Contrary to many reporters’ beliefs, opinions aren’t just for writers. Everyone has an opinion about something. The opinion editorial is your opportunity to make your opinion heard. The purpose of the op-ed story is to give the public a forum, letting members of the community address current issues or events. The name “op-ed” derives from its placement in the actual paper, opposite the editorial page. In a sense, the placement of the op-ed is a reflection of its role in print journalism. The op-ed page is the place where the actions of public leaders, major events and even words of reporters are subject to the opinion of one citizen. It can serve as commentary on world events or a stance on local issues. Most importantly, the op-ed offers the reader an alternative to the opinions of professional columnists that are printed on the opposite page.
Writing an op-ed that is passionate, fair, and concise is not an easy task. Getting it through the editors is even harder. However, it is not a lost cause. With effort and a little luck, a good op-ed can see the light of day. Here are a few pointers on how to make an editor notice yours.
Know your Audience
Take the time to read the types of opinion pieces published in the newspapers you plan to submit your work to. Don’t spend Sunday watching football and Sixty Minutes; it’s your time to research. Newspapers print most of their opinion material in the Sunday editions. While you should be taking note of op-eds that are published throughout the weekend, Sunday is key. Recognizing your audience both readers and editors allows you to construct an op-ed that will make it past the wastebasket in the editing room and interest readers at the breakfast table.
Write What you Know
John Grisham writes about the law. William Faulkner wrote about the South. If you are nurse, don’t write about American involvement in the Balkans unless you are treating the injured there. Instead, write about healthcare. Newspapers are always looking for experts. Thankfully, you don’t need a title in your name to be considered an expert at something, however, you do need some credentials. Talking about issues you are knowledgeable about and have experience with gives you a much greater chance of impressing the editors, makes your readers more inclined to hear you out and usually makes your op-ed better.
No Group Thought
Editors say they can smell an agenda a mile away. Op-eds are designed to give the public a forum to voice their opinion. The goal is to highlight individual opinions, not to showcase a group agenda. Even a hint of agenda talk editors often refer to as “group thought,” will land your story under a pile of rejections. If you are a public relations person trying to get your issue some press, don’t write like one. Editors want the sense that you are expressing an opinion that is solely your own, so give them what they want. At the very least, don’t write your story on corporate letterhead.
Write Like You Talk
Whether you’re a professor who is accustomed to the wordiness of academia, a doctor immersed in medical jargon or a car mechanic who just likes to write with big words, you need to simplify your language when writing an op-ed. Editors have enough reporters who like to impress them with ten-dollar words like amalgamate and eleemosynary. When it comes to the op-ed section, it is refreshing to see scaled down words like merge and charitable. Keep in mind that the op-ed is supposed to represent the thoughts of people who do not necessarily write for a living. There is no need to bowl people over with language. Concentrate your energy more on bowling them over with passion.
Give it a Chance
Even though you may have a lot to say, newspapers have guidelines on op-ed length. Aim for op-eds to be around 750 words. Some papers are stingier and look for 650 and others allow 800, but no paper is interesting in printing your dissertation. Keep your thoughts concise. Edit your words as much as possible. Avoid redundancy and choose crisp verbs over excessive adjetives and adverbs.
Respect the Rules
No one ever got their op-ed printed by ignoring the needs of the newspaper. If you are writing about a timely issue, be sure to send it within a few days of the breaking news at the latest. If there’s one thing editors hate, it’s reading out of date stories. Also, be sure to check if the newspaper you are sending to has a policy on exclusive rights. Many newspapers insist that if you send them an op-ed piece, it must not be sent to any other papers. Having a story land on the opinion page of two major newspapers is a good way of ensuring that it is the last one you’ll get published.
Remember the Basics
Even if you write a dazzling op-ed that impresses the editors, it won’t be published anywhere if you don’t remember the nuts and bolts. Always type your story on standard-sized white pages. Include your name and address in the upper right hand corner on the first page. Remember to give your phone number and social security number somewhere on the entry as well, because without your social security number there’s no chance of getting paid. Newspapers have varied policies about op-eds. Often, the reward is just seeing your words in print.
Reporters Don’t Sell
While you may be a born salesman, remember that most writers are not. Once you have sent in your story, let the editors decide on their own whether they want to print it. Trying to persuade them into publishing your piece, whether with phone calls or email, never works. A good writer shouldn’t have to sell his work; it should sell itself. Take the time to ensure your story is as strong as it can be, then let it go. Pitching your op-ed to editors is as blatant a sign of pushing an agenda as writing on corporate letterhead.
Try Try Again
Don’t be discouraged if your op-ed doesn’t get published. The majority of them don’t. You may receive a simple letter thanking you for your story or you may receive nothing at all. Ask yourself why that particular newspaper decided not to run the story. Consider your topic, your point of view and the audience of the newspaper. Regroup and try again. Major newspapers receive hundreds of op-ed submissions every day, so it doesn’t mean that your piece wasn’t good enough. Keep at it and you are likely to impress an editor somewhere along the line.