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Amplify: What Makes a Winning Op-Ed?

November 24, 2013

Jeff Weintraub

loudspeakersGETTING AN Op-Ed placed is no cinch anymore – if it ever was – particularly in the highest-profile daily papers and online outlets.

There are fewer such papers than a generation ago and intense competition to get in them. (I’ve heard editors of some of the bigger national papers say they can get 75 to 100 submissions a day for maybe a couple or three slots.) While online publications theoretically have an infinite amount of space to devote to Op-Eds, they can be pretty selective, too.

But someone has to get published, and if yours is the right piece at the right time, it might just be you. Though there are no guarantees with any formula, here are elements that I think will improve your chances and help you try to amplify your message.

Have something to say. This should be self-evident, right? I mean, isn’t that the primary purpose of an Op-Ed? Well, I’ve handled countless Op-Eds that really didn’t seem to offer a coherent idea or perspective so much as a catalogue of disconnected thoughts or personal accomplishments. Very simply: that’s not what works.

Make one good main point – maybe two, at the very most, but even that’s pushing it. The rest of the piece should be made up of proof points (statistics, anecdotes, quotes from other experts, and so on) that support the larger big idea.

Offer Credibility. The more expert and authoritative the writer is about the topic, the more likely she will get published. Op-Ed pages are bulletin boards of the best and most informed thinking, so it’s best you really know what you’re talking about or bring some special authority to the subject.

That doesn’t mean you have to be famous, just credible.  It may appear to the regular Op-Ed reader that most of the pieces are by well-known government leaders, entertainers and other brands; that’s certainly true in places like the Huffington Post, which trades heavily on such names.

But, as David Shipley, the then-editor of the New York Times Op-Ed Page, wrote a number of years ago, “Does it help to be famous? Not really. In fact, the bar of acceptance gets nudged a little higher for people who have the means to get their message out in other ways — elected officials, heads of state, corporate titans.”

As someone who has pitched pieces by top government leaders, major corporate execs, well-known academics, and even a king, I can tell you that, while such names will probably ensure a first read, their celebrity status alone isn’t enough. But if you’re, let’s say, a  small family farmer with on-the-ground knowledge of a particularly topical agriculture issue and you have something compelling to say about it, you just might get published.

Be Compelling. And just what is “compelling?” Well, it’s highly subjective. But, to quote Shipley again, “[S]ay something forthright and unexpected. Op-Ed real estate is too valuable to be taken up with press releases.”

If you look at many of the pieces that appear on the best Op-Ed pages, you’ll notice that, first, they offer a fresh take or a counterpoint on an issue. There was a piece just a few days ago, for example, by Jason Kass called “Bill Gates Can’t Build a Toilet.

The occasion for the piece was World Toilet Day (more serious an observance than you’re probably thinking). While other organizations and experts probably tried to submit pieces around World Toilet Day that gave rather sober and unsurprising arguments for the need for more and better sanitation systems in the developing world, Kass’s obviously jumped out.

Kass, identified as “an environmental engineer and the founder of the organization Toilets for People,” succeeded by taking a somewhat contrarian view, challenging the conventional wisdom, and, most gutsy, even the most prominent of global development leaders, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. With vivid examples (another ingredient of “compelling”) he said that many of the cutting-edge sanitation innovations are too complicated and expensive to solve the widespread challenge. Though it may have ruffled some feathers among the major international development organizations, it proved to be a winner, at least to Op-Ed editors.

Part of being compelling often includes timeliness – talking about something that’s on everyone’s mind today, not last week or even last month. Take part in the conversation while it’s happening.

Answer The Question: Why Should I Care? This is a question every journalist, on behalf of his or her audience, must answer before deciding to cover a story or run an Op-Ed piece. What relevance does this point have for the rest of society? Is it just a promotion of a product or an accomplishment (something I see often in unsuccessful Op-Eds, speeches, interviews, etc.), or is does it have some important bearing on broader trends and concerns?

One Op-Ed  that met this latter criteria over the last year came from none other than Angelina Jolie. That was the one in which she disclosed in the New York Times that she had a double mastectomy to preempt the onset of breast cancer.

If she had only offered a poignant story about how her mother battled (and lost to) breast cancer (speaking of compelling) and the surprising medical intervention she chose, it probably would have been interesting – certainly to the celebrity pages. But what would it matter to the rest of us? Would we care? Would it have been published? I doubt it.

“But,” she added, “I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.”

Why should we care, indeed? And, even more so than most Op-Eds, her message was amplified through the enormous follow-on media coverage.

Follow a Few More Simple Rules.

  • Be brief. 750 to 800 words at the very most. (Unless you’re Henry Kissinger, who seems always to get more space than most anyone I can think of.)
  • Get to your main point right away – only in couple of paragraphs in. You don’t have a lot of space.
  • Fight the big fight. Don’t get bogged down in arcane side debates that only you and three other people care about. (See: “Why Should I Care?”) Win on what’s make-or-break for your side.
  • Avoid repeating opposition views. You’ve only got a little bit of space, so use it to make your argument, not to repeat others’. In other words, play offense not defense.
  • Be civil. “Jane, you ignorant slut!,” (if you’re too young or forgetful to know what I’m referring here, watch this at 1:09) is not a winning line other than on comedy shows. Nor is it effective to impugn your opponent’s motives when you don’t really know what those motives are. Stick to the merits of the debate. (See: “Fight the big fight.”)

You can apply most of the advice here to many other aspects of your communications. But when it comes to Op-Eds, these are the ingredients of a recipe that might just win you the blue ribbon. Good luck.

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