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How to write an op-ed column or essay

Op-eds – essays that appear opposite the editorial pages of newspapers – are powerful communications tools for authors with an informed opinion on a current topic in the news.

An op-ed column or opinion essay lets authors and others use the power of their words to influence opinions on a topic by making an argument for a particular perspective or solution.

Because they’re opinion pieces with a stated bias rather than reported stories, they go in a section of the newspaper that’s set aside for opinions.

Writing and placing an op-ed often involves waiting for a big news story that provides the timely hook you need to get an editor’s attention, then quickly cranking out that essay and getting it to the editorial page editor quickly. It has to run when the topic is still in the news.

Pre-write your op-ed column or essay

It can be hard for a busy author to react that quickly, though. Not everyone can drop everything and write an effective op-ed after learning about a breaking story.

There’s an easy solution to that problem, though: Have at least one op-ed written in advance to use when a news event brings your op-ed’s topic to the public’s attention. When news breaks, simply customize your op-ed column for the situation so it appears fresh and timely.

If you haven’t written an op-ed or opinion essay before, study some that have been published already. Start with what’s run in your local daily newspaper recently so you have a sense of that outlet’s style and preferences. Then look at op-eds in high-profile newspapers such as USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Note rhythm, pattern, and flow. They will guide your own writing process while ensuring that your op-ed is accepted for publication.

10 steps to a perfect op-ed column or opinion essay

Once you’re familiar with how they’re written, you’re ready to craft yours. These 10 tips for writing effective op-eds will help you write at least one that you can have on hand and update according to the news story for immediate publication:

1. Read the publication you’re submitting to. You want to be familiar with its style and tone as well as the types of op-eds it typically runs.

2. Introduce yourself to your newspaper’s op-ed page editor by telephone or e-mail and request the publication’s op-ed guidelines if they’re not on the website (many are). Then follow them.

3. Determine your goal. What do you want to achieve through your op-ed? Do you want people to behave differently or take a specific action? Keep this goal in mind as you write.

4. Select one message to communicate. Op-eds are short – typically 800 words or less – so you have room to make just one good point.

5. Be controversial. Editors like essays with strong opinions that will spark conversation.

6. Illustrate how the topic or issue affects readers. Consider putting a face on the issue by starting your essay with the story of somebody who has been affected, or begin with an attention-getting statistic that will surprise people or make them think.

7. Describe the problem and why it exists. This is often where you can address the opposing viewpoint and explain your group’s perspective.

8. Offer your solution to the problem and explain why it’s the best option. You might need to include alternative solutions to make the case for your own.

9. Conclude on a strong note by repeating your message or stating a call to action.

10. Add one or two sentences at the end that describe your credentials as they relate to the topic. Be sure to include your book title — you’re doing this in large part to get exposure for your book, after all.

Now that you’ve written it . . . .

When your issue is suddenly making headlines, pull up your op-ed and tweak it to reflect what’s in the news.

In an email, write an introduction that connects the news to your essay, copy and paste your essay into the message, and e-mail it to the editor quickly.

You don’t want to send it to more than one newspaper with a national reach — for example, both USA Today and the New York Times or the New York Times plus the Washington Post. It’s okay to send your op-ed to multiple newspapers in noncompeting local markets, though. If you do, try to include a local connection so there’s more of a reason for each publication to run it.

If your nonfiction book or novel involves a cause or issue that you want to bring attention to, consider adding op-eds — opinion essays — to your book marketing plan. Use your words to educate, inform, and persuade while calling attention to your book, too.

Do you read the op-eds in your local newspaper? Tell us in a comment. 

(Editor’s note: This article was first published in August 2007. It has been updated and expanded.)

Tip of the Month

social media cheat sheetI like to share a “Tip of the Month,” a free resource or tool for authors, on the last Wednesday of the month.

Today’s gift is a free social media image size cheat sheet created by graphic artist Louise Myers.

To download and save it, scroll down to the image near the bottom of her blog post, “Social Media Image Cheat Sheet 2018: Must-Have Image Sizes!” Use the right-click, save-image-as method. You might want to bookmark the page, too.

While you’re there, check out Louise’s other resources, too. She provides lots of helpful information.

Subscribe to the free Build Book Buzz newsletter and get the free special report, “Top 5 Free Book Promotion Resources,” immediately!

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  1. These are excellent tips that I am definitely going to try. I do have some strong opinions regarding the Americans’s overall health and well=being and will begin sharing them via op-eds.

  2. As always, your information is informative, helpful and spot on. I love reading your recommendations in that you cut through the fluff and get to the heart of the matter.

    1. Thanks, Kathleen! I write as a reader — I’m less more interested in the preamble and more interested in “why do I need to know and how do I need to do it?” Thank you for commenting — I appreciate it!


  3. Thanks for the shoutout!

    I’d prefer people either save my chart to Pinterest, or join my free library for a printable version. That one’s on a white background, and members are notified of updates (if they choose).

    It’s acceptable if people download images for their personal viewing only, but it’s not a good idea to encourage downloading images off the web. They seem to spread far and wide…

    Just my small way of trying to protect creatives’ intellectual property.

  4. Louise, it never occurred to me that anyone would do anything but download and save it for their own personal use, but I can understand your concern. When someone brands something useful like this, that branding is often marketing speak for “share this so others see it as example of my work and expertise.” I misunderstood.

    Thanks for letting us know that you prefer Pinterest saves. Want me to edit the text to state that? It’s easy enough to do! Just let me know!


  5. One thing I’ve noticed in the last few years is that the style of headlines for op-ed pieces has changed a lot. Op-eds in prominent papers like the Washington Post and the NY Times no longer have stodgy, straightforward headlines. Instead, the headlines can be quite informal, lively and personal in tone.

    For example:
    * Children’s books, give me a female squirrel, a female duck, a female anything
    * Ukraine’s government just faked a journalist’s death. Will it be worth the cost?
    * The Housewives of White Supremacy
    * Rules for WITCH HUNT!: The Board Game
    * I have Updated My Personal Privacy Policy

    While op-ed editors will often change the headline you suggest, if you provide them with a stellar one, it can get them reading your piece with much more interest than otherwise.

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