By Phoenix Zones Initiative
The op-ed sections of print and electronic media platforms provide valuable opportunities to educate the public and influence popular opinions about important issues and policies affecting the rights, health, and wellbeing of people, animals, and the planet.
Specifically, op-eds can be a powerful tool for highlighting how we can expand positive rights for both people and animals and advocate for structural change focused on dismantling different forms of violence and inequities.
Op-eds should be based on a concise and timely idea with a persuasive argument supported by compelling evidence. Ultimately, the goal of an op-ed is to propose an effective response to the problem you spotlight in your piece.
For example, you may be proposing policies a city council can implement to provide housing to people or companion animals living without adequate housing. Or you may be proposing resources that a school district should use to implement antibias and anti-racist education in public schools. The proposal can range from concrete actions to suggestions for ways readers can further educate themselves about a complex issue.
Proposing solutions makes the piece more compelling to editors and readers. But more importantly, the op-ed is your platform to effect change. Identifying and explaining problems is an important first step, but you should take the advantage afforded by the public’s attention on op-eds to also push for actions that can address those problems.
The solutions or actions you propose and how you frame your argument depend on the audience you’re targeting. For example, you may be encouraging policymakers to implement a new policy, voters to support a ballot measure, concerned citizens to make their voices heard at public meetings, consumers to refrain from buying harmful products, volunteers to give time to a local organization, or donors to financially support a project.
Consider your primary audience while formulating your arguments and use the op-ed to speak to them in a way that will persuade and motivate them. It can be hard to change hearts and minds—especially during moments of intense political polarization—but if you first try to empathize with your audience and to anticipate and understand their concerns, you’ll be better situated to present your argument in a way that can influence their thinking and effect change, rather than alienate them.
Op-eds are approximately 800 words (depending on the guidelines of particular media platforms) and generally follow a basic structure that consists of the following elements:
- A lede or hook: This should grab the reader’s attention with an intriguing or provocative statement or question that makes the reader want to see what else you have to say. The first sentence or paragraph should also tie your op-ed to something timely, such as a recent news event, anniversary, or holiday. This strategy is especially important for successfully pitching an op-ed to editors who are looking for pieces that are relevant to current events (see below).
- An argument or thesis: Identify the problem or issue that you want to spotlight, and clearly communicate the response or solution you’re advocating.
- One-to-three supporting paragraphs: Expand your argument, supporting it with compelling evidence that can be drawn from hard data, statistics, and statements from experts, as well as from your own experience or the stories of others. Explain your problem or issue in more detail and highlight why your proposed response is an important or effective action to take.
- A paragraph to neutralize counterarguments: Anticipate what the main objections to your argument will be and dismiss or counter them. This element is where it’s especially important to consider your audience. Changing the way people see an issue can often be more productive than simply telling them why they’re wrong, and how you frame your response to counterarguments will affect how open an audience may be to listening.
- A strong conclusion: Leave your readers with a conclusion that is as memorable or compelling as your opening hook. It should reiterate the argument you presented in the introductory paragraph or make a final call to action based on that argument.
The pitch to an editor is as important as the op-ed itself, since you need to convince an editor to publish your op-ed before anyone can read it. A pitch consists of a short, concise email that clearly summarizes your argument and explains why it is timely or relevant.
It also explains why you are qualified to be speaking about the topic. In your pitch, clearly state any credentials, experience, or other qualifications that show you are an expert who can speak on this issue.
But don’t be discouraged from pitching if you don’t have conventional credentials, such as a professional degree. There are many valid reasons why you can be a source of expertise on the issues you want to address, including volunteer or life experience that may give you a unique perspective. The goal is just to make the case to an editor why your opinion is relevant on a particular topic.
Finally, you should explain why the op-ed is a good fit for whatever outlet you’re pitching to. For example, they might have a specific focus, such as environmental issues, or they may have a specific audience that would be interested in your op-ed, such as policymakers.
Send the pitch in an email (with “Pitch:” and your topic in the subject line) with the text of the op-ed pasted in the main body of the message so that the editor can continue reading if the pitch catches their interest. It is standard custom to wait forty-eight hours, and then follow up with a second email if you don’t hear from the editor.
Give them another twenty-four hours after the follow-up, and then move on to another outlet with your pitch. It may take several attempts at different outlets, so don’t give up!
Here’s a list of links through the OpEd Project to the submission guidelines for several top print and electronic publications.
Since our broader goal is to strengthen human and animal rights and to improve human and animal health and wellbeing, it is important to use inclusive language that reflects and furthers these goals. Op-eds are most impactful when they can address the synergistic intersection of different forms of oppression.
But when writing about individual issues, we should also be careful to avoid implicitly reinforcing structures of racism, sexism, ableism, classism, or speciesism with the language we choose. Although not an exhaustive list, consider the following guidelines when writing an op-ed:
- Use people-first language, such as a human or animal living with a diabetes rather than a diabetic. Rather than homeless, consider referring to people without adequate access to housing. Regarding people living with disabilities, you can refer to guides such as the Disability Language Style Guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism.
- Use gender-neutral pronouns as a default when you don’t know a person’s gender: they/them/their instead of he/him/his or she/her/hers.
- Always use subject pronouns for animals: she/he/they, not it. Regarding nonhuman animals, refer to the Animals and Media
- Generally, when referring to Indigenous peoples of the US, capitalize Indigenous. The Reporting Guides from the Native American Journalists Association may be useful.
- Consider using the term Latinx to refer to a person or people of Latin American origin or descent. Individual publications’ style guides will vary, but as a general rule capitalize Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Latinx when referring to people.
- Regarding members of the LGBTQ community, the GLAAD Media Reference Guide may be helpful.
Sources Consulted and Resources for More Information:
“How to Write an Op-Ed or Column,” Harvard Kennedy School Communications Program, accessed 10/28/20.
“Op-Ed Writing: Tips and Tricks,” The OpEd Project, accessed 10/28/20.
“Writing Op-Eds That Make a Difference,” Indivisible Project, accessed 10/28/20.