Developed in collaboration with Dr. Dan Pomeroy, manager of MIT’s International Policy Lab.
Criteria for success
A successful op-ed…
- Provides a strong, provocative opinion
- Focuses on a clear, single issue
- Is both important and timely
- Supplies facts and anecdotes that support the main message
- Avoids unnecessary technical jargon
- Leaves the reader a memorable take-away message
Identify your purpose
The opinion pages in newspapers and magazines (and their equivalent in online outlets) are often among the best-read sections of a publication. As such, writing an opinion piece is an opportunity to reach a massive audience and influence the conversation of the general public. Further, decision-makers also see these opinions; politicians and their staff track opinion editorials, as do executives and higher-ups at companies, nonprofits, and think tanks. Thus, an op-ed provides two mechanisms for influencing public policy: indirectly by placing an issue for the public to consider, and directly by appealing to these decision-makers.
As a researcher at MIT, you’re an expert in your field at a highly respected institution. You’re a prime candidate to write an op-ed, particularly on topics that influence or are influenced by your research projects, program, institution, field – or, importantly, your professional and personal experiences. Newspaper and magazine editors want strong opinion pieces from experts whom their readers will consider both highly credible and passionate about a topic. And you want to write an op-ed because it can magnify the societal impact of your work and field.
Analyze your audience
The readership of news outlets varies significantly, e.g., the NY Times demographic is quite different than that of the Kansas City Star. To even get past the paper’s editor, your piece needs to cover a topic that’s important to the paper’s readers. Then to be effective, you need to connect with those readers (or at least the ones important to your strategic goal). You can appeal to their values, ethics, emotions, etc.
For example, if you’re writing an op-ed advocating for science funding and targeting a paper with a conservative audience, you can appeal to their readers’ values and ethics by focusing on how scientific research benefits their local industries. As another example, if you’re writing an op-ed on the importance of net neutrality, you can immediately appeal to your readers’ emotions by reminding them how infuriating it can be to deal with internet service providers.
Plan your writing process
Prior to starting the writing process, consider the following questions that will help direct the content and style of your op-ed.
|Question to consider
|Why it is important to consider
|Is the point you want to make important and timely?
|Pieces that provide a provocative opinion to recent news, an upcoming event, or alternatively an important topic going under the radar have the best chance at being placed. Through your piece, you’ll need to convey your opinion’s importance and why it’s important now.
You’ll also have to emphasize importance and timeliness when pitching your piece to an editor.
|What is your strategic goal for writing the op-ed?
|Having a strategic goal will help direct your approach and content. Are you looking to inform the general public about an issue? Then appealing emotionally through personal stories might be an effective strategy. Are you looking to influence policy makers? Then maybe emphasizing the effects policy decisions will have on the economy and their constituents is the right move.
|What information do you have, particularly related to your expertise, that supports your point?
|A strong opinion and passionate writing will make your piece effective, but your credibility will get your op-ed published. Drawing on your professional knowledge and training, and particularly your personal experiences as they relate to your main point will separate your piece from the dozens of others pitched to an editor.
|What are the best arguments against your point, and how can you refute them?
|A highly effective strategy in writing a persuasive op-ed is to preemptively address the counterarguments to your point, and refute them with powerful and poignant facts. By doing this, you increase the credibility of your op-ed in the minds of people who may otherwise be swayed by these counterarguments, while simultaneously providing your base with talking points to these counterarguments.
|Are all of your points factually correct and supportable?
|Above all, you need to ensure your facts are correct. Bigger papers will almost certainly fact-check your piece and may ask you for supporting material. Even if they don’t, it’s your credibility that will take a hit if your piece contains inaccuracies. Similarly, your piece needs to be original, including being distinct from your own previous writings (that is, do not self-plagiarize). Lastly, you should always disclose any conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise, to the paper’s editor.
Show your passion with descriptive language and narrative.
Don’t use an academic argument: Regulations to reduce mercury are needed to protect tribal populations because of higher fish intake from subsistence fishing and unique cultural practices.
