Local Organizing

Writing OpEds That Make A Difference

The Indivisible Project and The OpEd Project are excited to be publishing this joint resource.

The OpEd Project's mission is to increase the range of voices and quality of ideas we hear in the world, with a focus on increasing the number of underrepresented voices and thought leaders in influential public forums. The Indivisible Project’s mission is to equip locally-led groups across the country with tools to hold their Members of Congress accountable and resist the Trump agenda.

Our missions overlap. We both believe that the right voices speaking up at the right time can have a big impact on decision makers. And we both believe that our democracy is full of untapped expertise and potential. 

A Note from The OpEd Project

Who is this training for?

This training is designed for people with ideas to share who are writing from a place of expertise or unique personal experience.

When you’re writing a letter to the editor, a professional background or a personal connection to the topic is a nice-to-have. When you’re hoping to get an op-ed published, it can be a prerequisite. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need fancy credentials. You might be an expert in ways you haven’t thought about before. An immigration lawyer could have an expert perspective on a new refugee law. A long-time ESL teacher might too.

The reality is that the clearer your personal connection to your subject, the easier time you’ll have pitching it, particularly with larger papers.

In this training resource, we’ll cover:

  1. Why OpEds Matter to Members of Congress
  2. General tips for OpEd writing
  3. Questions to ask yourself before writing 
  4. Ledes and Newshooks
  5. Basic op-ed structure
  6. Pitching your OpEd
  7. FAQs
  8. Working with The OpEd Project

Why OpEds Matter to Members of Congress

As we wrote in the original Guide, Members of Congress (MoCs) care enormously about local media. The op-ed sections of local newspapers are one of the most influential pieces of real estate in the local media.

MoCs publish their own OpEds throughout the year in newspapers around their districts. Their goal is to shape the local narrative about certain topics, and reinforce their credentials a leader on issues they’re working on. If they submit an op-ed, a local paper will almost always publish it, so they have easy access to a powerful platform. When you get an op-ed published as a local expert, you claim some of that power back. You can challenge their versions of events and you can keep them on their toes when they claim expertise on a subject. Whether you support or oppose your MoC, getting into the op-ed space is a great way to hold them accountable.

For more tips on content that will get your MoC’s attention, see our training resource on Letters to the Editor.

Tips for Op-Ed Writing

1. Own your expertise

Know what you are an expert in and why—but don’t limit yourself. Consider the metaphors that your experience and knowledge suggest.

2. Stay current

Follow the news—both general and specific to your areas of expertise. Whether you're an educator, a medical professional, an entrepreneur or a cancer survivor, it will help you speak confidently if you’re up to speed on the news in your community.

3. The perfect is the enemy of the good

In other words: write fast. You may have only a few hours to get your piece in before the moment is gone. But also…

4. Cultivate a flexible mind

Remember that a good idea may have more than one news hook, indeed if the idea is important enough it can have many. So keep an eye out for surprising connections and new news hooks—the opportunity may come around again.

5. Use plain language

Jargon serves a purpose, but it is rarely useful in public debate, and can obfuscate—sorry, I mean cloud—your argument. Speak to your reader in straight talk.

6. Respect your reader

Never underestimate your reader’s intelligence, or overestimate her level of information. Recognize that your average reader is not an expert in your topic, and that the onus is on you to capture her attention—and make the argument compel.

Questions to ask yourself before writing

  1. Why should we readers trust you? Are you authoritative on your topic? Are you accountable to what you say you know? Can you provide evidence of your expertise? You don’t need to have a famous name, a big title, or a fancy degree—but you do need to be well positioned to speak on your topic, and able to convey it.
  2. Can you back up what you say? Is your argument based on evidence—solid material and logical building blocks that will be acknowledged as credible even by those who may disagree with your interpretation?
  3. What’s new? Is your argument different, particularly original in the way it is delivered, or is it backed up by substantially new information or reporting? What is compelling about its contribution to the conversation?
  4. So what? Why should everyone else—including those of us who are not experts in your area—care?
  5. What’s the difference between being “right” and being “effective”? Does your language tend to write off the people who would disagree with you, or do you employ empathy and respect in the pursuit of changing minds?
  6. How will your ideas and arguments contribute to the conversation, and be helpful to your audience? Do you see your knowledge and experience in terms of its potential value to others?

