The Media Edge

Become an instant op-ed star!
How to write opinion articles
that editors will actually use

by Mary Johnson

Mary Johnson is editor of Ragged Edge.

On March 17, the opinion page of the Chicago Tribune ran an article by Not Dead Yet's Diane Coleman. "It's Not Compassion, It's Contempt," ran the headline. The article discussed why many disability rights activists are opposed to assisted suicide. That same day, The San Diego Tribune Union carried an opinion article focusing on disability rights as well. Headlined "Redefining the nature of disabilities and needs," this one focused on issues underlying the Cedar Rapids Supreme Court opinion which had recently been announced. This op-ed article was written by Bill Stothers and me as part of our ASAP! project work. It's likely by the time you're reading this article that you've seen an opinion piece about the Olmstead case--written by an ADAPT member. ADAPT's Jennifer Burnett worked hard in March to get ADAPT members to develop opinion pieces to send to newspapers to coincide with the April 21 oral arguments before the Supreme Court in the Olmstead case.


Opinion articles--sometimes called "op-ed" articles--are an excellent way to get the disability rights perspective into the news. They carry more weight and authority than letters to the editor, and it's not a difficult process to prepare one that will be accepted by your local newspaper.

Here are some rules Stothers, Burnett and I have found and modified. Try them out--and let us know about your successes!

1. Write the body of your op-ed piece anytime, like NOW!! Op-eds should be about 750 words, so you could draft a piece of about 600 words that is the "meat" of your argument. Read lots of op-eds to see how they're constructed. You'll see that they relate to something that was just in the news, but that they advance an opinion as well. Remember, you're advancing an opinion. (At the end of this article we give more pointers for writing the body of your op-ed).

2. Wait for a good "news hook"--for example, when a national poll comes out saying that 56 percent of Americans favor assisted suicide, or when the U.S. Supreme Court announces the date it will hear arguments in an important disability case, or when Pres. Clinton announces plans for removing the work disincentives from Social Security. The key here is "news hook." The story has to have been Big News. If it hasn't been in the newspaper, chances are the paper won't be interested in an op-ed piece on it, either.

Use this "news hook" and lead your op-ed with that. Express your point of view clearly and boldly in the first paragraph. If you have the body written already, you can just tack on the start. That way you can do it quick.

And quick is essential. Crucial, in fact.

3. Aim big--The Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or your big city newspaper. Any big paper will do--but it makes sense that if Kevorkian's palsl have done another dastardly deed, you might find the Detroit paper interested in your op-ed. Don't forget your local hometown paper, though. It's easier to start locally.

4. Right now, before any news breaks, is the time to get the facts on where to send op-eds at the various papers. Call them or look online for the information. Most papers make this information readily available. Most will take your piece by fax or even email. Fastest is best. Get all this checked out well in advance--keep a list in your computer of who the contacts are at various papers and how they want their op-eds sent to them.

5. The moment a news event happens, fire up that op-ed, write that first paragraph and get it to the newspaper within 12 hours of the news event. The quicker the better.

6. What editors want is

a) timeliness

b) a well-stated point of view with a topical beginning hooked to the news

c) the view of somebody with "standing" (what are your credentials? Notice the "biolines" at the end of op-ed pieces and write yours--short and pithy--in the same style)

d) the correct length (under 650 words and they'll say it's a letter to the editor; over about 800 and they'll see it as a good reason to reject it as too long--unless you're somebody really famous, like Kevorkian himself)

If you do b, c, and d, but get your piece in 10 days after the event, it's too late. Don't bother. Even 2 days later is often too late. It's old news by then.

Start stocking your pantry with the ingredients for your instant op-ed pieces now! You can use essentially the same "meat" and write a number of different op-eds by moving paragraphs around and such, adding a new factoid or statistic that freshens it up. Remember, the new part has to be the beginning, where it hooks onto some breaking news event.

Boil your argument down to three major points. Use simple, short sentences. Avoid fancy words and jargon. Lop off dangling clauses. Eliminate passives (example: Change "this bill was written by Senator Blow Hard" to "Senator Blow Hard wrote this bill.") Make your paragraphs short--no more than three sentences each. Close on a strong note. A short, powerful last paragraph should drive your point home. The moment Big News happens, you'll be able to tack on a news hook and ship your op-ed piece to the newspapers. Do it!


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