News from the Columbia Climate School

Writing and Submitting an Opinion Piece

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!

The OpEd Project website 

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

Science for the Planet: In these short video explainers, discover how scientists and scholars across the Columbia Climate School are working to understand the effects of climate change and help solve the crisis.
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

3 Comments
Oldest
Newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Dennis Rohatyn
Dennis Rohatyn
1 year ago

              NO MORE BLOOD FOR OIL

       While war rages in Eastern Europe, life goes on elsewhere.  Yet it is marked by fear and

       resentment, especially in the United States, already torn apart by political strife and the

       dread of yet another election cycle, with all that it entails.  Understandably, the average

       person (however one defines that abstraction) is worried about inflation.  At the moment,

       Americans are complaining vehemently about the high price of gasoline. Yet very little has

       been said or written about how high (or low) those fuel prices are. When we compare the

       current price at the pump to that in several other countries, including our North American

       neighbors, Great Britain, the European Union, and the three nations most affected by the

      war in Ukraine, the enormous disparity between our own situation and that facing people

      elsewhere becomes apparent.  Extrapolating from accurate and up-to-date data available 

      on the web, here is a table (adjusted for currency values, units of measurement and annual

      household income) that makes those differences as precise as they are unmistakable:*

       
                           Gas Price    Unit Cost       Annual Income         Relative Cost    Purchase Power   

           U.S.               $4.84       1.00           $79,400              1/16,405           (100.00)                                
                                        
           U.K.               $3.70       0.76            $40,040               1/10,822            65.96                

           E.U.               $4.46        0.92            $44,091                1/9,886            60.26         
  
           Canada            $6.20       1.28            $54,652                1/8,815            53.73        

  
           Poland            $22.22       4.59             $5,906               1/265.80             1.62  
       
           Mexico          $103.17      21.32             $7,652                1/74.17             0.45        

           Ukraine         $145.17      29.99              $2,145                1/14.78            0.09        

           Russia          $672.79      139.00              $6,493                1/9.65             0.06       

          
 *Currency Rates: 1 USD = $0.92 EU, $0.76 £, $1.28 CAN, $22.80 złoty, $20.92 pesos, $29.66 UAH, $133 roubles  
  Sources: globalpetrolprices.com; worldpopulationreview.com; statista.com; CNNbusiness.com (March 12, 2022)  

       By a sublime yet tragic irony, Russia, whose proven oil and natural gas reserves are three times
       
       larger than those of the United States, has by far the highest petroleum prices in the world. As

      Ukraine is suffering from the Russian onslaught, Russians are suffering from the actions of their

      government on a scale we can scarcely imagine.  Adjusted for income levels, the gap between

      both countries and their more affluent counterparts becomes astronomical.  Mexico, although

      still classed as a developing nation, is much better off than either one; Poland, though besieged

      by refugees and threatened by invasion, is downright wealthy compared to the other three.  As 

     the purchasing power index shows, America enjoys a standard of living that (in crude oil terms)

     is 1,667 times higher than Russia, 1,111 times that of Ukraine, and 222 times that of Mexico, an

     oil producing nation in its own right.  That does not imply that we have no right to object to an

    increase in gas prices, or that we should be grateful for what we have, and not make noise about

    the conditions we face, both as individuals and as a society.  It does mean that we must put such

    matters in global perspective, and that it is not becoming for us to act beleaguered, put upon, or

   oppressed, when our situation is not so much a major hardship as it is a minor inconvenience, or

   a mere side effect of an underlying economic disease, caused by the unholy alliance between oil

   cartels and political operatives, East and West.  The pandemic started two years ago; but OPEC

   is nearly half a century old, and shows no signs of abating, despite the routine lip service paid to

   alternative energy sources, environmental regulations, and an end to domestic drilling, both on

   land and off-shore.  “Energy independence” is neither an unattainable ideal nor an inducement

  to promote the use of fossil fuels.  But if Europe relies on Russian oil, what does Russia rely on? 

  And for how long can it withstand the misery and suffering that it has inflicted on itself, let alone

  those whom it failed to bully into submission?  Who will die first—the oligarch, the imperialist,

  or the global monopolist?  And who will pay the steep price, let alone, clean up the whole mess?

  Meanwhile. the U.S. imports nearly half (48%) of its oil, not from Venezuela or the Middle East

  but from Canada, which accounts for over 90% of their oil exports.  How long can we continue

  deceiving ourselves about why trucker convoys swarmed upon Ottawa?  Or about the role that

  Athabascan sands (in the province of Alberta) play in fiscal diplomacy, never mind the Alaska 

  pipeline? And how long can either Russia or the United States remain superpowers, while mired

  in myths, misconceptions and militarism, while everyone on the ground is caught in a vise, even

  as they struggle to survive?  Blaming the villain (Putin) is easy; rooting out economic causes 

  and human consequences of what passes for domestic as well as foreign policy is much harder.

 [cf. Vaclav Smil, Energy and Civilization: A History (Cambridge, MA, 2017); Richard Rhodes, 

 Energy: A Human History (New York, 2018); R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path (New York,

  1981).  Fuller’s warnings are as apt now as they were four decades ago, only far more urgent].

  Yet it must be done, or the world will perish in flames, losing its grip while clinging to illusions.

  As Adam Smith prophesied on the eve of the American Revolution, “this empire [Great Britain]

  . . . has hitherto existed in imagination only . . . it is surely now time that our rulers should either

 realize this golden dream . . . or that they should awake from it themselves, and endeavour to

 awaken the people.  If the project cannot be completed, it ought to be given up” (The Wealth

 of Nations [1776], “Of Public Debts,” V.3. ad fin.; ed. Edwin Cannan [1904], new pref. George J. 

 Stigler (Chicago, 1976), Vol, II, 486).  If we don’t change our ways, extinction will be our lot—

 our fossils will tell the tarry tale, as it did for all the dinosaurs who once ruled the earth.

     

Tim
Tim
Reply to  Dennis Rohatyn
1 year ago

I think Putin will go down in history as a waster of young russian lives also a barbarian and for nothing he must not like the russian people ether as thay also suffer mothers losing sons wives losing husband children losing father’s what an a*%*#h##&£#_

Dennis Rohatyn
Dennis Rohatyn
Reply to  Tim
1 year ago

That goes without saying, yet it does nothing to change the
situation. It also ignores the fact that neither his friends nor
his foes among the nations of the world are any less guilty of
creating and perpetuating the misery and suffering which you
rightly condemn. Invective is neither helpful nor illuminating.
As Sam Rayburn used to say, “you can always tell a man to
go to hell, but making him go there is another story entirely.”
When you find the words to make that happen, let me know.

3
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x