Guide to op-eds: How can you write one that gets published and grabs attention?

Everyday publications print articles by guest writers.

Often referred to as an op-ed, they offer a brilliant way to showcase your expertise and thought leadership and raise your organisation's profile.

They can help you persuade, influence and change minds and hearts.

And they have the potential to reach more people than ever.

Sounds good. But how do you write a brilliant op-ed?

How can you write one that grabs attention and brings a return on your investment in time and effort?

And how should you pitch them?

These were some of the questions we covered in our latest masterclass for members of The Media Team Academy.

Victoria Smith, one of our expert tutors, was joined by Sean Ryan, an experienced journalist and communications specialist.

Before we get into what they discussed, let’s ensure we know what op-ed means – it is bit of a weird term.

An op-ed is essentially an opinion article submitted to a newspaper for publication.

Anyone can submit an op-ed, meaning they bring a range of voices and views to the publication, stimulating discussions, debates and arguments.

The unusual name stems from the fact they were traditionally published opposite the editorial page, where the opinion articles were written by the newspaper’s employees.

 

So, why should you use them as part of your comms strategy?

“The value of an op-ed is partly to influence your target audience,” Sean said.

“That could be to promote what you are doing or to introduce a new idea into a political debate.

“But I think the greatest value in the best op-eds is to demonstrate thought leadership. That’s a sort of buzzy phrase we use a lot these days.

“To me, it means you are showing people you are not just treading water and doing your routine business day-to-day.

“You are thinking up bright ideas about how to do things better in the future. You are showing people a different way to do things.

“An op-ed like that works well and can have a life of its own after publication. It can lead to invitations to appear on broadcast interviews. It can lead to opportunities to speak at conferences or panel discussions. And it can lead to opportunities to do future op-eds on the subject.”

There are also internal benefits.

Sean said: “It is also a useful way to sharpen your thoughts internally. Sometimes people will take an op-ed and use them for presentations to colleagues to explain what they are doing or to pitch to clients."

 

What media outlets should you look at for your op-eds?

“Everyone wants op-eds because, from the editor’s point of view, they are a wonderful way to enrich your publication with diverse ideas and topics,” Sean said.

“They are a great way to interact with readers because a good op-ed will attract a lot of comments and get a debate going online.

“For editors, they are also a great way of putting themselves at the heart of the debate about what is in the news.

“So, everyone is after a good op-ed.”

One of the publications that carries many op-eds is The Financial Times.

“Brooke Masters, who was the content editor there, provided some useful advice on making op-eds work,” Sean said.

“And her first tip is to give vivid examples to back up the point you are trying to make. She points to an op-ed about South Korea and the pace of its growing economy.

“That could be quite a dull subject, but the writer chose to demonstrate what was happening through the success of the South Korean curling team.

“It is an example of taking a point and amplifying it in a way that would appeal to a broader readership by humanising it and giving it a sense of place.

Other op-ed advice from the Financial Times includes using your experience and expertise.

“Tell us something that no one else can tell us,” Sean said.

“And make what you write clear and enjoyable because an op-ed is partly about entertainment. Like everything else, people want readers to stick with the article until the end. They won’t do that if it is dull and full of jargon.”

Brooke’s FT op-ed advice includes using specific examples. It says: “Don’t just say output is increasing; describe the queues outside Tokyo pancake shops so readers actually see what you mean. A colourful quote or a telling anecdote is worth a thousand generalities.”

And you need to be a “miniaturist, not a landscape painter”. This is a reminder that writing needs to be sharp and precise. Readers value brevity.

 

How long does it take to create an op-ed?

Being tasked with being a miniaturist rather than a landscape painter might feel daunting.

So, how long might it take to create an op-ed?

Sean said: “People will have had the experience of spending time dreaming up ideas for an op-ed and then writing and re-drafting it, trying to go through the layers of internal sign-off, only to find it is not wanted at the end.

“So, you can get a poor return for a high investment of time and resources.

