Writing op-eds that editors want to publish

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Editors tell us what works and what doesn’t

For years we’ve helped clients advocate their points of view through the time-honored tradition of the op-ed, which is news media lingo for “opposite editorial,” referring to the page next to the editorial page of a traditional printed newspaper.

Today those op-eds are, of course, online as well as in print. And civic leaders, public officials, influencers and community-minded people of all stripes still read them. The op-ed, which generally means any opinion article not written by the publication’s own staff or a columnist, remains an important player in the never-ending game of public policy debate.

Writing and publishing an op-ed with impact isn’t the hardest thing in the world to do well. But it does require some skill and a healthy understanding of what editors are looking for.

We know this because we’ve written dozens of them that editors across the country have seen fit to publish under the names of our clients. Our words, advocating our clients’ viewpoints, have run in all of Texas’ major metropolitan newspapers and in large and small newspapers and websites across the fruited plain. These pearls of wisdom have touched on subjects as diverse as good citizenship, healthcare, taxes, urban planning and education to name a few.

Once in a blue moon we even write one with our own name on it. But usually we’re hired guns.

Though we know a thing or two about advocacy and writing op-eds that get published, we recently reached out to several opinion editors across Texas to ask two things: First, roughly what percentage of the op-eds they receive wind up being published?  And second, what are the most common reasons for rejecting an op-ed?

We weren’t shocked at the answers. After all, we operate in this space a lot.

The first question about how many submitted articles make it to publication produced the most eye-opening answer: Most.  

That’s good news for anyone who wants to write their opinions and have major news outlets publish them. We definitely got the feeling the editors want to publish the submissions they receive.

“We run the majority of them,” said one. “Maybe 60-70 percent,” said another.

But it’s not all love and sunshine.  “Some days, they’re all great. On some other days, nothing in the inbox appears worth publishing,” said one editor. “We can get most, but not all, into readable shape,” another commented.

START WITH GOOD WRITING

And what, pray tell, might make an article un-publishable? One answer jumped to the top of the list from every editor who responded -- bad writing.

Telling someone they’re a poor writer is like telling them they’re ugly. It’s personal. Everyone wants to think they’re a good writer, good driver, good neighbor and all-around good person. But the hard truth is not everyone is good at writing, at least not at the level required by serious news organizations. (Sadly, most folks aren’t good drivers, either.)

To get over the biggest hurdle in your way as an opinion writer, the first priority has to be writing well. Meaning you need to be able to write like a professional.  Not like a Pulitzer Prize winner, but better than probably 90 percent of the population.

Get some objective feedback on your writing from someone with some serious writing credentials. If you don’t have the writing chops, pay someone who does.

Once you submit your article, it’s also important to accept editing help. If you submit the piece to a major news organization, chances are good their editors are first-rate writers. They won’t try to change the meaning of your writing, but if needed they will work to polish it and make it more readable. You’re getting professional help for free. You should accept it. Good writers know that everybody needs an editor.

BE CURRENT

Another common theme we heard from editors – timeliness. Your topic and your point need to relate to current issues in the news. You’re not likely to get any traction if you write about something that was a hot topic three years ago but is not on the public’s radar today. Or if you opine about an issue expected to be white-hot five years from now.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE

Writing quality and timeliness are essential, but editors have other concerns, too.  Here are some:

Word count. Too short or too long, your piece is doomed either way. Take the time to find out how long any media outlet you are targeting wants its op-eds to be. A common number is around 600 words. But it’s not universal. Find out before you start writing.

Self-promotion. This is an easy way to kill your article. Avoid phrases that make the piece sound like an advertisement, such as “Call us at 555-5555,” “My organization is the best in the business,” or “We should win this contract because.”  Don't write in the first person. Be an expert, not a huckster.

Local focus. If your target is a major newspaper, you’re likely to have a better chance of publication if you focus on a local issue. Don’t submit a piece to the Houston Chronicle about a healthcare issue in Denver. It also helps if you have a local presence in the city as most editors prefer submissions from locally-based writers.

Facts. Back up your argument with facts and data, and cite your sources. If the editor can’t confirm your facts, your piece probably will be canned.

Cussing. Go ahead and call your mayor a no-good expletive when you’re at a bar with friends. Just don’t do it in your op-ed.  Several editors mentioned this, so it seems to be a common problem, dammit.

Op-eds remain an important part of the mix when it comes to advocacy and public policy. They also support your brand by elevating you to the position of thought leader, influencer and subject matter expert.

If you want to play, you need to honest about your writing skills, be open to outside help, and be aware of what editors are looking for.

 -          Eric Whittington