Writing an Op-ed Article

Perspective II
Perspective II (Photo credit: Editor B)

During the past couple of years, after deciding to actively pursue a career as a writer, I’ve been racing through a crash course to learn everything I can about the publishing world. I’ve read how-to book after how-to book, followed writing blog after writing blog, attended online course after online course, and have compiled a compendium of composition books full of doodles, scratches and notes.

And more notes.

An illegible scratch, a nonsensical doodle, and then more notes.

Because I asked myself, how can I flex my writing muscles when I’m not working on a novel? What more can I do to establish myself as a voice to be heard…a force to be reckoned? In leafing through all those doodles, scratches and notes, my answer was op-ed.

What is Op-ed?

Opinions are like assholes…everybody has one and they usually stink.

First off, know before going into the game that “op-ed” is short for “opposite the editorial page” and not the erroneous “opinion-editorial” definition. However, op-ed articles are generally opinion pieces written from the standpoint of your area of expertise.

Next, determine whether your opinion will be brief or, if you’re like me, a tad bit longer. Is this in response to an article that was previously published? If so, and you can write your stance succinctly (150 to 250 words), then you most likely want to pen a Letter to the Editor. This is important to know because publications run many more letters than op-eds, therefore your chances of being published are much greater.

Op-ed articles are usually longer (500 to 750 words), and feature self-contained arguments that stand on their own. A well-written opinion piece can reach millions of people, change policy, sway public opinion, and win over the hearts of the staunchest of opponents. It can also bring you a considerable amount of recognition for virtually little effort, as compared to an article for a journal or publication specific to a profession.

What to Write?

  • Be the expert that you are. Know your area of expertise and select topics accordingly, however, don’t short-change yourself. Take into consideration the numerous ways your experience applies to a variety of subjects.
  • Keep up with current events. Ask yourself, “What’s new?” then familiarize yourself with it and write! Study the tone and style of published submissions and emulate them. Try to link your article to a relevant event; e.g., if you are writing about an Alzheimer’s break-through, connect it to a public figure who has recently been diagnosed with the disease.
  • Carpe diem! Timing is everything, and perfection is the oppressor of the op-ed writer. Write well, but write fast…you may only have hours to submit an article before the moment has passed. In the case of Letters to the Editor, one or two days after the original piece appeared is the norm.
  • Look to the future. Holidays and anniversaries of events provide ample fodder for a fresh angle and give editors time to plan in advance. Due to space limitations, an editor may hold onto a piece before running it; therefore, the longer the “shelf life” of your work, the greater the opportunity for publication.

Basic How-to’s:

  • Write with a pointed view. Don’t try to argue all sides of an issue, you’ll lose yourself. Keep in mind that 750 words won’t bring about world peace, so make your point in a clear and concise manner and be done with it. If you find that you can’t do that, then most likely you are trying to cover too much.
  • Tip your hat to the other guy. The above being said, be sure to acknowledge the ways in which the other side makes a viable point. You’ll seem more credible in your own argument, and a modicum of humility is always appealing.
  • Make your point immediately. The busy reader doesn’t have time for introductory jokes and unnecessary background information; you only have around ten seconds to grab their attention. Make your point effectively from the start, then convince them why it’s worth their time to read further.
  • Ask yourself, “So what?” Then answer the question. An op-ed  is your opportunity to improve the situation, so offer specific recommendations. State the problem and get into the solution. A simple, “Can’t we all just get along?” won’t do the trick. Appeal to the readers’ self-interests by explaining how this will make their lives easier.

Helpful Hints:

  • Show, don’t tell. Wow…how many times have we heard that before? It’s true in op-ed writing, too. Symbols are powerful, and are often remembered much longer than the details of the issue, so find an element of the story that will bring your argument to life. In the case of the recent bombing at the Boston Marathon, a photo of Martin Richard, the eight-year old killed in the blast, holding a sign that says, “No more hurting people—Peace,” has come to symbolize the tragedy worldwide.
  • Keep it simple. Newspapers are written at an eighth-to-tenth grade reading level. If you study published articles, you’ll find the sentences to be quite short. Imitate them by breaking long paragraphs into two or more shorter ones, using simple declarative sentences.
  • Don’t be “Tom Petty from Petticoat Junction.” Tedious point-by-point rebuttals are the worst—you’ll look petty. If your article is in response to an earlier piece, mention it once and then continue with your case.

