The opinion pages are one of the best-read sections of any publication, in print or online—often on par with front-page news. And, some of the most attentive readers are decision makers: top people in government, corporations and nonprofit institutions. Appearing there is a prime way for the nonprofessional writer to get a valuable perspective into the public eye. Here is a how-to guide.
What kind of piece?
There are two basic forms: the essay (often referred to as op-ed), and letter to the editor. (“Op-ed” comes from when all newspapers were actually printed on paper, and outside writers customarily appeared on the page OPposite staff-written EDitorials. The New York Times recently traded this old-fashioned term for “guest essay.”)
Opinion essays don’t normally come from just anyone; the writer usually has some special expertise or credibility on the topic. This might include lawyers, ex-government officials or scientists. A piece may also come from someone with an especially telling or powerful personal experience relating to the topic—for example, an essay on homelessness by someone who has been homeless. They can run 400-1,200 words. Some generate a small fee.
Letters to the editor generally run just 100 to 150 words (or edited, even shorter). They are welcome from pretty much anyone. But those with credentials often stand a better chance of getting published. Whoever you are, don’t expect payment.
What are my chances?
Most publications want only pieces that play off the news of the last few days, or the week. After that, your letter is a dead one. So, in most cases, is your op-ed. Act fast.
That said, something may be going on below the public radar that should be in the news, but has not surfaced. If you know something, you say something; an op-ed can help to break the news. Maybe an invisible threat to public safety, or an unnoticed scientific discovery. Ideally, your topic will be timely, but at the same time have a long shelf life (i.e., the issue won’t be solved in a day or a month). Occasionally, you may find a “peg” for your piece: a holiday, anniversary, election, upcoming conference, report, a pending vote in Congress.
In all cases, depending on where you submit, calibrate expectations accordingly. Major publications, especially big dailies like The New York Times, may receive hundreds of op-eds each day, and even more letters to the editor. They will use only a few. In publications with less competition, your odds increase.
What makes a good op-ed?
It’s not just your opinion. It begins with facts, and makes an argument based on facts. It is informed by logic—not emotion or ideology. You can educate without preaching. And it’s not just a complaint; you must almost always offer next steps or possible solutions for the matter at hand.
Editors want pieces that don’t just wow you with expertise; they want pieces that are colorful, fast-moving and provocative—hallmarks of any good writing. A good op-ed is concise. It hits hard. It marshals vivid images, analogies and, when appropriate, anecdotes. Editors see the opinion page as a place for advocacy, denunciations, controversy and astonishment. They want to stimulate community discussion and drive public debate. They want people to say, “Wow! Did you see that op-ed today?”
What makes a good letter to the editor?
Same stuff basically, except in a nutshell. OK, maybe a little more pure outrage is acceptable. Just make your case, and make it fast.
How to write it?
Whether op-ed or letter, your piece must unfold quickly. Focus on a single issue or idea. State what the issue is, and let us know where you stand. That should happen in the first short paragraph or two. Following paragraphs—the meat in the sandwich, so to speak—should back your viewpoint with factual or first-hand information. Near the end, clearly restate your position and issue a call to action.
Some specifics to keep in mind:
- Grab the reader’s attention in the first line. End with a strong, thought-provoking line.
- Come down hard on one side of the argument. Never equivocate.
- Identify and acknowledge the counterargument; then refute it with facts.
- Use active verbs; go easy on adjectives and adverbs.
- Avoid clichés.
- Avoid acronyms.
- Avoid technical jargon.
- Cite specific references and easy-to-understand data.
Next step: All writers need editors. You might show your piece to a colleague or two in your field to see if they can poke holes in it. Or, if you know a good writer, ask them how the piece might be strengthened. You can also contact your institution’s communications staff; helping out is often part of their job. (But ghostwriting is not.) No guarantee someone can turn your junky screed into an influential masterpiece—but editing almost always helps.
Finally, include a catchy headline that conveys your message. This will help the editor grasp the idea quickly, and help sell your contribution. (However, expect the publication to write its own headline; that’s just how it works.)
Must someone sign off?
In most workplaces, there is no requirement that you submit a piece to management— especially in academia. It is understood that you’re speaking for yourself, not the institution. That said: your title and affiliation will usually appear with your byline. So in that sense, you indirectly represent the honor and credibility of your institution. A controversial piece that is well articulated, well read and respectful raises the profile of your institution. This is rarely viewed as bad.
Where and how to submit?
Everyone wants their piece in The New York Times. Few will ever see it there. Unless you have something super-strong, consider other options. Some national general-interest outlets with a big demand for copy include The Hill, CNN Opinion, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast and Slate. The Conversation specializes in op-ed-type pieces from academics. Is your piece more regional or specialized? Check regional or specialized media. Local papers are always looking for a local angle on wider issues. Publications that cover energy, law or other topics are of course looking for that kind of piece.
If you or someone you know happens to know the opinion editor, you can send directly to him or her. Otherwise, most publications have a web page telling you where to send, and their particular requirements. Don’t fret if you don’t have an inside line; editors really do read those over-the-transom submissions.
Letters to the editor can often be sent in the body of an email. Most op-ed submissions are made in an emailed Word document. For the subject line in either case, that catchy title mentioned earlier will come in handy. If it’s an op-ed, write the editor a short note in the email body telling her/him what the piece gets at, and why you’re the person to get at it. Include your contact info and, if you want, a brief bio.
In general, submit to one publication at a time. Unfortunately, editors may take days or weeks to get back—and if it’s a rejection, you may not hear at all. (New York Times policy: if you don’t hear in 3 days, you’re rejected.) If you feel you must submit to more than one, let the editors know. But avoid submitting the same piece to two publications in the same geographical or readership market. Higher-prestige places will require that you offer to them exclusively.
Where can I find more guidance?
Below, some good resources. The OpEd Project in particular has not only advice, but a list of specific contacts and guidelines for submitting pieces. Good luck!
How to Write an Op-ed, Step by Step The Learning Agency
Writing Effective Op-eds Duke University
Writing Letters to the Editor Community Toolbox
Writing Effective Letters to the Editor National Education Association
Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers New York Times
And Now a Word From Op-Ed New York Times