Placing an op-ed: do’s and don’ts

Looking over the shoulder of a female reading the New York Times

When The New York Times announced earlier this spring that it was changing the name of op-eds to guest essays – reflecting the fact that opinion pieces no longer necessarily occupied a physical space “opposite” the editorial page – it also offered guidance on the kind of pieces that it was looking to publish. It puts a premium, for example, on high standards of “cogent argument, logical thought and compelling rhetoric.” It desires essays “have intention” and confessed to being partial to submissions that are less predictable.

The Times receives as many as 150 unsolicited guest essays per day, which will really challenge your capacity for unpredictability. Thankfully, The Times is not the only commentary game in town, and writing and submitting op-eds can be an effective part of your earned media strategy. Here are some tips on how to increase the odds that your piece can find an appropriate home.

Do’s

  • Have a point of view. Op-eds are not articles, not simply a recitation of facts. At their core, they are intended to not just inform but to persuade, to change perceptions.  Doing so requires a baseline of information, but arguments should be built on that foundation. 
  • Get to the point. Commentary is not akin to some O. Henry story that delivers the goods at the end. Once you’ve properly set the stage, begin making your case in a logical and sequential way.
  • Make it timely. There are certainly subjects that are evergreen, but ideally, you should tie your submission to something that is timely or relevant, lending your expertise or experiences to events or issues in the news. 
  • Be realistic. There are literally hundreds of potential landing places for an op-ed. As you consider to whom you’d like to pitch it, do so with an objective sense of reality. It might be worth giving a high-profile outlet a shot, but mostly target a publication whose scope and readership are in line with the topic at hand.  
  • Tailor your piece to fit the outlet. Don’t write your piece with a one-size-fits-all attitude. Shape it to fit the intended audience. Very often that means addressing larger issues in ways that localize them. 

Don’ts

  • Pitch it to more than one outlet at a time. Unlike pitches for news coverage, finding a home for your op-ed must be tackled one publication at a time. Only after one outlet has passed on it – or you haven’t heard back in a couple of business days – should you try the next one. This can be frustrating, especially when you don’t hear back in a timely way, but pitching an op-ed concurrently to multiple outlets is a cardinal sin.
  • Be too wordy. The Times advises that submissions be about 650 words, which is a good rule of thumb.  Pieces for Sunday publications, which typically have more room, can have a higher word count, sometimes as many as 800-900 words. But the longer you make it, the more you put it at risk of not being accepted (or even read at all). 
  • Be too terse.  Conversely, op-eds should at least be 500 words.  If you don’t have enough to say, that’s perhaps a signal that your piece might be better as a letter to the editor, which often have a higher acceptance rate.
  • Forget the rules of grammar. One of the surest ways to have your piece rejected out of hand is if it is rife with spelling and grammatical errors and comes across as sloppily written. 
  • Sell, fundraise or self-promote. You must resist the temptation to use this forum to serve purposes other than to create greater understanding about important issues. Of course, showcasing your expertise could have a residual impact on your standing – after all, that’s often a legitimate underlying motive. But you must refrain from shameless self-promotion in this platform. 

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Josh Dare

Josh’s career in communications spans more than four decades. In addition to providing strategic counsel and crisis communications direction to clients, he is the resident Writer-In-Chief, regularly writing op-eds and bylines on behalf of clients that have been published in The Washington Post, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post, among others.

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