Friday, February 29, 2008

So you want to write an op-ed...

It’s no wonder so many authors covet a spot on the opinion pages of top daily newspapers—not only do many readers today turn directly to the editorial section, but a well-written, controversial op-ed featured in the likes of The New York Times or The Washington Post can create a lasting national buzz. A successful op-ed can thrust a relatively unknown author into the national spotlight; and, unlike feature stories, you control the article’s content and message. But before you decide to give America a piece of your mind, there are a few things to consider to ensure your op-ed submission is a success:

1. Know the news cycle

Before you even sit down to write an article, do some research and brainstorming for topics. What are people talking about today? Keep in mind what news topics and social trend stories are hot at the moment, and how you can add to the debate. Just because they’re called the opinion pages, doesn’t mean the editors who choose the content don’t want newsworthy articles.

This past September I had success placing an article by Michael Gilbert, author of The Disposable Male, in The Christian Science Monitor. It was back-to-school season, so Gilbert wrote his op-ed on the merits of single-sex classrooms, a topic that related to the concepts discussed in his book and a current news cycle. The Christian Science Monitor requested an exclusive and syndicated the article to several newspapers nationwide.

2. Compliment your credentials

What is your expertise? If you’re an author of a new diet book, you’re going to have a hard time placing an op-ed about 401(k) legislation. But write an article about a new study on the benefits of retirees lowering their cholesterol, and you just may have something. Remember, don’t write the article about your book. Mentioning your book title in an opinion piece is a BIG no-no—this is what we call an ad-itorial rather than an editorial. Instead, center your op-ed on hard news and relate it to your book’s subject matter. The opinion page editor will include a short bio at the beginning or end of the op-ed that will mention your book title along with your credentials.

3. Stick to a reasonable word count

From my experience submitting op-eds, many opinion page editors say they prefer a piece to be no more than 750 words. Though this may not always be the case (The Christian Science Monitor ran the single-sex classrooms article in its entirety at around 1,000 words), it’s a good idea to keep your word count somewhere between 700-750 so you don’t discourage the interest of editors who might otherwise want to run the article.

4. Roll with the punches

No two opinion page editors work the same way. Some, especially the top dailies, will request an exclusive, while others will not. Some will simply decline an op-ed they don’t like, while others will work with you to make it better, offering suggestions for how to improve it. If you receive feedback from an editor, use it! These are valuable insights certain to benefit any future op-eds you create; and if you make the suggested changes quickly and re-submit, it may even influence the editor to feature your revised version.

5. Keep it simple

You’re not writing a dissertation, you’re writing what is essentially an opinionated news article. Read the paper and check out news sites online to get a feel for the simple language journalists utilize in their stories. Don’t say in 20 words what you can easily say in 10. Also, reporters begin their news stories with a “lede,” a tightly-written paragraph or sentence that tells the reader exactly what the story is about, before launching into other details and context. Model your op-ed in this way, and you’ll be sure to catch an editor’s eye—otherwise, if you bury your lede, they may get two paragraphs in and simply stop reading.

6. Source your assertions

Though this is an opinion piece, it doesn’t give you free reign to make wild assertions with nothing to back them up. Make sure to support your argument with recent statistics and research by either citing a study in the text, or providing a separate source document. This will make your piece more credible to opinion page editors and their readers.

Once you’ve written a stellar op-ed, submit, submit, submit! Opinion page editors receive hundreds of article submissions a week, so don’t be discouraged if your first choices don’t respond, or decline—if you’ve kept these simple tips in mind, your op-ed is sure to grab the attention of a top daily.

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