The following is reprinted courtesy of Jeffrey Seglin, lecturer in public policy and director of the Harvard Kennedy School Communications Program:
An op-ed piece derives its name from originally having appeared opposite the editorial page in a newspaper. Today, the term is used more widely to represent a column that represents the strong, informed and focused opinion of the writer on an issue of relevance to a targeted audience.
Distinguishing characteristics of an op-ed or column
Partly, a column is defined by where it appears, but it shares some common characteristics:
- Typically, it is short, between 750 and 800 words.
- It has a clearly defined point.
- It has a clearly defined point of view.
- It represents clarity of thinking.
- It contains the strong, distinctive voice of the writer.
Questions to ask yourself when writing an op-ed or column
- Do I have a clear point to make? If so, what is it?
- Who cares? (Writing with a particular audience in mind can inform how you execute your column. Who is it that you are trying to convince? Why are you targeting that specific reader?)
- Is there substance to my argument?
Topic and theme
Every successful op-ed piece or column must have a clearly defined topic and theme.
- The topic is the person, place, issue, incident or thing that is the primary focus of the column. The topic is usually stated in the first paragraph.
- The theme is the big, overarching idea of the column. What’s your point in writing about the chosen topic and why is it important? The theme may appear early in the piece or it may appear later when it may also serve as a turning point into a deeper level of argument.
While columns and op-ed pieces allow writers to include their own voice and express an opinion, to be successful the columns must be grounded in solid research. Research involves acquiring facts, quotations, citations or data from sources and personal observation. Research also allows a reader to include sensory data (touch, taste, smell, sound or sight) into a column. There are two basic methods of research:
- Field research: going to the scene, interviews, legwork; primary materials, observations, and knowledge.
- Library, academic, or internet research: using secondary materials, including graphs, charts, and scholarly articles.
Openings and endings
The first line of an op-ed is crucial. The opening “hook” may grab the reader’s attention with a strong claim, a surprising fact, a metaphor, a mystery, or a counter-intuitive observation that entices the reader into reading more. The opening also briefly lays the foundation for your argument.
Similarly, every good column or op-ed piece needs a strong ending that fulfills some basic requirements. It:
- Echoes or answers introduction.
- Has been foreshadowed by preceding thematic statements.
- Is the last and often most memorable detail.
- Contains a final epiphany or calls the reader to action.
There are two basic types of endings. An “open ending” suggests rather than states a conclusion, while a “closed ending” states rather than suggests a conclusion. The closed ending in which the point of the piece is resolved is by far the most commonly used.
Having a strong voice is critical to a successful column or op-ed piece. Columns are most typically conversational in tone, so you can imagine yourself have a conversation with your reader as you write (a short, focused conversation). But the range of voice used in columns can be wide: contemplative, conversational, descriptive, experienced, informative, informed, introspective, observant, plaintive, reportorial, self-effacing, sophisticated or humorous, among many other possibilities.
Sometimes what voice you use is driven by the publication for which you are writing. A good method of developing your voice is to get in the practice of reading your column or op-ed out loud. Doing so gives you a clear sense of how your piece might sound – what your voice may come off as – to your intended reader.
Below are some things to remember as you revise your op-ed or column before you submit it for publication. You should always check:
- Coherence and unity.
- Voice and tone. Most are conversational; some require an authoritative voice.
- Direct quotations and paraphrasing for accuracy.
- That you properly credit all sources (though formal citations are not necessary).
- The consistency of your opinion throughout your op-ed or column.
Below are links to some online resources related to op-ed and column writing:
- The Op-Ed Project is a terrific resource for anyone looking to strengthen their op-ed writing. It provides tips on op-ed writing, suggestions about basic op-ed structure, guidelines on how to pitch op-ed pieces to publications, and information about top outlets that publish op-eds. Started as an effort to increase the number of women op-ed writers, The Op-Ed Project also regularly runs daylong seminars around the country.
- “How to Write an Op-Ed Article,” which was prepared by David Jarmul, Duke’s associate vice president for news and communications, provides great guidelines on how to write a successful op-ed.
- “How to Write Op-Ed Columns,” which was prepared by The Earth Institute at Columbia University, is another useful guide to writing op-eds. It contains a useful list of op-ed guidelines for top-circulation newspapers in the U.S.
- “And Now a Word from Op-Ed,” offers some advice on how to think about and write op-eds from the Op-Ed editor of The New York Times.
Author Jeffrey Seglin is a lecturer in public policy and director of the Harvard Kennedy School Communications Program.
Last updated: January 28, 2013
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Faculty experts and other members of the Carleton community who have an interesting opinion to share (and who at Carleton doesn't?), may consider writing an op-ed article for a newspaper or elsewhere. Such an article can reach millions of readers, swaying hearts and changing minds. It can help reshape a public debate and affect policy. It also can bring you considerable recognition for less effort than it takes to write a professional monograph or journal article. Moreover, effective op-ed articles reflect well on both the author and the College, which is why Carleton encourages faculty members and others to reach out to this important market.
One goal of the Carleton's Office of Media Relations office is to assist and lead the College’s efforts in placing these sorts of articles across a wide range of media. Our staff is ready to help you craft and submit an article, and we share these guidelines prepared by our colleague, David Jarmul at Duke University, to help you get started:
Track the news and jump at opportunities. Timing is essential. When an issue is dominating the news – whether it’s a war, a stock market panic or just the latest controversy on a reality television show – that’s what readers want to read and op-ed editors want to publish. Whenever possible, therefore, link your issue explicitly to something happening in the news. If you’re a researcher studying cancer, for instance, start off by discussing the celebrity who died yesterday. Or, look ahead to a holiday or anniversary a week from now that will provide a fresh news peg (and enable editors to plan the story in advance).
