Looking to try your hand at writing op-eds or wondering why your opinion pieces aren’t making the editor’s cut?
Here are seven tips for writing strong political op-eds that will get your name on a byline.
1. Find your edge.
Before you begin writing, ask yourself: Why am I right person to write this story? Not only will you need to explain this to your editor, but it will also get you thinking about what unique perspective you can bring to the topic. Perhaps your training as an environmental lawyer can help you unpack global climate policy, or maybe you’re a Russian speaker who can offer linguistic or cultural insight into U.S.-Russia relations. Find your edge and make use of it.
2. Hook ‘em with the first line.
With each major news outlet publishing hundreds of pieces of content each day, and bloggers posting an estimated two million pieces every day, there’s no shortage of media to consume. And modern readers have little time (and even less attention) for a meandering lede or a four-paragraph introduction.
So draw us in from the start: Surprise us with a provocative first line. Intrigue us with a curious anecdote. Amuse us with a funny story. And whatever you do, don’t hold us in suspense; even Stephen King has written op-eds that make their point obvious from the start.
3. Explain why this story matters.
Your reader might work at an charity in Dar es Salaam, lead a tech start-up in New Delhi, or write radical political poetry in the woods of Vermont. And you’ll need to convince each of them that they should read your piece. Tell the reader why your story matters, and—more importantly—why it matters right now. Tie your argument to a recent political event, cultural trend or policy decision.
4. Take a stance—and back it up.
An op-ed is more than just an opinion piece; it’s an argument, and it works best if it’s fresh or contrarian. Make sure you present your view clearly and back it up with evidence. Use facts, statistics, data, or examples. Justify your assertions and illuminate your points.
5. Choose the active voice.
In Politics of the English Language, George Orwell lays out six rules for writing. My favorite? “Never use the passive where you can use the active.”
Writers with a background in the sciences sometimes pick up a habit of writing in the passive voice. Learn to identify this in your writing. Opt instead for straightforward, declarative sentences in the active voice. Your articles will be more coherent, you’ll come off as more confident, and you won’t leave your readers asking, “who did what to whom?”
6. Say sayonara to jargon.
Long, meandering sentences, intricate theoretical frameworks, and industry-specific jargon may work for academic and specialist audiences. But ideal op-ed readers aren’t subject matter experts. They’re just regular humans like you and me, eager to learn something new. So avoid technical terminology and jargon. If readers have to google acronyms, you’ve likely lost them.
Instead, write in your own voice. If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re not, don’t try too hard. And if you’re a longtime academic who’s finding this form of writing completely unnatural, imagine this: You’re having coffee with a friend who knows nothing about your area of expertise, and she asks you to explain your research. Write down your conversation.
7. Respect the word count.
Op-eds are generally around 800-words (but always check the publication’s requirements). If you can’t make an argument within the word limit, you may be trying to cover too much in a single article. If you are slightly over the word limit (and you have a really good reason for it), flag it to the editor and indicate that you are willing to shorten if need be.
If the editor doesn’t accept your pitch or publish your article the first (or even the second) time around, don’t give up. This kind of writing takes practice, especially if it’s new to you. So ask for feedback, and keep reading other op-eds for ideas and inspiration.