This post will be longer than the others but it’s meant to take you through the entire op-ed writing process in one go. I find it easiest to work on all of the parts in one setting so that the piece has a cohesive feel to it. This piece will take Steven Covey’s advice to “begin with the end in mind” from his book 7 Habits of Highly Successful People–here, your goal is to get your reader to take some action at the end. Build your piece with that goal in mind.
Other articles in this op-ed writing guide:
How To Write an Op Ed: Why write an op ed? (Part 1)
The Best Op Ed Format and Op Ed Examples: Hook, Teach, Ask (Part 2)
How to Create Your Op-Ed’s Angle (Part 3)
How to Pitch Your Op-Ed: Explicit and Implicit Expectations of Editors (Part 4)
Op Ed Writing and Editing: A Complete Guide (Part 5)
7 Reasons Why Your op-ed Will Get Rejected–and how to fix them (Part 6)
Op-Ed Promotion: 6 Tips To Spread Your Opinion (Part 7)
Step 1: Op-ed Closing: Begin with the end in mind — who is your ideal reader, what point do you want to make, and what is your ask?
Now that you have your angle, rather than writing the Teach and the Hook part, consider first the Ask. What do you want to build towards in the end?
Do you want your readers to join your cause if you represent a mission-focused group?
Do you want a particular law to change? A bill defeated or passed?
Do you simply want someone to have changed their mind after hearing your perspective?
You can get incredibly prescriptive such as this one in the NY Times on end-of-life conversations:
By starting with the ending in mind, you will be able to build the rest of the op-ed towards this conclusion. It’s OK if in the course of writing you determine that a new ask is needed based on your arguments. But argue to one conclusive ending as you’ll only have 600 words or so.
Additionally, authors often take their conclusion as an opportunity to tie their piece to an even larger theme to make their point. Their op-ed centers around one debate but then they tie into something larger.
Here are some conclusions as examples:
I’m just a high school student, and I do not pretend to have all of the answers. However, even in my position, I can see that there is desperate need for change — change that starts by folks showing up to the polls and voting all those individuals who are in the back pockets of gun lobbyists out of office.
Please do it for me. Do it for my fellow classmates. We can’t vote, but you can, so make it count.
I am a human. Not a machine.
I learned that the New York City Council is considering legislation that would require big corporations like Amazon to pay extra during this crisis to compensate us for the increased risks we are taking on and make it harder for them to fire us on a whim. Going to work is a health hazard during this crisis, but we need the money, and people need to get the supplies we are sorting. A bit more pay and some job security would ease a lot of stress. They say we are essential, but Amazon treats us like we’re expendable.
Drivers, first and foremost, need to obey the rules, especially as the number of cyclists grows. If there is a next time, I doubt I will be as lucky. Cyclists count on drivers to make it home again alive.
Do Now: Answer the following questions to create your Ask
- What is the conclusion you want to reach with this piece? What larger themes does your piece tie into?
- How do you want your reader’s mind to have changed by the end?
- What do you want your reader to do after reading your piece?
Step 2: How will your op-ed teach your reader your point of view?
The central part of an op-ed is how it teaches its readers the author’s point of view and perspective.
Many times, the teaching portion features a story but not always and not always that of the author. However, the personal narrative is quite helpful across many. Story and narratives dominate this list for good reason: they are most likely to hold the attention of readers and have been shown to be more memorable than statistics and factual arguments. Look for a way to balance if needed to lend credibility to your argument by balancing emotion and logic to make your point.
Depending on how much space you have, you can use a combination depending on what fits for the tone and overall point of the piece.
- A story that happened to you
- The story of another person/group
- The story of research
- Well-chosen statistics/research report findings
- Likely implications if a course of action is taken or not taken
- News reporting
- Pictures, graphs, and charts — submit these along with the piece if you feel they will help illustrate a key point.
Do you need to address an opponent’s viewpoint or argument?
For some pieces, this will be expected if you are responding to the views of someone else or directly trying to refute an argument you find lacking. However, the opinion piece is your piece — anyone with a differing viewpoint can submit their side. It is not your job to make their argument for them and devote precious space to their side. This is especially true in arguments where sides of issues are given disproportionate attention even when the facts and arguments are overwhelmingly against them. It’s up to you and the publication publishing your piece for the tac you’ll take.
