How to Write an Op-Ed
These tips are based on an “On Writing” panel hosted by the Writing Studio and the Russell G. Hamilton Graduate Leadership Institute on November 20, 2019 that included Professor of Communications Bonnie Dow, Assistant Vice Chancellor of Strategic Communications Ian Morrison, Professor of History Moses Ochonu, and Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Science Jonathan Gilligan.
Why Write an Op-Ed in Graduate School?
As our panelists pointed out, writing op-eds can be a useful exercise, even an important piece of academic training.
It can be a way for you to take your research, your expertise, and communicate to the public and make an engagement with people who aren’t in the academic world, regardless of where the op-ed is placed.
Writing an op-ed, in other words, is a way of practicing, or putting your effort into saying, “My work matters.”
Know Your Audience
“Really take the time to think about, where am I trying to place this? Who are their readers? How do they want to hear this? What is going to grab their attention?” – Ian Morrison
As an op-ed writer your audience is twofold: you need to think about both the publisher’s attention—for which you will be competing with thousands of other submissions—as well as the reader’s. For this reason, an attention-grabbing first paragraph, if not first sentence, is paramount.
It also helps to think about the role of opinion pages: as a forum for opinion, they create conversations that live beyond the pages of the publication in which they originally appear. In other words, op-eds seek to amplify the discussion.
Really take the time to think about where you are trying to place the op-ed, who the readers are, what and how do they want to hear this, and what is going to grab their attention. At the same time, aim to be interesting and relevant. You need to address issues in the public conversation.
Organization and Style
“Examples and anecdotes engage readers. Opening with an example, an anecdote, or with a startling statistic works really well at the top of an op-ed.” – Bonnie Dow
Short paragraphs—two to three sentences, maybe four—are a must. If you submit traditional academic paragraphs, you risk having them shortened by the publisher in ways you don’t like. You might end up with something that doesn’t make sense to you. So keep your paragraphs short.
Use structure to build to your point. In other words, make the paragraphs do the work of transitions and previews for you. Instead of saying “first,” “second,” or “third” in op-eds, start a new paragraph when you want to say something.
Use short, punchy, declarative sentences. This will help you stick to the word limit and avoid a situation in which the publisher chops up the piece for you. You absolutely want to maintain control of your own message. Be wary of semicolons or colons; if you need the latter, your sentences are probably too long. Use active rather than passive writing.
Content and Accuracy
“If you’re looking for places to have an impact, look at all the media that you can engage with. The op-ed is one specific thing, and it is one specific writing style, and one specific medium.” –Jonathan Gilligan
Think about your goals and your narrative. Ask yourself, does it fit with other op-eds I’ve read? Can I accomplish my goals using this structure of writing? Remember: don’t under-qualify things. Factual accuracy is incredibly important. If you write an op-ed and you oversimplify, your words are out there permanently.
Avoid giving the wrong impression of too much certainty that comes from blunting nuance or veering close to misrepresentation (even if there is wiggle-room for justification). That’s part of the struggle: strive for simplicity, be punchy, but make sure that you are willing to stand behind exactly what you said the way you said it with your reputation as a scholar.
And remember: Always proofread, proofread, proofread!