Ten Steps to Writing an Op-Ed

An op-ed is an essay intended for publication opposite the editorial page of a newspaper. Scores of submissions come in to a newspaper—major U.S. dailies receive more than 400 every day and print two or three per day maximum.

Editors want to create buzz. They want people to say, “Wow! Did you see that op ed today?” Failing that, they want to elicit a “Hmm. That’s amazing/fascinating/outrageous.” They want to be leaders in shaping public debate. You will do best by joining in that goal.

Editors want some concrete things in the op eds they choose to print, more or less in this order:

  • A provocative idea on any subject.
  • A sharp opinion on a current issue – something controversial, unexpected, authoritative and/or newsworthy.
  • A call to action on a neglected subject.
  • A new or unexpected slant on a current issue.
  • Bite and wit on a current issue.

Notice the stress on what’s controversial, provocative, new, current. Without a sharp point, neither a pen nor a sword is of much use. Without a forceful point to make, an op ed is doomed to rejection.

This makes the op ed page hostile to announcements of events, status reports or even plain news. It loves blunt opinion, advocacy, sarcasm, denunciation, outrage, astonishment—all the heavy emotions. Anything that is predictable from your organization is likely to be rejected.

Ten Steps to a Great Op-Ed

  1. Try to reduce your point to a single sentence: Most scientists are incompetent managers. Teachers’ rights are being abused. Earth’s future is at stake this week in Parliament.
  2. See if your point-sentence passes the “wow” test or the “hmm” test. If not, the point needs sharpening – whether or not you actually use this sentence in the op ed.
  3. Imagine your target reader: she’s someone whose attention you’ve been courting. She’s flipping through the paper or scanning headlines online on a workday morning, checking for something interesting, gulping coffee, one eye on the time. What first line, related however distantly to your subject, might grab her attention? If you can intrigue, surprise, alarm or baffle your imaginary reader past the first paragraph, you stand a chance that the editor will let you put the whole thing in the paper.
  4. Any point worth making will have to be defended. Muster your best four supporting arguments or data bits and write a sharp sentence on each one. Be as specific and as articulate as possible. Try never to start these sentences with the vague and inert “there is/are.” Avoid jargon and the sleep-inducing passive voice (“Mistakes were made.”)
  5. Raise the opposition’s best arguments and demolish them. Use countervailing facts, withering irony or whatever is appropriate, but deal with them.
  6. Let yourself become emotional. Use a personal anecdote, your own or another actual case with a name and a colorful description (“Put a face on it,” journalists say.) Get carried away with the drama, significance, injustice, triumph, outrage, need of your point, and wax lyrical—for one paragraph. Write five such paragraphs and choose the best one.
  7. What is the minimum background a reader absolutely must have in order to grasp your point? (That is, why should the reader care?) Write two paragraphs that summarize this background. Work it into the anecdote if you can: “Mary is one of the x million who…”
  8. Now, put these elements together and write the piece. Write 1,000 words (four double-spaced pages) maximum. Single-space between sentences.
  9. Edit your prose. Be ruthless with yourself.
    Make sure the first sentence is a grabber.
    Rewrite “There is/are” sentences to be active.
    Look at every adverb (usually ending in –ly) and eliminate most if not all of them.
    Convert passive-voice sentences to active ones.
    Examine your metaphors, similes and pet phrases to make sure they are not clichés.
    Translate all acronyms and jargon into standard English.
  10. When you are sure that every remaining word is a pearl, give the piece to someone else and ask him or her to cut it down to no more than 750 words. Better you should cut than the newspaper editor.

Good luck!