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:

The goal is to make your article easy to read. But some forms of brevity conflict with this goal, including jargon, acronyms, and numbers.

These are basic rules for individual paragraphs. Here is one way to write the op ed as a whole:

  1. Ask, what is the message you want to get across? Are you opposing a plan, objecting to rail transit, or proposing to reform an agency?
  2. 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 the public?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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 readable.
  7. 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."
  8. 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.
  9. Check your spelling on the computer and have someone else read it for grammer and other problems.
  10. 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 it.

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.

Thoreau Institute Home | Vanishing Automobile Web Tools