5 Steps to Op-Eds that Change Minds

Opinion journalism (a.k.a. op-eds) is an unmatched opportunity for your organization to speak through the news media directly to policy makers, your constituents and other target audiences.

This rare opportunity for you to frame the messages offers the potential to change minds, albeit usually over the course of time, with a series of op-eds. It’s an opportunity not to be missed!

But so many of you have told me that you’re intimidated by entering this realm, that I knew it was a must to provide guidance on getting there:

Five Steps to Op-Eds that Change Minds

1. Identify your expertise and stick to it

Carefully think through the issue areas or topics in which your organization’s experts (program staff, leadership or volunteers) shine. You can cover several issue arenas but have to be able to clearly assert why that expert is an expert in a specific topic.

2. Stay informed

It’s a must that you follow the general news as well as news related to your organization’s focus or issue arena to understand all points of view. If you write about women’s health, read the medical and alternative medicine press and online content. If you write about Libya, read regional media.

Bonus: As you read news for context, you’re likely to find relevant news hooks (stories you can piggyback on) for your op-eds and other content.

3. Pinpoint your message

Be focused and clear. What is your goal? Do you want legislators to do something or increase public understanding of an issue? Regardless of the goal, you need to be able to state your opinion in one concise sentence.

4. Back it up with facts

When your organization conveys that opinion, back it up with facts.

For example, if your message is that legislators should not cut family planning services from the health care budget because it will be detrimental to women’s health, then you need to supply examples. How many women use those services in your region/community now?

5. Write for the reader

The standard way to make an argument is to state your main point, present evidence to support that opinion, and then offer a recommendation or conclusion. The more direct, clear and conversational you can make the writing, the better.

Explain why your position is better than the opposition. You’re the expert, not your reader, so you’ll need to capture his attention and convince him of your argument.

More Op-Ed Musts

  • Prioritize media outlets and the order in which you want to approach them—many will insist that you pitch to one at a time, a.k.a. an exclusive.
  • Check your target paper’s requirements for submission. Most will specify word length and other formatting requirements.
    • Strong Lead: Op-eds need to grab a reader’s attention quickly, so make sure your first paragraph is a strong one.
    • Concise Writing: Op-eds are generally 500-900 words long. Use short sentences and paragraphs to get your point across.
  • Frame the issue quickly. Within the first three paragraphs, in accessible and compelling language.
  • Communicate your message. Clearly state the main message of your op-ed early in the piece.
  • Conclude with your message. End the piece by reiterating your key message.
  • Pitch it! Pitch your op-ed to the Opinion or Editorial Page editor at your target newspaper. Call first to gauge their interest level, then fax or e-mail the op-ed with a cover letter, and follow up to make sure they received it.

Don’t submit the op-ed to another outlet unless your first target decides not to run it, since most outlets only exclusive op-eds. If at first you don’t succeed, consider other outlets or re-writing the piece.

Recommended Op-Ed Structure

  • Lead (Around a news hook)
  • Thesis (Statement of argument – either explicit or implied)
  • Argument: Based on evidence (such as stats, news, reports from credible organizations, expert quotes, scholarship, history, first-hand experience)
    • 1st Point
      • evidence
      • evidence
      • conclusion
    • 2nd Point
      • evidence
      • evidence
      • conclusion
    • 3rd Point
      • evidence
      • evidence
      • conclusion

Note: In a simple, declarative op-ed (“policy X is bad; here’s why”) , this may be straightforward. In a more complex commentary, the 3rd point may expand on the bigger picture—historical context, global/geographic picture, mythological underpinnings, etc.—or may offer an explanation for a mystery that underpins the argument–e.g., why a bad policy continues, in spite of its failures.

  • “To Be Sure” paragraph (in which you pre-empt your potential critics by acknowledging any flaws in your argument, and address any obvious counter-arguments.)
  • Conclusion (circling back to your lead)

Outline source: The Op-Ed Project

Op-Eds that Have Changed Minds

These op-eds are among those cited by the Op-Ed Project as strong examples of opinion journalism that have changed minds:

Additional Op-Ed Guidance

  • The Op-Ed Project was launched to help increase the number of female opinion journalists but offers lots of useful no-charge guidance to all op-ed writers.

How are you using Op-Eds? If you’re not, what’s getting in your way?

Please share your op-ed success stories, how-tos and/or the barriers that are keeping you from placing op-eds that change minds. Thank you.