Write a killer op-ed piece

Are you tired of being quoted out of context in the newspaper? Want to build public awareness about an issue important to you? Take charge and write an “in my opinion” piece.

Tips writing and op-ed

Whether you are writing an “in my opinion” piece or communicating to your professional peers in a journal or newsletter, keep the following in mind:

  • What is your point? An editorial for the public should have one simple, clean point you want to get across. Say it first, then back it up with verifiable facts. Editors are more likely to print an op-ed piece that states an opinion/point of view first.
  • Keep it brief, keep it flowing. Remember, most newspapers allow you only 500 to 750 words. Peer review journals sometimes give you a bit more room, but citations are included in the word count. Letters to the editor usually are limited to 150-200 words.
  • Keep your audience in mind at all times. Newspapers generally cater to an 8th- to 10th-grade reading level. Keep it basic, but don't talk down to your readers. Pretend you're talking to your parents--they're smart, but not necessarily in your field of study. Be respectful.
  • Most of the world is made up of non-specialists. Unlike you, they may not be swayed by facts. People (and editors) may be emotional, intuitive, nostalgic.
  • Avoid sounding too intellectual. Strive for simple eloquence. Avoid scientific or discipline-related jargon and acronyms unless you define them first. Remember, terms such as “biodiversity” and “habitat” may not be part of the reader's everyday vocabulary.
  • Avoid “governmentese.” Nothing turns people off more quickly than boilerplate words such as “utilize,” “maximize,” “appropriate,” “positive,” or “negative.”
  • Keep sentences short. Eliminate multiple, linked prepositional phrases and noun clusters (e.g., “wild juvenile spring chinook salmon”).
  • Keep verbs active. “We found” is much better than “the data may indicate.”
  • Presenting “both sides” of an issue is a powerful tool. After you make your own case, bring forward the strongest opposite case and deal with it (e.g., “Some would argue that trawling is a more efficient way for the commercial fishing industry to harvest fish; however, in the long run...”) This knocks the wind out of your opponents' sails in responding to you.
  • If writing about a problem, suggest a simple solution and back it up with a successful example of it working elsewhere.
  • Writing is different from speaking. The tone of your writing is important. Writing is a more intense medium than speaking. If you write out what you might tend to say verbally, it may be too shrill. Don't rant. Get off your high horse. Don't sound too dogmatic, or the reader may think you are arrogant and turn against your case. Don't preach to the converted. You are hoping to persuade a reasonable, undecided reader that your position is the intelligent, logical choice.
  • Timing is everything. Write about an issue too soon or too late and they will ignore you. Write when an issue first heats up (e.g., this week, Columbia salmon restoration may be hot whereas assisted suicide or old-growth issues may not be as vital). Issues have a shelf life. Respond right away. Earlier is better than later.

Other things to think about:

  • Analogies are powerful in getting concepts across.
  • Humor is VERY good.
  • Personalization draws the reader in. Why do you care--and why should anyone else care-about the issue? What moves you? Share it!
  • Avoid clichés like the plague (ha ha).
  • Be aware--an official, unsigned editorial in a newspaper is different from an op-ed piece. An editorial is the official position of the newspaper as a social institution. An “in my opinion” piece represents one individual's stance.
  • Think about what hat you are wearing. Your employer's? Your own? Your professional society's? Be careful!
  • You don't have to “brag yourself up” in the text. Your “byline” description will give you legitimacy (e.g., “JoAnn Schmoe is a crop scientist with the…”).
  • Be prepared for a newspaper to write an off-the-wall or sensational headline (or come up with a weird illustration) for your opinion piece, then get over it when it happens. Also be prepared to have your writing edited. They may take out points you think are important. That's the nature of the news business.
  • Remember: professionally, life is long. Don't write an op-ed on e-mail and send it right in. It might come back to haunt you. Write it, let it sit. Show it to a trusted peer and also to someone outside of your field (to check for jargon).
  • Editors are gate keepers. If you can't please them, you won't get published. The Oregonian publishes only one in five “in my opinion” submissions. It is incumbent on those who understand the issues to talk about values. Let's hear from the professionals in the field.