The following is reprinted courtesy of Jeffrey Seglin, lecturer in public policy and director of the Harvard Kennedy School Communications Program:
An op-ed piece derives its name from originally having appeared opposite the editorial page in a newspaper. Today, the term is used more widely to represent a column that represents the strong, informed and focused opinion of the writer on an issue of relevance to a targeted audience.
Distinguishing characteristics of an op-ed or column
Partly, a column is defined by where it appears, but it shares some common characteristics:
- Typically, it is short, between 750 and 800 words.
- It has a clearly defined point.
- It has a clearly defined point of view.
- It represents clarity of thinking.
- It contains the strong, distinctive voice of the writer.
Questions to ask yourself when writing an op-ed or column
- Do I have a clear point to make? If so, what is it?
- Who cares? (Writing with a particular audience in mind can inform how you execute your column. Who is it that you are trying to convince? Why are you targeting that specific reader?)
- Is there substance to my argument?
Topic and theme
Every successful op-ed piece or column must have a clearly defined topic and theme.
- The topic is the person, place, issue, incident or thing that is the primary focus of the column. The topic is usually stated in the first paragraph.
- The theme is the big, overarching idea of the column. What’s your point in writing about the chosen topic and why is it important? The theme may appear early in the piece or it may appear later when it may also serve as a turning point into a deeper level of argument.
While columns and op-ed pieces allow writers to include their own voice and express an opinion, to be successful the columns must be grounded in solid research. Research involves acquiring facts, quotations, citations or data from sources and personal observation. Research also allows a reader to include sensory data (touch, taste, smell, sound or sight) into a column. There are two basic methods of research:
- Field research: going to the scene, interviews, legwork; primary materials, observations, and knowledge.
- Library, academic, or internet research: using secondary materials, including graphs, charts, and scholarly articles.
Openings and endings
The first line of an op-ed is crucial. The opening “hook” may grab the reader’s attention with a strong claim, a surprising fact, a metaphor, a mystery, or a counter-intuitive observation that entices the reader into reading more. The opening also briefly lays the foundation for your argument.
Similarly, every good column or op-ed piece needs a strong ending that fulfills some basic requirements. It:
- Echoes or answers introduction.
- Has been foreshadowed by preceding thematic statements.
- Is the last and often most memorable detail.
- Contains a final epiphany or calls the reader to action.
There are two basic types of endings. An “open ending” suggests rather than states a conclusion, while a “closed ending” states rather than suggests a conclusion. The closed ending in which the point of the piece is resolved is by far the most commonly used.
Having a strong voice is critical to a successful column or op-ed piece. Columns are most typically conversational in tone, so you can imagine yourself have a conversation with your reader as you write (a short, focused conversation). But the range of voice used in columns can be wide: contemplative, conversational, descriptive, experienced, informative, informed, introspective, observant, plaintive, reportorial, self-effacing, sophisticated or humorous, among many other possibilities.
Sometimes what voice you use is driven by the publication for which you are writing. A good method of developing your voice is to get in the practice of reading your column or op-ed out loud. Doing so gives you a clear sense of how your piece might sound – what your voice may come off as – to your intended reader.
Below are some things to remember as you revise your op-ed or column before you submit it for publication. You should always check:
- Coherence and unity.
- Voice and tone. Most are conversational; some require an authoritative voice.
- Direct quotations and paraphrasing for accuracy.
- That you properly credit all sources (though formal citations are not necessary).
- The consistency of your opinion throughout your op-ed or column.
Below are links to some online resources related to op-ed and column writing:
- The Op-Ed Project is a terrific resource for anyone looking to strengthen their op-ed writing. It provides tips on op-ed writing, suggestions about basic op-ed structure, guidelines on how to pitch op-ed pieces to publications, and information about top outlets that publish op-eds. Started as an effort to increase the number of women op-ed writers, The Op-Ed Project also regularly runs daylong seminars around the country.
- “How to Write an Op-Ed Article,” which was prepared by David Jarmul, Duke’s associate vice president for news and communications, provides great guidelines on how to write a successful op-ed.
- “How to Write Op-Ed Columns,” which was prepared by The Earth Institute at Columbia University, is another useful guide to writing op-eds. It contains a useful list of op-ed guidelines for top-circulation newspapers in the U.S.
- “And Now a Word from Op-Ed,” offers some advice on how to think about and write op-eds from the Op-Ed editor of The New York Times.
Author Jeffrey Seglin is a lecturer in public policy and director of the Harvard Kennedy School Communications Program.
Last updated: January 28, 2013
We welcome feedback. Please contact us here.
