An op-ed is an opinion-based article, though the origin of the name actually lies in its position in print media, where such articles were traditionally placed opposite the editorial. These short articles, around 400–800 words long, express an opinion on a highly topical issue with the aim of suggesting how this issue can be improved. A well written and timely op-ed can have considerable impact as public attention is focussed on the issue in question. Op-eds are typically found in newspapers, magazines and sometimes academic journals.
Purpose of an op-ed article
The op-ed is usually written on major topics of current public interest. In the summer, for example, they might propose solutions to wildfires caused by drought, or better ways to conserve water. Alternatively, they also sometimes focus on recent events or issues that perhaps went almost unnoticed but are of importance. (See the example here on how tourists can affect politics and foreign affairs.) The writer should propose a solution, often in the form of a policy change to resolve the issue.
Note: This writing should not be confused with an opinion article, which is an academic response to a previous academic text.
Authoring an op-ed article
An op-ed is usually written by a single author, but can be written by more than one, and is often written by people with specific expertise, practical or academic, in the issue at hand. Sometimes, newspapers will contract someone to write an op-ed.
Most op-eds are written and submitted rather like academic papers. Like an academic paper, you must carefully target where you submit it as major newspapers may receive large numbers of unsolicited op-eds, and therefore reject many of those received. Local newspapers may be a better choice, especially if you can then claim a connection to the newspaper. Similar to an academic article, you should only submit one op-ed for publication at any one time.
Keeping your audience in mind for an op-ed article
Also similarly to the academic article, you need to take into consideration the audience you are writing for. The audience for an op-ed is a broad general audience. They are not interested in theory or how statistics are derived, but do need to be persuaded that the issue is an important one. You are looking to engage with your audience, and language and style needs to be aimed appropriately, but without underestimating your readers. Keep reminding yourself to explain clearly ‘so what’ and ‘why’ they should care.
Some tips for writing an op-ed article
a. Have an engaging beginning
The lede or start to the article is very important. You have a very limited space that you need to optimally use to engage—and if possible, fascinate—your reader and convince them that it would be worth their time and effort to read the whole of your op-ed. You could start with an amazing fact, statistic, historical note or personal anecdote. The aim here is to ‘hook’ your reader.
b. Support your opinion – without overwhelming
Bring in statistics, facts or other support to illustrate the issue you are writing about but without becoming too technical. Present this information in a way that is clear, engaging and meaningful to your audience.
c. Don’t refrain from drawing on your personal experience
Unlike an academic article, it can be very effective when you bring in personal examples and experience where appropriate. This is even more important when you lack serious clout as a leading academic or expert, but need to show you have a demonstrable connection.
d. Suggest practicable solutions
Finish by proposing a plausible solution to the issue you have identified. You also need to make clear what you feel your audience can actually do to help. Like some academic papers, it can be quite effective to finish by referring back to where you started, thus “rounding off the writing”.
e. Don’t worry too much about the title
Don’t spend too much time to craft a title (again, unlike an academic paper) as the publication will very probably want to write their own.
Submitting an op-ed article – and next steps
Submission should be to the publication of choice using the submission pathway they provide. You should also include a brief bio identifying your area of expertise, title, contact details and the name of the organisation you work for, all of which should substantiate your claim to expertise.
You might follow up with the editor in a day or two if you do not hear from the publication.
If your op-ed is published, you should add it to your CV under ‘Non-academic Publications’.
And congratulations – you are now not just an academic author, but an academic opinion-shaper!