How To Write an Op Ed: Why write an op ed? (Part 1)

Updated: Mar 1

This is the first section in the overall guide for a series on how to write an op-ed. Each section builds on the next. This guide will walk you through the entire process from brainstorming an idea to drafting to editing to pitching. And it will include tips on what to do if your idea is rejected and how to promote it once published.

How do you write an opinion piece? Why this guide and what will you get out of it?

By the end of this guide, you will have all the tools necessary to pitch an op-ed, write it well, and get it published.

You will learn:

  1. How to pitch your piece and how to stay in bounds for what the editors of a publication expect

  2. A straightforward approach to writing and organizing your piece: Hook, Teach, Ask

  3. How to deconstruct great op-eds and model them for your piece

  4. Step-by-step instructions from brainstorming to writing to editing to publishing

  5. How to troubleshoot common mistakes that prevent publication

  6. What to do with your opinion piece after it’s been published

How this guide is different from others out there:

There are some incredible pieces of advice if you just google “how to write an op-ed” but this guide is going to stick closely to what we can learn from the examples of op-eds and opinion pieces already published. You’ll discover that there are seldom strict rules and instead guidelines to follow. Each publication will have its own rules for what it accepts but beyond those, it’s about following principles rather than rigid rules.

A bit about me — Eddie Rice: I am a freelance ghostwriter who loves to help leaders tell better stories through speeches, op-eds, guest posts, podcasts, and media appearances. I have worked with business leaders, nonprofit executives, political candidates, and association presidents.

Why The World Needs Your Idea

The business of the government did not stop during COVID. School boards still met. City councils and state legislatures still met. Congress sometimes met. Elected and appointed decisionmakers got up each day and still made decisions on your behalf. Did you have a voice?

It may seem worrisome that we as a society have lost sight of the necessity of argument, science, and evidence, but if you turn to the op-ed pages of publications you’ll find plenty of people making their voice heard.

Why write an Op-Ed?

COVID cut down the number of in-person events where we could debate ideas. Videoconferences are poor substitutes for the moments when we could teach, debate, and learn, from one another. Social media posts only travel so far as the self-curated-echo-chamber algorithms allow them to. However, a well-thought-out op-ed will endure beyond a screen full of half-muted conversations and fleeting attention spans.

An op-ed can…

  1. Introduce ideas to readers who had not previously considered your perspective

  2. Increase your credibility and authority

  3. Spread your message across the platforms of publications with far greater reach than your social media feed or email list

  4. Bring more followers to your cause

  5. Raise awareness for your mission, your nonprofit, your company, or your candidacy

  6. Start a conversation in your community with like-minded people and decisionmakers

  7. Influence the decisions affecting your life and that of your family and friends

What is an op-ed vs. an opinion piece or letter to the editor? (the actual meaning of op-ed)

The principles in this guide are applicable to any of the above types of opinion pieces. Op-eds are traditionally found in newspapers — the term is a holdover from when print newspapers would print opinions “opposing the editorial page.” But online media has changed what a newspaper or magazine can be, so for the purposes of this guide, I’ll use “op-ed” and “opinion piece” interchangeably throughout. Other synonyms you may run into with any publication include “guest view,” “guest voices,” “guest opinions,” you get the idea.

Letters to the editor are typically much shorter than any op-ed or opinion piece (usually 50 or 100 words) and often run in newspapers. Follow the same guidelines here but condense them down. You get to make one point and the more emphatic you can be the better.

The principles in this guide can help you whether it’s for an op-ed in your local newspaper or national publication; an opinion piece for a solely-online publication or blog; a quick letter to the editor…

But who am I to write an op-ed?

Who are you not to write one?

Op-eds are not relegated to the multi-degreed professors, authors, and “important idea people.”

Any of the following qualify you to write an op-ed:

  1. You have a lived experience whose voice is missing from a current debate or question

  2. You have discovered something interesting about how the world works

  3. You have your own take on a solution to a common debate or problem in the world

  4. You have an opinion or idea contrary to what most think is the right course

Ultimately, timing matters: Your experience, discovery, or opinion, must be timely and tie into a current issue covered by the publication to which you are submitting

Before you write, you want to have a clear idea of your topic, your main point, and where you want to see your piece published. Getting this all straightened out ahead of time will give you the parameters in which to write. Publications have different word limits, different tones, and styles, and cover some topics more than others — knowing this information now will prevent the need to massively rewrite portions later on.

Frequently Asked Questions Around Op-Eds:

*We’ll go into more depth with pitching but early on, many people ask:

  1. Do I pitch my idea first to a publication or the entire piece? Check the publication’s submission guidelines–usually found on their “submit a guest opinion” page. Some want initial ideas first whereas others want the completed piece.

  2. How long should it be? Same as above but if there’s not set guideline, look at the past pieces the publication has put out and gauge your length based on those (copy and paste the text into Word to get a quick word count). If you want a number, traditional newspaper op-eds usually hover around 600-750 words but online publications can typically tolerate longer pieces (up to 2,000 words in some cases!).

  3. What happens if my idea is rejected? This happens often–expect to submit across publications (one at a time, no one wants to publish an identical article)–just follow up persistently and nicely and then move on to another suitable publication if rejected or no answer after a reasonable period of time.

Do Now: Answer the following questions about WHY you can and should write an op-ed piece

  1. Why you? -What unique lived experience or opinion do you have to share with the world?

  2. Why now? -Why should the readers (and editor) of your target publication care now about the issue you want to write about? If this answer is fuzzy, is there an ongoing debate, crisis, current holiday, major decision, or election, you can tie your issue to?

  3. What can you add to this topic? -Can you add a new viewpoint, voice, or research finding, that is missing from an ongoing debate covered by the target publication?

Photo Credit: Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

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