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Wed, 23 Oct 2002 -- Media Matters No. 17:
Writing an op-ed, part 1

In our last Media Matters, we explained what an op-ed article is and how it differs from editorials and letters to the editor.

The competition for a spot on the op-ed page is intense at national newspapers. The New York Times -- the very best place for your op-ed -- receives hundreds of unsolicited op-ed manuscripts a day. Local papers receive far fewer. If your op-ed is about a national issue, you still may want to try local papers.

Here are tips on how to increase the chances that an editor will select your op-ed article.

First, have something topical to say. Unless you're Colin Powell, you have to be able to impress editors with your opinion. And you have to be someone considered an "expert." If you're not the expert in your organization, consider "ghost-writing" an op-ed to be signed by someone connected with your organization who is either well-known or who has impressive credentials.

Second, you must be timely. Most op-eds concern subjects triggered by breaking, front-page news. The more timely the subject, the greater the chance your op-ed will be considered. Link your op-ed to a hot topic in the news -- and submit it by email (best) or fax right away. At a recent meeting, the Editor of the New York Times's editorial page said, "700 words by day's end." (See Media Matters No. 5, "Losing those 'I don't have time right now' blues for tips on getting this accomplished without killing your schedule.")

Third, start your op-ed with a "grabber." Op-ed articles have to start strong. When you're allowed only 500 to 800 words -- depending on the outlet -- every word, phrase and sentence must hit home. It's particularly important to "hit the ground running," beginning the op-ed with a straight-to-the-gut sentence. "At the current rate, the Social Security System will be bankrupt at the very moment you are ready to tap it." Makes you want to read on, doesn't it? Take some time to think about your strong first sentence if you expect your second sentence to be read. (Be sure to check with your target paper to find out their preferred length and other requirements.)

Fourth, craft your op-ed with just one, clear, unmistakable point -- no more. Carry that thesis throughout the piece. There's not enough space to make more than one significant point, so stick to one compelling argument and prove it -- with facts. Accusations must be supported with evidence. Opinions must be bolstered by numbers, statistics and facts.

These points will help you think about and begin to draft your op-ed -- aim for the required word length as you write. In our next Media Matters, we'll talk about editing and polishing your op-ed and packaging it for delivery.

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