Op-Ed Basics: How to Write a Concise, Persuasive, and Entertaining Argument for Print

By Alex Moore/Photo Credit: Danny Sellers

No matter your professional field, the ability to write in a persuasive and concise manner is one of, if not the greatest toolbox asset one can have. More specifically, there are entire lines of work that revolve around the ability to put cogent arguments on paper for print in news or analytical publications. I have experience working in such a line of work and have had pieces published in leading national editorials in my specific area of expertise (no flex, zone!). This is hard work, however. Far more goes into writing a good op-ed than simply knowing the subject at hand. This piece will delve into some good tips I’ve picked up along the way that can help you write a good op-ed piece. Let’s get into it.

What is an op-ed?

First let’s start with the basics. An op-ed is an argumentative piece of journalism that articulates an opinion. They can be found in the pages of leading international newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, as well as local newspapers or more specific niche publications about narrower issues, such as international politics. Think of an op-ed as an argumentative academic paper, albeit much shorter, more timely, and with less sanctimonious linguistics with the intention of drawing non-experts to your side of the argument. Many papers allow guest submissions on any topic of interest for publishing.

What Topic Should I Choose?

This is completely and utterly up to you. There are obvious caveats, however. Most obviously, you should be an expert on your topic of choice. I have a Masters degree in international politics, so you will never catch me writing an op-ed on something I know little about, such as data encryption. We all have our own specific intellectual niches that we should stick to. This is imperative because it will give you a solid grasp on your subject and the argument’s in its literature field for sourcing material, as well as the fact that it makes editors far more likely to publish your work if you’re trained in your field. Your topic should also be timely. Editors are more likely to publish works with arguments that correspond to specific events that are in the news. For example, after a group advocating for complete nuclear disarmament won the Nobel Peace Prize last fall, I wrote a piece arguing that we should think twice before reflexively doing so for ostensibly feel good reasons because the international system has been absurdly stable in the nuclear age.

Where Should I Send It?

This will more than likely vary depending on what you’re writing about. If you’re writing about a topic that concerns something local, such as a police shooting that didn’t make national headlines, its probably best that you attempt to have your work published in a local newspaper that would be more likely to run your piece. If you’re writing about a topic that concerns your broader area of expertise, you should be well acquainted with the publications in your field, as well as their respective ideological proclivities. It is difficult to get work published at a major international opinion page, but knowing where to send your work, as well as what work specific editorial boards are more likely to publish can go a long way towards getting your writing in print. While most publications do a decent job of inviting intellectual diversity, it is simply human nature to publish work that feeds your priors, so be cognizant of this. Do your homework and be aware of what types of arguments your publication of choice is prone to publishing.

How Should I Style It?

The first thing you should be aware of is the word limit/range. Most publications that accept guest op-ed submissions will have a page with styling guidelines that you should immerse yourself in before you write. A typical op-ed will have word limits that are as short as 650 words, or as long as 2,000 words. Stick to these religiously for obvious reasons. No matter how you slice it, however, an op-ed is an exceedingly short piece. No matter what you’re writing about, you’ll be fitting an argument that is worthy of an entire book into only a couple of pages in your word document. Thus, clarity and concision are of the utmost importance and no words should be wasted. This also means that you need to be highly strategic with your argument and only include your strongest pieces of evidence to bolster your thesis in your op-ed. Wording is key, as well. A good rule of thumb is to write your op-ed by pretending that your audience is 8th graders. Remember: you’re an expert, and those that read what you write will likely know little about your topic relative to you. Your choice of language should reflect this and limit intellectual jargon as much as possible. On this note, your lede also needs to be eye-catching. A lede is the introduction to your op-ed that introduces the topic and argument, find a way to make it pop to entice the reader to continue onwards. Lastly, use as objective of a voice as possible. We live in hyperpolarizing times and the best way to draw others to your side of the argument is to present a clear and compelling case bolstered by empirical evidence as opposed to using arguments that draw on emotion that will likely do nothing but alienate the other side. For example, don’t argue that the Trump administration’s intensification of the war on drugs is malicious, racist, draconian, or all of the above (you’re not wrong, but still). To the contrary, the better way to go about arguing against the war on drugs in print is to rely on the rich body of empirical evidence critiquing the war, microeconomic arguments in favor of ending drug prohibition, and philosophical arguments about what the government should and shouldn’t tell you to do with your own body.

Practice Makes Perfect

A wise man once said that a writer’s best friend is a trashcan full of aborted drafts and this couldn’t be truer. The only way to improve your writing is to write, edit, write more, and edit more. Find an unbiased friend or colleague that you trust to be honest with you and have them read your work and provide argumentative feedback, line edits, and copy edits. Moreover, be open and accepting of constructive criticism. I understand that each piece you write is like your own personal offspring, but understand that it might suck and, at the very least, will need improvement. Don’t get defensive over feedback and incorporate it into your writing. Doing this continuously will drastically improve your writing.