Cracking the Op-Ed code
One of the best ways to get included in a publication is by publishing an opinion, or editorial, piece. Commonly known as op-eds, these are submitted by the public, vetted by opinion editors and then published.
They differ from letters to the editor in that they often take a proactive approach, calling for, for instance, new laws, more attention paid to an issue, or solutions to a problem. Op-eds differ from letters to the editor in their length, purpose and structure. (Letters to the editor are also a great way to make a point. Just ask Frank from Berwyn.)
But how will your op-ed stand out from the masses? From those submitted by mayors and senators, by activists and experts? Let’s dive in to the equation behind a successful op-ed, a formula that can be successful for newspapers, magazines and other publications.
News + views + data + action/solutions
Let’s break it down.
Any article you read has one common component: the news, duh. It’s the critical thing the story hangs on, and it’s known in newsrooms as the news peg. Without a news peg, an op-ed stands no chance at making it through an opinion editor’s review and being published.
(Some very fictional) examples of a news peg and a responsive op-ed may include:
A bridge collapses, and a call for infrastructure repairs
College graduation season, and an advice for new grads
Violence spikes during the summer, and a call for more youth programs
Climate change is happening, and an explanation of the economic costs and a call to action
My father died in a botched surgery, and a proposed set of regulations
Ask yourself, is my op-ed topical and current?
Op-ed stands for opinion-editorial. Opinion. You’ve gotta have one. No matter if it’s a good one or a bad one, it’s got to be a strong one or else no one will care.
Using the above examples, views might be:
We have ignored our infrastructure for too long, and we’ll keep paying the price until we do something.
I thought I knew everything when I graduated from college, and that hubris kept me from meeting my potential.
Unless we invest in our youth and communities, more families will be torn apart by senseless violence.
Climate change comes with a very real fiscal cost – but it can also be an economic opportunity.
No family should have to suffer due to the negligence of a poorly trained doctor.
Your views, which should permeate your piece, are generally laid out in the second, third or fourth paragraph. In the news biz, this is called the nut graf. It basically says what your story is about.
Nothing backs up an argument like cold, hard facts. You can’t argue with data. (People may try, but they can’t refute facts. Even if they keep trying.)
This data can come in the form of statistics produced by experts and reputable organizations, or anecdotes from relevant people or organizations. In fact, if you can marry the two, that’s even better. Facts are the foundation of any article, whether it’s a news story or opinion piece. Find the facts. Respect the facts.
Strong op-eds rely on data from reputable people or organizations, like the government, academic institutions or business organizations.
Again, referencing our examples, a writer might find:
The state’s investment in bridge repair projects has fallen 25 percent over the last 10 years, despite government assessments that an alarming number of bridges are deficient or past their useful life.
According to government figures, 45 percent of new college graduates are unemployed. That’s in stark contrast to the 3 percent overall unemployment rate. Those are scary figures, but that’s actually good news for the new grad who wants to learn a thing or two about the world.
More than 20 people have been killed and 150 wounded in gun violence this summer. This is unacceptable, but not surprising given the recent divestment in community programs overseen by the mayor and city council.
Climate change is going to cost our economy trillions, according the U.N. But it could be trillions in opportunity – if we had the will to take bold actions.
The number of operating-room deaths has increased in our state every year since 2017. That’s in contrast to the national average, and it’s unacceptable.
See how our op-eds are shaping out?
No op-ed is complete without a forward-looking statement. A call to action (Investment! Education! Adventure!) or a set of solutions (we can solve this issue with XYZ) to an essential way to wrap up your piece and give people some hope or a way to enact your vision.
The best of these are backed in data. Journalists love data. Can’t stress that enough.
Most news organizations have an easy-to-find way to submit your op-ed, along with guidelines on word counts and topics. Look for the opinion section on a newspaper’s website. Magazines may hide their portal a bit, and it will require persistence and creativity. Often the print edition will include these guidelines near op-ed pieces.
Consider reaching out to opinion editors with questions on topics or formats. Sometimes an opinion editor will respond to your queries, and that helps get your name and topic in front of them.
So before you click “send,” ask yourself these questions:
Do I have relevant news peg?
Do I have a strong and convincing argument?
Is it backed up by irrefutable data and/or anecdotes?
Can I present a compelling way forward?
If the answer to these questions are yes, then you’re in good shape.
So remember: The elements of a successful op-ed are a strong opinion, backed up with data and some solutions at the ready. And that’s not just my opinion.
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