Op-Ed – Ten Writing Tips

by | September 22, 2017 |

An Op-ed gets its name for being an opinion piece that originally appeared opposite the editorial page. An editorial page editorial is signed by the board, while an opinion piece is signed by an individual. The term is also sometimes thought to be an abbreviation of opinion-editorial. 

Athletes before taking the field and ballerinas before going on stage warm up by stretching. Musicians in an orchestra warm up by all playing at once and producing white noise.

What do we novelists do to warm up?

Some of us journal. Some of us blog. (I’ve written two blogs a week for almost four years now. I find the practice wonderful for keeping in writing shape.) In this blog I suggest you try your hand at an op-ed. Like a blog, an op-ed runs 650-750 words.

This semester I’m team-teaching with Priscilla Wald a creative non-fiction course entitled “Public Writing and Speaking.” Our students want practice in writing that is intellectual but not academic. These past few weeks we’ve been reading well-known op-ed writers. The students have been writing their own op-eds that we workshop in class.

This week we invited Alison Jones, senior writer, Duke University, Office of News and Communications, to our class. She works with both Duke faculty and students to get their op-eds in good enough shape to send out through their wire service to be possibly picked up by a national or regional newspaper.

Here are Alison’s 10 tips for writing – and hopefully successfully placing – an op-ed:

Op-Ed: The Most Important Tip

1. The news cycle is so fast you have to be on top to get your op-ed out the same day the issue surfaces.

I was amazed this morning to read in the Washington Post “A short history of ‘dotard,’ the arcane insult Kim Jong Un used in his threat against Trump.” This was the very morning I first heard of the insult. Lightning fast!

You can also anticipate certain seasonal topics that will always call for commentary.

Example: When the movie Fifty Shades of Gray came out on Valentine’s Day 2015, I pitched Alison an idea for writing an op-ed about the book/movie on that very day. I was too late. I should have contacted her a month ahead. Then he would have time to work with me to get the op-ed polished and ready to send out two days before February 14th.

I learned my lesson. In December 2015 I pitched her an idea to write about romance novels in anticipation of Valentine’s Day 2016. It took the next two months to get my 700 words absolutely perfect from her point of view. She and I were both delighted it was picked up by Salon.

By the way, I did not choose the title – and it is horrible (and typical of the disparaging treatment romance novels routinely receive).

You can also anticipate anniversaries. In class Priscilla mentioned the upcoming 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (January 1, 1818). Alison thought this topic was terrific because of widespread interest in science fiction and feminism. If you have a fresh perspective on the book, newspapers are sure to be interested in running your op-ed on the topic on New Year’s Day 2018.

Op-Ed: Tips Two Through Ten

2. Make one single point well. To get the hang of this tip find an op-ed writer you like and read everything he or she has written.

3. You need to answer the question: Why care? The answer may involve the response to Who cares? and the who is you. I’ve read lots of recent op-eds on health care by people with a personal stake in the issue. And now we have the Jimmy Kimmel test (although his format is not the op-ed). The point is: if your topic is personal, be specific with concrete experiences.

4. Here’s one we novelists know: Show, don’t tell.

5. You have to have a snappy opening and a snappy closing. The writing throughout must be vivid.

6. If you identify a problem, offer remedies.

7. Avoid tedious rebuttals.

8. Write short sentences. Write short paragraphs.

9. Avoid jargon. This tip is aimed more at academics, who are used to writing in a way that is not accessible to the general public. Op-eds are written in conversational English.

10. You are writing your personal opinion, so you must write in a personal voice.

Here’s an op-ed I myself placed in the Huffington Post in 2013:

Op-eds are great writing warm-ups. It’s also a thrill to get them placed!

For more see: Writing Blogs


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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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