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How to Write An Op-Ed: The Ultimate Guide (2024)

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Mo Shehu

op-ed writing guide - pen on a newspaper

Learn how to write a compelling op-ed with our step-by-step guide. From research to revisions, discover the secrets to crafting impactful opinion pieces.

Table of contents

TL:DR

For effective op-ed writing, keep it short (700-800 words) with a clear thread throughout. 

Identify your topic and theme early, back your argument up with solid research, and use a compelling opening and memorable ending. 

Maintain a consistent, engaging voice, and revise for clarity, coherence, and accuracy.

What is an op ed piece?

Originally, an op-ed appeared opposite the editorial page in a newspaper (hence, ‘op-ed’).

Today, it represents a column where the writer shares a strong, informed, and focused opinion on a relevant topic for a specific audience, typically in a media outlet.

In this guide, we’ll explore the key aspects of opinion writing, from defining your point to crafting a compelling argument.

5 key features of a typical op ed column

When writing an op ed article, consider the following factors to make your piece stand out:

  • Length: Keep your op-ed short, usually between 700 and 800 words. This forces you to be concise and get straight to the point. For example, if you’re writing about climate change, briefly present alarming statistics and propose specific actions instead of diving into the lengthy science.
  • Defined point: Ensure your op ed submission has a clear main point. Communicate this point from the start and reinforce it throughout the piece. For instance, if you’re arguing for renewable energy, focus on the benefits and feasibility of switching to renewable sources.
  • Point of view: Your perspective is crucial, and your op-ed should reflect a strong and unique viewpoint. For example, if you’re discussing educational reform, argue for the importance of integrating technology into classrooms from your perspective as a teacher who has seen its benefits firsthand.
  • Clarity: Ensure your argument is clear and logical. Your readers should easily understand your position and the reasons behind it. For example, if you’re writing about public health for an online publication, clearly outline the steps needed to improve healthcare access.
  • Voice: Every op ed column should contain the columnist’s strong, unique voice. This makes your piece engaging and personal. For example, if you’re discussing urban development, share personal stories of how changes in the city have impacted your community in your everyday speaking style. Your opinion editor will work with you to shape it for the letter.

Focusing on these elements will help you craft a resonant op-ed or column.

Questions to ask for an effective op ed project

Before you start writing your op-ed or column, ask yourself the following questions to ensure your piece is clear and impactful:

  • Do I have a clear point to make?: Make sure you have a specific point you want to convey, and clearly define your main argument. For example, if you’re writing about the importance of mental health awareness, your main point might be that society needs to prioritize mental health resources and support. State this argument upfront in your letter.
  • Who cares?: Identify your target audience and explain why your argument matters to them. Writing with a specific audience in mind can help you tailor your message. For instance, if you’re addressing parents in your column about school nutrition, explain why healthy meals are crucial for their children’s academic performance and well-being. This will resonate better than if you were writing for an average reader.
  • Is there substance to my argument?: Back up your argument with facts, data, expertise, and solid reasoning. For example, if you’re advocating for renewable energy, provide statistics on its environmental and economic benefits. An essay with an informed opinion on the issue retains your readers’ attention better.

Answering these questions will help aspiring op-ed writers create a focused and persuasive opinion column.

Topic and theme

Every successful op-ed or column must have a clearly defined topic and theme. 

These elements are crucial in guiding your writing and ensuring your piece is coherent and focused.

  • Topic definition: Identify the main subject of your column. This is the person, place, issue, incident, or thing you’ll focus on. Usually, you should state the topic in the first paragraph. For example, if you’re writing about climate change, your topic might be the impact of rising sea levels on coastal cities.
  • Theme exploration: Beyond the topic, explore the overarching idea or message of your column. This is the big picture that ties everything together. Your theme should convey why your topic is important. For instance, in a column about climate change, your theme might be the urgent need for sustainable practices to protect future generations.
  • Placement: Decide where to introduce the topic and theme in your piece. Often, the topic is introduced early on, while the theme can appear early or develop as the piece progresses. For example, you might start with a personal experience about experiencing extreme weather, then expand to the broader theme of the global climate crisis.

