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Tips for Writing Opinion Pieces

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Charlotte Crystal
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Ten Tips on Writing Opinion Pieces

  1. Pick a topic that matters - or write a funny or heart-warming piece in such an engaging way that people will want to read it, regardless. It should answer the gruff, old city editor's questions: So what? Why should readers care? How does the topic affect them? No one has to read an opinion piece. It's up to the writer to make it worth the reader's time.
  2. Grab the reader with a lead that hooks him and reels him in as it educates, informs, analyzes, elaborates, alerts, entertains, or all of the above.
  3. Get to the point. Everyone is busy. Opinion Piece writers are competing with TV, radio, the Internet, work, kids, spouses, pets, laundry, yard work, soccer practice, violin lessons and yoga classes.
  4. Strive for simplicity. Use short, direct sentences whenever possible. Avoid passive constructions and run-on sentences. Don't use a $50 word when a $5 word will do. Anglo-Saxon words are good. Avoid abstractions and Latinate words. Use concrete examples, telling details, dollar figures and a few compelling numbers. Build your piece around one main idea, bolstered by a few supporting points. A short quote or two is OK. Write for an intelligent reader who has no specialized knowledge of the subject. Bear in mind that many newspapers are edited for an 8th-grade reading level.
  5. Expect your prose to be edited. Academic and newspaper writing styles differ, with newspapers generally adhering to The Associated Press Style rather than The Chicago Manual of Style.
  6. Tie your topic to the news whenever possible, and your chances of having the piece picked up improve. The corollary is that if the piece you have in mind is tied to the news, don't wait to send it out because one of two things will happen: a) you'll wait too long and it will no longer be newsworthy; or, just as likely b) someone else will beat you to the draw, and the paper won't be interested in publishing a second piece on the same topic.
  7. Express an opinion. Argue your point. Urge action. Warn of danger. That's what opinion pieces are about. They are not about presenting background material with a "on-the-one-hand-but-on-the-other-hand" approach.
  8. Write tight copy. Most opinion pieces published by major newspapers during the week are in the 700-word range. That's less than three, double-spaced pages. A few - especially in a pro-con format - are shorter, maybe as few as 500 words. Some - especially those published in weekend commentary sections - may run longer, up to 1,500 words or so. The bad news is, it can be hard to write short. The good news is, a short piece is not a major production and should not require a major investment of time or angst. You should be able to knock out a first draft in an hour off the top of your head. Then, you can go back and fill in the details, verify numbers, tinker with the structure, polish your language, etc.
  9. Keep the faith. Don't be discouraged if you write a good piece and can't place it. There are far more writers who want to be published than space to publish them. Good opinion pieces are rejected every day for a multitude of good reasons: the paper recently ran one on a similar topic; the paper has just accepted one on a similar topic; the paper's main competitor just ran one on a similar topic; the editors think the topic has been overdone; the news it relates to is old. There are also bad reasons for rejection, which are, nonetheless, just as effective: the editor fails to grasp the importance of the topic; the editor is bored by the topic; the editor hated the teacher of the topic in high school; the editor just got through a nasty divorce and is rejecting everything submitted by writers named Doreen (or, alternatively, Bill). The bottom line is, the more opinion pieces you write and the more rejections you collect, the better your chances of placing one eventually. You can't win if you don't play (and even the best baseball players only bat .300).
  10. Have fun.  Savor the intellectual exercise, the chance to polish your skills, and the possibility that somebody somewhere will see your piece, read it and be moved, or reach a new understanding of the world because of it. Appreciate every victory, large and small. Hitting the country's biggest newspapers is exciting, but even when you don't, and your piece runs in Milwaukee, Wis., or Boise, Idaho, or St. Petersburg, Fla., it may be sitting on the desk of a local congressman or senator within a few hours. Or, a Washington policy maker may be on a family vacation in Jackson Hole, Wyo., when your piece runs in the weekly Jackson Hole News & Guide (circulation 8,000). Opportunities to publish on the Internet, potentially reaching millions of readers around the world, 24/7, also abound. You won't know what can happen unless you write the piece and get it out there. Good luck!
  *All opinions on this page belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the University of Virginia. All other text, images, logos and information contained on official University of Virginia Web sites are the intellectual property of U.Va. © 2015 by the Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia

Faculty Opinions site edited and maintained by Charlotte Crystal
Last Modified: Thursday June 24, 2004