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How to Write and Place an Opinion Column

If you have a strong opinion about a timely social issue, it can be a cathartic experience to write about it, and you can share your unique perspective with others. The following tips may help you get started:

•  Track the news and jump at opportunities. Timing is essential. Readers and editors are interested in hearing opinions about issues that currently dominate the news. Strategic planning also includes looking ahead, to holidays, anniversaries or expected news cycles.

•  Recognize a newspaper’s specific word limit. Shorter is often better. Newspapers have limited space to offer, and editors will delete submissions rather than spend time cutting a piece down to size. Plan on submitting a high-resolution head shot along with your email text.

•  Make a single point clearly and persuasively. If you cannot explain your message in a sentence or two, you’re trying to cover too much.

•  Make your strongest, most compelling point first. You have no more than 10 seconds to hook a busy reader, which means you shouldn’t digress into a lengthy lead.

•  Tell readers why they should care. Put yourself in the place of an uninformed, perhaps disinterested, reader and ask yourself: Would I read this? Would I care? Target your suggestions to real people, and appeal to their self interest, not yours.

•  Offer specific recommendations. Don’t dwell solely on problems. An op-ed is an opportunity for you to offer well-reasoned, specific recommendations. This does not include arguments for more research, or vaguely urging people to work out their differences.

•  Show rather than tell. You probably don’t know the Pentagon’s budget, but you remember their overpriced toilet seat, which became a symbol of profligate federal spending. We remember colorful details better than dry facts. Look for examples that will bring your argument to life.

•  Use short sentences and paragraphs. Sentences are fairly short in most op-eds. Use the same style and remember that simple declarative sentences add strength and “punch.” Cut long paragraphs and sentences in half.

•  Use the personal voice whenever possible. If you are a sociologist who studies food security issues, describe your experiences and personal interactions at the local food bank.

•  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 you will vote.” Instead, say “I hope you will vote.” The active voice is more persuasive.

•  Avoid detailed rebuttals. If you are writing in response to an earlier essay that made your blood boil, avoid the temptation to prepare a point-by-point rebuttal. Mention the earlier article once and focus on your own argument.

•  Create a persuasive ending. A strong opening paragraph hooks readers, but it’s also important to summarize your argument with a persuasive final paragraph. You may restate your opening lead using alternate wording.

•  Relax and have fun. Authors improve their chances of pickup if they lighten up, have some fun and entertain the reader a bit. Newspaper editors despair of weighty articles and delight in cultural references, humor, provocation or unexpected angles.

•  Try, try again. Because regional newspapers receive dozens of submissions each day, most opinion columns don’t get picked up on the first try. Don’t be discouraged. There are usually other news outlets, large and small, and it is often possible to reframe your piece for a later news cycle.