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Writing an Op-Ed

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Constitutional Law: Bill of Rights

TUTORIAL 1: WRITING AN OP-ED

Do you have an interesting opinion to share? Is something driving you crazy? Is there something which needs to be said which no-one else is saying? If you can express it clearly and persuasively in an op-ed, you can reach thousands of people, and possibly sway hearts, change minds, influence decision-makers and even shape public policy. In the process, you also earn recognition for yourself and your institution, all for less effort than it takes to write a professional journal article.

An op-ed is a short punchy piece of writing in which you give your opinion and try to convince your readers why you are right. It is not like an essay that unfolds slowly like a carpet. Quite the opposite because in an op-ed you open with your conclusion – the one message that you want to get across in the op-ed. This is the most important thing to remember about an op-ed. You have space for ONE message only. The rest of the op-ed is for you to make your case and support your view or conclusion. In the process of doing so, you usually play an educating role for readers who have no specialist knowledge of the subject matter. It is important though that your op-ed is accessible and not preachy. So an op-ed is the expression of your opinion, but backed up with facts, research or first-hand information.

Typically an op-ed is 700-800 words. Any longer and you risk an editor deciding not to publish it because she can’t be bothered to edit it. Besides this, the value of an op-ed is that it is a short, sharp and punchy piece. Conciseness is key.

So the basic structure of an op-ed looks something like this (although there is no one size fits all model):

Heading (hooked onto current affairs)

Thesis = your message in one para

Argument to support your thesis (based on evidence which can include stats, news, reports from other experts, quotes, history, firsthand experience)

Paragraph in which you acknowledge any flaws in your argument and address any obvious counter-arguments

Conclusion (often circling back to your message)

Some further guidelines:

OP-ED CHARACTERISTICS

* Make a single point — well. You cannot solve all of the world’s problems in 800 words. Be satisfied with making a single point clearly and persuasively. If you cannot explain your message in a sentence or two, you’re trying to cover too much.

* Put your main point on top. You have no more than 10 seconds to hook a busy reader. Get to the point and convince the reader that it’s worth his or her valuable time to continue. Your open line is critical and can be a strong or controversial statement, an unusual fact/statistic, something funny, an appeal to the reader’s sense of empathy or humanity – whatever is going to entice the reader to continue reading.

* Offer specific recommendations. An op-ed is not a news story that simply describes a situation; it is your opinion about how to improve matters. In an op-ed article you need to offer recommendations and these should be specific – it’s not enough to merely call for more research or suggest that opposing parties work out their differences.

* Make sure the ending is punchy. Op-eds need a strong opening as discussed, but they also need a compelling ending. This usually takes the form of one strong paragraph which summarises your argument. You want to leave the reader with no option but to agree with you because you are so persuasive. This is where you should have the ‘call to action’.

STYLE AND TONE

* Identify your audience. Who are you trying to convince? Remember that your average reader is not an expert in your topic so it is up to you to grab her attention.

* Tell readers why they should care. Put yourself in the place of the busy person looking at your article. At the end of every few paragraphs, ask out loud: “So what? Who cares?” You need to answer these questions.

* Showing is better than discussing. People are grabbed by colourful details rather than dry facts. When writing an op-ed article, therefore, look for great examples that will bring your argument to life.

* Embrace your personal voice. While journal articles and case notes are typically fairly formal, an op-ed is a chance for your own voice to shine through. You can be controversial but be careful not to be outrageous. Op-eds may be informal but they are not just a chance for you to rant publicly. You want to come across as the voice of reason. It’s also OK to be funny if your topic lends itself to humour (and you are in fact funny!). A good way to perfect your voice is to read your op-ed out loud – this will give you a good sense of how it will come across to your reader.

* Use short sentences and paragraphs. Cut long paragraphs into two or more shorter ones.

* Avoid jargon. Imagine you are explaining the issue to your mother. You need to present the issues and even the facts and evidence in an accessible way that will make sense even to someone with no prior knowledge of the issue. Simple language doesn’t mean simple thinking. In fact being able to write simply usually requires a greater degree of knowledge of the subject matter because you can’t hide in legalese.

* Use the active voice. Don't write: “It is hoped that the government will” or “One would hope that the government will”. Instead say “I hope the government will …” Active voice is nearly always better than passive voice. It’s easier to read, and it leaves no doubt about who is doing the hoping, recommending or other action.

OTHER GUIDELINES

* Don’t worry about the headline. The newspaper will write its own headline. You can suggest one, but don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it.

* Track the news and jump at opportunities. Timing is essential. When an issue is dominating the news — whether it’s a war, a protest or just the latest escapades of the Kardashians — that’s what readers want to read and op-ed editors want to publish. This means that in order to get published, you need to hook your op-ed to something happening in the news.

* The newspaper may edit your work. This is how it works so don’t have a nervous breakdown when it happens. Editors are generally very good at what they do.

Tutorial exercise

Read and analyse one of the three sample op-eds provided on SAKAI.

Answer the following questions in relation to the op-ed you have read: 1. What is the general topic / subject-area of the op-ed? 2. What is the message of the op-ed? 3. Who is the intended audience of the op-ed? 4. What substantiating evidence is provided? 5. What action would the author like to see?

Now start to map out the structure of your own op-ed using the same principles.

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[ 1 ]. Much of the material in this tutorial is drawn from Duke University Resrouces http://newsoffice.duke.edu/duke_resources/oped.

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