“But the worse that can happen is that you then post it on LinkedIn – all is not lost. LinkedIn is an increasingly popular way of sharing ideas and establishing yourself as a thought leader.

“But a good op-ed is well worth the investment in time, putting your organisation at the centre of a debate and strengthening your brand.”

 

How do you create a compelling op-ed?

So, how can you ensure your time investment is worthwhile? How can you create a good article?

Let’s build on that Financial Times advice, starting with the element of surprise.

“A good way to do this is to have a personal anecdote on the way in,” Sean said.

To highlight this point, Sean looked at the start of an op-ed in The Times from Steve Backshall, the TV presenter and naturalist, on pollution in the Thames.

He wrote: “In recent years, I’ve got to know the river Thames pretty well. When you leap or dive (and yes, fall) in as often as I have, you get a real sense of the river’s beauty, its changing moods, its value for wildlife, its importance in our lives… and the sheer pressure the Thames is under from pollution. This is an ecosystem fighting for its life.”

Sean said: “The is so much colour in that. He makes an emotional connection with the reader, and I think they are highly likely to read on.”

Once you’ve captured attention with your intro, you need to go into the message you want to get across.

Here Sean explored an article about social care funding from Ian Birrell. He started by saying, “My daughter is lovely”, explained she has learning difficulties and a life-threatening health condition and discussed the difficulties in caring for her.

From there, he went into his message. He wrote: “This crisis is a symptom of our unloved and underfunded care system. Successive governments pumped cash into the sacred NHS but ignored its Cinderella cousin.

“Most care is funded by local authorities, which were savaged in austerity. Matters are made worse by fat-cat firms creaming off millions as they load up debt, focus on wealthier areas and stuff people into ever-larger institutions.” 

Sean said: “It makes a colourful and emotive pitch to The Times audience for more funding devoted to care at a time when the NHS is getting all headlines.”

Sean also highlighted an op-ed in the Daily Mail from Gillian Keegan, the education secretary, as a bad example.

She wrote about too many universities offering courses that don’t help people find well-paid jobs. Sean described it as a “self-serving and predictable piece”, and he was particularly frustrated with how it ended.

Ms Keegan wrote: “I want to ensure everyone gets the opportunity to reach their full potential whatever that route may be. Our reforms will make sure the next generation of graduates get a return on their investment and a passport to a great future.”

What’s wrong with it?

“Every op-ed should have a cracking ending,” Sean said. “A kicker that gives you the sense of pulling all the strands together. And something that you take away and remember.

“The ending in this example is a bit empty with often-repeated phrases.”

Another example that left Sean less than impressed came from Emma Beddington about everyone asking for feedback.

She wrote: “Beleaguered minimum-wage service industry workers give out QR codes to rate their performance and businesses live in fear of TripAdvisor and Trustpilot; Amazon customers write one-star reviews of books they haven’t read because the envelope it came in was torn or the cover was the wrong shade of blue. Alternatively, you can step into the idyllic parallel universe of Airbnb, where review reciprocity often acts like a nuclear deterrent, so that every cat-hair-filled fleapit and unreasonable slob gets five stars. It’s endless and pointless.”

Sean felt the argument here was not persuasive.

“We all know it is useful to have feedback on what we do,” he said. “And it is not a huge inconvenience for people to fill in the odd form here and there. So, I don’t think the argument works.”

Those examples give you a good starting point. But let’s probe some of them further, starting with introductions. They are crucial.

William Zinsser, the American author and editor, once said: “The most important sentence in any article is the first one. If it doesn’t induce the reader to proceed to the second sentence, your article is dead.”

And that applies to op-eds. You need something that quickly grabs the reader’s attention.

Sean said: “We all have so much news coming at us. There is a lot competing for our attention. So, we will only glance at something to see whether it is worth reading. We won’t go beyond the first sentence if someone is dull.”

To illustrate this point further, Mr Zinsser once started an article by writing, “I often wondered what goes into a hotdog. Now I know and I wish I didn’t.”