Ledes and News Hooks

A lede is what sets the scene and grabs your reader’s attention—it is your introduction. A news hook is what makes your piece timely, and often is part of the lede. Be bold, but incontrovertible. Tell an anecdote, if it illustrates your point. Use humor, if appropriate. Use clean sentences. Devote some extra time to wordsmithing this part. It may only be a sentence or two, but it’s worth it.

Here are a few examples that we pulled from the real op-ed sections of newspapers around the country:

Use the News

On Wednesday, the task force known as the Election Integrity Commission met for the first time. Despite their claims of having no preconceived agenda, we know their end goals are clear: to perpetuate unsubstantiated myths of widespread voter fraud and to lay groundwork to suppress voting rights. (Kansas City Star)

A new Illinois law, about to be signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner, will grant free state IDs to prisoners upon their release from the Illinois Department of Corrections. This, says the governor and the bill’s sponsors, will reduce the likelihood of ex-offenders returning to prison and ease integration back into society. Perhaps it will, to a point. But recidivism is a massive problem, and one largely created by the state. Responding to it with a free identification card is like using a tea spoon to bail water from a sinking ship. (Chicago Sun-Times)

Use wit and irony to point out a contradiction

As an obstetrician and gynecologist, I am accustomed to waiting nine months; that's part of the reason I have been so shocked to see the U.S. Senate try to push through a harmful health reform bill in just a few weeks. (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

Tell a dramatic anecdote

Nearly five years ago, when I was just 23 years old, my mother was murdered while Christmas shopping at the Clackamas Town Center here in Oregon. (The Oregonian)

“Carlos” had relapsed into a meth habit, which left him running down a suburban Los Angeles County street banging on car windows. (San Francisco Chronicle)

Reference popular culture 

In “Game of Thrones,” the popular HBO series that returned for a seventh season this week, the kings and queens of mythical Westeros have a brazen disregard for anything that doesn’t provide them with greater wealth or power. (Baltimore Sun)

Turn conventional wisdom on end 

Given the stalemate in decision making on healthcare and research funding in Congress, the recent $400 million surge in funding for Alzheimer’s dementia and related disorders at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is worth celebrating. Yet, the devil is in the details. (The Hill)

Use an anniversary

Fifty years after the Supreme Court banned school segregation, the battle over the racial composition of America's schools continues in courtrooms across the country. (The New York Times)

Cite a major new study

A group of economists released a paper recently suggesting young men are working fewer hours because they are spending so much time playing video games. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)

Get Personal

I am a wife, sister, friend, community volunteer and a tax-paying, small-business owner. I am a mother, with fond hopes of becoming a grandmother before too long.

I am a member of the group that includes half of all American adults who have one or more chronic health conditions. Pre-Affordable Care Act, asthma made me ineligible for an individual insurance policy. (Baltimore Sun)

On my first deployment to Iraq in 2005-06, an Iraqi named Kadum Jassup was assigned to my platoon as an interpreter. (Denver Post)

One of my last memories of living with my mother was of her hauling my six siblings and me in a kids’ red wagon to a corner grocery store in the city’s Fox Park neighborhood. The trip felt wildly urgent to her. She was obsessed with our eating a healthy diet.

Shortly thereafter, my siblings and I were sent to live in foster care. We never went back home. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

Basic Op-Ed Structure

How To Pitch Your OpEd

For more information, join an OpEd Project public programs (open to all) in one of our major cities. Details and registration is here.

How do you get someone to listen to you in the first place? How do you establish credibility, capture interest, and convey the immediate relevance of your point of view—quickly and decisively? Pitching can happen in lots of ways, but very often it is done by email.

An effective email pitch answers these basic questions:

  • Why now? What’s the news hook? Why is this worth reading at this moment?
  • So what? Why should people care?
  • Why me? Why am I the best one to write this piece?

A pitch should also include:

  • Your idea in a few lines
  • Your credentials—only those that are relevant
  • The finished piece pasted below your pitch
  • Your contact information

Aspects of a successful pitch:

  • Timely
  • Well written
  • Brief and clear
  • Conveys expertise
  • Unexpected point of view

Follow Up: If the editor responds:

  • Thank your editor. Even if they said “no.” Remember that “no” can be the beginning of a conversation that can eventually lead to “yes.”
  • If they published you, thank them not for showcasing you but for giving space to the ideas and issues.