Do use a compelling story: In the rainy Pacific Northwest, tribal populations spend much of their time on boats hunting swordfish, shark, and king mackerel to feed their families and for use in cultural rituals. Unfortunately, mercury levels in these fish are putting the health and safety of their community in serious jeopardy. The federal government needs to take vulnerable populations like this into account when developing mercury regulations.
Use active voice (i.e. active verbs).
Active: This experience convinced me that we need to support science.
Passive: I was convinced by this experience that we need to support science.
Turn numbers or statistics into specific and easy-to-understand references or examples.
Difficult to understand: Since the pre-vaccination era, the estimated annual morbidity rate in the U.S. decreased from 530,000 to 70.
Easy to understand: Thanks to vaccines, the measles virus that used to infect hundreds of thousands of Americans each year is now virtually eliminated.
Avoid jargon and acronyms
Jargon-filled: Nonintrusive load monitors can disaggregate total energy use by appliance.
Jargon-less: Advanced smart meters can tell you how much energy each of your appliances use.
Avoid clichés – they dilute your message
Examples: “It’s not rocket science,” “is the holy grail,” “avoid like the plague”
Submitting Your Piece
Prior to submitting your piece, make sure the op-ed meets your target paper’s formatting requirements (word length, etc.) and read their submission instructions. As a general rule, only submit your op-ed to one publication at a time. If your piece is extremely timely, you can provide a time limit for consideration in your cover letter, after which you plan to submit the op-ed to another paper.
When submitting, the body of the email should contain a succinct paragraph establishing why the issue is important, why their readers care, and why your expertise and/or experiences qualify you to write this piece. After this paragraph, provide a brief (1-3 sentences) bio, your contact information (phone number, email address, and mailing address), and the wordcount of the piece (both the full length and length including the title and bio).
An example pitch is provided below.
After submitting, follow-up with a phone call to the editor. Be prepared to pitch it directly as they may have missed the email. Leave a message if he or she does not answer. Do not incessantly hound them, but it is ok to send follow up emails or phone calls if you have not heard back after a couple days.
If you do not hear back from the editor in 10 days or your op-ed is rejected outright, try another paper, or you can shorten it and resubmit your piece as a letter to the editor (might be a different editor). While shorter, letters are still very visible.
I’d like to submit an opinion piece on the March for Science happening next Saturday 4/22.
I am a CT native, PhD physicist, and currently manage Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s International Policy Lab. The goal of this piece is to explain why, as a scientist, I am joining the March for Science, how science impacts CT, and to urge others to join. I am hoping it can be placed this weekend or sometime next week, just ahead of the March.
The piece is exclusive at 641 text/691 with title and bio notes. Happy to make any needed edits.
Home address: XXX
Thank you for your consideration,
[op-ed pasted below and attached]
- Writing an Op-Ed – From the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), this article provides key points to consider when writing an op-ed as well as three examples of science focused op-eds. The article is a part of their larger Communication Toolkit provided under the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science & Technology Program.
- Op-Ed Writing: It’s OK to Argue for Something by Brooke Smith & Sarah Sunu from COMPASS. In addition to providing tips and resources for writing op-eds, the authors also link to several scientist-authored op-eds featuring a wide variety of arguments.
- Ten Steps to Writing an Op-Ed by Joanne Omang, free-lance writer and former Washington Post reporter. Provides insight into the necessary components of an op-ed from an editor’s perspective along with her “ten steps” you should consider prior to writing your op-ed.
- Op-Ed and You by Trish Hall, Senior Editor, New York Times. Provides an editor’s perspective on “what makes the cut” out of the “flood” of op-eds submitted to the New York Times every day.
- Writing Op-Eds– From the Union of Concerned Scientists, this article provides information on the basic structure of op-eds and gives concrete tips towards optimizing your message and improving your chances of having your piece placed.
- The Op-Ed Project – Started as a social venture aiming to increase the number of op-eds from women and other underrepresented experts. The website provides tips for writing an op-ed, guidelines for pitching your op-ed to an editor, and information on op-ed submittals to leading news publications.