These FAQs and tips will help you write a sterling op-ed and get it placed.
Q: Do I need permission to submit an op-ed?
A: No permission is necessary. However, it may be prudent to query an editor regarding your topic before writing to assess his or her level of interest. Editors may also suggest angles or even an entirely different topic that can lead to publication. If you are published, please forward to the Communications Department so we can promote it via our social media.
Q: Will someone in Communications help me write it?
A: Our resources don’t allow for that. Further, op-eds often play off current events, so it is important to brainstorm, write, and submit quickly, optimally within 24 hours of the relevant events. We will help you decide where to submit your piece, and how and when to follow up with editors. Contact Alex A.G. Shapiro and he or another member of our team will assist you.
Q: Is there a standard length?
A: Most outlets accept pieces of 500-750 words. Look at the specific guidelines and never exceed them. Most editorial staffs are thin, and the less work they have to invest to ready a piece for publication, the greater the odds of acceptance. Some very successful op-eds are as short as 300 words.
Q: How many outlets can I approach at once?
A: Most outlets want original material. Check publication web sites for exclusivity policies. We’d all like to be published in the New York Times, but if you submit to them and wait a week to receive a rejection, you may have lost your window of opportunity. Public attention is fickle and short; the media’s, even shorter. Consider where it makes sense for you to grow your influence, and work your way up to major newspapers and web sites by building a track record of publications in regional or smaller media markets.
Q: Should I call or email the editor separately, after I submit my piece online?
A: That depends on where you submit, its guidelines, and your relationship with the outlet. It is good practice, however, to follow up a submission with a phone call to the editor to ensure receipt of your piece. You may have an opening to pitch your piece, and at a minimum, you will have registered it in the editor’s awareness, which may win you more timely consideration. Submit your piece through the publication’s online system or in the body of an email addressed both to the op-ed editor by name and to the publication’s general op-ed address (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org). Never send your piece as an attachment, as most publications set spam filters to catch all attachments. Your email subject line should be brief, and should clarify your topic and that this is a submission (as in: “Gun control submission”). You should write a brief cover letter--no more than three short paragraphs--that outlines your expertise and record of op-ed publications (emphasizing the most prestigious placements first), your topic and why it is important. Include all your contact information in case you need to be reached on short notice.
* Play up your expertise. Think broadly, however, about how that expertise could be applied.
* Spend time composing a dynamite first line that quickly catches a reader’s attention.
* Don’t waste time titling your piece. The editors write the headlines.
* Write what you feel passionately about, not just to get published. It shows in your copy.
* Be humble. Major publications are bombarded with submissions, including from world leaders. But also be persistent. You may be rejected many times, but if you write well and on interesting topics, your tenth submission to the New York Times or Wall Street Journal may be accepted.
* Read several op-eds published by your target outlet. This will give you a feel for what is expected and what the publication may already have run on your topic. Editors rarely publish “response” op-eds that directly refute previously published pieces. Those responses are better placed as letters to the editor. Occasionally, editors will publish a balancing piece on a controversial issue that takes an opposing view from what they have already run.
* Ideas abound; creative use of metaphor will set your op-ed apart.
* Stick to one idea. Tightly focused arguments are much more persuasive.
* Think ahead. How and why might your idea be shot down? Address those, although briefly.
* Don’t be afraid to reference a personal experience, a class, a case, etc. Readers respond to human stories, not just to logic and analysis.
* Do some quick reporting. Add statistics or other facts (though never footnotes!) to educate while you persuade. Keep track of your sources, however, so that you can verify facts as requested by editors.
* Use strong verbs, sharp nouns, and active voice.
* Keep your paragraphs short and your sentences shorter. As a general rule, three sentences, tops, per paragraph.
* Be a ruthless editor. Take out everything that doesn’t directly and clearly support your argument. A tight piece is almost always more effective than a wordy one.
* If an editor wants changes and offers suggestions to strengthen your piece, graciously incorporate them. Their time is precious, and they are the experts. They rarely attempt to change your argument, just improve it and help it conform to standard op-ed style. If you end up cutting a portion of your argument, consider that having thousands, or tens or hundreds of thousands of readers for a piece that makes 85% of your point is far superior to having no readers at all.
For further understanding of the op-ed editing process, see this from the New York Times.