The Best Op Ed Format and Op Ed Examples: Hook, Teach, Ask (Part 2)

Updated: Mar 1

This section will cover two objectives: learning how great op-eds teach their point of view (rather than always arguing) and we’ll explore three op-eds and what makes them effective through the Hook, Teach, Ask, op-ed format.

Objective 1: Learn what the best op-eds do and how to reverse engineer great op-eds to get inspired for topic ideas and structure

Overview: What do the best op-eds do?

The best op-eds and opinion pieces teach. Sure, some argue, some demand, but if you approach your piece as an opportunity to teach you will have a better chance of changing minds and effecting change.

You can teach through history, through anecdotes, through personal testimony, through well-chosen statistics, through research, through envisioning likely implications, through showing the shortcomings of an argument, through any method that helps the reader better understand your perspective.

Alternatively, the best op-eds are not infomercials for the organization, company, book, or candidacy, you represent. Sure, you can draw attention indirectly to what you are doing in your work but the end goal of your opinion piece is to teach the reader something new about a current issue.

How to use the op-ed examples: Reverse engineer great writing

This guide contains numerous examples to not only help make the points necessary but to give you a starting point for several approaches to op-eds and opinion piece writing.

As you read these and those of the publication where you will submit your piece, ask the following questions to figure out how the author put their piece together:

  1. What was the author’s overall main point or “ask” of the reader?

  2. What type of evidence did the author use? Rather than focus specifically on what was said, how did the author make their case? Imagine they were a lawyer or investigative journalist, how did they put together their case? Was it mostly an emotional appeal, a logical fact-based one, or some mix?

  3. What made you want to keep reading? What happened in the first paragraph that made you say, “This is worth my time to keep reading?”

  4. In the middle, what did the author do to convince you they were right? How much time did they spend on their opinion? Did they ever address opposing viewpoints? Some op-eds and opinion pieces don’t (which is OK depending on the subject).

  5. How did the author close? Was your mind changed in the end? Was that the author’s objective? Did you gain a new perspective? Did you already agree with the author and have your views confirmed? Did you want to find out more about the author and their cause?

  6. Why do you think the op-ed/opinion piece was published at that moment? What was going on in the world at the time to make the piece timely? Reading past op-eds can give us a sense of what issues mattered at that moment to that publication’s readers.

Objective 2: Learn the Hook, Teach, Ask Method, see how it applies to three effective op eds, and start brainstorming ideas for your piece.

Op-ed format: Hook, Teach, Ask — the method explained

One method that helps with organizing an op-ed is “Hook, Teach, Ask.” This method will help you organize your thoughts and the eventual piece itself. We’ll get into the specifics of each portion later on in the guide when you’re ready to write the piece.

Hook: Begin in a way that grabs the reader and makes them want to read more. This is also your opportunity to layout the main themes and question you’ll be exploring. Some ways to hook your reader: Declarative sentences, hypothetical situations, surprising statements and quotations, stories and vignettes, recreated conversations — anything that will make a reader stop scrolling and say, “This sounds interesting, I want to find out more.”

Teach: The main body of your op-ed should be devoted to teaching your point of view. Use historical examples, vignettes, personal testimony, statistics, research findings; you can also take this opportunity to explain your background and why you’re writing this piece.

Ask: Have a clear ask ready at the end. It could be as general as advocating for something like registering to vote or eating less meat; it could be as specific as urging the passage or defeat of specific legislation.

3 Op-Ed Articles to Learn From:

A few op-eds that follow this model with the parts outlined (click each one to read in full):

A Murder Case Tests Alexa’s Devotion to Your Privacy by Gerald Sauer

“Think of the assistants like really smart dogs. They’re always ready to react to specific commands. Also like a really smart dog, they can remember those commands forever. And this concept of an always-on, always-connected, always-remembering listening device is where it gets intriguing.”

What I love about it:

  1. The author builds his case through historical examples, legal examples, and current news.

  2. It takes one issue — the use of voice data collected by law enforcement via the Echo — and raises a larger one, “but the company has failed to address the real problem: Why is all that data just sitting in Amazon’s servers in the first place?”

  3. The author uses realistic hypothetical examples to demonstrate that the problems raised are plausible — how often do we hear people bring up improbable implications instead?

Hook: Sauer starts off with a declarative sentence, “THE AMAZON ECHO can seem like your best friend — until it betrays you.” In one sentence, you have the opinion piece summed up with the major themes. If you can’t think of such a sentence immediately, write your entire piece and then figure out what the opening sentence should be based on the rest of the piece.

Teach: Sauer uses history, legal examples, descriptions of current digital assistants beyond the Echo, analogous cases with smartphones and other listening devices, and reasonable hypothetical examples — all to teach us of the dangers of these wonderful assistants

Ask: Rather than a specific call-to-action such as “go vote,” it’s more of a consumer beware, “Millions of people are putting digital assistants in their lives with no clue about the potential havoc this Trojan horse could bring. Based on what Amazon and Google say about their devices, everyone needs to recognize the unresolved legal issues involving this new technology. Beware of who, or what, is listening.”

Questions to think about:

  1. Can you take one issue a current news story presents and demonstrate that it raises a larger one?

  2. What other technologies in our lives do we take for granted where we are trading privacy (or safety or some other value) for convenience?

