Career Advice

How to Break Into Opinion Writing

By Grace Bello November 15th, 2013

“One of the greatest gifts of op-ed writing – don’t tell anybody this – but it’s not that hard,” said Chloe Angyal, senior editor at Feministing.

At an American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) panel on op-ed and commentary writing recently in New York City, writers Katherine Lanpher, Christine LarsonKatie OrensteinAngyal, and Erika Fry gathered to discuss the joys and challenges of crafting op-ed pieces that were published in The New York Times, The Guardian, and other publications.

What is an op-ed? Lanpher defined it as “an evidence-based and timely argument that is of public value.” The term op-ed is short for “opposite-editorial,” named for its traditional placement on the page opposite the paper’s editorial page.

Here, find the group’s tips on generating ideas and getting those commentary pieces published.

Face your fears.

Moderator Christine Larson, a freelance writer and the co-author of Influence: How Women’s Soaring Economic Power Will Transform Our World for the Better, said that journalists accustomed to straight reporting often shy away from writing commentary, but it’s an empowering writing path that more should consider.

Op-ed contributions are particularly important for women and people of color, she said: “Only about 20% of the op-eds that appear in the national media are written by women, and a very small percentage are written by people of color.”

Larson said, “When I realize that just my byline as a woman writing opinion makes a difference, it gives me more courage to do that.”

 Be bold.

“The more surprising and the more unexpected, the better,” said Orenstein.

Lanpher, who has had an op-ed published in The New York Times, pointed out that for the Times, opinion section editors and interns look at each submission. But though each piece gets a glance, “it also depends on what your heading is and how grabby your first sentence is,” she said.

Multiple people might be writing about the same topic, so the more distinct a writer can be and the more he or she can craft a great headline and lede, the better chance he or she has of getting the piece published.

Don’t pitch the piece – just write it.

“Almost every outlet I know of is understaffed,” said Lanpher. “Paste it in the email; they don’t have time to open an attachment….Your [introductory] pitch should be two paragraphs and about three or four lines in each paragraph – less if possible. In your pitch, you want to answer three questions: ‘So what?’ ‘Why me?’ ‘Why now?'”

And in the piece itself, don’t waste a precious lead with bloviation or a list of credentials. Launch straight into the argument and grab the reader right away.

Add a news or pop culture hook.

Angyal said that she had wanted to write an op-ed about the low percentage of women who retain their maiden names once they get married (only 8 percent). Though she was passionate about the topic, she still needed a hook. Then she found out that Beyoncé – who is married to Shawn Carter, a.k.a. Jay-Z – was about to embark on her new world tour. The name? “The Mrs. Carter Show.”

She pegged her op-ed to Beyoncé’s tour, and the piece ran in New York Magazine’s blog The Cut. “Pop culture or major news events – it’s an invitation from the world every day” to weigh in on what’s happening in the world, said Lanpher.

Don’t forget regional and niche outlets.

While it’s fine to aim for top outlets for an op-ed, a writer should also consider smaller publications and online-only outlets.

Especially if one is just starting out in commentary, starting small is an excellent strategy to gain clips and build a readership.

Stay focused on the big picture.

The group offered this disclaimer: many newspapers don’t pay – or pay very little – for freelance opinion pieces. But Orenstein said that opinion writing is about much more than one’s hourly rate.

For Orenstein and Lanpher, their op-eds led to book contracts and other big career opportunities.

And moreover, “It’s a front door into the marketplace of ideas,” Orenstein said. “And it generates a hell of a lot of subsequent action.”

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