THE STANDARDS THAT WILL BE USED
TO EVALUATE YOUR OP-ED PIECE
EXAMPLES OF TWO GOOD AND ONE POOR OP-ED PIECES
The Point:Does the opinion piece have a point that is clearly expressed? The Point may be a recommendation for action or it may be to alert readers to a problem. The author should make a single point well. You, as the reader, should be able to explain the author's message in a sentence or two.
6-7:The opinion piece has an original, well-argued point. The piece draws the reader into looking at the topic in a new way or with new insight. The reader can readily summarize what the author is saying and why.
4-5: The opinion piece makes a point that appears original. But the supporting data appear a bit muddled. Readers are left with questions: Why is did the author take this position? Why take this position rather than an alternative one?
2-3: The piece leaves readers confused as to what point the author is trying to make. The reader cannot readily summarize the author's key point or the data supporting the position seem not to really support it.
1: The paper lacks an identifiable point. Readers are left confused as to what point the author is making and why.
Persuasive: Does the piece persuade the reader? A good piece argues effectively for a particular point. Even though the reader may not ultimately agree with the author, the reader comes away from the piece willing to seriously consider the author's perspective.
6-7: A reader comes away from reading the piece feeling the author has effectively argued for a certain point. The author uses concrete examples that resonate with readers.
4-5: The opinion piece highlights an important topic. But it does not really convince readers as to the value of the author's position.
2-3:The opinion piece seems mostly a personal venting. The author is not reaching out to readers or trying to connect with them in a meaningful way.
1: The piece is unconvincing. An unbiased reader, reading this piece, would not find the piece very persuasive.
Hook and Structure: Does the opinion piece engage the reader right at the beginning? Is there evidence of thoughtful organization? Does the author summarize the main point at the end?
6-7: The main point is effectively stated in the first few sentences. These first few sentences capture the reader's attention and draw the reader into reading further. The author effectively summarizes the piece's argument in a strong final paragraph.
4-5: Readers are not immediately draw into the argument. But they are not put off by it either. They find the piece reasonable but a little slow moving. It does not keep your attention. The final paragraph does not offer a powerful restatement of the author's position.
2-3: The piece makes a basic point. But it does not catch your attention. It does draw you in at the beginning nor summarize its message at the end.
1: The author never draws the reader into the opinion piece. It is not clear what the author is saying nor why it is important.
Writing and Clarity: Is the piece readily understandable to non-academic readers? General readers should find the piece easy and interesting to read. There should be few grammatical and spelling errors.
6-7: The writing is clear. The author's own voice and perspective come through in a convincing way. You can identify with the author and the position she or he takes. There are no grammatical mistakes that distract from the author's argument.
4-5: The writing is reasonable. The sentences and paragraphs are a bit too long or the passive voice is emphasized. There is a bit too much jargon.
2-3: The author tends to go on too long. It is not really clear what point she or he is making. The author has long sentences and paragraphs.
1: A reader is left confused as to what point the author is trying to make.
Tone:Is the opinion piece polite and respectful? The focus in on persuading the reader rather than voicing indignation or condemnation.
6-7: The opinion piece is polite and respectful in tone. Rather than dismissing the other side, it acknowledges its value while disagreeing with it. It comes across as written by a thoughtful professional versed in the subject being discussed.
4-5: There is generally a polite tone. But the author does not acknowledge that reasonable people might disagree regarding the point being made. The author asserts there is one reasonable position and she or he is presenting it.
2-3: The piece comes across as quite opinionated. It appears the author is "venting" about something that bothers her or him.
1: The piece is similar to a political "attack" ad. The author is pouring at rage with little concern for who is reading the piece.
[Source: a combination of Karl Schmid’s (York University) “Instructions for Wring Op-Ed Pieces" and Duke University’s “Op-Ed Aritcles: How to Write and Place Them" (http://news.duke.edu/duke_community/oped.html)]
TWO GOOD AND ONE POOR EXAMPLE
OF OP-ED PIECES
TWO GOOD EXAMPLES:
The New Untouchables & Japanese Democracy, Reborn
ONE POOR EXAMPLE:
A Gentleman, Yes, But Not Yet a Scholar
The New Untouchables
By Thomas L. Friedman
The New York Times, October 21, 2009
Last summer I attended a talk by Michelle Rhee, the dynamic chancellor of public schools in Washington. Just before the session began, a man came up, introduced himself as Todd Martin and whispered to me that what Rhee was about to speak about our struggling public schools was actually a critical, but unspoken, reason for the Great Recession.
There's something to that. While the subprime mortgage mess involved a huge ethical breakdown on Wall Street, it coincided with an education breakdown on Main Street precisely when technology and open borders were enabling so many more people to compete with Americans for middle-class jobs.
