How to Write a Killer Op-Ed

PRG has a particular interest in helping college, university and nonprofit leaders to articulate their vision effectively and find their individual “voice.” So we were delighted to see this piece by Bret Stephens of the New York Times offering tips for aspiring op-ed writers.

Lisa and I follow media coverage of higher education closely and publish a wide range of leadership op-eds in The Scan, our free daily and weekly newsletter. (You can sign up here.) We’ve observed an explosion of channels where academic leaders, administrators and faculty members can share their expert opinions on a wide range of topics.

An op-ed can be a great way to convey a complex idea with greater control over the content. Nevertheless, writing an effective op-ed is a particular kind of art form, and very different from scholarly writing. In academic writing, scholars are taught to provide context and background first, then describe methodology, share the evidence in great detail, and only then describe a conclusion. Scholars also are taught to take a dispassionate view, sharing both (or multiple) sides of an argument so the reader can independently judge where the truth lies.

That approach is all wrong for an op-ed, where editors and readers may not scan past the first paragraph or two. In op-ed writing, you must take a strong point of view: what do you believe and why? You also need to make your strongest point near the beginning, potentially even in the first paragraph—unless you are setting up a problem statement or twist, in which your second paragraph is the answer to the dilemma posed in paragraph one.

Stephens puts it this way: “A wise editor once observed that the easiest decision a reader can make is to stop reading. This means that every sentence has to count in grabbing the reader’s attention, starting with the first. Get to the point: Why does your topic matter? Why should it matter today? And why should the reader care what you, of all people, have to say about it?”

Once the argument is clear, you can use the rest of the space (typically 600-1,200 words, depending on the outlet) to shore up your case with evidence, data, examples, and anecdotes. Also unlike scholarly writing, in an op-ed, the more personal your examples and tone, the more effective you will be.

A few other condensed points from Stephens’ piece:

  • Write concisely in an active voice
  • Speak to a broad audience
  • Avoid clichés
  • Demonstrate your authority on the topic
  • Sweat the details; fact-check every assertion
  • Find out what the intended media outlet has already published on the topic
  • Be open to guidance from the editor

Lisa tweeted her two favorite pieces of Stephens’ advice: “Op-eds are for one-handed writers,” and, “You’re not Proust.” We loved his amusing but oh-so-sharp recommendations for writing, and placing, a killer op-ed.

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