Limit the article to 750 words. Shorter is even better. Some academic authors insist they need more room to explain their argument. Unfortunately, newspapers have limited space to offer, and editors generally won't take the time to cut a long article down to size.
Make a single point - well. You cannot solve all of the world's problems in 750 words. Be satisfied with making a single point clearly and persuasively. If you cannot explain your message in a sentence or two, you're trying to cover too much.
Put your main point on top. You're not writing for Science or The Quarterly Journal of Economics. You have no more than 10 seconds to hook a busy reader, which means you shouldn't "clear your throat" with a witticism or historical aside. Just get to the point and convince the reader that it's worth his or her valuable time to continue.
Tell readers why they should care. Put yourself in the place of the busy person looking at your article. At the end of every few paragraphs, ask out loud: "So what? Who cares?" You need to answer these questions. Will your suggestions help reduce readers' taxes? Protect them from disease? Make their children happier? Explain why. Appeals to self-interest usually are more effective than abstract punditry.
Offer specific recommendations. An op-ed is not a news story that simply describes a situation; it is your opinion about how to improve matters. Don't be satisfied, as you might in a classroom, with mere analysis. In an op-ed article you need to offer recommendations. How exactly should North Carolina safeguard its environment, or the White House change its foreign policy? You'll need to do more than call for "more research!" or suggest that opposing parties work out their differences.
Showing is better than discussing. You may remember the Pentagon's overpriced toilet seat that became a symbol of profligate federal spending. You probably don't recall the total Pentagon budget for that year (or for that matter, for the current year). That's because we humans remember colorful details better than dry facts. When writing an op-ed article, therefore, look for great examples that will bring your argument to life.
Use short sentences and paragraphs. Look at some op-ed articles and count the number of words per sentence. You'll probably find the sentences to be quite short. You should use the same style, relying mainly on simple declarative sentences. Cut long paragraphs into two or more shorter ones.
Don't be afraid of the personal voice. Academics often avoid first-person exposition in professional journals, which rarely begin with phrases like "You won't believe what I found when I was working in my lab on Research Drive last month." When it comes to op-eds, however, it's good to use the personal voice whenever possible. If you are a physician, describe the plight of one of your patients. If you've worked with poor families in the area, tell their stories to help argue your point.
Avoid jargon. If a technical detail is not essential to your argument, don't use it. When in doubt, leave it out. Simple language doesn't mean simple thinking; it means you are being considerate of readers who lack your expertise and are sitting half-awake at their breakfast table or computer screen.
Use the active voice. Don't write: "It is hoped that [or: One would hope that} the government will . . ." Instead, say "I hope the government will . . ." Active voice is nearly always better than passive voice. It's easier to read, and it leaves no doubt about who is doing the hoping, recommending or other action.
Avoid tedious rebuttals. If you've written your article in response to an earlier piece that made your blood boil, avoid the temptation to prepare a point-by-point rebuttal. It makes you look petty. It's likely that readers didn't see the earlier article and, if they did, they've probably forgotten it. So, just take a deep breath, mention the earlier article once and argue your own case.
Acknowledge the other side. People writing op-ed articles sometimes make the mistake of piling on one reason after another why they’re right and their opponents are wrong, if not idiots. They’d probably appear more credible, and almost certainly more humble and appealing, if they took a moment to acknowledge the ways in which their opponents are right. When you see experienced op-ed authors saying “to be sure,” that’s what they’re doing.
Make your ending a winner. You're probably familiar with the importance of a strong opening paragraph, or "lead," that hooks readers. But when writing for the op-ed page, it's also important to summarize your argument in a strong final paragraph. That's because many casual readers scan the headline, skim the opening column and then read only the final paragraph and byline. In fact, one trick many columnists use is to conclude with a phrase or thought that they used in the opening, thereby closing the circle.
Relax and have fun. Many authors, particularly academics, approach an op-ed article as an exercise in solemnity. Frankly, they'd improve their chances if they'd lighten up, have some fun and entertain the reader a bit. Newspaper editors despair of weighty articles - known in the trade as "thumb suckers" - and delight in an academic writer who chooses examples from "Entertainment Tonight" as well as from Kierkegaard.
How to submit an article. The best way to submit an op-ed article is by working with Carleton's Office of Media Relations, which interacts regularly with op-ed editors and understands their needs. Contact Eric Sieger for assistance. If you do choose to submit an article yourself, be sure to include your contact information, and say whether you have a photo of yourself available. Most papers now accept articles by e-mail. Please copy Eric on your submission.
Where to submit the article. Here's a wild guess: You're hoping to publish your article in The New York Times, with The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal as backups. Well, welcome to the club. These and other national publications, such as Newsweek and USA Today, receive a staggering number of submissions, the overwhelming majority of which are rejected. You have a better shot at regional newspapers and, especially, at local papers, which almost always give preference to writers from the local area. Think Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star Tribune, MinnPost.com, St. Paul Pioneer Press, etc. Web sites such as "Slate" and “The Huffington Post” are also gaining in importance. The Office of Media Relations can assist you in targeting your article to the most appropriate media outlets.