Got an Opinion? How to Write an Op-ed That Doesn’t Suck

When done right, an opinion piece can shed light on an issue, catalyze conversation and establish thought leadership; too often, though, contributed articles come across as shallow, boring or self-serving. Sometimes all three.

It doesn’t have to be so. By pairing a unique point of view with a thoughtful argument, you can create an article that editors want to publish and readers want to share. 

Some publications, like Fast Company, publish guidelines and examples of the contributed articles they accept. Not every blog or periodical will be so explicit about what they love and what they hate, but in general, compelling opinion pieces share many of the same qualities.

Strong op-eds are:

  • An actual opinion
  • Controversial or counterintuitive              
  • Authentic, both in content and tone               
  • Personal
  • Timely (or has enduring value)        
  • Supported by facts and data
  • Part of a larger conversation
They aren’t:

  • Self-promotional
  • Bland, stale or common knowledge
  • Jargony or too deep in the weeds
  • Navel-gazing
  • Reactionary
  • An echo of other viewpoints
  • A collection of existing content

 

Who cares?

It’s not enough to be opinionated about a topic that no one wants to read about; you also need to make your argument relevant. The best way to do this is to listen and read. Pay attention to the news, conversations and trends shaping the topics that interest you. Think about what you can add to that conversation — what unique perspective, unexpected advice or untold story can you contribute?

Ask yourself these two questions:

  • What’s new about what I’m saying?
  • Why would the reader care?

Answer honestly. If you don’t have anything thought-provoking or valuable to say, go back to brainstorming.

Picture it, plan it.

Gather the background material you need — whether that’s data, interviews or examples. In planning how the piece will come together, think about:

  • Where am I going to tell this story?
    • What publications accept guest posts, and of those, where would this be a fit?
    • In what section of the publication would this piece appear?

 

  • What are the publication’s guidelines?
    • What types of op-eds do they accept? (TechCrunch, for instance, insists that you say something new and something your competitors would also appreciate.)
    • What do other contributed articles look like in terms of topic, length, tone and format?

 

Pitch it.

At this point, you should be able to form an argument about why your piece is a strong fit for the publication’s audience. Consider pitching your idea to the editor before writing the entire piece to see if they might be interested in seeing a full draft, and potentially get feedback that will help you shape the article. 

Not every opinion piece is a fit for The New York Times — and that’s OK. If you’re striking out, consider a different strategy. Reconsider who’d be interested and how you can target that audience. It might be a more niche publication or self-publication through a channel like LinkedIn Pulse or Medium.

Now you’re ready to write. Right?

Try not overanalyze the first draft — just get your thoughts on paper. We each have our own approach to writing (I’ve shared some of my favorite tips here), but consider the following when writing an opinion piece:

  • Get personal, but not too personal: anecdotes help draw the reader in, but shouldn’t be the focal point.
  • Provide context: add links to other research and articles, but don’t overload the reader — 2-3 relevant links are likely enough for a 600-800 word piece.
  • Think about structure: start each paragraph with a topic sentence and consider using subheads to help the reader navigate.
  • Craft the intro and conclusion: the lede should draw the reader in and the conclusion should both tie back to the intro and look forward.
  • Provoke a response: if it makes sense for the topic, include a call to action; the reader should have a sense of what to do with the information you’ve shared.

 

Make time for editing.

Once you’ve reviewed your draft for argument, clarity and concision, share it with at least one person you trust. Identify the specific areas where it might need help: Are you struggling with the title? Does the conclusion still need some work? Consider asking for two rounds of feedback: first, overarching thoughts, then the nitty-gritty copyedits.  

Once more, with feeling: Why does the reader care?

Nailing this kind of writing is a lot like being a good conversationalist. It’s crucial to have a point of view and to clearly articulate it— but it’s just as important to understand how it serves your audience. In other words, empathize with your readers. Show them that you’re not just promoting your own interests. Give them something new to think about.