In our subprime era, we thought we could have the American dream a house and yard with nothing down. This version of the American dream was delivered not by improving education, productivity and savings, but by Wall Street alchemy and borrowed money from Asia.
A year ago, it all exploded. Now that we are picking up the pieces, we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won't be just a passing phase, but our future.
"Our education failure is the largest contributing factor to the decline of the American worker's global competitiveness, particularly at the middle and bottom ranges," argued Martin, a former global executive with PepsiCo and Kraft Europe and now an international investor. "This loss of competitiveness has weakened the American worker's production of wealth, precisely when technology brought global competition much closer to home. So over a decade, American workers have maintained their standard of living by borrowing and overconsuming vis-à-vis their real income. When the Great Recession wiped out all the credit and asset bubbles that made that overconsumption possible, it left too many American workers not only deeper in debt than ever, but out of a job and lacking the skills to compete globally."
This problem will be reversed only when the decline in worker competitiveness reverses when we create enough new jobs and educated workers that are worth, say, $40-an-hour compared with the global alternatives. If we don't, there's no telling how "jobless" this recovery will be.
A Washington lawyer friend recently told me about layoffs at his firm. I asked him who was getting axed. He said it was interesting: lawyers who were used to just showing up and having work handed to them were the first to go because with the bursting of the credit bubble, that flow of work just isn't there. But those who have the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities and new ways to recruit work were being retained. They are the new untouchables.
That is the key to understanding our full education challenge today. Those who are waiting for this recession to end so someone can again hand them work could have a long wait. Those with the imagination to make themselves untouchables to invent smarter ways to do old jobs, energy-saving ways to provide new services, new ways to attract old customers or new ways to combine existing technologies will thrive. Therefore, we not only need a higher percentage of our kids graduating from high school and college more education but we need more of them with the right education.
As the Harvard University labor expert Lawrence Katz explains it: "If you think about the labor market today, the top half of the college market, those with the high-end analytical and problem-solving skills who can compete on the world market or game the financial system or deal with new government regulations, have done great. But the bottom half of the top, those engineers and programmers working on more routine tasks and not actively engaged in developing new ideas or recombining existing technologies or thinking about what new customers want, have done poorly. They've been much more exposed to global competitors that make them easily substitutable."
Those at the high end of the bottom half high school grads in construction or manufacturing have been clobbered by global competition and immigration, added Katz. "But those who have some interpersonal skills the salesperson who can deal with customers face to face or the home contractor who can help you redesign your kitchen without going to an architect have done well."
Just being an average accountant, lawyer, contractor or assembly-line worker is not the ticket it used to be. As Daniel Pink, the author of "A Whole New Mind," puts it: In a world in which more and more average work can be done by a computer, robot or talented foreigner faster, cheaper "and just as well," vanilla doesn't cut it anymore. It's all about what chocolate sauce, whipped cream and cherry you can put on top. So our schools have a doubly hard task now not just improving reading, writing and arithmetic but entrepreneurship, innovation and creativity.
Bottom line: We're not going back to the good old days without fixing our schools as well as our banks.
Japanese Democracy Reborn
By Ian Burma
The Globe and Mail, August 31, 2009
Moods and fashions in Japan often arrive like tsunamis, typhoons or landslides. After more than 50 years of almost uninterrupted power, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been buried in a general election. Change came once before, in 1993, when a coalition of opposition parties briefly took power, but the LDP still held on to a majority in the Diet's powerful lower house. Sunday, even that last bastion fell.
The world, fixated on China's rise, was slow to pay attention to this seismic shift in the politics of the globe's second-largest economy. Japanese politics has a dull image in the world's press. Most editors, when they cover Japan at all, prefer stories about the zaniness of its popular youth culture, or the wilder shores of Japanese sex.
The main reason for this is, of course, that Japanese politics was dull, at least since the mid-1950s, when the LDP consolidated its monopoly on power. Only real aficionados could be bothered to follow the ups and downs of the ruling party's factional bosses, many of whom were from established political families, and most of whom relied on shady financing. Corruption scandals erupted from time to time, but these, too, were usually part of intraparty manoeuvres to rein in those who got too big for their britches.
The system worked in a fashion: Factional bosses took turns as prime minister, palms were greased by various business interests, more or less capable bureaucrats decided on domestic economic policies and the United States took care of Japan's security (and much of its foreign policy).
Some thought this system would last forever. Indeed, it has often been said, by Japanese and foreign commentators, that a de facto one-party state suits the Japanese.
Stability, based on soft authoritarianism, is the Asian way, now followed by China. Asians don't like the messy contentiousness of parliamentary democracy. Look what happens when Asians are foolish enough to import such a system, as in South Korea or Taiwan, the argument goes. Instead of civilized debate, they have filibusters and fisticuffs.
