Writing for Newspaper Op-Ed Pages
A Guide To Getting Your Views Published
You are an expert who has spent years studying an issue of urgent importance to the American people. Now you have a long list of thoughtful recommendations to offer to policy-makers and the public. Or you are a student, parent, business owner or someone else with a point of view that might interest others. How do you get their attention?
One of the best ways is by writing an article for the ''op-ed,'' or commentary, page of a newspaper. An effective article can reach millions of readers, swaying hearts and changing minds. It can reshape a public debate and affect policy. It can bring the author considerable recognition for relatively little effort. But an op-ed article can do these things only if people read it, which means a newspaper must publish it.
This article discusses how to get an op-ed article published. The authors in this book, few of whom had experience writing op-ed articles, succeeded in crafting stories that were accepted for publication by numerous papers across the country. You can do the same. This article focuses on the process of "translating" scientific and academic material for broader audiences, but its advice pertains to anyone seeking to place an op-ed article.
Before racing to your word processor, be aware that the competition for space is intense. Phil Joyce, commentary page editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, says "your chances of getting your unsolicited op-ed piece used are about 30 to 1. With those kinds of odds, you may want to get out of the office and go to the track."1 At The New York Times and The Washington Post, the odds are even greater. Several universities that
distribute op-ed articles regularly to dozens of newspapers are pleased when even a few papers publish the stories.2
Yet some authors do succeed in placing op-ed articles in newspapers around the country, including the most prestigious ones. Why are they successful? How can you increase the odds of getting your own article published?
Understanding the Market
The first step is to look at the situation through the eyes of the person who passes judgment on your article — the paper's op-ed editor. Major metropolitan papers have one or two people working exclusively on the op-ed page. At smaller papers, these duties often are combined with other responsibilities, such as writing the paper's own editorials. In almost all cases, the person reading the article you submitted is an overworked journalist, not an academic.
These editors take their responsibilities very seriously, regarding themselves as the keepers of the microphone at a town meeting. Writes Richard Liefer of The Chicago Tribune: "An op-ed page ought to be a place where a wide range of voices can speak to the issues of the day; where controversy can blossom or consensus wilt; where a marginal crackbrain can make a reader sputter over the morning coffee; where four polished paragraphs can bring tears."3
"Particularly as more cities have only one newspaper, op-ed pages serve to ensure that a wide range of voices has an outlet that is not filtered through a reporter's word processor," concurs Donna Korando, commentary page editor of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.4
Contrary to what some would-be authors believe, editors are hungry for new authors. But they want articles that ring with shock, anger or joy, rather than sounding like scholarly tomes. Without exception, they prefer a gripping personal narrative from a local drug dealer to yet another ponderous analysis of the federal budget deficit.
"The page is at its best when it gives a voice to people who don't usually have one, or who don't usually choose to use it," notes Eric Ringham, commentary editor for The Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. "That principle tends to work against politicians, think tanks and journalists. It tends to favor cab drivers, rape victims and neighborhood activists."5
Editors despair of topics that are important but boring. As
Diane Clark of The San Diego Union points out, "To some, a debate about disposable diapers is as riveting as one about Germany's reunification; a pro and con on pit bulls as intriguing as mulling over peace dividends."6 Syndicated writers understand that the best topics are those that readers care about. A content analysis of articles published in 1990 by the seven leading syndicated columnists found more columns on baseball and the death of Greta Garbo than on military spending or developments in Israel.7
The Perils of Academic Writing
Dry academic writing rarely works on op-ed pages. Wisdom may suffice in some professional journals, but newspapers also require authors to be timely and, above all, interesting. Readers flipping through the paper on their way to the sports section and TV listings will not stop for anything less. (These readers at least bought the paper instead of turning on the television.) It is not their responsibility to read an article because someone says it is good for them. Rather, it is your responsibility as an author to grab their interest and explain why the topic matters.
