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Tips for Writing Op-Ed Articles

Here are some great tips that Joe Goldman from AmericaSpeaks sent out to people who were considering writing op-eds/letters to the editor as a part of the Democracy Communications Network

Limit the article to 750 words.
Shorter is even better. Unfortunately, newspapers have limited space to offer, and editors generally won’t take the time to cut a long article down to size.

Make a single point — well.
You cannot solve all of the world’s problems in 750 words. Be satisfied with making a single point clearly and persuasively.

Put your main point on top.
You have no more than 10 seconds to hook a busy reader, which means you shouldn’t “clear your throat” with a witticism or historical aside. Just get to the point and convince the reader that it’s worth his or her valuable time to continue.

Tell readers why they should care.
Put yourself in the place of the busy person looking at your article. At the end of every few paragraphs, ask out loud: “So what? Who cares?” You need to answer these questions. Will your suggestions help reduce readers’ taxes? Protect them from disease? Make their children happier? Explain why. Appeals to self-interest usually are more effective than abstract punditry.

Offer specific recommendations.
An op-ed is not a news story that simply describes a situation; it is your opinion about how to improve matters. Don’t be satisfied with mere analysis.

Showing is better than discussing.
You may remember the Pentagon’s overpriced toilet seat that became a symbol of profligate federal spending. You probably don’t recall the total Pentagon budget for that year (or for that matter, for the current year). That’s because we humans remember colorful details better than dry facts. When writing an op-ed look for great examples that will bring your argument to life.

Use short sentences and paragraphs.
Look at some stories in most major newspapers, and count the number of words per sentence. You’ll probably find the sentences to be quite short. You should use the same style, relying mainly on simple declarative sentences. Cut long paragraphs into two or more shorter ones.

Don’t be afraid of the personal voice.
When it comes to op-eds, it’s good to use the personal voice whenever possible. If you are a physician, describe the plight of one of your patients. If you’ve worked with poor families in your community, tell their stories to help argue your point.

Avoid jargon.
If a technical detail is not essential to your argument, don’t use it. When in doubt, leave it out. Simple language doesn’t mean simple thinking; it means you are being considerate of readers who lack your expertise and are sitting half-awake at their breakfast table or computer screen.

Use the active voice.
Don’t write: “It is hoped that [or: One would hope that} the government will . . .” Instead, say “I hope the government will . . .” Active voice is nearly always better than passive voice. It’s easier to read, and it leaves no doubt about who is doing the hoping, recommending or other action.

Make your ending a winner.
You’re probably familiar with the importance of a strong opening paragraph, or “lead,” that hooks readers. But when writing for the op-ed page, it’s also important to summarize your argument in a strong final paragraph. That’s because many casual readers scan the headline, skim the opening column and then read only the final paragraph and byline.

Submitting a Letter
Before submitting a letter, check with your local newspaper for its guidelines (usually posted on their web site), then follow these general tips. Include your name, address, e-mail address and telephone number. Papers may need to contact you if they are considering printing your letter. Don’t worry—they won’t print your contact information. If the newspaper doesn’t call you, call the newspaper. Ask to speak to the person in charge of the “Op-Ed” section. Ask if they plan on printing your letter, and if not, see if they have any feedback for you.

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