28 Sep The Art of the Op-Ed
Op-eds are a powerful tool for putting a client’s narrative – in their own words – into the pages of a newspaper. But drafting and placing a successful op-ed piece involves a lot more than just putting pen to paper.
Successful op-eds are clear, concise, and compelling. They provide provocative, insightful color about current events. They entice readers to broaden their understanding of a particular issue, anchored by strong statistics, stories, and soundbites. Most of all, they establish thought leadership—to anyone who reads your piece, your client becomes the expert on record.
Op-eds can launch your PR campaigns to new levels. Yet, most fail to get off the ground.
Editors at publications big and small are swamped by a deluge of daily op-ed submissions. If your client is taking aim at a hot-button issue—the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 election, the Tokyo Olympics—they’ll be competing for precious space in the op-ed section with talented – and famous – writers from around the world. For every op-ed that runs, hundreds are rejected, thousands never even considered.
How, then, can you write an op-ed for your client that stands out? How can you cut through the noise and catch the attention of readers and editors alike?
Op-eds are an art, and they must be approached as such. Here are some tools you’ll want for your canvas.
Learn from the greats
The best way to elevate your writing skills is to read top-tier work. Spend 30 minutes each day reading through the opinion sections of leading publications. Take notice of the kinds of pieces they run. Familiarize yourself with the language and vocabulary they use, the sentence structures they employ.
Before writing an op-ed, consult some of the leading voices of expository writing. At Miller Ink, we recommend the chapter on op-ed writing in Adam Garfinkle’s Political Writing. Also consider reading “The Elements of Style,” the seminal work on writing conventions by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, the Charlotte’s Web author who edited The New Yorker for decades. For philosophical insights into the art of persuasive writing—and tips on how to infuse action and urgency into your prose—consider reading George Orwell’s essay, “Politics and the English Language.”
Choosing a subject:
The op-eds most likely to be placed make a point that is both novel (different than other points made previously) and newsworthy (connected to a present trend in the news). Think about how to make your client’s point of view unique – and how to connect it to recent events. Sometimes this means having a piece ready to go before events happen (e.g. an election, a holiday, etc.) so that it can be placed once the events occur.
Take time to write an amazing lede:
The lede (the first 3-4 sentences of an op-ed) is by far the most important part of the piece – and the hardest to write. Spend the time to write a great one. A good lede illuminates the thesis of the op-ed while capturing the attention of the reader. There should be an athleticism to the first couple of sentences. It should quickly give the reader context, get them interested, and generally fly off the page. Use humor, strong language, powerful quotes, bold pronouncements, or whatever else you can think of to make the lede strong.
Choose one point and cut, cut, cut.
A good op-ed is approximately 750 words. It is sometimes easier to place shorter pieces, particularly in daily newspapers. That’s not a lot of real estate, though, and it is unlikely that you will be able to say all you want to say on a given subject in your piece. How should you balance what you want to say against what you have room to say? Consider two points.
First, it is always better to make your strongest point (which is your most newsworthy/novel point) clearer and more compelling than your secondary arguments, which are not as strong.
Second, once you have written the piece, edit it ruthlessly. Does every example/every paragraph/every word add to your piece? Cut out dead language. Every word must count. Every word must serve a purpose.
Use the space constraints to your advantage.
Word counts place constraints on your piece—but that’s not always a bad thing. You may want to proactively address concerns a reader will have about your point, but you don’t have to fully address every potential counterargument. This is where the space constraints play to your advantage. You should think of your job in writing an op-ed as more of a defense attorney than as a judge. Your goal is to simply present the facts in the strongest way possible, not to give a full accounting of an issue.
Punchy language, creative punctuation, and great lines.
Get. Your. Reader’s. Attention. That’s the goal of great op-ed writing. Use short, punchy sentences that really capture your point. You can dispense with traditional punctuation if it serves your purpose. Find the most powerful example or salient statistic to make your case. The most memorable op-ed pieces bring the subject to life in a way that the reader will remember.
Make sure it is in your client’s voice.
A great op-ed for one client is a terrible one for another. As you are writing, ask yourself: Does this reflect their speaking or writing style?
It often takes significant time to go through the internal process of drafting an op-ed, getting a client’s approval, and then getting it placed. You may have to try a dozen or more outlets over many weeks. Make sure to account for this and give the team enough time to draft and place the piece.