An op-ed is an opinion piece published by a newspaper, magazine or website; it is traditionally placed opposite the editorials written by a newspaper’s own editorial staff. It is a contribution by a reader or guest editor—usually an expert who can give an informed opinion on a current topic. The typical op-ed has a title and runs about 750 words, but check the specific publication to get a sense of the appropriate length.
Topic, Thesis, and Reader
The op-ed topic should be timely (in the news) and controversial (something you can make an argument about). It could be a pro/con issue like gun control, or it could be something like suggesting a solution to a problem (perhaps opposing a local ban on plastic shopping bags). If it is not immediately apparent that the topic is important, it will be up to you to make readers care about it. In the first paragraph, capture your readers’ interest and announce your thesis (in other words, your opinion, or the claim you are going to make and support with reasons and evidence).
What are two, or at most three, reasons you can make to support your claim? For example, let’s say you claim that your town should not ban plastic bags used by stores. Why?
- It would have a negative economic impact.
- It is possible to make the bags from biodegradable plastics.
For each reason, add evidence such as facts, citations from known authorities, or examples. Stories and personal examples often resonate with readers, as long as they are relevant to your thesis.
If you cite authorities, acknowledge the source with an attribution tag such as “According to Michael Tolinski, author of Plastics and Sustainability, companies can successfully use bio-degradable plastics and avoid high costs.” Or you might use parentheses, as in “The use of sustainable plastics does not have to bankrupt manufacturers (Michael Tolinski, Plastics and Sustainability).” If you cite a study, you can work it in like this: “A 2012 study by the National Center for Policy Analysis found that shoppers in Los Angeles would leave areas where bags were banned to shop in areas where they were not.” Make sure you credit your sources, but don’t let references interfere with readability.
Remind readers of your claim, summarize your most important points, and if appropriate, call them to action. Suggest they do something to advance your cause. Most important, try to make that last line memorable.
Style and Tone
Be clear and concise, not outrageous or overly clever. You want to come across as an expert—reasonable, professional, friendly, yet passionate. Simple and direct language, without technical terms, acronyms, or jargon, will get the point across more forcefully. You are giving an opinion, so using “I” is fine.
It is easier to write the title last, even though it is the first thing readers see. A title should be catchy and informative (does not mislead about the topic). Like the last line, the title is your opportunity to capture attention and make your case. Be aware, however, that the publication's editor may very well rewrite your title.