But, notwithstanding the occasional bust-ups, Korean and Taiwanese democracies seem remarkably robust. And the argument that Japanese, or other Asians, are culturally averse to political competition is not historically true.
In fact, Japanese history is full of strife and rebellion, and Japan was the first independent Asian country with a multiparty system. Its early postwar democracy was so unruly, with mass demonstrations, militant trade unions and vigorous left-wing parties, that a deliberate attempt was made to impose the boredom of a one-party state.
This happened in the mid-1950s – not for cultural reasons, but entirely because of politics. Like Italy, a close parallel, Japan was a front-line Cold War state. Domestic conservatives, and the U.S. government, worried about a Communist takeover.
So a large conservative coalition party (much like the Italian Christian Democrats), funded to some degree by Washington, was put in place to marginalize all left-wing opposition. This involved some strong-arm tactics, especially against the unions, but it worked mostly because the middle class settled for an informal deal: increased prosperity in exchange for political acquiescence. The “LDP state” was based on the promise, given by prime minister Ikeda Hayato in 1960, that family incomes would soon be doubled.
Increasingly marginalized, the opposition dwindled into an impotent force, mere window-dressing to a one-party state. But one-party rule breeds complacency, corruption and political sclerosis. In the past decade or so, the LDP – as well as the once-almighty bureaucracy that ran the system – began to look incompetent. Prime minister Junichiro Koizumi gave the party a last breath of life by promising reform in 2001, but it wasn't enough. The patience of Japan's middle class finally cracked.
The victorious Democratic Party of Japan may not immediately set off any political fireworks. Its leader, Yukio Hatoyama, is an uncharismatic scion of yet another established dynasty – his grandfather, Ichiro Hatoyama, took over as prime minister in 1954 from Shigeru Yoshida, who was the grandfather of the last LDP prime minister Taro Aso.
The DPJ's aims are excellent: more authority to elected politicians, less bureaucratic meddling, less dependence on the United States, better relations with Asian neighbours, more power to voters and less to big business. Whether Mr. Hatoyama and his colleagues have the wherewithal to achieve these aims is an open question, but it would be wrong to belittle the importance of what has happened.
Even if the DPJ fails to implement most of its reforms in short order, the fact that Japanese voters opted for change will invigorate their country's democracy. Even if the system were to become like Japan's democracy in the 1920s, with two more or less conservative parties, this would still be preferable to a one-party state. Any opposition is better than none. It keeps the government on its toes.
A firm rejection of the one-party state will also reverberate far beyond Japan's borders. It shows clearly that the desire for political choice is not confined to a few fortunate countries in the West. This is a vital lesson, especially at a time when China's economic success is convincing too many leaders that citizens, especially but not only in Asia, want to be treated like children.
Poor Example: A Gentleman, Yes, But Not Yet a Scholar
by A. B. Stoddard
A.B. Stoddard’s Blog, April 14, 2009
Aren't you just dying to know what Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is saying about his friends in high places at Arizona State University? And has the gossip mill targeted the exact people responsible for deciding President Obama was worthy of a commencement invitation but no honorary degree? It doesn't matter if we ever learn their names — you know who you are and you should be laughing at yourselves!
I can't imagine how that meeting went. Let's invite the president of the United States — a new president, an immensely popular president, the first African-American president — to be our speaker. Wait, he hasn't really spent enough time in his field to earn the degree typically conferred upon each speaker at graduation. But he's so appealing, we'll invite him anyway.
"It's our practice to recognize an individual for his body of work, somebody who's been in their position for a long time," Sharon Keeler, an ASU spokeswoman, told The Associated Press at the time. "His body of work is yet to come. That's why we're not recognizing him with a degree at the beginning of his presidency."
Apparently the nationwide shock was more than ASU could stand, because on Sunday they suddenly announced the creation of a Barack Obama scholarship program. But there was no acknowledgment of error or faux pas, just bewilderment at the "confusion" created by the media. When in doubt, blame the media (it works for Sarah Palin).
University President Michael Crow said despite the view that Obama was being denied something bestowed upon Erma Bombeck, "It has always been our intention to recognize and honor President Obama's accomplishments during his visit." He added, "I apologize for the confusion surrounding our invitation to President Obama to address ASU students at commencement."
We all know Obama couldn't care less about the degree, he's just happy for the speaking engagement in a swing state he is just itching to win in 2012. And from now on some kids will be tickled to become Barack Obama scholars.
Everybody wins except for those oh-so-selective big cheeses at ASU who thought it was a good idea to keep a president out of an exclusive club.