Full Circle Communications

October 2010
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ease in writing?
"Ease in writing" comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, the British poet:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.

Note he (and I) didn't say "easy writing." But just as dance lessons can help get you around the floor more gracefully, the goal for this newsletter is to share a tip or two to improve your writing.

How to Write an Op-Ed
Why spend the time to write (and re-write) the 700 words or so known as an op-ed?

Because you want something to change.

ccording to Margot Friedman, Dupont Circle Communications, an op-ed can--
  • shine light on a problem not being addressed
  • offer policy solutions
  • persuade policy makers
  • move people to action.
When you write an op-ed, think beyond the traditional piece that appears "opposite the editorial page" in a newspaper, to consider an online column (e.g., Huffington Post), on the radio (e.g., a commentary on WAMU), or elsewhere in print, online, or on air.

As with other writing, you'll want to analyze what gets published (or aired) to improve your own chances of success.

Friedman, who has written and placed many op-eds, shared some examples of effective op-eds (see below). She also passed on these tips and best practices:

Cut through the clutter of competing messages and issues. You must focus on something that has not been said again and again. Three ways to do this--
  • Challenge the conventional wisdom. "It's possible to get an op-ed published, even if an issue is not top of mind, by offering a creative policy solution backed up by evidence," she said. (See below to link to an example she cited.)
  • Find a surprising messenger. For example, the "byliner" to push for an environmental issue can be a business person. Or, as Friedman brought to my attention, self-proclaimed conservative and Tea Party-er Richard Viguerie opposed the death penalty in another op-ed.
  • Draw on authentic experience. Being a well-known expert or celebrity helps your chances, it's true. But an ordinary person who spent time in West Africa, lived through an illness, or, in the example Friedman cited, studied whales also has a shot.
Listen, really listen to the person whose byline tops the article. You may need to draft, or completely write, an op-ed that goes under someone else's signature. Your goal, she said, is to "capture their voice." This means reading their speeches, watching any clips on You Tube, and studying whatever else you can get your hands on.

Better yet, she advised, request direct access and ask questions. How did they get involved in this issue? What from their childhood affects what they do today? "If you pry stories out of the byliner, your writing is so much richer," she said. And, on a practical note, "it can make the difference between getting published and not."

Avoid "us-too" op-eds. The boss sees an op-ed from a similar organization. The boss wants one, too. Soon, you are scrambling to figure out what to say and how to say it. "An op-ed needs to be part of an overall campaign strategy," said Friedman. "Developing messages through writing an op-ed is possible--but it's not ideal."

Write strong, speedy letters to the editor. Friedman called a letter to the editor the "little sister" of op-eds. The same rules apply, with three main differences:
  • Length: 150 to 250 words maximum, usually no more than three sentence per paragraph.
  • Trigger: You respond to a news story or column, rather than propose your own topic.
  • Speed: Ideally, you e-mail the letter the very day the story runs. The Washington Post ombudsman quoted the newspaper's letters editor as saying the huge volume of responses on some topics may mean the first, well-written letter received is published. "A lot of organizations are not nimble enough to write and get approvals in that time frame," Friedman acknowledged. "But if responding to media reports is a priority, that's what they have to do. Sending a letter three days later is too late."
Amplify the impact. Finally, after all that hard work, extend the message. Post a link on your website and Facebook page, Tweet, and take advanage of whatever other social media you use. If it's published on a media website, encourage supporters to post comments. "Online publications give greater prominence to op-eds that generate the most comments," Friedman said.

Want to know more? Get advice? Share your own op-eds? Check out Margot's new Op-Ed Facebook community.

ExamplesExamples and a New Facebook Resource

Margot Friedman, Dupont Circle Communications, offered a few examples of op-eds that "cut through the clutter":

"It's possible to get an op-ed published, even if an issue is not top of mind, by offering a creative policy solution backed up by evidence," she said. In a recent op-ed, the author argued that legacy preferences for the children of alumni at elite colleges could be unconstitutional. She notes, "By offering a novel legal theory, he gets our attention and gets published in the New York Times."

Nonprofits should try to build relationships with unlikely allies who can be powerful op-ed byliners. In the Richmond Times Dispatch, the "funding father" of the conservative movement, Richard Viguerie, called on his fellow conservatives to oppose the death penalty. She said, "Note the powerful opening line, where the co-authors identify themselves as Tea Party supporters." 

What if I'm a "nobody?" Yes, it is more likely that experts will be published than non-experts, but the op-ed pages are also full of ordinary people with unique personal experiences. For example, Friedman pointed to a colleague who went to Russia as an interested layperson to study an endangered species of whale. She published an op-ed on Huffington Post that drew on her experience.  

Last but not Least
If you want to learn more about writing and placing op-eds, you are invited to join the Facebook community, Op Ed Talk with Margot, by "liking" this page:


It's a place where op ed writers (published and aspiring, online and print) share tips and strategies.

Full Circle Communications, LLC / Alexandria, VA / 703.212.0349