Do now: Write out the portion of your piece where you teach your point of view.
See what works from all of the methods above and any others that you would use to teach people your point of view. Imagine you were having a conversation with an open-minded person at a party or over email, how would you make your point to that person? Is there surprising research you can cite? What type of evidence best supports your view?
Step 3: How to start your op-ed to hook the reader’s attention to keep on reading?
Now that you have a strong ask and a case to be made, it’s time to create the hook that will lead readers to the rest of your op-ed.
The first sentence of your op-ed should be where you spend the most time to hook the reader. Typically, a strong declarative sentence will do the trick. It should be immediately apparent what the rest of the piece is about or at least enough to get the reader to keep on reading. Other methods to hook the reader: A surprising statistic or sentence; a hypothetical posed to the reader; recreated dialogue; setting a scene like in a novel; a rhetorical question; a vignette from your life; a story from history
Your hook is typically your first paragraph. It can go to a second if needed. Here is what you’ll need to achieve:
- You’ve hooked the reader
- You’ve tied your piece to a timely news item
- An editor or reader, just by reading your first paragraph can tell the major themes and ideas in the rest of the piece
Let’s look at a few opening hooks:
If being born into Generation X ever gave me anything, it has been a lifetime of training in lowered expectations. And as we chaotically hurtle toward the start of a new school year in the midst of a still explosive health crisis, my slacker parenting technique has never been stronger.
Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a feature on a now all-too-familiar theme. “Worried your kid is falling behind?” the headline blared. “You’re not alone.” As the Times explained, “As kids start school with more online learning, parents wonder whether they’ll ever catch up. Here’s how to set them up for success.” Granted, the article advised moms — surprise, no fathers were interviewed — on “creating fun, low-key learning opportunities,” but the phrase “falling behind” nevertheless appeared three times in the body of the article.
Ever heard of Blackdom in New Mexico? Dearfield in Colorado? What about DeWitty in Nebraska? Didn’t think so. Neither had I several years ago. But they were once vibrant African American homesteading communities. Today their buildings are falling to ruin, their locations are mostly unmarked, and the achievements of their pioneers are mostly forgotten.
At Dearfield, the walls and roof of the lunchroom, once an important gathering place, have collapsed. The decaying building sits behind a chain-link fence. The substantial wood-frame house of the settlement’s founder, Oliver Toussaint Jackson, built in 1918, has been vandalized. Although listed in 1995 on the National Register of Historic Places, and despite local efforts to save it, Dearfield is undergoing demolition by neglect.
Windblown rain lashes against the hospital windows in an uncertain rhythm that seems even more unsteady as I enter the patient’s room near the nursing station. There is music in this room. Two people sit in chairs by the bed of a patient, a woman who is lying very still. I recognize the voice of Elton John coming from a tablet computer on the bedside table. He’s singing “Crocodile Rock.”
“She liked this,” says the woman’s daughter, smiling and rolling her eyes, as though to say “Elton John, really?” The dying woman’s husband glances at his daughter, then at me, and says, “We followed the advice from one of the nurses to play some music in her last few hours and days.” He smiles slightly, as if in apology for the jaunty tune ( I never knew me a better time and I guess I never will ) in this solemn setting.
What you don’t want to do:
Throat clearing: Burying the lede and the purpose for writing this op-ed; giving too much background information early on; giving your credentials and biography.
Your bio will normally be at the end of the piece. If you need to provide the reader with who you are and why you’re writing this piece, that’s typically done in the paragraph after the hook.
Do Now: Go ahead and write the opening for your piece.
Try various openings. Can you open with a story? Recreated dialogue? (you don’t need exact quotes, to save space you can condense as long as you remain truthful)
Use the following structures to help organize your piece
1. Hook, Teach, Ask
2. Basic Argument
Your evidence and claim 1
Your evidence and claim 2
Your evidence and claim 3
Refutation of common arguments against the claims above
Conclusion and Call to action
Straight Refutation (sometimes necessary):
Opponent’s Claim 1 and why it falls short
Opponent’s Claim 2 and why it falls short
Opponent’s Claim 3 and why it falls short
Your argument or a better way of viewing the issue
Conclusion and Call to Action
Op-Ed Writing Tips For Your First Draft:
The following is a collection of tips that didn’t work well elsewhere and just some ideas to keep in mind as you write:
- The First-person is OK! Op-eds and opinion pieces are your opinions so feel free to break free from a feature piece style or typical staid 3rd person objective journalistic view.
