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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!