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15 ways to get an op-ed article published.

YOU ARE AN EXPERT on a subject of urgent importance to the American people. You have spent years studying the issue and have a long list of thoughtful recommendations to offer to policy-makers and the public. But how do you get their attention?

One of the best ways is by writing an article for the "op-ed," or commentary, page of a newspaper. An effective article can reach millions of readers, swaying hearts and changing minds. It can reshape a public debate and affect policy. It can bring the author considerable recognition for relatively little effort.

But an op-ed article can do these things only if people read it, which means an editor must publish it.

Here are some basic rules for placing op-ed articles successfully:

* Track the news and jump at opportunities. Timing is essential. As Kathleen Quinn says about The New York Times op-ed page, "When people like Saddam Hussein and George Bush go on the warpath, op-ed editors don't like to hang around waiting to see what next week's mail will bring. And they can't imagine that people will read an article, no matter how wonderful, that bemoans the perennial budget mess when all anybody can think is: 'Does he have the bomb?'"

* Limit the article to 750 words. That's about three double-spaced, typed pages. Some papers have Sunday editions that run articles as long as 1,200 words. Academic authors often protest that they need more room to explain their arguments. But that's how much space newspapers have to offer, and the editors usually are not willing to take the time to cut longer articles down to size.

* Put your main point on top. You have no more than 10 seconds to hook a reader. One of the most common mistakes newcomers make is using too much wind-up before throwing the pitch. Take no more than two or three paragraphs to make your main point, convincing the reader that it's worth his or her valuable time to continue.

* Tell readers why they should care. Put yourself in the place of the busy person looking at your article. At the end of every few paragraphs, ask out loud: "So what? Who cares?" You need to answer these questions. Will your suggestions help reduce readers' taxes? Protect them from disease? Improve their children's behavior? Explain why. Appeals to self-interest usually are more effective than abstract punditry.

* Make a single point -- well. You cannot expect to solve all of the world's problems in 750 words. Be satisfied with making a single point clearly and persuasively. If you cannot explain your message in a sentence or two, you're trying to cover too much.

* Offer specific recommendations. An op-ed article is not a news story that simply describes a situation; it is your opinion about how to improve matters. Be as specific as possible. Editors will not be satisfied with a call for more research, or with vague suggestions that opposing parties should work out their differences.

* Showing is better than discussing. One detail or illustration is better than hundreds of words of exposition. Use examples, and then use more examples -- ones that readers can understand and care about. Is a government program wasteful? Describe an incident in which $250 of the reader's tax revenues was squandered. That is far more memorable than a concept like "$356 million was lost last year."

* Don't be afraid of the personal voice. First person exposition is unusual in academic writing. But with op-ed articles, it can be the best way to help readers understand why you care about the subject. If you are a physician, describe the plight of one of your patients. If you are a physicist listening for signals from alien life forms, tell us the funny questions people ask you.

* Avoid jargon. If a technical detail is not essential to your argument, don't use it. When in doubt, leave it out. Simple language does not mean simple thinking; it means you are being considerate of readers who lack your expertise and are sitting half-awake at the breakfast table. Even readers who can identify Africa on a map and who know the difference between home plate and a tectonic plate don't want to wade through difficult prose.

* Use short sentences and paragraphs. Look at some stories in your local newspaper and count the number of words per sentence. You'll probably find the sentences to be quite short. That's the style you need to use, relying mainly on simple declarative sentences. Search for commas that precede clauses; these often can be made into separate sentences. Paragraphs also should be short. Cut long ones into two or more shorter ones.

* Use the active voice. Don't write: "It is postulated that...." or "it is recommended that the government should...." These are examples of the passive voice, and they leave readers wondering who did the postulating or recommending. Try to use the active voice: He postulates; our panel recommended.

* Avoid tedious rebuttals. If you have written your article in response to an earlier piece that made your blood boil, avoid the temptation to prepare a point-by-point rebuttal. It makes you look petty and it's a safe bet that many readers didn't see the earlier article. If they did, they've probably forgotten it. Just mention the earlier article once and then argue your own case.

* Make your ending a winner. Most authors recognize the value of a strong opening paragraph that "hooks" readers. But when writing for the op-ed page, it also is important to summarize your argument in a strong final paragraph. Many casual readers scan the headline, skim the opening column, and then read only the final paragraph and byline. One literary device that often works well at the end is to reprise a phrase or thought made at the beginning, closing the circle.

* Relax and have fun. Many authors approach an op-ed article as an exercise in solemnity. They would increase their chances of publication by lightening up. Newspaper editors despair of weighty articles -- called "thumb-suckers" -- and yearn for pieces filled with spirit, grace, and humor. Readers seek to be entertained and to learn something in the bargain. Obviously, articles on serious subjects must not trivialize their material. But one look at popular syndicated columnists as divergent as Ellen Goodman and James Kilpatrick shows it is possible to combine thoughtful analysis with an engaging style.

* Prepare your article typed, double-spaced, with wide margins. List your name, address, phone, and social security number at the top. If you want the article returned if it is rejected, include a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Learn the name of the op-ed editor and send a brief cover letter, explaining whether you are offering the article on an exclusive or a regional basis. Many papers also welcome a black-and-white photograph of the author, as well as graphics or art. Many op-ed editors prefer being contacted by mail instead of by phone, especially on Thursdays and Fridays when they are completing their Sunday commentary sections.

Those are some guidelines to get you started. The rest is up to you. Happy writing.

Former NCEW member David Jarmul is senior information officer at Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Chevy Chase, Md.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Jarmul, David
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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