If you submit an op-ed piece written in the style of a professional journal, it will be rejected. Kathleen Quinn, who edited articles on The New York Times op-ed page for several years, observed that "Most newspaper editors would rather be stranded on a desert island with nothing but a list of the active ingredients in Sinutab to read than so much as glance at another piece of academic prose." Quinn, who says "academic writing stinks," differs from her counterparts at other papers only in her bluntness.8
Academics who hear these criticisms sometimes respond by accusing editors of wanting to sensationalize or trivialize complex arguments. As Trudi Spigel, who has overseen a successful op-ed service at Washington University in St. Louis for several years, notes, "There is, to be sure, bashing on both sides. Editors do rail at pompous language, murky arguments, convoluted syntax — as they should. Academics carp at journalists, at editorial pages and editorials. But the fact is that op-ed pages regularly present faculty-written pieces."9
Academics and newspaper editors have a common interest in bringing provocative arguments out of the ivory tower to a broader public. The scholars have fascinating ideas; the editors are experienced in "translating" complex material for non-
experts. When they work together, they can accomplish great things.
Far from being vacuous popularizers, most editors are thoughtful people with the authors' best interest at heart. They understand the op-ed medium and recognize that, for better or worse, readability counts more than profundity. As one media critic observed, "Pundit politics are no less corrupt and demeaning than any other kind of politics. It is less crucial to be conversant with the history and culture of any particular field than with the day's headlines in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the networks."10
Here are some basic rules for placing op-ed articles successfully:
• Track the news and jump at opportunities. Timing is essential. As Kathleen Quinn says about The New York Times op-ed page, "When people like Saddam Hussein and George Bush go on the warpath, op-ed editors don't like to hang around waiting to see what next week's mail will bring. And they can't imagine that people will read an article, no matter how wonderful, that bemoans the perennial budget mess when all anybody can think is: 'Does he have the bomb?'"11
• Limit the article to 750 words. That's about three double-spaced, typed pages. Some papers have Sunday editions that run articles as long as 1,200 words. Academic authors often protest that they need more room to explain their arguments. But that's how much space newspapers have to offer and the editors usually are not willing to take the time to cut longer articles down to size.
• Put your main point on top.
You have no more than 10 seconds to hook a reader. One of the most common mistakes newcomers make is using too big a windup before throwing the pitch. Take no more than two or three paragraphs to make your main point, convincing 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? Improve their children's behavior? Explain why. Appeals to self-interest usually are more effective than abstract punditry.
• Make a single point — well. You cannot expect to solve all of the world's problems in 750 words. Be satisfied with making a single point clearly and persuasively. If you cannot explain your message in a sentence or two, you're trying to cover too much.
• Offer specific recommendations. An op-ed article is not a news story that simply describes a situation; it is your opinion about how to improve matters. Be as specific as possible. Editors will not be satisfied with a call for more research, or with vague suggestions that opposing parties should work out their differences.
• Showing is better than discussing. One detail or illustration is better than hundreds of words of exposition. Use examples, and then use more examples — ones that readers can understand and care about. Is a government program wasteful? Describe an incident in which $250 of the reader's tax revenues was squandered. That is far more memorable than a concept like "$356 million was lost last year."
• Don't be afraid of the personal voice. First-person exposition is unusual in academic writing. But with op-ed articles, it can be the best way to help readers understand why you care about the subject. If you are a physician, describe the plight of one of your patients. If you are a physicist listening for signals from alien life forms, tell us the funny questions people ask you. Tracie Sweeney, director of the Brown University op-ed service, says her most successful articles have been from professors who dropped the persona of the dispassionate expert and simply described their own experiences, feelings and views.
• Avoid jargon. If a technical detail is not essential to your argument, don't use it. When in doubt, leave it out. Simple language does not mean simple thinking; it means you are being considerate of readers who lack your expertise and are sitting half-awake at the breakfast table. Even readers who can identify Africa on a map and who know the difference between home plate and a tectonic plate don't want to wade through difficult prose.
• Use short sentences and paragraphs. Look at some stories in your local newspaper and count the number of words per sentence. You'll probably find the sentences to be quite short. That's the style you need to use, relying mainly on simple declarative sentences. Search for commas that precede clauses; these often can be made into separate sentences. Paragraphs also should be short. Cut long ones into two or more shorter ones.
