Creating Effective Op-Eds and Letters to the Editor

By Brandon Cooper Note: this document has been revised and updated. That said, I have a much larger, more detailed project in the works that incorporates this document and much more information than what is included here. Stay tuned. I have written numerous letters to local and national publications since I was 13 years old. I’m not an expert, but I enjoy writing and have experienced some success. The purpose of this article is to guide the average person through the process of creating an effective op-ed or letter to the editor. I hope these methods will encourage others to participate in the process of publishing community views.

1. Do not just express an opinion; advocate a position and give the reader the tools needed to take the next step. Expressing an opinion is just that: “Candidate X is the right person for the job.” Advocating a position involves expressing that opinion and suggesting what the reader should do about it. If Problem X exists, advocate how to correct it. If Candidate X is the best person for the job, suggest ways to support that person. Examples of support include visiting a campaign or issue website, volunteering, or just by voting a particular way. 2. Understand the differences between a letter to the editor and an op-ed. A letter to the editor is a short (~200 words) piece that addresses a particular article or subject from a recent edition of the publication. An op-ed, by the strictest definition, is a medium-length piece (~500 words) solicited by the publication to oppose the position of the editorial board. This is where the term “op-ed” comes from: the “opposite of the editorial”, not “opinion-editorial”. The lines in today’s media, though, are blurry. A letter to the editor can be much longer in some instances and an op-ed need not be solicited or be the opposite opinion of the editorial board. How you structure your piece should be determined by your situation and style. The editor may change it anyway. 3. Use the right sources. Don’t parrot your favorite advocacy or lobbying group (such as The Heritage Foundation or the American Civil Liberties Union). Quoting these groups’ studies or polls does little to help your argument. If you choose to quote someone, know the person's views and life intimately. For example, if you are writing about love, avoid the famous Nietzsche aphorism on “love and madness” unless you are writing ironically. Avoid referencing trendy intellectuals. Name dropping of this kind will turn off a large portion of your audience. 4. Know your audience. Address the readership of the publication, not an individual or niche. Unless the publication targets a particular demographic, write directly to the average reader, not

that group. Each publication has its own demographics, so don’t submit the same piece to multiple places. Know your audience and what they can do to help your cause. Writing to The New York Times regarding a local election is obviously a waste of time, but so is writing a partisan piece on a national issue for the local newspaper.

5. Use an assertive yet accessible tone. Avoid a colloquialisms, but don’t try to impress your audience by using words you don’t fully comprehend. More educated readers will immediately notice any malapropisms. Write for a contemporary audience. Do not assume that because you are writing for publication that you must use an archaic tone. Conversely, don’t be afraid to use words or concepts that some readers might not understand. Write for your audience, not the lowest common denominator or the smartest person in the room. 6. Stress the importance of your subject. Readers know that the subject at hand is important to you because you took the time to write about it. You must often convince them of that importance, especially when writing about local issues. This is one instance in which exaggeration (though not to the point of extreme) may help your case. Apply the issue broadly to reach to as many readers as possible. 7. Research your facts. You may be knowledgeable about the issue, but readers don’t know that. You are not expected to cite your sources; however, be certain your information is clear and correct before you submit it. The editor has the responsibility to check your facts, but you want him or her to have to do as few corrections as possible to prepare your piece for publication. Readers and editors will call into question the validity of your entire piece if a particular statement is incorrect or unclear. 8. Format Correctly. Write first and format afterwards. Don’t get caught in the details. Write drafts with whatever you’re comfortable using, but submit it in Microsoft Word (.doc) format to whomever is responsible for the views or opinion section of the publication. Use quotation marks to differentiate “buzzwords” sparingly. Avoid italicizing, bolding, underlining or capitalizing to emphasize words or phrases. Details like font, margins, and other formatting options are not important unless your document uses nontraditional or awkward markups. Making the process more difficult for the editor (such as submitting in .pdf format or via snail mail) makes it less likely your piece will be published. Paragraph breaks will be decided by the editor, as will the title of your piece. 9. Make it personal. Introduce a personal perspective to relate to the audience why your opinion is valid. You might be tempted to write out a laundry list of facts and statistics, but this is not the purpose of an op-ed or letter to an editor. Rhetorical devices such as metaphors, short anecdotes, or reasonable appeals to emotion are more effective at convincing people of your point of view than an assortment of statistics. 10. Keep barbs to a minimum and keep them relevant. Negative comments about the opposing side are acceptable, but hit pieces on candidates and causes rarely help anyone. Instead, compare your candidate or cause in a positive light. For example: “Candidate X has Qualifications A, B, and C. His/her opponent, on

the other hand, has not been involved in any of these important functions.” Hyperbolic phrases and jabs tend to incite online comment wars rather than facilitate reasonable discussion. Your objective is to convince the reader to join your side, not to inflame those who disagree.

11. Edit. Edit again. Your piece should be between 200-500 words long. Shorter pieces are acceptable, but they will not take up as much space on the published page. If your piece is significantly longer (by 50 or more words), remove redundant phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. Nothing is written in stone. Simplify sentences. Never say in six words would you could in three. Take this sentence. 12. Grammar and spelling are important... The editor is responsible for grammar and spelling, but create as few instances of editorial correction as possible. In the event your mistake is published, it may distract readers from your point. Both The Elements of Style by Strunk and White and the AP Stylebook answer many common questions, but most dilemmas can be solved by using any internet search engine. Aim to avoid the most common grammatical and syntactical mistakes. 13. ...but not as important as you might think. You are an amateur writer. Don’t obsess over specific or obscure grammatical rules. Learn what is included in the basics what isn’t. For example, a preposition is something you are allowed to end a sentence with. If you find yourself in a situation wherein you must make a choice between breaking the rules or creating an unclear or awkward sentence, break the rules. Don’t be afraid to experiment a little. 14. Read your piece out loud. Your piece will sound different when read aloud. Read it slowly and pronounce every word. Avoid skimming over idioms that you might have misused (i.e. “could care less”). This also allows you to notice when you use the same word repetitively. When you have done this a few times and made the necessary corrections, read it to a family member or friend. Ask the person if he or she understood the overall theme and if anything needs clarification. If someone wants to proofread the piece by reading it on the page, share it after he or she has heard it aloud. 15. “I don’t know what to write.” Begin by write your opinion down in one or two sentences. Then write your reasons for having this opinion. This can be one or two paragraphs. After that, write what you believe your audience can do to further this particular cause. Write a brief introduction explaining who you are with any relevant details and place it at the beginning. By the time you submit your piece, these questions should be answered: a. Who are you? b. Why is X important? c. What is your view on X? d. Why do you think that about X? e. What can we do about X? Once you have answered these, you’ll find you’ve written 200-500 words. Then go back and edit.

This set of guidelines is not comprehensive in any way, but it will help the aspiring opinion writer get started or refine something already written. I’m sure I have broken some of my own rules in this piece. The point was never to become a perfect writer but rather to express your views to the world. Now: go.

Creating Effective Op-Eds or Letters to the Editor by Brandon Cooper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

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