5 Tips for Writing Influential Op-Eds

An age-old component of public awareness campaigns is the op-ed. Whether the campaign is to influence legislation or change public behavior, fleshing out your argument in the editorial section of a targeted outlet can be an effective tactic to reach your organization’s goal. Here are a few tips to write an op-ed that not only gets placed, but also makes a difference.

1. Find your expert

Editors will always evaluate the source, so make sure the author of the op-ed you’re writing is relevant and can be positioned as an authority on the subject. If the issue pertains to trends among youth prescription drug abuse, identify a doctor or professor to author the op-ed. Relatedly, a youth who struggled with substance abuse might be a good fit for an op-ed that calls on parents to act to reduce their children’s exposure to medicines at home. You’ll likely only have a few words at the end of the op-ed to disclose who you represent and prove your expertise, so be sure to describe yourself using the title that best serves your op-ed’s purpose.

2. Narrow your argument

There’s a reason you don’t read a lot of columns on ending world hunger; it’s just too complex. Where do you start? Wealth disparity? Food deserts? Sustainability? More than likely, your public awareness campaign’s mission touches on too many components to effectively communicate all of them in a single op-ed. Instead, identify a specific purpose for the op-ed you’re writing. Take John Bare’s special to CNN for example, “Get rid of the ‘food desert’ label.” In it, Bare argues that a key to banishing food deserts is changing the public’s perspective of the issue. At the same time, he’s able to highlight a few general points about the issue without straying from his thesis.

3. Tell a story

This communications tip goes across all channels, and should not be overlooked when writing an opinion column. People remember stories. A mother of a son who died as a result of a texting-and-driving accident once begged me to never text and drive. I’ve never been able to shake her stern warning. Stories like these are first and foremost tragic, but also influential because they are passionate and compelling. Curate and elevate stories from supporters of your cause to make your op-ed stick.

4. Cite other sources

Now, I know you’ve got a lot to say, but this is key. Give credibility to your argument by citing other experts on the issue. Be sure to include the major naysayers and opponents of your issue as well. Unfortunately, ignoring them doesn’t make them go away. Take a few sentences to dispel their argument and explain why your campaign offers a better solution for the issue at hand.

In addition to expert opinions, you should also include statistics that prove your issue’s importance when appropriate. If you’re arguing that standardized school testing scores aren’t reflective of a system’s effectiveness, demonstrate it through an example of increasing test scores over time alongside stagnate or decreasing post-high school education.

5. Find your suitor

Once your op-ed is written, it’s time to find your match. Just remember exclusivity. Unlike a media alert or press release that you might distribute widely to a list of media contacts, your op-ed should be pitched to only one outlet at a time until you find a suitor. It’s generally a best practice to withhold the draft of the op-ed until after you’ve pitched the hook to the editor and he or she has demonstrated interest. Then, send away!

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