  3. If you are arguing that a course of action should not be adopted (such as the passage of a law) can you create believable hypothetical scenarios that show those effects?

It’s Time to Talk About Death by Sunita Puri, M.D.

“Americans are not good at talking about death. But we need to be prepared for when, not if, illness will strike. The coronavirus is accelerating this need.”

What I love about it:

  1. The author sets the scene as if you were there — you can experience what she has experienced in end-of-life discussions

  2. The Ask at the end is incredibly detailed and specific — a reader can walk away knowing what to do and say in these situations

  3. It’s a great example of the right profession, the current issue (COVID), and larger issues (end of life, limited healthcare resources) all coming together in one piece. Timing is crucial with many op-eds and this one demonstrates how all three parts come together for a piece published in the NY Times

  4. You get an insight into the author’s own discussions with her parents on the issue of end-of-life decisions

Hook: Dr. Puri opens with a scene where she brings the reader into one of the discussions she had with numerous patients — replete with dialogue and description — as if we were reading a novel.

Teach: The author gives us her own advice on end-of-life discussions and then relates a personal story of having those same discussions with her parents.

Ask: This ask, as opposed to the one in the Wired piece, is a series of questions that provide a guide for the type of questions a person should be asking their parents and loved ones about end-of-life decisions. Relevant 3rd party resources are also given.

Questions to think about:

  1. Is there a way to demonstrate that your perspective, a current issue, and a larger “life” issue, can all come together for the piece you’re writing? Are you someone earning a minimum wage and there’s an issue on the ballot to raise it? Can you also discuss what it means to be able to have a comfortable life?

  2. If you’re an author, can the work you’ve done for a book be repurposed into an op-ed such as done here? Do you have something that directly bears on a current situation or issue?

  3. Can you share a piece of your own life as relevant to the issue? Can you recreate those scenes as if we were reading a scene from your autobiography?

  4. In offering your own advice, are there 3rd party organizations and sources that you could amplify as well?

I’m a Developer. I Won’t Teach My Kids to Code, and Neither Should You. by Joe Morgan

“There are no books that teach you how to solve a problem no one has seen before. This is why I don’t want my kids to learn syntax. I want them to learn to solve problems, to dive deep into an issue, to be creative. So how do we teach that?”

What I love about it:

  1. It combines the author’s own experience with parenting, his career, and argues against a current trend (teaching kids to code)

  2. It’s nuanced — it’s not necessarily against coding but showing that learning syntax is not the same as the overall skill of computer programming

  3. He addresses the argument for teaching kids to code but shows its limitations by demonstrating that knowledge of Java or C++ isn’t the same as understanding the overall philosophy of coding

  4. The author uses a mix of stories from his own life (servers crashing) but also of problem-solving with his son (fixing a wobbly chair, making sugar cookies) to make his case that learning syntax is not the same as problem-solving

  5. The author focuses on the question, “Should we teach all kids to code?” but then raises it to the larger issue about fostering creativity.

Hook: The hook is the subject of the op-ed itself — why would a coder not want to teach his kids to code? The opening paragraph sets the stage for a current debate: Why is it assumed that we should be teaching young kids the syntax of programming languages?

Teach: The author uses stories from his own life as a developer where he demonstrates that simply knowing the syntax of code isn’t enough — you need to have problem-solving skills, too. He then demonstrates that in action as he relates stories of teaching problem-solving and applying algorithms to fixing wobbly chairs and baking sugar cookies with his kid.

Ask: He heightens the debate to the larger issue of teaching kids creativity and implies that’s what we should be doing instead of just teaching the syntax of programming languages.

“But you’re not only teaching them that. You’re teaching them the world is full of interesting things to discover. You’re showing them how to be passionate and look for that ephemeral sense of quality in everything they do. The best part is that even if they don’t become coders — most shouldn’t and won’t — the same skills can be used in nearly any career, in every hobby, in every life. When we force kids to learn syntax, we reinforce the idea that if something is not a blatantly employable skill, it’s not valuable. Adults can learn syntax. Only kids can learn to embrace curiosity.”

Questions to ask yourself:

  1. Can your perspective as a parent (or not a parent) give a perspective to an ongoing debate?

  2. Can you take a contrary view towards what people might expect of you because of your profession, group identity, or way of life?

  3. Does a current debate rest on a faulty assumption? Can you demonstrate that through evidence or your own experience?

  4. Are there stories from your own life that directly and indirectly prove your point that you could tell?

  5. What larger issue is a current question or debate getting at? How do you add to that conversation?

This next part of the guide will guide you through the initial ideas and pitch to draft to publication. Have a doc open where you can start generating notes and ideas for your piece.

Do now: Answer the following questions to help brainstorm topic ideas for your op-ed:

  1. Based on the examples above, what are some of your initial ideas for your piece?

  2. What types of evidence and examples will you use to teach your point of view? Will you rely on historical examples, personal ones, analogies, research, news pieces, deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning? (any are OK!)

  3. Based on where you want to submit (your ideal publication and maybe a few backups), which topics appear most frequently? Skim the past few months of opinion pieces and see if you notice any trends for what gets published.

Photo by AbsolutVision on Unsplash

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