We find the opinion section in newspapers and online publications a valuable forum for the discussion and exchange of ideas. For those of you interested in joining the conversation, but unsure how to get started, we would like to lay out a few observations and guidelines that we have gleaned from experience and from additional research.
Choosing the right topic is the basis for a quality article. In addition to having a personal interest and being well-informed, the writer should usually address an issue that is relatively newsworthy. Discussing an event, topic, or problem that directly affects the readers will maximize interest and hopefully effect change in behavior.
A small sample of roughly 30 op-ed articles published online during the last week in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and The Washington Post revealed that the vast majority of articles addressed topics that had appeared in major headlines within the last week and usually as recently as two or three days prior.
In order to maximize attention to the subject matter, the writer should offer the readers a unique perspective on the issue at hand. This might be a proposed solution to an existing problem, an analysis of upcoming events, or an interpretation of the impact of current happenings.
However, many writers may wish to broach topics not recently found in the headlines in order to heighten awareness of a trend, a cause or a problem. Following his retirement, Tom Brokaw, former NBC news anchor, offered advice to young writers and encouraged discovery of new topics, “There’s always a reason to turn over a rock and find out what’s under it.”
Al Lewis, a widely published op-ed writer on health-care-related topics and author of “Surviving Workplace Wellness,”added, “If you’re going to turn over a new rock that nobody has heard of, it better be on a beach that everyone frequents.” Lewis highlights the importance of framing lesser-known issues in a context that personalizes the topics for the readers.
Each publication has a unique reader base characterized by political leanings, geographic location or common interests. When submitting an article to these publications it is essential that the writer keep the target audience in mind. This does not mean that the writer need alter his or her position or opinion based on the publication. However, the concerns of the readers should play a major role in the formation of the article.
Consider the length of the article. In the sample of articles mentioned above, the average New York Times Online op-ed article contains around 850 words. Wall Street Journal articles are closer to 650 words and Forbes articles vary greatly in length but average just over 1,000 words. While tackling a complex issue might warrant a lengthy explanation, shorter articles seem to compete well for the limited time and attention of the readers.
The writer’s network is invaluable in finding a home for an article. LinkedIn can be used to identify individuals with valuable connections to the news industry. However, personal connections will likely prove most efficient in getting articles to those who make final publication decisions. After a quality piece has been written, networking is arguably the most crucial step in getting published.
If publication is the primary goal, the writer must remember the law of large numbers. There are many reputable news outlets in print and online. If one periodical turns down an article, it does not necessarily diminish the likelihood of publication elsewhere. After all, it is the diversity of opinions that has created demand for the vast number of current news sources.
John Hoffmire teaches at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford.
Adam Turville is an economic analyst at the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development and a graduate of Brigham Young University.