How to Write an Op-Ed. And How Not To.

By Eric Althoff 

“It is my opinion that you have no right to your opinion.” 

—George Carlin 

“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, you know, your opinion, man.” 

—The Dude 

Everyone has an opinion, and thanks to social media, they usually aren’t shy about sharing it. While some people are paid as an opinion columnist for newspapers or media outlets, those jobs are rather few and far between. However, newspapers and other online media regularly publish opinion pieces by non-columnistsincluding people just like you. 

I have worked in opinion journalism for many years—long enough to know what works, what doesn’t, and what could improve when it comes to pitches and writing. Let’s explore some tips on how to craft a great op-ed column. 

Identify the Issue and Your Opinion  

It sounds obvious, but you cannot write an op-ed without first having an opinion on an issue, topic, current event, or community concern. People share their opinions for free every day on Facebook, and no doubt you probably have as well.   

Find a Unique Angle 

Whether you’re expressing your opinion about a political issue or a community concern, ask yourself why it is important to share it in a media outlet. It’s not just your opinion that matters, but also the supporting case you make to back it up. This isn’t about rhetoric and trying to change other people’s minds (though that may be at least part of your plan); it’s about ensuring that what you have to say is interesting to others, especially those unfamiliar with the issue. 

For example, let’s say the town council is considering an ordinance to ban in-ground outdoor pools due to safety concerns about children drowning. Simply saying it’s unfair is a position, not an argument. However, stating why it’s a bad idea because people use outdoor pools to teach their children to swim provides both a position and an argument.  

Before writing, get informed. What do the meeting minutes from the last town council say about the issue? Has the mayor issued a statement? Have lawyers weighed in on the pool ban’s legality? Readers may be unfamiliar with any of this, but by doing your research, you’re in a much better position to explain why this is a good or bad idea. 

Does This Issue Concern Only You? 

Because people are often self-interested, another way to frame your opinion essay is to ask yourself: “What’s in it for the reader?” If there’s a financial interest, you’re well ahead of the game.  

If you feel the pool safety ordinance is “unfair,” that’s one thing, but there’s no reason for anyone else to read, respond, and comment. However, if you frame this as an economic argument, people will pay attention. If no more pools can open and all others must close, it means no contractors to build and maintain them, no summer jobs for school-age lifeguards, no food trucks serving hungry swimmers. Could that entire economic segment of the population move away?  

If you can figure out how your issue affects someone’s bank account, mention it. 

Keep it Engaging 

I define a good argument as one that interests me but a great one as a piece I fundamentally disagree with, yet read to the end. People will follow a contrarian viewpoint as long as they aren’t bored. So, in crafting an opinion piece, be engaging as well as informative. A little humor goes a long way, but don’t try to be a standup comedian.    

Start Small 

Sure, you’d love to be featured in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal (so would I). Having and chasing goals is a good thing, but so is being realistic and having attainable expectations. Placing an opinion piece in the NYT requires years of experience and/or being a person of public notoriety whose name on a byline draws interest. Instead, try your local newspaper. Some of the best journalism is happening in community newspapers, and thanks to digital sharing, can reach as far as the Times. The same is true for opinion writing.  

You’re much more likely to place an opinion column in a local rather than a national medium, especially if the issue affects your own community. There’s also a higher chance that the opinion editor there will be someone you know or can be introduced to, unlike someone in a far-away city. Networking is your friend.  

Also, experience counts. If you’ve published anywhere before, mention that in your pitch—especially if you’ve written opinion pieces before.  

Avoid ‘The Broccoli Argument’  

A common trap I find often in opinion writing is the author essentially writing for an audience of one: themselves. I’m not talking about people who love the sound of their own voice and showing off how positively brilliant they are (though this species exists and is easily spotted in the journalistic wilds, often without binoculars) but rather the writer who basically has a three-word “opinion” that I will sum up as the “I hate broccoli” premise.   

I hate broccoli too. It’s gross no matter how much someone tries to convince me otherwise or how much melted cheddar is dribbled on top. But therein is the extent of my thoughts on the matter; no one (I hope) would offer me 800 words to write a column about it. There’s no nuance, no argument to build—and, most lethally for an opinion piece, nothing to get other people to think about and engage with. You will either agree with me or not, full stop. There’s nothing to discuss. Even the crickets are bored.   

In other words, an opinion piece cannot be a yes/no disjunct.  

But what if I were to reframe this as: “Broccoli should never be a part of Thanksgiving dinner.” Et voila, my opinion has transformed into an argument! And one that foodies and even casual home chefs reading the column will certainly have opinions of their own about—and likely write Letters to Editor or other opinion pieces in “response” to my column. (For the record, if I am found near the stove, it is typically by accident.)    

Summing Up 

A quantitative study undertaken at Yale found that people were actually persuaded by opinion writing quite often. Granted that won’t be true for every situation, but it goes to show that you can in fact change someone’s mind with a well-reasoned, entertaining, and cogent argument—especially if it’s interesting. You might even stoke in a reader’s mind a new position they might not ever have considered. Just be prepared for disagreement later—and know that it will make your argument skills better in the long run when dealing with contrary information.  

Have an opinion, and find a unique angle. Ensure the issue will concern other people too. Start small and build up your portfolio. Don’t bore your audience. Find the economic argument. And avoid broccoli—always!