By clearly defining your topic and theme, you create a strong foundation for your op-ed or column. 

This helps you stay focused and ensures your readers understand the importance of what you’re discussing.

Research

To write a compelling op-ed or column, you need to base your opinion(s) on solid research. This gives your piece credibility and depth. 

Here are the key aspects of conducting research for your op-ed:

Research your op ed idea widely

Your op-ed should be grounded in facts, quotations, citations, or data from reliable sources. 

This supports your argument(s) and makes your piece more persuasive. 

For example, if you’re writing about healthcare reform, include statistics from reputable health organizations and recent policy updates from an elected official.

Choose the right research method

There are two primary methods of research you can use:

  • Field research: This involves going to the scene, conducting interviews, and gathering primary materials, observations, and knowledge. For instance, if you’re writing about local environmental issues, you might visit affected areas, interview residents, and observe the conditions firsthand.
  • Library and internet research: This involves using secondary sources such as graphs, charts, scholarly articles, and data from the internet. For example, if you’re writing about the economic impact of remote work, you could cite studies and reports from academic journals and research institutions. Additional resources to leverage include media articles, a related press release, or books.

Conducting thorough research ensures your op-ed or column is well-informed and credible. 

It also helps you provide a balanced view and anticipate counterarguments, strengthening your overall argument.

Openings

A strong opening grabs your readers’ attention and sets the stage for your argument. 

Here’s how to craft an effective opening:

  • Hook: Start with a compelling hook to draw readers in. This could be a strong claim, a surprising fact, a metaphor, a mystery, or a counter-intuitive observation. For example, you might begin an op-ed piece on education reform with a startling statistic: “In our city’s schools, only 60% of students graduate on time.”
     
  • Techniques: Use different techniques to create an engaging opening. For instance:
    • Strong claim: “We must overhaul our education system now.”
    • Surprising fact: “Did you know that over half of our city’s schools lack basic supplies?”
    • Metaphor: “Our current education system is a sinking ship, and we need to steer it to safety.”
    • Mystery: “Why are our brightest students failing?”
    • Counter-intuitive observation: “Smaller classrooms might not be the solution to better education.”
       
  • Foundation: The opening should briefly lay the foundation for your argument. Introduce the main point you will be discussing and hint at the direction your piece will take. For instance, after presenting a startling statistic about graduation rates, you might hint at the solutions you will explore: “To address this crisis, we must rethink our approach to teaching and learning.”

Crafting a strong opening sets the tone for your op-ed page and encourages readers to keep reading. 

We’ve written a separate guide to intros that you can learn from as an aspiring op-ed writer or editor.

Voice

Having a strong voice is critical to a successful op-ed or column. 

Your voice makes your piece engaging and unique, allowing readers to connect with your perspective on an important issue. 

Here’s how to develop and maintain a compelling voice:

Tone

The typical op-ed is conversational. Imagine yourself having a chat with your readers on a specific topic, and you’d be on the right track. 

Use lots of “you” and “I” to create a direct and personal connection: 

“You might think remote work is just a trend, but I believe it’s here to stay.”

Range of voice

Your voice can vary depending on the specific topic and your style. 

It can be contemplative, descriptive, humorous, authoritative, or any combination of these. 

For instance:

  • Authoritative: “Research shows that smaller class sizes lead to better student outcomes.”
  • Contemplative: “Reflecting on our education system, it’s clear we need change.”
  • Descriptive: “Picture a classroom where every child feels engaged and inspired.”
  • Humorous: “If our classrooms were as outdated as our education policies, we’d still be using chalk and slate.”

Consistency

Maintain a consistent voice throughout your op-ed. 

This helps keep your readers engaged and ensures your piece feels cohesive. 

For example, if you start with a conversational tone, don’t switch to an overly formal style halfway through.

Adaptation

Sometimes, your voice might be influenced by the publication you’re writing for. 

Get in the habit of reading other columns or op-eds from the same publication to understand the preferred style. 

For instance, if you’re writing for a publication known for its witty and informal tone, your piece should match that style. 

