Our Most Popular Op-ed Advice
As the new Congress settles in and debate heats up, there’s no time like the present to pitch an op-ed bringing a spotlight to your issues and framing the debate.
Experts and advocates often seek our advice on how to write op-eds. Heading into the new year, here is a useful refresher on writing a great op-ed.
Why write an op-ed at all?
- Op-eds are good at changing people's minds.
- Op-eds are often the most highly read pieces on media sites (see the Washington Post's "most read" box) and can generate a ton of buzz on social media—extending the news cycle of your issues.
- Women's voices are still underrepresented (particularly in foreign policy op-eds).
Before you start putting pen to paper, answer the following questions:
- Who are you talking to? Your audience determines which outlets you try to place your piece in, the language you use, and the most compelling argument you can make to convince that audience. Who are they?
- What are you advocating for? An op-ed is not a paper in which you give equal consideration to the opposing side. It is a medium to convince your audience of something: to do something, say something, or believe something. What are you asking your audience to do?
- Why now? Op-eds are timely and centered around an event, something that is happening. And even if it isn’t about something happening right now, can you connect it to other issues that are relevant or top of mind for your audience?
When it comes to structure, stay rooted in a compelling narrative and keep it short:
- The first paragraph should be a story. This means that instead of saying "as you know, X is happening," you should show the impact or effect as your hook. [Example]
- Then go into your "thesis" statement where you're asserting something. If someone is only going to remember one thing from your piece, this sentence should be it.
- Include 3-4 (short) paragraphs with your supporting pieces of evidence. These can be trends, quotes, personal experiences, or report findings.
- Then your conclusion, where you address (1) your critics’ arguments—this doesn't mean you need to give equal time, but acknowledge and refute opposing arguments succinctly; (2) why should anyone care? Remember: everything is important. So how does the issue you’re writing about impact the larger picture and everyday people? And (3) what is your call to action? Who are you naming?
Write a memorable op-ed by following these eight steps:
- Make it personal. Tell a story. Invoke an experience. Make it readable, relatable, and relevant. Audiences respond to accessible content and editors look for that.
- Make it local. With the exception of a small number of national outlets, there has to be a local tie-in. What is the relevance of the local Representative or the state’s Senators? How will the decision make an impact on the community? What is the community history with the issue?
- Choose the right author. A relevant local signer is key with most regional and local newspapers. With national outlets, the prestige and credibility of the author can make all the difference. No more than two authors.
- Argue a strong point—powerfully. An op-ed argues a point of view, it does not weigh all sides of an issue. As a general rule, make one strong point and back it up with 3–4 brief supporting arguments.
- Avoid jargon. Use accessible language—language your audience would use themselves. Wherever possible use metaphors, analogies, and stories to connect to your audience and make your point more persuasive.
- Always respect the word limit. Editors don’t have the time to cut your piece down to size. If it’s too long, it will probably be rejected immediately. Typically, 700 words will do, but always check the paper’s op-ed page to find out their preference. Your odds will be better if your piece is even shorter.
- Start strong, finish strong. Open with a strong, tight, clear paragraph. If the reader only reads two paragraphs, they should get your essential point. The middle paragraphs exist to reinforce your point. The final paragraph should close the deal and leave the reader feeling like it’s only sensible to agree with you.
- Name names. Policies don’t just happen—people make decisions. In political communications, the aim is to declare who is responsible and why they should do the right thing. This does not need to be adversarial, but it cannot be vague or understated. Plus, particularly in well-targeted local outlets, the people responsible can feel the heat if their neighbors (and/or constituents!) weigh in.
Explore these other resources elsewhere on our blog:
- Everything You Need to Know to Pitch Your Killer Op-ed: 11 Best Practices to follow and keep in mind when you're trying to get that piece placed
- Congrats! You Have a Published Op-Ed. How Do You Make Sure More People See It?: tips and tricks to promote your op-ed and leverage it for more media coverage
- How to Write a Faith-Based Op-Ed: Making the moral argument