• Use the active voice. A sure sign of academic writing is the construction: "It is postulated that . . .", or "it is recommended that the government should . . ." These are examples of the passive voice, and they leave readers wondering who did the postulating or recommending. Try to use the active voice: He postulates; our panel recommended.
• No footnotes or citations. In general, op-ed pages don't use footnotes. There also is no room for authors to thank their dear friends Dr. Erudite and Professor Profundity. If you must mention a colleague, do so quickly near the top, once, without gushing.12
• Minimize references to your other works. Your article may be an abbreviated version of a book or report that you just completed. If so, you probably are excited about the longer document. However, most readers won't care. Even after they read your article, they are unlikely to rush out and buy the longer document. So the op-ed article must stand on its own. By all means, refer to the larger work — doing so enhances your credibility — but don't dwell on it. Rather than saying "our committee found this, and our committee recommended that," just make the argument.
• Avoid tedious rebuttals. If you have written your article in response to an earlier piece that made your blood boil, avoid the temptation to prepare a point-by-point rebuttal. It makes you look petty and it's a safe bet that many readers didn't see the earlier article. If they did, they've probably forgotten it. Just mention the earlier article once and then argue your own case.
• Make your ending a winner. Most authors recognize the value of a strong opening paragraph that "hooks" readers. But when writing for the op-ed page, it also is important to summarize your argument in a strong final paragraph. Many casual readers scan the headline, skim the opening column, and then read only the final paragraph and byline. One literary device that often works well at the end is to reprise a phrase or thought made at the beginning, closing the circle.
• Relax and have fun. Many authors approach an op-ed article as an exercise in solemnity. They would increase their chances of publication by lightening up. Newspaper editors despair of weighty articles — called "thumb-suckers" — and yearn for pieces filled with spirit, grace and humor. Readers seek to be entertained and to learn something in the bargain. Obviously, articles on serious subjects must not trivialize their material. But one look at popular syndicated columnists as
divergent as Ellen Goodman and James Kilpatrick shows it is possible to combine thoughtful analysis with an engaging style.
Distributing Your Article
The National Academy Op-Ed Service distributes its articles free to more than 300 subscribing newspapers, offering each exclusive rights within its city. In Chicago its articles go to the Tribune, in Portland to the Oregonian, and so forth. Six prominent newspapers are not on the list because they require op-ed articles on an exclusive basis. These papers are The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and The Christian Science Monitor. Does it make more sense to send an article to one of these papers than to a regional paper? Sometimes yes, but placing an article in them also is much more difficult. And if the article is tied to a breaking event in the news, a rejection means the article appears nowhere. This is because it generally is considered unethical to submit the same article simultaneously to more than one of these papers. Many authors therefore prefer to place articles in local or regional papers which, in many cases, reach large numbers of people and are every bit as important to their customers as The Washington Post is to those in Washington. An added advantage of this approach is that many editors prefer local authors to give their pages a hometown feel. Some papers, such as The Hartford Courant and The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, now supplement their own staff-written and syndicated material almost exclusively with locally generated articles.
Prepare your article typed, double-spaced, with wide margins. List your name, address, phone, and social security number at the top. If you want the article returned if it is rejected, include a stamped, self-addressed return envelope. Learn the name of the op-ed editor and send a brief cover letter, explaining whether you are offering the article on an exclusive or a regional basis. Many papers also welcome a black-and-white photograph of the author, as well as graphics or art. Many op-ed editors prefer being contacted by mail instead of by phone, especially on Thursdays and Fridays when they are completing their Sunday commentary sections. If they do accept your article, be prepared to work with them in the evening. That is when most of the editing is done on morning newspapers, which predominate in the United States.
Which newspaper is most likely to accept your article? Pa-
pers in the Midwest are more likely to publish stories on agriculture while those in the Northwest have a special interest in the aerospace industry. But decisions are made by individuals whose tastes are difficult to predict. To complicate matters, an editor who is personally interested in science may feel the op-ed page has carried too many science stories recently. He or she now may be on the lookout for a commentary on teen culture. So if you submit an article on how biotechnology can ease world hunger, your chances for publication are slim. But if it's a story on hungry teenagers, you might have a shot. You'll never know unless you try.