That’s Your Opinion: Tips on Writing Op-Eds

Thom Weidlich 07.27.17


Crisis communications, especially for slowly unfolding crises, includes writing op-eds to influence various audiences. A company leader or outside expert (“third-party endorser”) may write an opinion piece to try to sway people to your point of view. So-called op-eds (opposite the editorial page) can be an effective tool. But writing them presents certain challenges. Here we supply some tips on doing that.

Op-eds should be about 700 to 800 words. The structure can take many forms. We prefer an op-ed that doesn’t wait until the end to announce what it’s opposing. In an opinion piece you are entering an ongoing conversation about, for example, a controversy, proposed bill, lawsuit, or commonly (and maybe wrongly) held view. Honestly summarize the opposing side and work up to your opponent’s best argument.

For example, a July 19 Los Angeles Times article by three professors of urban planning opposes a proposal by L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti to charge fees on new residential and commercial buildings to finance subsidized affordable housing. The writers admit the idea is “well-intentioned” and might be the best the city can do, given certain realities such as the California constitution’s limit on new property taxes. But they say it won’t raise much money and then go on to argue for taxing land.

An op-ed should be focused. Too often writers try to jam in every aspect of the topic. That lack of concentration hurts the piece. Think of what the headline will be and try to stick with that (even though the editors will craft the actual headline). The Los Angeles Times piece is laser-focused on the issue of development versus land fees.

Rather than just stating a view, op-eds call for some action to be taken — for some legislation to be passed or some probe to be conducted. Typically the call to action should be flagged up top and then revisited in more detail further below.

That isn’t always the case. For example, in its July 14 print edition, The Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed by Josh Sandbulte, a money manager who owns FedEx stock. Sandbulte complained that the U.S. Postal Service delivers packages at below cost, allegedly violating a 2006 law.

‘Competitive Scale’

His call to action didn’t come until the end: “Congress should demand the enforcement of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act, and the Postal Service needs to stop picking winners and losers in the retail world. The federal government has had its thumb on the competitive scale for far too long.”

In writing an op-ed, an important consideration should be what you want the reader to feel after having read the piece. Outrage? Pity? A desire to right a wrong?

Illinois State Representative Sam Yingling penned a July 18 piece in which he excoriated Gov. Bruce Rauner for his allegedly inadequate response to recent flooding (“Bruce Rauner Doesn’t Care”). It was obvious what Yingling wanted his readers to feel: anger. “When we need real leadership, Bruce Rauner displays callous disregard for people across Illinois, including those in my district,” Yingling wrote.

In writing an op-ed, you might keep in mind Aristotle’s three rhetorical appeals: ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos is the ethical appeal that establishes your credibility and goodwill toward the reader. Logos is the logical appeal using reason and evidence. Pathos is the emotional appeal using empathy.

For example, on July 19, The Star Tribune published online an op-ed against raising transit fares written by Jessica Treat, executive director of a Minnesota transportation nonprofit. Treat used ethos by referring to citizens’ comments her organization was hearing. She used logos by invoking statistics (“According to Met Council numbers, raising fares 25 cents would reduce transit ridership by a whopping 3.8 million riders per year”) and analogy (“Transit fares have been raised 10 times since 1988; in the same period, gas taxes have been raised once”). She used pathos by mentioning the people who would be harmed by the increase (“Raising fares yet again would hurt people who can least afford it”).

Facts, Statistics

Back up your claims with facts, statistics, examples, anecdotes. Always know the difference between making a claim and providing evidence, and between opinion and fact.

Finally, the usual advice about the nitty-gritty of writing applies to opinion pieces: vary your sentence length, don’t overuse adjectives and adverbs, avoid jargon, etc.

Particular to op-eds, it’s important to not be meek in asserting your position. Avoid throat-clearing phrases such as “I think” and “In my opinion.” Of course it’s your opinion — it’s your name on the byline.

— Thom Weidlich

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