earlier article and, if they did, they’ve probably forgotten it. So, just take a deep breath, mention the earlier article once and argue your own case. If you really need to rebut the article, forego an op-ed article and instead write a letter to the editor, which is more appropriate for this purpose.
Acknowledge the other side. Op-ed authors sometimes make the mistake of piling on one reason after another why they’re right and their opponents are wrong. Opinions that acknowledge the ways in which their opponents are right come across as more credible and balanced. When you see experienced op-ed authors saying “to be sure,” that’s what they’re doing.
Make your ending a winner. In addition to having a strong opening paragraph to hook readers, it’s also important to summarize your argument in a strong final paragraph. That’s because many casual readers scan the headline, skim the opening and then read the final paragraph and byline. In fact, many columnists conclude with a phrase or thought that appeared in the opening.
Relax and have fun. Remember that an op-ed article is not an exercise in solemnity. Opinion editors despair of weighty articles and delight in an academic writer who chooses examples from “Entertainment Tonight” as well as from eminent authorities.
Don’t worry about the headline. The newspaper will write its own headline. You can suggest one, but don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it.
Offer graphics. If you have a terrific illustration, photo, video or other asset that might accompany your article, alert the editor when you send it.
How to submit an article. Almost all outlets now post guidelines about how they prefer to receive op-ed submissions. In general, they provide an e-mail address where you can submit the article electronically, but check first. Always be sure to include your contact information, and say whether you have a photo of yourself available.
Where to submit the article. The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal–as well as other national publications such as USA Today–receive a staggering number of submissions, the overwhelming majority of which are rejected. Think about the audience that will most benefit from hearing your argument and tailor your submission plan accordingly.
Regardless of where you send it, you will fare best with arguments that are provocative, humorous, personal or unexpected.