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The Secret to Successful Op-ed Writing

Posted by on August 25th, 2011
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding, Nonprofit Communications, Nonprofit Messaging    Tags: , ,

Op-ed columns are a direct pipeline to opinion leaders, policy makers, funders, and other influential people whose attention most nonprofit organizations need to succeed. The op-ed page is a prominent place to gain exposure, build awareness, and increase support for your organization and its issues.

Op-ed columns, so called because they appear opposite the editorial page, offer a forum for the public to debate the important issues of the day.

Of course, everyone wants to see their op-eds in the New York Times, Washington Post, or Wall Street Journal, but often smaller newspapers are more appropriate for certain issues and offer a better shot at publication. So consider both your subject matter and your audience—whom you need to influence—and then determine the best arena to draw that audience’s attention. It may be a local publication or even a relevant industry journal.

Every placement, wherever it is, makes it likelier you’ll get an op-ed into more prestigious publications. And since op-eds help cultivate the writer’s image as an authoritative source, expect to be tapped by reporters and others seeking expert opinions or advice.

Here are some pointers to boost the odds of publishing your op-ed:

Keep it simple: Decide on one single point you wish to make. Then make it clearly and concisely in your opening paragraph and concluding paragraphs with your argument in between. Though lengths vary by publication, you’ll be safe with a nice, tight 750-word essay. And most important, cleanse the article of all jargon. Write for sixth-graders.

Keep it topical: Peg the column to some upcoming news event, holiday, historical anniversary, major conference, or some very recent significant occurrence or study.

Keep it clear: Know where you stand on the issue and offer a clearly reasoned argument in support of your position. Put your expertise and authoritative opinion on display, but don’t preach.

Keep it interesting: Back up your argument with facts and figures while offering entertaining (if appropriate), illustrative, and personal anecdotes to dramatize your point.

Keep it new: You want to add to the conversation or debate on your topic. Offer new insights, approaches, or solutions that engage the reader.

Your cover letter should include a brief bio that clarifies your expertise on the subject and puts the piece into context. If time is of the essence, then say so. Include your phone number, email address, and mailing address.

Major newspapers like the New York Times require that you submit to them exclusively. If they say no, then move on to your second and third choices. If all else fails, consider editing the piece down to 150 words and submitting it as a letter to the editor—the most read part of the paper.

Once you publish an op-ed, remember to use both social and traditional media to broaden its reach. Email your members about it. Perhaps send a note with a reprint enclosed to your major donors. Contact your critical audiences, such as policy makers and their staff, to make sure they’ve seen it. Get your allies to comment on it in letters to the editor to lengthen the op-ed’s life and further enhance its impact.

For more detailed guidance on the ins and outs of writing and placing op-eds, visit The OpEd Project, which is doing great work to increase the very under-represented voice of women on op-ed pages and, therefore, in the national debate.

What are your tips for publishing op-eds?


Susan Alexander is a Mission Minded Senior Strategist. She has decades of experience working with nonprofit organizations as a communications and fundraising consultant.

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