How to write an effective Op-Ed

Op-eds are an extremely useful way for academics to engage with the media. They offer recognition for the writer and for the institution, and can have tremendous sway over readers. Although they are normally based on strong opinions, many people don’t realize that they take their name from their location in the ‘paper – opposite the editorial page (the part which is usually unsigned and written by editorial board members).

Normally a blend of guest opinion articles and regular columnists, there is hot competition for space in the op-ed pages of any newspaper. Take The Globe and Mail, for example, which receives in excess of 30 submissions daily, for between three to four articles. “We’ll pass” is a phrase to get used to when pitching op-eds.

The media relations team can help faculty craft engaging op-ed pieces and pitch them to appropriate media outlets. There is a wealth of resources available online for writing effective op-eds. The following is a summary of the key points to keep in mind:

Length

Fewer than 800 words is a good rule of thumb for most publications. A safer-bet is to opt for 600 to 650 words but it varies publication to publication and topic to topic.

Timing

Op-eds have to be timely. What’s making news today probably isn’t going to make news next week. Even two days after the news has broken is often too late. What’s more, it’s traditional for the editorial pages to close earlier in the day than news pages (often around 2 p.m.) so it’s often more important to write fast and submit, than to endlessly strive for perfection.

Pieces that anticipate likely news events such as court cases or government decisions can make particularly engaging op-eds and are popular with news organizations, as they can set the tone for coverage of the event.

Experts often have the luxury of being able to craft opinions and arguments outside the daily news cycle. Building the core of your argument is often a good tactic which you can then use to spring into action when news breaks.

Content

The best op-eds usually centre around a controversial news topic and should be as provocative as possible. They should discuss one topic and provide expert commentary that is unlikely to be found elsewhere.

Agreement is unlikely to make engaging op-ed copy. Look for the argument.

Look for news hooks for your op-ed constantly.

Style

Personalize and be active. The passive voice doesn’t work for op-eds and editors aren’t likely to accept it. Use “I” and “my” – not, “the data shows…”

As an expert, you’ll probably be trying to explain succinctly some complex topics, so consider ways of explaining your points in the way a well-educated 12-year-old would understand. You must avoid jargon at all costs and always keep in mind you are not writing for an academic audience.

Write in traditional three-point essay style. Open with a lede around a news hook, explain your thesis succinctly, and set out your argument in three points. Use stats and evidence as much as you can. Finish with a paragraph that acknowledges any flaws in your argument or obvious criticisms, and a strong conclusion – normally linking back to your lede. Your sentences and paragraphs should be short.

Editing

Remember that media outlets will often want to edit or condense your copy. Be prepared to work on revisions to your text rapidly at short notice. Always include your full contact details – including a mobile phone number, if possible.

Exclusivity

All op-ed work should be submitted to a single news outlet. It’s crucial that you don’t send it to another until you have been declined.

Online versus print

The growth of news online has created enormous opportunity for well-written opinion pieces. Given the constraints on space in printed editions of newspapers and the need to offer increasing amounts of bespoke coverage online, many outlets may choose to use your copy exclusively digitally. Don’t be tempted to view online commentary as a failure – the bar for opinion has not been set any lower for online news and frequently the readership of online sources exceeds the printed versions.

Other reso​urces

  • Op-ed writers should have a target publication in mind. The Daily Op Ed is a great place to see more than 100 op-eds from major US publications and Oped.ca provides a similar scan for Canada.
  • How to Write an Op-Ed Article,” by David Jarmul, Duke’s associate vice president for news and communications, provides great guidelines on how to write a successful op-ed.
  • Jeffrey Seglin, lecturer in public policy and director of the Harvard Kennedy School Communications Program, provides some tips at Journalist’s Resource.
  • PR Daily provides a regular drum beat of advice targeted at public relations professionals and is a good source of easily consumable tips. Jackson Wightman provides 6 tips for writing and placing op-eds on their media relations blog.
  • Some advice on how become an instant op-ed star is provided by Mary Johnson of the Ragged Edge Online.
  • The OpEd Project is a social venture founded to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world. They provide helpful tips and guidance on op-ed writing.