Op-ed pieces and letters-to–the-editor are both great ways to get your message out, helping to advance both your own work and the field of health and aging as a whole. However, many people find them difficult to write. Here we offer a few tips to get you started. Just remember, you might have to write several before an editor accepts one for publication. Don’t give up!
Op-eds are brief pieces, usually no longer than 800 words (and 600 to 700 is often better and can give you a better chance if space is limited), that present your perspective on topics for which you have professional standing or expertise. Op-ed stands for opinion-editorial, so this genre requires that you describe a clear position on an issue. In most cases, an op-ed should relate to a current event or trend—the more newsworthy the better. In addition to framing a compelling argument, you may also want have a clear call to action. Based on what you have written, should readers support more funding for a particular kind of research, join a community effort to improve health, or get behind a particular policy? Once you have told them why, tell them what to do.
Keep in mind:
Timing is everything. Follow the local and national news and make sure your piece relates to a current issue. An op-ed piece that focuses on old news likely won’t be published, so preparing a draft of a piece so you are ready when the news hook arrives may be helpful.
Or make a little news of your own. If you are publishing the findings from a paper or announcing a new policy that is fresh or controversial enough to intrigue the general public, an op-ed piece might be a good way to get the word out.
Don’t assume. Remember, few people follow your area of expertise as closely as you do. If your position or topic is not common knowledge, don’t assume the editor will know about it: explain it in your cover letter or email. Keep the writing punchy and conversational. Use declarative statements and avoid jargon.
Plan ahead. Being slightly ahead of the news curve makes op-ed editors look smart, which will make them more receptive to your piece. If you can submit your piece a week before an event or announcement, so much the better.
Start strong and work backward. Unlike most academic writing, in which you build your case point by point and discuss your conclusions at the end, an op-ed should be written with your main message right at the top. Work from there to add in supporting details.
Make it meaningful. Your intent is to sway readers’ opinions, so make sure you’re telling them why your topic is important. Be sure you answer the reader’s question “Why should I care?” either directly or indirectly.
Tell stories. Brief but compelling stories or anecdotes about your topic issue can humanize your argument and serve as powerful points of connection. Use one, if possible.
Be yourself. Your op-ed piece should be a reflection of you—with integrity, humanity, and even humor as appropriate.
Hit the return key often. White space invites the eye; paragraphs over four or five lines in length can look very dense in print or online and discourage readers from tackling them. You can say exactly the same thing in shorter paragraphs.
Offer solutions. You’re not merely raising an issue—you’re trying to “move the needle” in a particular direction, whether it’s around a piece of legislation, public opinion, professional practice, or increased public awareness. Be sure to include your specific recommendations about what needs to be done.
End strong. Refer back to your main message from the first paragraph (many readers skip right to the end). Leave the reader with a call to action or at least something to think about, or mention to a friend.
Be realistic. Submit your piece to a paper or online source that you feel gives you the greatest chance of publishing it. Local and regional papers are more inclined to publish editorials from local folks. Online sources that are connected to your field may be more likely run your piece as well.
Know the publication’s op-ed submission policy. Check with the paper or online source for how it prefers to receive submissions (generally they prefer email). Never submit anonymously; the editor will need a phone number and email address for you. Do not send emails with attachments. Paste your essay into the body of the email. If you don’t hear back from an editor within a week, go ahead and follow up with him/her.
Also, many papers frown on you submitting an op-ed to multiple papers at once. Submit to your top choice, and wait. Papers will generally note how long they take to get back to you. If they don’t get back to you in a few days, follow up and if you don’t hear anything further, feel free to move on to the next paper.
Sample Successful Op-Eds from Hartford Grantees
“Caring for the Elderly” by Lewis A. Lipsitz, MD (Boston Globe)
“Too Few Doctors Practicing Geriatric Medicine” by Mary Tinetti, MD (Hartford Courant)
“Midlands Voices: Proposed health reforms crucial for care of elderly” by Jane Potter, MD (Omaha World-Herald)
“The Patients Doctors Don’t Know,” by Rosanne Leipzig (New York Times)
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
Letters-to-the-editor are different from op-ed pieces in that they are short (150-200 word) responses to articles recently published in the newspaper or magazine to which you send them. Here’s an example of a letter to the editor by Stephanie Lederman, executive director of the American Federation for Aging Research, which was published by the New York Times.
In general, your letter to the editor should:
Follow the letters-to-the-editor section. This will give you a sense of the types of letters the editor favors and give you hints to the appropriate tone and language.
Have an interesting point of view. Like an op-ed, the letter should express your perspective. At the same time, it is generally best if the piece does not directly mention or promote your institution or program (Your name and affiliation will likely run after the piece, so it is not necessary.)
Less is more. Again, 150 to 200 words at most. (Always check the word limit for the publication you’re writing to.) Make one clear, specific, compelling argument in response to or in support of a recently published article.
Cite the article, including date, to which you’re responding.
Follow the publication’s policy for submitting letters to the editor. Make sure to include all contact information required.
Your Cause (in 600 Words): Six tips for writing more persuasive op-eds from Colin Rowan via Free Range Thinking by Andy Goodman offers great pointers on writing successful op-eds.
How to Write an Op-Ed Article from Duke University is a comprehensive resource for writing successful op-ed pieces.
How to Write an Op-Ed: Perhaps it’s PR’s most underutilized tool by John McLain, McLain Communications, has another nice checklist for writing op-ed pieces.
How to Write an Op-Ed and Letter to the Editor from Physicians for a National Health Program offers tips for op-ed pieces and letters to the editor.
How to Write a Letter to the Editor that Gets Published and Read is a case study from communications expert Nancy Schwartz.
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The Hartford Online Communications Resource depends on the active participation of the foundation’s grantees. If you have a tip on writing for op-ed pages or letters-to-the-editor, please let us know, so we can share it on the site and make it available to the rest of the Hartford network.