In her national bestseller, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott notes, “You don’t always have to chop with the sword of truth. You can point with it, too.” One way to do so is by writing an op-ed. “Op-ed” means “opposite the editorial page,” which is generally where these commentaries on current events run.
The strength of a good op-ed is in the logic. So state your case keeping in mind this key principle of journalism: Go for…sensational facts, understated prose. Interpretation: Get the facts to make your case, and they’ll speak for themselves. Delete adjectives intended to beef up the argument, as people tend to crank up the horsepower on modifiers (“disastrous, atrocious, incredible, fantastic”) when the facts get shaky.
As you sit down to write your piece, give it a catchy title, and then consider these ten commandments:
- Choose a hot topic. Pick up the newspaper and find something that inspires an opinion. What makes your blood boil? What evokes banter? What causes you to glance heavenward? All these suggest you have an opinion about a relevant topic.
- Find your most credible voice. Filter your opinion through your own area of expertise. Are you an artist? A teacher? A member of a minority group? A parent? A student? Filter your chosen issue through your unique point of view. This will help you find the angle through which you can approach your topic with the most force. Still, avoid writing in the first person, as third person works best here. But include a short bio in your cover letter. For example when writing on a local educational issue, mention as part of your bio that you teach in the school district or you have a child in the local elementary school.
- Make it timely. You don’t have the luxury of chewing on your idea for weeks. News is volatile. So shoot off your piece ASAP, within a maximum of forty-eight hours after a story breaks.
- Take a reasoned approach. Avoid ranting. If you feel you must express rage, write a letter to the editor. When writing an op-ed, nix the venom and take on a professional tone. Disarm your opposition by writing a well-organized essay.
- Offer solutions. Challenge readers to re-think their opinions on the issue by clear arguments backed up with research and a hard-hitting quote. Then go beyond focusing on the problem to suggesting alternatives.
- Keep it short. Aim for 500 to 800 words. Most publications reject pieces much longer than that. Many ask for 550 to 600 words. Generally, if you aim for the lower end of whatever the publication asks for, you increase your odds of getting published.
- Narrow your focus. Avoid trying to stuff in every fact you have at your disposal. Choose the most startling piece of evidence and the most compelling quote, and focus on one issue and solution.
- Document your facts. Research the arguments against your view, and prove your point with strong supporting data. Then keep good records. You don’t necessarily have tosubmit documentation, but file it so you can verify your sources in case someone questions you. The paper is liable if you say something interpreted as libelous that you can’t prove.
- Structure it well. Start with a strong lead, keeping in mind that you must limit your opening to a sentence or two in a piece this short. After the lead, make your point, followed by supporting information. Then end with a call for action or reflection.
- Send it. With a piece this timely and brief, avoid snail mail. Assume the editor can scan your copy if you fax it. Write a short cover letter that includes a “hook.” If you’re e-mailing, write your cover letter in the memo section of your message, then hit “return” a few times for spacing. After that, cut and paste your op-ed into the body of the e-mail.
Best selling author, columnist, and presidential speechwriter, Peggy Noonan says that the most moving thing in a speech is always the logic. The same is true of an op-ed. As Noonan puts it in Simply Speaking, “A good case well argued and well said is inherently moving…. There is an implicit compliment in it. It shows that you’re a serious person and understand that you are talking to other serious persons.”
©Sandra Glahn, 2004. This article first appeared in The Christian Communicator.
Link to article about how to persuade.