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Take Your Ideas Mainstream: An Opinion Pages Editor Offers Tips on Writing for a Broader Readership
Newspaper opinion sections and academia make for natural allies—one side gets to deepen its coverage and hear from experts in different fields, and the other side gets to apply its scholarship to real-world discussions and demonstrate the worth of higher education beyond the academy. As the former deputy opinion editor for the Houston Chronicle, I’ve worked closely with professors, post-docs, and students on developing pieces for my newspaper. For those of you who are also eager to reach a wider readership but more used to writing for academic journals, here’s some advice for getting published in traditional media outlets.
Rely on your on-campus experts
College and university communications and public relations departments are filled with former reporters, editors, and columnists. Rely on their expertise to help you craft an opinion piece and pitch it to the publications where they used to work. They know the industry, and they know what makes an effective essay—both in print and online—for newspapers, magazines, and other media. Even if you’re already confident in your writing skills, they can help identify relevant topics and connect you with interested editors.
Follow the directions
If you don’t have the assistance of a PR professional, look to the publication you’re pitching for guidance. How long should the op-ed be? What sorts of topics does the outlet want? Where should you send your piece? Who is the editor overseeing opinion content? Go to the website or even call the front desk to get advice. Read through recent issues to make sure you’re not writing something that’s already been published. Think of this as the equivalent of reviewing the syllabus on the first day of class.
Send a full-length piece
I’ll refer to the advice offered by Washington Post op-ed editor Michael Larabee: “Drafts are better than pitches.”1 It doesn’t have to be a final draft, but a fully written op-ed will be better received than a mere proposal.
Find a hook
Your work on campus may be worthy of a Nobel Prize—or at least a tenure-track position—but most people are more interested in their personal lives. Link to a relevant and immediate topic. Look at the headlines. Reference pop culture. Address local issues specific to the readership you’re targeting. Why should they care about what you have to say? Why do your points matter right now? Establish some kind of common ground, and move forward from there.
Say one thing, and say it clearly
If you’re in academia, then you’re probably pretty intelligent, and it can be tempting to apply your smarts to a vast array of topics. When you’re writing an opinion piece, however, make sure to stick to a single topic. You only have about six hundred to eight hundred words, and they’re best spent discussing one issue. If you feel compelled to weigh in on other topics, then you should write more op-eds.
Have a strong call to action
You know about a topic, and you’re turning that knowledge into words. So what? The point of writing an op-ed is to change things. Don’t just ruminate on an issue. Offer a clear and specific call to action. What needs to happen next? What’s the solution to the problem you’ve identified? What should lawmakers do? How should people think or act differently? Take, for example, a 2014 op-ed by a professor who’d attended a conference on pandemics: In addition to recounting information he’d gleaned about infectious diseases, he helped people understand how they should think differently about global health and pointed out clear policy ideas.
Academia has probably taught you to write in generic, passive language—the god’s eye from nowhere. Forget it. You’re not writing for academics. You’re writing for normal people, and you should use language that connects with them at a fundamental level. Anecdotes and specific examples are always a strong start to a piece. Rely on hard data where you can, but don’t start the piece that way. It’ll turn readers off.
At the other end of the spectrum from specific examples are the grand universal values that motivate people—things like liberty, equality, justice, security, and family. Connect your opinion to a larger narrative that’s familiar to readers. For instance, we recently ran an op-ed that tied a new study about higher education in Texas to values of family, economic security, and—this is a Lone Star specialty—state pride.
There’s no prize for being the first person to use a certain word or phrase in the newspaper. People won’t view your use of oblique, academic jargon as a sign of your expertise. Instead, they’ll see it as an excuse to stop reading. Rely on plain language to explain your point. Climb down from the ivory tower and join the laity.
If you want to take out an advertisement, then be prepared to write a check. You’re writing to talk about the larger world, the problems that exist, and the solutions you have to offer. You, the author, should be incidental to the main point.
Don’t give up
You’re going to get a few rejections. Trolls will spout off in the comments section. People might have earnest disagreements in the letters to the editor. That’s all normal. Don’t let it dissuade you. The world is facing major challenges—climate change, geopolitics, the 2020 election—and you can help steer things in the right direction. All you have to do is sit at your desk and start writing.
Evan Mintz is former deputy opinion editor of the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board.