Best Practices for Writing
Opinion pieces (op-eds for short, from “opposite the editorial page”) offer a way for citizens outside the media to contribute to the media conversation. It is more likely for your op-ed to be published (online or in print, if possible) if you offer a well-articulated viewpoint on a current event or development. Here are some tips for writing an op-ed.
- Keep it short (750 words or less)
- Tie it to a news event
- Make it local and personal
- Google and follow the publication’s submission instructions (e.g. do NOT attach anything in an email)
- Do not exceed 750 words — Make sure to look online or email regarding word limit, as this varies from publication to publication.
- Focus on a single message — You don’t have much space, so focus on the number one takeaway you want readers to glean from your piece.
- Have a point of view — Opinion editors look for articles that are provocative and succinctly argue particular points of view on issues. They do not want pieces that argue all sides of an issue. Express a clear, strong opinion. Argue your point. Urge action. Warn of danger.
- Make that point early — Don’t wait to reel readers in. Make your point at the beginning, and use the rest of the space to explain or offer examples of why you think this is important.
- Be precise — Use concrete examples, telling details, dollar figures and a few compelling numbers. Build your piece around one main idea, bolstered by a few supporting points. A short quote or two is okay.
- Use plain language — Jargon serves a purpose, but it’s rarely useful in public debate and can obfuscate – sorry, I mean cloud – your argument. Speak to your reader in straight talk and avoid acronymic, academic, or legalistic language. Op-eds in general circulation publications should be comprehensible to all readers, and most newspapers are edited for an eighth-grade reading level.
- Respect your reader — Never underestimate your reader’s intelligence, or overestimate their level of information. Recognize that your average reader is not an expert in your topic, and that the onus is on you to capture their attention and persuade them to care with your compelling argument.
- Submission — Follow publications’ instructions. Do NOT send attachments, but paste the body of your op-ed in an email. Include your full name, email and phone number. Send to one outlet at a time until you get confirmation that the piece will be published. For reference, this resource gives the specific op-ed instructions for the top 100+ newspapers in the United States by circulation.
Best Practices for Pitching
For your op-ed to reach people and educate them, it needs to find a home in some sort of news outlet. You can get it published by pitching it to an editor, usually over email, and briefly explaining what makes your op-ed different, important, and timely. Here are some tips on how to effectively pitch your op-ed (and for more detail, head over to the Op-Ed Project.)
- Submit wisely, but have backup plans
- Explain the news hook and your connection to it
- Keep it brief
- Follow up
- Pitch thoughtfully – First, don’t submit your op-ed to more than one newspaper at a time. Second, think about where your ideas will be most relevant and where you might be most likely to get published. Some outlets (like USA Today and The New York Times) are much more selective than others. So while you can and should aim high, make sure you have backup plans for smaller or more subject-specific publications that might be more interested in case major outlets aren’t interested.
- Write an effective pitch – Editors want to keep their news fresh and interesting for their readers. What makes this issue relevant right now? How is your hook or angle different from something readers might have seen before? What makes you the best person to write the op-ed? If you’ve got a well-written op-ed with an unexpected point of view, the pitch is the place to explain that. Explain why their outlet is the very best place for your op-ed, even if it’s your third or fourth choice.
- Be brief – This point keeps coming up, but it’s important. The pitch should be comprised of your idea (a few sentences), your relevant credentials, your contact information, and the finished piece, pasted into the email. Don’t attach it, and don’t explain the whole piece—they’ll read it.
- Follow up – No matter whether the editor responds or not, you’ll want to follow up with them. If they respond, thank them regardless of whether they said “yes” or “no.” If they don’t respond, send them an email politely explaining that, since your hook is time-sensitive, if they don’t get back to you by a certain time you’ll assume they’ve passed on it and will be submitting it elsewhere. The amount of time depends on exactly how timely your news hook is—if it’s in a couple days, that’s a very short time limit. If it’s farther away, you can give the editors some more time to get back to you.