Sean said: “It compels you to keep reading. It is a clever hook.”

The opening of your op-ed should convince the reader they will learn something new, benefit from fresh insight or hear an alternative view.

“You can take a topic in the news, but you have to make it feel fresh for people to engage with it,” Sean said.

“I saw a column in The Guardian today that said: ‘Record sea temperatures are a warning of future chaos that we must heed’.

“That is dull because we have heard it so many times. It is a headline that could have been written at any time in the last 20 to 30 years. So, I’m not going to read on.

Sean contrasted that with the introduction of an opinion column from Alex Brummer, in the Daily Mail, about the row between Coutts and Nigel Farage.

It started: “At 6.45am yesterday, my phone gave a loud 'ping'. It was a WhatsApp message from City minister Andrew Griffith.”

Sean said: “I’m going to read on with this one because you get the impression it will tell us what the government is thinking and going to do about the crisis.

“And when you read on, you see lots of colourful language and original thinking.”

 

Are you joining us next week?

Our next Media Team Academy masterclass is open to everyone. It is all about helping you become a better public speaker. Our experts will look at building confidence, how you can grab the audience's attention, the importance of storytelling and dealing with unexpected and awkward questions. It takes place at 3pm on 17 August. Click here to secure you place.

Why thinking like a comedian can help

There doesn’t seem to be an obvious link between writing an op-ed and comedy.

And we are not suggesting you fill your article with jokes – although touches of humour can help.

“The best comedians have impeccable timing, and the pitch for an op-ed must be well-timed,” Sean said.

“It is no good responding to someone who comes up to you in the office three days after a story has broken saying, 'we should do an op-ed on that'. The moment has passed.

“It is the day the story breaks that you need to be thinking like that.

“Comedians also have a way of making their material relevant. They capture the mood of the moment – something we are all doing.

“I can imagine them doing a routine on phubbing – this idea of snubbing your partner by scrolling on your phone. And there are op-eds discussing that today – the etiquette of where and when you should have your phone.”

 

Don’t forget to bring the drama

What would make readers sit up and take note? What would shock, surprise or thrill them?

Sean said: “It could be some form of conflict or political drama. But it can also be about our personal lives.”

To illustrate this point, Sean highlighted an op-ed Angelina Jolie wrote for the New York Times.

She wrote: “My mother fought cancer for almost a decade and died at 56. She held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was.”

Sean said: “There is huge family drama there. She had used her family’s story constructively to campaign for investment into breast cancer and better treatment of patients.”

Another dramatic event happening at the moment surrounds the impact of wildfires in Europe.

Not so long ago, there were also devastating wildfires in California.

Here is how they were depicted in an article:

“A line of burned-out cars on the side of the road. The charred remains of an old pickup truck, brightened by a pristine American flag draped over the cab. Desperate residents fleeing cars packed with people and family heirlooms, anything that could be frantically scooped up.”

Sean said: “This gives us a vivid picture of what is happening. It is similar to what we have read about happening in Rhodes, Sicily and other parts of Europe.

“And this is a great way of going into the climate crisis.”

 

It’s time for some helpful acronyms

A lot of what makes a compelling op-ed is covered by the TRUTH and AMEN acronyms we use during our media training sessions.

TRUTH explains what makes something newsworthy. You need something Topical, Relevant, Unusual, contains an element of Trouble and has Human interest.

AMEN is a message development tool that helps you consider what your need to think about when writing your op-ed. It stands for Audience, Message, Examples and Negatives.

Victoria said: “You need to think about who you want to read the article and how you can make it appeal to them. And you must be clear on your main message. What is your call to action? What do you want your readers to take away?

“Use examples to back that up. Human examples work well and help create vivid pictures.

“And remember, the article can be on a negative. It doesn’t have to be positive. People are sensitive to what is happening in the world and want to join the debate.”

The negative part of AMEN also means pre-empting the negatives around your argument. If you are calling for urgent action now on climate change, there may be a counter argument people can’t afford those changes.