Writing the Piece:

  • Use the active voice. Who is doing the recommending or other action? You are, so write it that way. Stating your case in the passive voice (“One could only pray for a resolution…”) sounds wishy-washy. Instead, say “I pray for a resolution regarding prayer in schools.”
  • Use the personal voice. When it comes to op-eds, it’s good to use the personal voice whenever possible. If you are a caregiver, as I am, give personal anecdotes to argue your point. In this way, you’ll bring the issue home to your reader’s front door.
  • Avoid jargon. Acronyms, legalistic language, and technical details have no place in the op-ed article—unless they are essential to your argument. Use plain language, and when in doubt, leave it out. Conform your style to the rules of the Associated Press Stylebook.

Wrapping Up:

  • Write a strong finale. I always like to bring my articles full-circle for the mere fact that most readers scan the headline, skim the column, then read the ending paragraph. By concluding with the same strong thought with which you began, you essentially close that circle for your reader.
  • Use a fine-tooth comb. Check, double-check, and triple-check all the facts, spelling, and grammar. The simplest of mistakes can cause an otherwise well-written piece to be filed in the trash, as well as hurt your credibility. An editor who sees a misspell in the headline will think the writer is either too lazy—or even worse—too stupid to notice and correct.

How to Submit Your Op-ed:

  • Review each newspaper’s guidelines. That’s a good start. Many newspapers demand exclusivity, and if that is the case, give each paper one week to consider your offering. Most media will include the submission address on their opinion pages, and virtually all op-eds and letters can be submitted by e-mail.
  • Identification. Your name should be included under the headline, and a short statement of your credentials (25 words), stating your name and expertise in the field, should fall at the end of the article.
  • Following up. Op-ed editors will usually call only if they plan to use your article, and if they haven’t done so within 48 hours, then by all accounts, the answer is no. However, if you must follow up with a phone call (perhaps your piece was lost or misdirected), wait a week, keep it short and polite, and never call after 3 p.m., when editors are on deadline.
  • Compensation. Many publications pay nothing for op-ed pieces, however, the larger newspapers may pay a stipend for your article. According to Susan Shapiro at Writer’s Digest, several editors she knows won’t admit to their $100-$350 fee unless the writer asks for payment and sends an invoice. It’s worth a shot, but be happy that you’ve had the opportunity to share your knowledge and enhance your reputation, because that’s probably all you’ll get.

Although you may have dreams of publication in notable media such as The New York Times or Newsweek, you stand a much better chance with regional and local newspapers, which give preference to writers from the local area. Until established, try those outlets first. Online sites such as The Huffington Post, Slate, and the Drudge Report are quickly coming into their own and provide perfect opportunities to be heard.

May your opinionated voice resound!

Peace,

ML Swift

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40 thoughts on “Writing an Op-ed Article

    1. Thank you, Jennifer! I’ve seen you visit and hoped that you might comment one of these days. I like your site as well. I’m glad this helped…I’ve spent the last few days going through my notes and coming up with various articles to write.

      Thanks again for commenting!

      1. Hi there,
        Well, I definitely need some guidance on ‘next steps’ as I am quite ignorant when it comes to getting published and how to get there. I don’t have much time to read books in full lately so this is very helpful. I look forward to your next postings!
        Continued success!
        Cheers,
        Jennifer

      2. I certainly understand the time crunch and find condensed information on blogs and such to really come in handy. Of course, I love to learn, too, and always have my head stuck in a book.

        May you also have a fruitful journey!

  1. My dad loved to type out op-ed pieces with a fury. I have memories of the rat-a-tat of his typewriter as he vented his feelings and sharp intellect in a well thought out flurry of words. His pieces were almost always published. He was so intelligent and well thought out, his arguments were tough to puncture holes in. You should post some of your op-eds here, Mike so we can see the advice in action! Great article with fantastic tips.

