Trish Hall, who served as the former Op-Ed and Sunday Review editor for the New York Times, has written that “anything can be an op-ed.”
Or, as another well-worn saying goes: opinions are like…certain unmentionable body parts. Everyone’s got one.
For some writers, the idea of voicing those opinions in front of a wide audience — and perhaps even getting paid for the opportunity to do so — is downright tantalizing. Then again, nobody wants to come across like that soapboxing uncle who’s had one glass of champagne too many at Thanksgiving dinner.
How to write a good op-ed
If you’ve got a burning desire to tell the world how you really feel, the good news is, you can!
And if you play your cards right, you won’t even elicit too many eye rolls.
Even more importantly, keeping these guidelines in mind will help you craft an op-ed that’s not just readable, but publishable. Because as we’ve already covered, everyone has an opinion…but only certain folks’ takes wind up in print. Sometimes, that’s for good reason.
Here’s how to write an op-ed that stands a fighting chance of making it into your favorite online publication or paper.
1. Be timely
While every outlet is different, most editors are looking for content that’s current. So if you can find a way to tie your op-ed to a hot topic, you may be more likely to get it published.
And don’t worry — that doesn’t mean you have to wait around until some newsworthy thing happens concerning your specific topic. You can use your creativity to make not-so-straightforward connections between the news cycle and your notions.
For instance, maybe you want to write about a certain healthcare issue that affects you or your family, and a recent film includes a star who’s been diagnosed with the same malady. Or maybe you want to tackle a political topic that film alludes to. Either way, it doesn’t have to be a direct jump to a big, world-shattering headline.
If you regularly scope out the news and happen upon a timely issue you want to write about, that works, too. But either way, keeping your op ed du jour can give you a boost to the top of the slush pile.
2. Do your homework
Remember your least favorite uncle? The one from Thanksgiving?
Part of what makes him so obnoxious is that his opinions are rarely well-founded. Instead, he’s happy simply spouting off about his take on the world, no outside expertise required.
So if you want to write an op-ed that doesn’t cause instant tune-out, take the opposite tack: include lots of relevant, rigorous research.
Including and citing reputable sources is good writing 101, and the fact that it’s an opinion piece doesn’t let you off the hook.
After all, no matter what your topic is, you’re probably not saying something totally original; you’re most likely adding your take to an existing conversation — and including those other voices will lend your argument credibility and weight.
3. Stay on target
Another thing that makes an otherwise-well-made argument objectionable: longwindedness and a tendency towards tangents.
Op-eds have historically been fairly short and succinct — and even without the space limitations of print media, you’ll write better if you focus.
It’s a good idea to read other op-eds in your target publication, but aiming for less than 1,000 words is a good rule of thumb. To keep it short, you’ll have to stay targeted on just one issue…which can be a challenge when you’re talking about a topic you feel strongly about.
4. Make it relevant
Timeliness is good, but relevance is even better.
A good op-ed doesn’t just explain an issue: it tells readers why that issue matters to them, why they should care about it.
Better yet: if your op-ed points out a societal problem, can you make any suggestions about what can be done about it? Writing to change minds is one thing, but writing to change the world is even better.
5. Write well
This part may sound obvious, but it’s worth repeating: if you want the attention of both editors and readers, you’re going to have to write really, really well.
New York Times editor and columnist Bret Stephens offers some basic tips for aspiring op-ed writers, ranging from basic grammatical guidelines (avoid passive voice) to more editorial-specific advice (check out the “80/20” rule in list item number five).
As with all other types of writing, when it comes to op-eds, practice makes perfect — and you should steel yourself for a fair amount of rejection along the path to publication. It’s just part of the game!
If and when you do finally see your op-ed in print, remember that it’s just that: your opinion.
Which means that even if you’ve written it as cogently as possible, somebody’s going to disagree…and they’ll probably share your urge to talk about it!
So if you’ve sparked a lively discussion in the comments, maybe resist the urge to jump in. In fact, maybe just sit back and smile. Touching a nerve means you’ve done your job well…and that your op-ed was good enough to keep readers reading.
Photo via G-Stock Studio / Shutterstock