How to write a great op-ed

When I was in college, I loved reading Anna Quindlen in the New York Times. Her commentaries were well-written and could be quite pointed. Great essays that muster facts to make persuasive arguments and advocate for a particular position can be a delight to read.

Perhaps that is where my enjoyment of op-ed began. I loved the opportunity to write something that expressed my thoughts and corralled evidence while being an advocate. I was always a nice girl who loved to write for the jugular that op-eds and letters to the editor allowed. I was an op-ed columnist for a campus newspaper for three years while in graduate school and flipped my views from conservative to progressive in the process.

I loved writing in a sharp way with a little edge, and I continue to write op-eds and letters to the editor for clients from time to time as the need arises. I’ve written pieces that have appeared on the op-ed pages in the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and many others.

Far longer than a 200–word letter to the editor, an op-ed column can be 500–1,000 words, depending on the newspaper. Placing an op-ed in a newspaper or online can be a lengthy process, as the author must submit the draft to op-ed desks one-by-one, and then wait anxiously for any news. Current events and breaking news — which are completely out of the control of the author — can also influence how eager an editor is to accept an op-ed for publication.

Here are a few tips to help draft a great op-ed:

  • Write about a topic you care about passionately. How you feel about something will show in your words.
  • Start big. You want to engage the reader and get them to read the entire essay. Open with descriptive words, an egregious outrage, a personal tale or story about someone in trouble.
  • Know your stuff. Facts used in the op-ed should support your position as much as possible. Check sources and know where information is sourced. Be prepared to provide links and references to fact checkers if asked.
  • Be persuasive. Facts are important in op-ed but you also need to advocate. It can’t just be an information dump. This is where your writing skill can really shine.
  • Don’t be afraid to have an opinion. What you think matters in op-ed and your opinion should be clear in what you write. I always said that writing op-ed made me the worst type of journalist possible — biased and armed with facts.
  • Offer solutions. Op-ed is usually not about supporting the status quo. Spell out what you think should happen to fix the problem or issue you have identified. If there is an action step you want for readers or others to take, spell it out.
  • Sum it up. A closing paragraph can summarize your argument and appeal to the reader for action.
  • Follow the rules. If the newspaper or website’s published guidelines limit op-ed submissions to 600 words or a ranging word count, don’t submit something over the limit.
  • Be persistent. Sometimes placing an op-ed can be tough. If you are rejected, try to find another outlet to publish your work.

This post was previously published by Ami Neiberger, APR in February 2023. She graciously shares her media relations expertise with BWG and its clients, as well serving as principal of her own firm, Maple Avenue PR. Follow her: @AmazingPRMaven