An op-ed is a written prose piece typically published by a newspaper or magazine. Rather than seeking to simply to present unbiased information about current events (as is common in journalism), an op-ed usually expresses the opinion of a named author who is generally unaffiliated with the publication’s editorial board.
Why Should You Care?
In today’s world, op-eds blur the line between print and online communications. Now more than ever, digital news sources allow a diverse range of voices to broadcast their viewpoints. This presents a challenge in terms of the volume of print and screening for the quality of submissions. It also poses an unprecedented opportunity for disseminating knowledge through the democratization of media sources. Writing op-eds can be a useful tool for students at the GC to promote their work and engage with new audiences.
The increasing shift from desktop to mobile (hand-held) and apps has magnified certain inherent properties of op-ed pieces, such as brevity and broad appeal to enhance viral share-ability through social media. This makes it important to write about something new, fresh, and timely. As GC students you already have a number of advantages: editors generally seek out young, credentialed writers from diverse backgrounds who bring a novel perspective.
The most typical formula for writing an op-ed is to begin by presenting a problem (an issue, a challenge, a recent newsworthy event) and to end up by presenting a prescription on how to solve it. Often, it’s advantageous to write about a topic that’s been covered in the news recently. Good “news pegs” include anniversaries of important events, as well as under-reported angles on recent news happenings. In this age of 24/7 news, the life-cycle of a relevant news story that captures the public imagination can vary widely. Use your gut feeling to decide if an issue is relevant or not.
Best Practices in Constructing Your Op-Ed
There are different ways to write an op-ed. What follows here are some useful general principles to get started.
A good recipe for constructing an op-ed piece is to mix a contemporary issue with something personal. You should aim to make two or three key points at most in a 700 to 800-word op-ed (about the length of this blog post or shorter). Also, it can be advantageous to use so-called “buzzwords” in your article. These are concepts that are currently gaining widespread support across a spectrum of social institutions, such as the word “data” (as in “big data”).
The most important thing in your op-ed is your first four sentences. This is where you want to hook the reader by providing a paradox, a compelling but simply-stated introduction that invites the reader to intuitively want to read more (in journalism, this is called the “lede”). Overall, your first paragraph should express your overall argument quickly and concisely.
The paragraphs that follow should aim to do two things. First, they should enumerate the two to three key points that support your thesis. Second, they should unpack your argument using concisely-told evidence (such as stats, news, reports from credible organizations, expert quotes, scholarship, history, first-hand experience). Third, they should draw conclusions around your key points based on the evidence you present.
Depending on the subject matter of your op-ed, you may want to broaden the focus of your article towards the end. In other words, you may want to zoom out from your tightly-constructed argument to consider the broader context or social impact or implications of your argument. This might include things like global contexts, historical contexts, mythological underpinnings, and so on. It could also address the reasons why your proposed solution has not yet been implemented due to widespread misconceptions, entrenched political interests, and so on.
Before your conclusion, you may find it useful to include a paragraph that addresses and allays anticipated critics by acknowledging flaws in your argument (frame this by writing something like, “To be sure…”). Your final paragraph should connect back to the message and theme you expressed in the first paragraph.
Finally, avoid jargon and clichés. Write in accessible, plain English. Use active verbs as much as possible. Present clear facts to support your interpretation.
Engaging Diverse Publics
The advantages of digital op-eds (like blogs) are not only the way they allow you to dialogue directly and interactively with your audience. Digital op-eds are also useful because you can embed hyperlinks directly into your blog text that redirect the reader to other relevant literature and primary sources. It’s a good idea to include hyperlinks in your op-ed piece whenever possible.
It’s always helpful to get a second pair of eyes on your draft, so consider enlisting a colleague or editor to review your draft. If possible, work with a representative at your campus’s office of communications (like the Graduate Center’s Office of Communications and Media Relations) to redraft your work before submission.
What are some sources that you could consider to place your op-ed? The holy grail of op-ed sections is The New York Times. Beyond that, in recent years the news landscape has changed dramatically in favor of digital news outfits like Vox, Huffington Post, Salon, Slate, and Bloomberg View. Traditional print and television news outfits have been adapting to these new trends, including examples such as Al Jazeera’s Opinion section.
Lastly, writing an op-ed can seem like the last thing you’d want to spend time on given your full schedule and myriad academic commitments. As such, consider writing an op-ed as a product that is annexed to other commitments you already have. For example, if you’re giving a talk at a conference, tweet about it on Twitter; then, after you give your talk, develop a blog-post or potential op-ed piece summarizing what you discussed in your talk for your website. This can easily become a pitch for a prominent digital news outfit that could, in turn, expand the reach of your work beyond the sum total of undergraduate students you’ve ever taught before!
In addition to the works cited below, there are a number of helpful resources and guides on writing op-eds available at Theopedproject.org. For more practical examples, you might want to read through some pages on the New York Times’ Opinionator or Room for Debate section; or browse the video-based Op Docsselection. In addition, check out the online resources at the (now closed) JustPublics@365 initiative at CUNY, including this useful Social Media Guide for Academics.
Hall, Trish. “Op Ed and You.” The New York Times, published 10/13/2013. Retrieved on 12/9/2016 from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/14/opinion/op-ed-and-you.html.
The OpEd Project. “Basic Op-Ed Structure.” Retrieved on 12/9/2016 from http://theopedproject.org/.
Shipley, David. “And Now a Word from Op-Ed.” The New York Times, published 2/1/2004. Retrieved on 12/9/2016 from http://www.nytimes.com/2004/02/01/opinion/and-now-a-word-from-op-ed.html.