How to Get Your Op-Ed Published
By Pam Lontos
While there are many ways to appear in the media, writing an op-ed piece is an excellent way to make yourself known and establish yourself as an authority with the public. Like letters to the editor, op-ed pieces should put forth a point of view – but the op-ed piece is longer than a letter and generally gets better play.
Op-ed stands for “opposite editorial,” referring to the page facing the editorial page – the page on which the newspaper publishes its own institutional statement of opinion.
When it comes to choosing an op-ed topic, the more controversial the better. An op-ed piece isn’t a research treatise or a summary of information. Rather, it’s an argument, a strong statement of position, and the promotion of a point of view. And you will develop your argument in a short 500 to 700 words.
The opinion pages are considered the most prestigious real estate in the newspaper, so you must ask yourself, “Why should the reader care?” As with a news release or a story pitch, the reason your topic is important right now should be made crystal clear. The first few sentences must enlighten the reader as to why your topic is relevant and pressing.
For instance, here are some op-ed headlines from some of the nation’s leading newspapers:
“Health Care Can’t Wait” – Washington Post.
“Relief When Imus Returns” – Providence Journal.
“Why Women Need Katie Couric to Succeed” – Chicago Sun Times.
“The Phantom Tax Cuts” – Palm Beach Post.
Academicians, scientists and researchers have a tendency to save their juiciest conclusions for the end of the piece (mostly because that is the structure expected in an article submitted to peer-reviewed journals). The structure of the op-ed piece is the complete opposite. The conclusion or most compelling fact must come first. Well-crafted arguments should follow, making a clear case and concluding with a call to action.
Before attempting to write an op-ed piece, read several of them in local and national newspapers to gain a feel for how they are done. At large organizations, it’s not unusual for the op-ed piece to be ghostwritten by a staff member or freelancer, then submitted to the newspaper under the byline of the CEO (or other relevant expert). If you don’t have the time to pen your own op-ed piece, you should be able to easily find someone in your local public relations community who can be hired to draft the piece for you.
Your op-ed piece will hit home with editors if you can combine a gutsy, passionate approach with logical analysis of a situation. As with any other form of writing submitted to the news media, language must be clear, punchy and direct. Editors will read for clarity. They will screen out any piece that lacks appeal to the average reader. They are looking for plain English, an argument stated simply, complete with concrete imagery that helps the reader comprehend.
A brief bio-note outlining your credentials should be added to the end of the piece to save the opinion editor from the work of tracking that information down. Editors are often likely to be most receptive to pieces written by someone within the local community, so be sure to submit to your hometown newspaper as well as to all the newspapers in your state.
However, don’t limit yourself to simply a local or state marketplace for your ideas. True, some large newspapers will demand that you submit to them exclusively. (You can ask the editor’s preference when you submit your piece.) But many opinion-page editors understand that op-ed pieces are distributed to newspapers throughout the country.
If you have expertise on a particular topic or have written a book on the subject, be sure to mention it. Experts have an edge on the op-ed page. For instance, the opinion editor of the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia was happy to receive a piece on the dangers of secondhand smoke written by the dean of the nursing school and the director of the cancer center at West Virginia University.
Both the dean and the cancer center chief, a medical doctor, were able to write authoritatively – and not only because they knew about the latest research on secondhand smoke. They also had personally seen patients who suffered from cancer and other lung diseases as a result of secondhand-smoke exposure. This gave them credibility with readers and also made their piece attractive to the paper’s opinion-page editor.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when crafting an op-ed piece:
Be provocative, original, timely. Try to say something current. For example, tie your subject into a natural disaster or social trend or the consumer news of the day.
Give examples. Use facts and statistics. Explain why you have come to the conclusions you are drawing.
Write about ideas you feel strongly, even passionately about. Tie your argument into your own experiences. The most effective op-ed pieces have arguments based on values and emotions, not simply dry reasoning. While the op-ed pieces take a more complex approach to a subject than a letter to the editor does, the ordinary reader still needs to be able to relate to the piece.
Keep these ideas in mind and you will have no problem developing op-ed pieces editors will value and publish.