Writing Op Eds and Letters to the Editor
Op-ed (opposite-the-editorial page) articles reach broad audiences
that include the most influential people in your community. Although
your newspaper may completely oppose your view, editors want to
present both sides. A well-written opinion piece with a fresh
viewpoint has a good chance of getting published.
A good op ed can transform the political balance of power.
This is especially true when much reporting and editorializing
is one sided, yet many people feel nagging doubts. Your op-ed
should bring those people together by solidifying their doubts
in crisp, cogent arguments.
Your op ed is most likely to be published if you can "peg"
it to a recent event. On op ed on congestion might be pegged to
recent road construction, a rail transit proposal, or the latest
congestion report from the Texas Transportation Institute. An
op ed on housing might be pegged to publication of the latest
housing opportunity index by the National Association of Home
Builders. Open your op ed by mentioning the peg, then say what
you want to say.
After you find your peg, the most important rules of op-ed
writing are brevity, brevity, and brevity:
- Brevity of article--Few papers print op-eds longer than 800
words, and some limit them to as little as 600. Find out your
paper's limit and write your article within five or ten words
of that length.
- Brevity of paragraphs--Op-ed paragraphs should be two or
three sentences long. Sentences should be short enough that each
paragraph has around 50 to 80 words.
- Brevity of words--Never use a three-syllable word where a
one-syllable word will do.
The goal is to make your article easy to read. But some forms
of brevity conflict with this goal, including jargon, acronyms,
- Use planning or transportation jargon only if it is brief
and the meaning is absolutely clear. Everyone knows what "transportation,"
"demand," and "management" mean, but string
those three words together and you lose the reader.
- Avoid acronyms: Better to repeatedly spell out terms such
as "environmental impact statement" than to lose the
reader in a jungle of EISs, EPAs, VMTs, and TDMs.
- Minimize the use of numbers: Don't say, "Planners expected
60,000 riders per day, but actual ridership was only 30,000 per
day." Many readers won't see the difference. Say instead,
"ridership was half of what was expected."
These are basic rules for individual paragraphs. Here is one
way to write the op ed as a whole:
- Ask, what is the message you want to get across? Are you
opposing a plan, objecting to rail transit, or proposing to reform
- List all your arguments in no particular order. Will the
plan lead to congestion? How much will the rail transit line
cost individual taxpayers? Is the agency keeping secrets from
- Pick four or five arguments that will most appeal to your
readers. For example, most readers have jobs, so arguments about
jobs are less persuasive than ones about congestion or taxes.
- Write your first draft. Connect your theme to your peg in
the first paragraph, followed by one to three paragraphs for
each supporting reason, with the most important reasons first.
One or two paragraphs should conclude by reinforcing your theme.
- Now read your draft and ask: What is the most powerful paragraph
here? Is it the closing paragraph? Does a paragraph about one
of the four or five arguments point up a particularly absurd
part of the plan? Whichever one it is, rewrite the op-ed with
the most powerful, most exciting paragraph first to grab the
reader's attention--remembering to connect it with your peg.
- Use bullets. If you make several short points, rewrite them
as bullets. Bullets are a series of statements each of which
starts with a dot called a bullet (see the "brevities"
above). These draw the reader's attention and keep the article
- Liven up your writing by taking out bureaucratese and personalizing
your arguments. Don't say, "It has been decided that . .
. ." when you can say "The council decided . . . ."
Don't say, "the plan will cost $10 billion" when you
can say "The plan will cost $10,000 per local resident."
- Do a word count. If you are over your limit, delete the last
(and therefore least important) of the four or five arguments.
Then find places where you were just plain wordy. A good editor
can cut a first draft in half without losing any meaning, but
you have to edit yourself (or find a friend who will do it) because
the newspaper won't bother.
- Check your spelling on the computer and have someone else
read it for grammer and other problems.
- Send the op-ed to the paper. Papers love email and will often
print an emailed article exactly as you send it. Don't get upset
if they cut a sentence or paragraph; just be glad they printed
After your op-ed is published, ask friends to send letters
of support to the editor. You and your friends should also write
letters in response to editorials, news items, or other op-eds.
Generally, letters to the editor must be under 200 words--and
the shorter the better. This means you can only make one good
point in each letter. Don't try to come up with four arguments:
Just make one and let someone else make the other three. Better
yet, write four letters and ask three friends to send in the others.
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