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Op-Ed Writing

Interested in writing an op-ed?

Op-Eds are a terrific way of amplifying your thought leadership as a faculty or staff person at CALS. The Cornell University Media Relations Office helps Cornell faculty place op-eds in publications around the world. 

If you have an idea for an op-ed, we recommend contacting our associate dean Samara Sit at samara.sit [at] cornell.edu to review your idea and any early drafts. She can then request a review of your op-ed by the Media Relations Office, if needed, who can make suggestions for content, structuring and where to pitch. The Media Relations Office will pitch op-eds for faculty when they show high media potential and promote a strategic focus area or areas. Jeff Tyson handles op-eds for the office, and requests for assistance should be sent to Jeff at: jeff.tyson [at] cornell.edu or 607-255-7701.

In the event that Media Relations pitches a faculty op-ed, a four-step process is used: Media Relations staff will pitch an op-ed up to three times. If an op-ed is not accepted for publication in the media after three pitches, the op-ed will be posted on the University Medium site where it can be shared and promoted through social media.

Overview

Here is a short primer from the Cornell Media Relations Office defining the op-ed, plus tips for writing and submitting op-eds.

Definition of an op-ed

An Op-Ed is one of 3 basic columns that appear on the opinion pages of most newspapers and online media:

  • Editorials – Editorials are written by staff and state the official opinion of that media outlet. 
  •  Letters to editor – The letters section is set aside for readers to state brief opinions, or react to news articles, editorials or other opinion columns that already have been published. Letters are short, usually 100 to 150 words.
  • Op-Eds – Op-Eds are opinion columns that introduce new perspectives and viewpoints to a topic that editors feel are important to their readers. They’re also longer, usually 600 to 750 words – sometimes more. Most op-eds on a particular page are written by that publication’s in-house or syndicated columnists, and a handful are submissions by unaffiliated writers (such as you).

Unlike letters to the editor, op-eds do not respond to a previous letter, column or article. Instead, they are a writer’s opportunity to make a point, introduce a new idea — express an interesting opinion.

Competition

  • Almost every newspaper or online opinion site gets more op-ed submissions than it can publish. One of the toughest nuts to crack is the NY Times, which in a typical week receives more than 1,000 unsolicited op-ed submissions – yet prints a dozen or less. 
  • Your op-ed may not get published anywhere – so you’d best enjoy the process. If your column is published, there is a huge reward: Op-ed pages are among the most widely read sections of any newspaper or Web publication.

Unique perspective

  • If you can get an editor to say, “Gee, I never thought of that,” your op-ed column will rise above most of the competition and will have a good chance of being published. If it states the obvious conclusion or echoes other opinions, your chances of being published are poor. Think about your thesis. Take it to the next level.
  • Whether you are planning to place an op-ed in your local/regional newspaper or in a major publication, put yourself in the shoes of its readers: How does the point of your op-ed apply to your intended publication’s readers? How can they learn from your experiences? How is your op-ed relevant to them? Above all, why would they want to read it? 
  • Many well-intended op-eds never see the light of day because issues that are important to the author may not be important to the targeted publication’s readers.

Economy of words and other tips

  • Most op-ed pages have tight word limits: You often will have about 750 words to make your case, although word limits can range from 450 words to more than 1,000 words. 
  • Stay tightly focused: Avoid the all-too-common temptation to add caveats and introduce related side issues. 
  • Don’t be shy about your opinion: Your op-ed can be unabashed, humorous, even provocative without being irresponsible. Your goal is to grab the readers, entice them to read your piece and consider your opinion.
  • Avoid passive style like the plague. State your thesis right away. Subsequent paragraphs must back up your point, just as scenes in a well written movie script smoothly move the viewer along. 
  • State clear facts without jargon and make sure your specific data and references are accurate and understandable to the uninformed. Remember, you are attempting to educate and convince many readers who may know nothing about your area of expertise. 
  • End the op-ed by suggesting solutions and/or courses of action that would address the point you’ve made in the first paragraph. Think full circle.
  • When you outline your op-ed, simpler is better. Here’s an oversimplified, 3-step outline for an op-ed:
  1. What’s wrong: Your thesis
  2. What’s happening: Backup your thesis
  3. What’s next: Solutions!
  • Again, think about the readers you want to reach. If you’re writing a column about the deleterious impacts of road salt, avoid publications such as the Dallas Morning News and the Honolulu Advertiser; focus instead on outlets in wintry climates such as the Boston Globe, Buffalo News, or Chicago Tribune. 
  • When you have a list of places to submit your op-ed, search that publication’s opinion section for other recent columns on the same topic. If you’ve been scooped, look elsewhere.
  • Exclusivity: Do not simultaneously submit to several publications, since virtually all newspapers and news sites require exclusivity: They want to be sure that your op-ed has not been published elsewhere.

Editing

  • It’s rare that a publication accepts an OpEd and prints it exactly as submitted. 
  • Every publication has its own style, and at minimum the editor will want to tweak your words to bring them into conformity: There always is a back-and-forth dialogue between the editor/fact checker and the author. As you write your op-ed, keep track of your sources: More often than not, the opinion editor will request them if your submission is accepted.