On the other hand, a syndicated columnist for the Washington Post would probably write with a different tone.

By developing a strong, consistent voice, you make your op-ed more engaging and relatable, ensuring that your readers stay interested and understand your perspective.

Endings

The ending of your op-ed is just as important as the opening. 

A strong conclusion leaves a lasting impression on your readers and reinforces your main argument.

You have two types of endings: 

  • Open ending: This type of ending suggests rather than states a conclusion, leaving the reader to ponder. For example, “What kind of future do we want for our children?”
  • Closed ending: This type of ending clearly states the conclusion, resolving the main point of the piece. For example, “Implementing these reforms will ensure every child has the opportunity to succeed.”

Here’s how to create an effective ending:

  • Echo or answer the introduction: Your ending should connect back to your opening, either by echoing it or answering a question posed at the beginning. For example, if you started with a statistic about graduation rates, you might end with a hopeful note on how proposed reforms could improve those rates.
  • Foreshadowing: The ending should be foreshadowed by thematic statements throughout the piece. This creates a sense of cohesion and ensures your argument flows logically to its conclusion. For instance, if you’ve discussed various education reforms, your ending might highlight the most promising solution.
  • Memorable detail: The last sentence should be one of the most memorable parts of your op-ed. Use a powerful statement, a call to action, or a poignant observation to leave a strong impression. For example, “Our children’s future depends on the choices we make today.”

By crafting a strong ending, you ensure that your op-ed leaves a lasting impact on your readers, effectively driving home your main points and encouraging further thought or action.

Revision checklist for a successful op ed page

Revising your op-ed or column is essential to ensure clarity, coherence, and impact. 

Use this checklist to guide your revision process:

  • Accuracy: Verify all facts, statistics, and quotes. Ensure that your information is correct and comes from reliable sources. For example, double-check data from health organizations if you’re writing about healthcare.
  • Clarity: Ensure your ideas are communicated clearly. Avoid jargon and complex sentences. For example, instead of saying, “The implementation of educational reforms will necessitate substantial fiscal investments,” say, “We need to spend more on education reforms.”
  • Coherence and unity: Check that your piece flows logically from one point to the next. Each paragraph should connect to the one before and after it, creating a cohesive argument. For instance, if you discuss the benefits of renewable energy, ensure that each point builds on the previous one.
  • Simplicity: Keep your language simple and accessible. Use short sentences and everyday words. For example, instead of “utilize,” say “use.”
  • Voice and tone: Maintain a consistent voice and tone throughout your piece. Make sure your writing is engaging and matches the style of the publication.
  • Source credit: Properly credit all sources you use. This adds credibility to your piece and allows readers to verify your information. For example, “According to a report by the World Health Organization…”
  • Opinion consistency: Ensure that your opinion remains consistent throughout the piece. Avoid contradicting yourself or shifting your viewpoint without clear justification.

By following this revision checklist, you can polish your op-ed or column to make it clear, cohesive, and compelling. 

This helps ensure your message is effectively communicated and leaves a strong impression on your readers.

Final thoughts on op ed writing

Writing an op-ed or column is a powerful way to express your views and contribute to public discourse. 

Let’s recap the key points:

  • Introduction: Understand the purpose and significance of an op-ed.
  • Distinguishing characteristics: Focus on length, defined point, point of view, clarity, and voice.
  • Questions to ask: Ensure you have a clear point, know your argument, identify your audience, and have substance to support your claims.
  • Topic and theme: Clearly define your topic and theme, and know where to place them in your piece.
  • Research: Conduct thorough field and library/internet research to support your argument.
  • Openings: Use a strong hook and set the foundation for your argument.
  • Voice: Develop a strong, consistent voice that engages your readers.
  • Endings: Create a memorable conclusion that echoes your introduction and ties your points together.
  • Revision checklist: Ensure clarity, coherence, simplicity, accuracy, source credit, and opinion consistency.

Apply these principles to write a jargon-free opinion piece that communicates your views, persuades your audience, and contributes to the conversation. 

And remember: your unique voice and perspective are what make your piece stand out. 

Happy writing!

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