    1. Ahh…that sounds like a lovely memory of your father. I’ve only written one op-ed thus far and pitched it, but I guess it wasn’t accepted, as it’s been longer than 48 hours. I haven’t heard. But, I’ll review it for mistakes and see about hawking it someplace else. Eventually it may make its way to the blog.

      1. Ohhh! I’d love to read it! Is there usually a quicker turn around for op-eds than regular articles? That makes sense, though– have to be relevant to the hot topic, I guess. I bet it was great and knowing you, very well thought out.

      2. In my notes I have written, “If no reply in 48 hrs., rejected!” Also, “Give week before following up. No past 3, editor deadline.”

        I looked over my piece, and honestly, I’m not satisfied with it either (but I really don’t know if I sent it to the right place, anyway. Online submission is hard to figure out). It definitely needs a rework to stay more on point, then I think I’ll try again.

  2. Seems you have been busy “saving the writer” and I think he’s walking on safe shore now. I am extremely glad for this. I think this writer is going to get far. 🙂

    1. Al, I so appreciate your words…yes, the waves have calmed for the moment, and I’m better prepared for the next high tide.

      And you are a writer who will take your skills to the next level and the next and the next! It is a joy being on this journey alongside you.

  3. I can’t believe it took me this long to find your new location. In this month’s challenge, I realized I hadn’t been to your blog in a while, then remember you did say you were moving! It looks great.

    Well now, I also see you’ve been busy. I hadn’t heard of that term before, but know several people who are doing just that, writing articles to get their name known and resume filled for when the complete their book. I wish you all the luck and the best of success. You’ve got some good info. I’m sure you’ll learn to swim quickly once you dip your toes in the water.

    1. Hey Nancy! Good to see you. I had to go to your blog to figure out who Chacelet was again…forgot it was you. Very good short fiction over there, btw.

      Yeah…I’m venturing down many avenues to get my name out there.

      Thanks for coming by!

  4. Mike,

    I value your sage advice. My local paper frequently publishes editorials about education, written by local “experts,” and invariably, I shake my fist to the sky because, well, they are fools. All of them.

    How is that for a lead?

    1. Great lead, and one that I think YOU, as a teaching expert, should follow!

      I approached my local paper with a story idea and they loved it…told me they’d love to run it…then took the idea and did it themselves! I didn’t say anything because I don’t want to burn bridges and will write the story from a different angle.

  5. Great advice 🙂 Although not for me, I have a friend who was a prolific writer of all things journalistic in high school – she was featured in several papers “back in the day” and is heading to college for journalism this fall. She’ll love this sage advice! Thanks!

    1. Sage advice? That’s the second time I’ve heard that about this article. To quote Kermit, it’s not easy being green.

      I DO so wish that I knew what the heck I wanted (or followed my dreams, more like it) when I was heading off to college.

      As opinionated as you are, I’m surprised you don’t find op-ed more appealing. I’ll read and my blood will boil over some of the stuff out there. I can barely contain myself, and with op-ed, I don’t have to. Of course, I don’t want to sound like a loose cannon. Gotta keep that in check!

  6. Great points Mike…especially the part on compensation. I didn’t know that any paper gave money for op-eds and will definitely keep that in mind.

    It looks like you put a lot of work into this post…well done! 🙂

    1. Thanks for coming by, Mark! You know…the compensation part was a surprising revelation, and probably only applies to the big boys. I don’t know if I’d ever have the nerve to ask, to tell you the truth. Clips and reputation are fine with me for the time being. That’s all I expected when setting out on this, anyway.

    1. Thanks, Nutschell. I find it’s something that gets me writing, even if nothing ever comes of it…even if I never submit them. They allow me to vent, and usually that’s enough.

  7. Wow, Mike, I’ve never even considered op-ed. Never even for a moment crossed my mind. You’ve schooled me here on the workings of it, and from the little I know about you, you seem to be a perfect fit for writing op-ed pieces. For me, not so much. But I think its always beneficial to be open to what the wind blows in and be flexible about stretching our writing muscles.

    1. Me too, Robyn, but I hear that same advice over and over again, so I keep trying. Write it down quick and clean it up in a second draft. But write that first one quick. Thanks for popping over.

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