By Jeff Milchen
The name op-ed comes from an era when newspapers typically put the opinions of the editors on one page and opinions of other writers on the opposite page. While some publications use “guest commentary” or other terms, they all describe essays by columnists or freelance writers (often local residents) who are not newspaper staff. Op-eds typically range from 550 – 750 words, but check for submission guidelines at your target publication. Note that op-eds do not reply directly to published stories. That’s the role of letters to the editor. which normally range from 100 to 300 words.
Op-eds are a great tool to build recognition of your organization, champion causes important to your members and even shift public opinion. Almost all regional or local newspapers give preference to local writers and local issues (or op-eds that connect national issues to local impacts or examples). Here are some tips for getting your work published and making maximum impact.
Before You Start
Study the op-eds and syndicated columns that appear in major regional or national papers. Note how they begin and close, length of sentences, and persuasive tools they employ.
Know your papers guidelines. If they aren’t published ask for their word count range and any other preferences of the editors. NOTE: some papers may restrict promotion or critique of specific businesses.
Identify your target audience. Ask yourself who you want to reach with your message and what you aim to accomplish (inspire a specific action, think differently…).
Make it timely. Relate your piece to something currently in the news, an upcoming event, etc. This is called your hook or news peg.
Have a clear purpose. The headline brainstorm is a good test. If you can’t phrase your thesis in eight words or less, you probably need to think some more before you begin writing. Consider jotting down a quick list of key points you want to make before writing.
Appeal to both emotion and logic. Consider whether you can incorporate both. Memorable anecdotes followed by facts backing your thesis make a potent combination.
Use anecdotes and stories. Most publications prefer anecdotal leads to starting with a simple statement of your argument. This means telling a story or using a colorful quote, surprising statistic or other “hook” to grab the reader’s interest. The best columns strike the reader as a story. (AMIBA affiliates can access our leads and outlines tips page for more on this topic).
Make your main point by the second paragraph. Make sure to introduce your main point by the second paragraph, then support it with facts. Don’t just stack up evidence and save your opinion for the conclusion.
Sprinkle in your facts and quote trusted sources. Facts to back up your case are important but don’t bombard readers with facts or attributions. Quotes from well-known and trusted sources also can fill the role of adding authority to your piece.
Link important resources or sources for facts that are not widely accessible: If there’s an important online resource you’d like readers to know of, link it — it may show up in the online edition. Attribute facts selectively, hyperlinking the original source where it’s not widely known. Just because a fact appeared in a major news outlet doesn’t mean it should be re-published without verifying the source.
Shorten your quotes and external information. Getting quotes from local sources and national experts are great ways to bolster your point, but keep them brief. Editing a quote after your interview to make it more clear and concise is fine, so long as you verify with the speaker that it still represents their thoughts accurately.
Give paragraphs variety. Vary the length of paragraphs, but rarely exceed four sentences/100 words. A one-sentence paragraph can emphasize a key point and provide variety, as can a very short sentence.
Offer recommendations. Write in an accessible way, from a perspective with which your average reader can identify, and don’t assume prior knowledge on your issue. Generally, offer direct recommendations/solutions to the problem you raise, though sometimes your aim simply may be to provoke thought.
Find a critic. If you can, find two people representative of your target audience who are willing to criticize your draft (at least one should be somebody not steeped in the issue)..
Surprise the reader. Aim to provide at least one little-known fact, quote, or story.
Consider addressing the opposing view. Raising your opposition’s strongest argument and countering often is desirable if you can do it concisely.
Use active, concise language. Strong writing is dominated by descriptive nouns and active, informative verbs. In your draft, look at every instance of has, have, is, was, be, were, has, have, etc. and seek to replace passive language with active verbs.
Read it aloud. it will usually reveal something you didn’t catch reading silently!
What to Avoid
Submit one at a time. Don’t submit an op-ed to competing publications simultaneously. Learn your targets’ market area and wait for a decision or sufficient lapse of time before submitting to a competitor.
Don’t overstate. Overstating will cause readers to discount much of what you say. Let facts speak for themselves. As a general rule (break it consciously), don’t repeat a point except in closing.
Don’t pitch ideas. Unless otherwise stated, assume the editor wants to see your full op-ed unless you’ve written for her previously. (The converse is true for most magazines).
Steer away from cliches, sarcasm, jargon and pejoratives (it may occasionally work when done in fun). Show readers that someone is dishonest, rather than calling them a liar.
Eliminate weak words. The word “that” can almost always be eliminated and improve the sentence by doing so. Also eliminate words like very, quite, etc. They indicate either a weak adjective in need of replacing or simply are superfluous.
Don’t respond to specific articles or other op-eds unless you or your organization was directly attacked or misrepresented. Ask the editor about publishing a full rebuttal if so.
Submitting Your Commentary
Create a compelling headline. Editors often will write their own, but your framing may influence them and could make your piece stand out among those waiting to be read.
Don’t send attachments. Send your commentary in the body of your email. Don’t attach anything unless the publication requests a headshot to accompany submissions.
Include a short byline. At the end of the article, include a short byline (generally one sentence) mentioning your organization and your role in it. Link the name of your organization to your website so editors can easily learn about your group. Example: Jane Local is the Engagement Coordinator for OurGroup.
Edit and proofread before you send. Most papers will edit for minor grammar and style issues, but have at least two people proofread thoroughly before submitting– ideally, one of whom is ignorant about the issue you address.
Follow up. For your smaller local papers, if you haven’t gotten a response within a week, follow up with a phone call or email to confirm they received your submission and ask if they’ve made a decision on it. Have the time, date and address to which you sent the piece handy. If they offer a specific reason it was not used, don’t argue, but do ask if there’s a way it could be improved to make it publishable.
If you are published, do your best to provoke letters to the editor from supporters that reinforce or add to your argument. Editors like op-eds that generate reader responses!
- Editing Resources: Hemingway and Readability are computer analyses of your writing (just paste in your text) and are useful tools to check your first draft before handing it to a human editor. Both help identify overly long sentences, excessive use of big words, passive language and other readability issues.
- The Elements of Style is offered free online and offers excellent pointers on concise writing.
- Tips for Aspiring Op-Ed Writers from The New York Times.
AMIBA staff have written and edited commentaries or feature articles for dozens of regional and national publications and we’re eager to help you create op-eds that people will want to share widely in your community. We invite you to contact us to seek our help.
Jeff Milchen is a co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance
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