Opinionated editorial essays are often the most joy, quick and furious chunks to get into print—especially for nonfamous writers with strong opinions and day jobs in other fields. That’s because editors of newspapers and online magazines like Slate. Salon. The Huffington Post and The Daily Animal want quick commentary on the ever-changing news cycle from experts who can illuminate different angles of stories as they unfold.

So if you have an engaging, unusual point of view on a current public conundrum, along with a relevant platform (e.g. being a teacher, businessman, lawyer, doctor, parent or stamp collector) you don’t need clips or editorial practice on your resume—just quick thinking and an understanding of the form of these articles. I once sent a hastily written kvetch about a Kmart opening in my Greenwich Village neighborhood to The Fresh York Times at noon, had an acceptance by Two p.m. was sent a copy by midnight and received a check within a week. Here are the essential elements of a successful and sellable op-ed.

1. BE TIMELY OR EARLY. I submitted my Kmart commentary the week the local branch opened, which, fortunately, coincided with a front-page debate about superstores infiltrating Manhattan. Timeliness is essential with this genre, especially now that online news sites can update as often as they choose. The presidential election was hot for op-ed writers until Nov. Four; then, regular columnists took over the topic.

Be sure to factor in lead times and how long it can take an editor to reply (especially if he doesn’t know you). If the Fourth of July is next week, your patriotic lump might already be too late. Retool it for Labor Day. Holidaysare reliable hooks because they happen every year, so you can plan ahead (or attempt again next year).

Two. BE VERY OPINIONATED. Here’s the one time it’s helpful to be a hothead. Avoid being mild-mannered, tactful or diplomatic, as well as suggesting both sides of the story. An argument is much better than a discussion.

Three. CONVEY A STRONG LINK TO YOUR SUBJECT. When you are an pro on a topic, it’s fine to emphasize your authority with the first-person voice, especially if your private story resonates in a universal way. Just make sure you do have authority. Unless you have fought in the Iraq war, have lost a family member there or are from Iraq, your chances of selling a chunk about it are slender.

Four. ADD UNKNOWN FACTS. When crafting your lump, keep asking yourself what’s fresh, fresh, unusual and timely. As an editor recently told my journalism class, “[They’re] called newspapers, not olds papers.” Include specific or obscure facts, updated statistics and direct quotes to support your argument.

Five. DON’T SHARE THE Visible SLANT. Even if you can pen a clever argument on a topical subject, nobody wants to print what everyone already knows. Rage, play devil’s advocate, argue the rarer point or elucidate as only you uniquely can.

6. KEEP IT Brief AND SWEET. Most of the op-ed lumps my students have published over the years—in large publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post as well as petite ones like The Starlet Ledger —are inbetween 350 and 700 words. Longer lumps tend to be penned by well-known scribes, senators and stable columnists—
not freelancers.

7. BE AWARE OF YOUR AUDIENCE. Here’s a sneaky way to learn about a publication’s politics, geographic preferences and tone—read it very first! The Wall Street Journal. The Washington Times and Commentary Magazine are slanted to the right politically and very likely won’t be running left-wing screeds by unknowns. The left-leaning Nation. Newsday and Slate aren’t likely to print a newcomer’s anti-blue-state rants. Beware of making too many Fresh York or Los Angeles references in a chunk aimed at The Detroit News or a website with national or international readers. Similarly, financial references and other such factors should depend on demographics.

8. DON’T BE AFRAID TO BE SYBIL. If you want to publish in lots of op-ed pages, develop numerous personalities, like the woman in the old Sally Field movie Sybil. Highlight different areas of expertise that demonstrate why you’re a good person to take on each subject. If you’re trashing the verdict of a public trial, identify yourself as a lawyer. To comment on parenting issues, mention that you have four children. If you want to interest the editor of Forward (a Jewish publication), The Irish Times or Audrey (an Asian lifestyle magazine), state your religion or ethnicity in the cover letter, the chunk itself and your bio.

I have many identities for my various voices. When I’m sharing my side of an education debate, “Susan Shapiro is a journalism professor at Fresh York University, The Fresh School and Cooper Union.” When I demonstrate off to women’s magazines about being a matchmaker, “Susan Shapiro has motionless up 13 marriages and was set up with both her hubby and his runner up.” When I pitch The Jerusalem Post. I’m “a nice Jewish damsel who often visits her 32 cousins in Tel Aviv.”

9. DON’T COMMENT ON ANOTHER COMMENTARY. Albeit it seems like an editor might want to print your contrary opinion to the essay she ran yesterday, she doesn’t. Editors are also reluctant to run chunks trashing another specific article in a newspaper or magazine. Furthermore, a rant packaged solely around one movie, book, play or TV demonstrate is a review, not an op-ed. You’re better off depicting trends or commenting on a bunch of current movies, books, plays or TV shows in an overview or cultural commentary.

Ten. Go after UP. Many op-ed editors say if they don’t get back to you within 48 hours, the response is no. But maybe they never received your conformity because of a fluke. To make sure your op-ed landed where it was directed, go after up politely within a week.

Also, some places don’t pay for chunks. But several newspaper editors I know admit they won’t mention their usual $100–$350 fee for op-eds unless the writer asks for payment and sends an invoice. So speak up. The squeaky writer gets the clip—and the check! [WD]


This article appeared in the May/June issue of Writer’s Digest.Click here to order your copyin print. If you choose adigital downloadof the issue,click here.

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