Follow Up: If there is no response:

  • Have a time limit. If your idea has a very short shelf life, you might give an editor a day or less to respond; if it’s evergreen, a week or two or more. Then send a follow-up email to the editor saying that you’d still like to run your piece in their publication, but since the piece is timely, if you don’t hear from them by the end of the day (week, whatever) you will assume they have passed, and you’ll be submitting your op-ed elsewhere.

Example Pitch Email

Where to submit your Op-Ed

The OpEd Project has a list of newspapers and how to submit to them here.

For the purposes of your Indivisible work, local papers matter, including the smaller ones. Even if you only read the LA Times, chances are your Member of Congress is very familiar with the Fresno Bee and very concerned about what’s published there. Being represented in smaller papers can have its advantages too, because it increases the sense that your message is coming from “everywhere.” So try the biggest local daily paper, then also look into smaller ones.

Keep in mind that creating a track record of success at smaller outlets can eventually increase your odds at larger outlets, too. So getting published in smaller local papers now can only help you get published in larger ones later.

If you want even more information, and an in-person support network, The OpEd Project hosts “Write to Change the World” workshops around the country. The day-long core seminar is designed to test assumptions about our own knowledge, and what it takes to be influential on a large scale. The approach is playful, dynamic and results-oriented—games, high stakes scenarios, and live group thought experiments challenge you to think more expansively about what you know, why it matters, and how to use it. We explore the source of credibility; the patterns and elements of persuasion; the difference between being “right” and being effective; how to preach beyond the choir; and how to think bigger about what you know—to have more impact in the world. Participants emerge with concrete results (op-ed drafts and more), and follow-up access to our national network of high-level journalist mentors.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How long should I wait to hear back from an editor? (What do I do if I don't hear back from an editor?) 

A: If you have plenty of time (that is, if your idea is evergreen or, e.g., pegged to a holiday a month away) you might give an editor a week or more before you check in. However, if your idea has a very short shelf life (pegged to breaking news or a news hook that will only be good for a few days) you need to check in fairly quickly — with 48 hours, or perhaps even within 24 hours. The trick is to be appropriate, not demanding. You might write a follow up email telling the editor you are checking in on the status of the op-ed you submitted, and hope they are interested in running it; however since the news hook is timely if you don't hear from him/her by the end of the day (week, whatever), you will assume they have passed and you'll be submitting your op-ed elsewhere. The key is to be polite and not presumptuous – remember that editors are busy and juggling lots of ideas at once – you are not the center of their universe, but if your idea is timely and good for their readers, they will appreciate you checking in.

Q: Can I submit to multiple outlets at the same time?

A: Most national newspapers will not consider your piece if you submit to more than one paper at the same time.

Q: How often can I submit?

A: As often as you want. Many outlets will not publish the same author more than once every few months. Also remember, for most op-ed pieces there exists a brief but strong window during which editors would be interested in the topic you discuss. Continuously submitting a piece regarding, say, US and Middle Eastern policies across the spectrum of outlets might not be the best idea, especially if you aren't getting responses from editors. Plan submissions carefully pegged to specific news hook. Listen carefully to the feedback (including silence from the editors—which can signal something you're submitting is too far off base).

Q: How often can I submit to the same person?

A: As often as you like—provided you have a good, timely idea that would appeal to that editor/outlet. You don't want to pepper an editor with bad ideas, and thereby earn a reputation as someone who is not useful/generative. However, if you have had a successful experience with an editor, the best strategy may be to continue your conversation with that editor, try to pitch as many good ideas as possible, learn as much as possible about what s/he is looking for in an op-ed, and see if you can collaborate on additional pieces.

Q: My piece wasn't accepted. What now?

A: First off, relax. Even the best, most experienced writers receive rejections constantly. 

If you’ve approached multiple outlets without luck, and you think the content needs to be out there now to have an impact on a lawmaker or an issue, consider some self-publishing it on a site like Medium.com. Work with your group to share the post on social media to make sure it’s seen by the right people. You can also consider repackaging the writing as a Letter to the Editor.

Use your experience submitting the piece to inform the next time you submit an oped. Consider why your piece wasn’t accepted and focus on improving those areas. If the editor responded to you personally, thank him/her — and see if you can find out what would have made your piece more valuable, and whether there are other ideas they would be interested in hearing from you on in the future.

Keep trying! "No" is devastating when you think it is the end of a conversation. It's no big deal when you realize it can be the beginning of a conversation that leads to "yes." 

Working With The OpEd Project