- You don’t have to give digital ink to the other side. Sometimes you may need to refute an opponent’s argument but these 600 words are yours — let any opponent respond if needed. Some pieces are set up to enter into a debate while others may need to summarize the opposing point of view but other times you have a personal experience where there is no space needed for someone to call that into question.
- Argue the hell out of your side; teach your side well; you don’t need to hold back. The more passion, power, and determination you have the better. This piece is your point of view and moment to teach — let other submitted op-eds do the other work of responding or refuting.
- Use different types of evidence–stories, history, research, statistics–make your case as strong as possible
- Admitting that you were wrong about a previous idea or have changed your mind on an issue is a great tack to take and the perfect basis for an op-ed. It’s persuasive to hear, “I used to support X candidate but now I’m voting for…” or “the current party is not the one I grew up with…”
- Vulnerability sells when telling your personal story. If there’s a part that’s relevant where you can be vulnerable with your reader you’ll have a better chance at leaving a lasting impression than trotting out some facts that anyone could have looked up. Your story is yours and yours alone — don’t be afraid to tell it.
- Use other op-eds as models. Even ones not in your subject area, find ones that you like and take apart their structure.
- Giving context for your views almost always comes in the 2nd paragraph rather than the first. The first paragraph is there to invite the reader in and lay the groundwork for why you’re arguing but your background, historical context, etc. often come just after the 1st to help the reader better understand where you’re coming from.
- Write in a tone appropriate for the publication you’re submitting to — go back to the exercise of reading the previous 10 opinion pieces published by that publication. Can you get away with being breezy and light as you write? Is the tone academic? Serious?
Do Now: Putting it all together:
Now you should have in your doc an outline or at least a first draft of each portion of your piece. It may sound disjointed at this point, so go ahead and write it from the beginning to the end in one voice to ensure each part flows together.
Step 4: Key questions to ask when editing your op-ed:
Once you have a draft that you love or are OK with, leave it alone for a few hours or a day to give yourself a break. Then come back and edit it.
As you edit, ask yourself the following:
- Am I following the guidelines laid out in the top publication where I want to submit? Does this piece look similar in style, tone, and approach, to recently published opinion pieces? (“Same but different”)
- Do all parts — Hook, Teach, Ask — flow together? Is any transition needed between paragraphs?
- To make it shorter, can I replace a series of words with fewer or one that mean the same thing?
- Are parts repeating themselves? Can I cut those?
- Does my intro avoid “throat-clearing” (i.e. where too much background is provided and the lede is buried)?
- Are my claims backed up by citations and credible sources? Are those sources readily available to anyone needing to fact-check them?
- If my main mode of teaching is through facts and statistics, is there a way to add in an emotional story or narrative? Conversely, if my main mode is a personal story, is there a way to enhance it through citing statistics or facts?
- Does my piece tie into a timely news event? If not, can it be modified to do so? N.B. This may happen where you may have your central argument ready to go but nothing timely to tie it to. You can either pitch what you have and explain the situation (the editor may have an idea) or you can wait until a newsworthy moment pops up.
- Is this op-ed self-serving or will readers genuinely come away with a new perspective?
- If you choose to refute another argument, did you present it in its best light rather than worst? Ironman vs. strawman
- If my work doesn’t fit into a current trend or theme, does it touch on an evergreen topic? Birth, life, death, cultural identity, mental illness, chronic illness, parenting, taking care of parents. (find examples of these to link to)
Should you have others look over your work before submitting it to an editor?
Yes — if you have time, seek out the services of a writer or editor with a background in journalism or PR (Google is your friend). I’d be wary of friends and family unless you can trust that their eye and grammar skills will be up to par. Don’t give it to the relative who believes that everything you write is worthy of the New York Times.