Op-Ed 101

The opinion editorial (op-ed) originated when responses appeared in newspapers on the page opposite from the editor’s opinion. Today an op-ed is more broadly used as a tool to publicly share the sound, informed, and resolute opinion of any writer. An op-ed can appear in publications ranging from local and national newspapers to blogs and other niche online or printed publications. 

A typical op-ed:

  • Has a target length between 750 and 800 words (e.g. op-eds in The New York Times have a range of 400-1,200 words)
  • Provides a clearly defined point on an issue
  • Is written with clarity
  • Features the strong point of view and unique voice of the writer 

Adapted from: How to Write An Op-Ed or Column, Communications Program, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. 

The Op-Ed as an Advocacy Tool

Writing an op-ed can be a highly effective tool in advocacy work because it can reach thousands of readers at no cost if published, including policymakers and other decision makers. The challenge, however, is writing quickly enough to submit your op-ed within the very tight time frame and word count the opinion-page editor demands. Central to the effectiveness of an op-ed is timeliness. Also, most publications will only consider publishing an op-ed submitted exclusively to them. So, you have to write fast and take the time of submitting to one publication at a time. 

When to write and submit an op-ed:

  • When your message is crystal clear
  • When your expertise and opinion represent a distinct or diverse viewpoint
  • When you believe your input will resonate with readers

Writing an Effective Op-Ed

For an op-ed to be printable, communications experts agree that it must include the following:

  • The hook and foundation for the argument. Grab the reader’s attention with a strong voice and opening hook. Make a strong claim, reveal a staggering fact, or make a counterintuitive observation that urges a reader to learn more. Concisely lay out the foundation of your argument. Make sure to steer clear of overused metaphors.
  • Key messages and evidence to support the argument. In simple terms, use your refined advocacy messages to expand upon your argument, explain the history or context of your point of view, use interesting facts, or reveal findings/data in support of or counter to the original author.
  • A strong ending. You want the op-ed to be memorable, so ensure that you either draw a specific conclusion or help the reader make one.
  • Respect for the reader. Recognize that your average reader is not an expert in your topic and that the burden is on you to capture his or her attention and make a compelling argument.
  • Written in proper form. Your writing must be clear and without jargon. Make sure you properly quote, paraphrase, and cite any sources used.  

Adapted from The Op-Ed Project and How to Write An Op-Ed or Column, Communications Program, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.