Sean said: “If you can engage with your likely critics as you are writing, you are potentially creating an even more persuasive case.”

 

Constructing an op-ed summary

So, let’s bring all this together into a handy summary. To create a compelling op-ed, you need:

  • A captivating intro
  • Present one main argument
  • Consider different structures
  • Ensure it is an effortless read – stick to simple language and avoid a cold, clinical corporate voice
  • Draw the stands of your argument together towards the end
  • The kicker – finish with the main point summarised in a memorable way
  • Consider using charts, infographics and audio

 

Are op-eds as well-read as they once were?

That’s a pertinent question with the narrative around falling newspaper circulations.

Sean said: “I think some are now not as well read because there is so much choice on what to read.

“But some are well read, particularly the ones shared on social media. A Jeremy Clarkson column is often the most-read thing in the Sunday Times, for example. He’s opinionated and writes in an entertaining way.

“If you are not Mr Clarkson, and want to get more engagement, try to get the publication to tweet the article.

“Getting an influencer in your sector to engage with it can also create a wide readership.

“And get your staff to share it on their social media. Together they will reach lots of people.”

On the broader issue of falling circulation, he added: “If you look at the Daily Mail, print circulations are well down on what they were when I was there in the 90s. But it has 24 million monthly online readers around the world. So, a good op-ed can reach audiences that could not have been dreamed of a decade or two ago.”

 

What does the Mail think?

Speaking of the Mail, Jason Collie, the Mail Online’s associate editor, also joined the masterclass to share his thoughts on op-eds.

Have any op-eds caught his attention recently?

“I think one of the most successful op-eds of recent weeks was Rowan Atkinson’s piece on how electric cars have duped us, which was in The Guardian in June,” he said.

“It had the benefit of being a challenging subject and the stardust of Rowan Atkinson writing it. But it was picked up by every major news outlet. So, as well as having the benefit of direct traffic, The Guardian also had the benefit of referral traffic.

“The column was used in news stories in the Independent, Mail Online, Daily Mail, The Telegraph, the Oxford Mail, The Sun, The Express, The Times, Fox Business, and The Spectator and Sky News in Australia.

“So, you can see when something gets a momentum of its own, it will fly.”

Have there been any particularly bad ones?

He said: “Going back to my time in regional newspapers, the worse ones were from national MPs, Ministers and opposition leaders around election time, who just wanted to get their message out and ignored any local issues.

“It was ‘insert name of town/city here’.

“When something like that comes across your desk, you bin it. You know it is being offered to other regional papers up and down the country. So, what is it offering your readers that is interesting to them and their lives?

“Obviously, that’s a regional outlook. But I think the theory holds. You need to understand who the audience of that publication is and make sure you speak to them.”

What advice would Jason give to people on writing op-eds?

“When I was at The Oxford Mail, I had to write the daily editorial column,” he said. “And I held a little bit to Richard Littlejohn’s mantra sometimes of weak opinions expressed strongly. We are not talking about going over the top. But you must make sure what you are say captures the reader’s attention quickly.

“It is not different to a news story – you don’t write them with big, long training intros. You must be direct, to the point and want to engage and challenge that reader.

“Another tip is to know your audience, but also realise you will not convert all the non-believers. If you are pitching something to a title, you need to understand that if your view is 180 degrees opposite that of its readers, you will not have much success.

“And my final bit of advice is not to feel disheartened. Just because you have tried one or two pitches doesn’t mean you should give up. It may be an excellent idea, but the timing might not be right.”

 

During this exclusive session for members of The Media Team Academy, our panel also discussed whether anniversaries and holidays – like Christmas – make good op-ed hooks, if you should write or pitch your op-ed first and who you should pitch your op-eds to.

If you would and your team would like access to session like this, speak to your account manager about joining The Media Academy - our learning and development programme – designed specifically for comms and media teams.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

Click here to find out more about our media training, message development and writing skills courses.

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