by Richard B. Harper <dick@dickharper.com>

Why is it called op-ed? In many newspapers, the page opposite the editorial page is devoted to personal comment, rebuttals, and similar opinion-laden feature articles. Here's how to see your words there in the local, regional, or even national papers.

1. Make people think.

Have you agonized over a new dilemma around town? Do you have a fresh insight into a familiar problem? Illustrate your concern.

2. Keep to exactly one (1), uno, single point.

Multiple arguments in an op-ed confuse the reader, the editor, and, probably the writer.

It was too much when I detailed a proposed NYNEX (now Bell Atlantic) rate increase, complained about their disdain for the local power company, then hammered "Measured Service," all in a single column published in 1995.

That article would have improved with a strict focus on measured service. I could have cited how my elderly neighbor's phone bill doubled, described the message unit ban in other states, shown an operator's technique to reduce her phone bill (she "doesn't make any calls") and quit.

3. Avoid hot topics in the national or international news.

Seven national columnists are finishing a piece from a breaking CNN story right now. Since major newspaper syndicates provide the material for a few bucks per column, a cost-conscious editor is unlikely to buy yours.

Remember the ebonics furor in Oakland? The national columnists wrote about it. Bill Cosby addressed it in the Wall Street Journal. I forgot this advice and wrote a timely piece. Mine didn't sell.

Even major metro dailies like to be the community newspaper and want commentary about local, state or regional issues. Skip the breaking story and discuss a boy's right to peep from a tree v. a neighbor's right to sunbathing privacy. Hammer the ACLU's local suit filed on behalf of a dog. Laud the local library that receives less than one percent of tax revenue and is used by more than two-thirds of the population. If you are submitting from far away, include quotes or information from a local opinion leader or celebrity.

4. Use a personal anecdote.

Write about how your son was touched by John LeClair's near miss in the Stanley Cup playoffs or the effect of the barn fire in Mud Town on a nearby 4H club. Then take the reader to a universal truth about building on experience.

5. Write fast to capture the passion.

I write an opinion column because the issues excite me. I was appalled when vandals stole the road signs that guide ambulances to an emergency; I was gladdened when 400 volunteers cleaned up a small town ravaged by a flood. Both stories can make dynamic editorials.

6. Rewrite once to capture the format (and to make your deadline).

Balance. It is easy to express umbrage. The best editorial rations ideas, fact, and passion. The article is about the issue, not about you or your reaction to it.

Layout. Remember what a newspaper looks like. Keep paragraphs short. Hook the reader, answer "Who, What, Where, When, and How," then explain Why to set the hook.

Research. Every fact requires two independent sources; the editor may not have time to authenticate your original research. Make sure your facts are right.

Length. Check your own editorial page. Most op-eds are 750-1,000 words; some papers limit articles to 500 words.

7. Pick your local editorial platform.

Op-eds come in four varieties: the "open forum," the "voice of the community," the "guest editorial," and the "professional pundit."

An open forum usually features commonplace or marginally humorous stories that are longer and written with more verve than a letter to the editor.

Vermont's Gannett paper publishes an unpaid community voice series called "Postmark." It features one of six writers every week, each writing a personal commentary. Newsday calls their similar offering "500 Words or Less" and pays $100 for it.

Featured or guest editorials are one-time reactions to pressing local issues. Editors often ask local pundits or writers from the community voice stable to write these.

Many professional pundits started as investigative reporters or as well-known national experts. Local pundits gain stature by chairing a solid waste committee, working for a think tank, or managing a business. Break rule 10; call your editor, propose a topic, and deliver a well-researched, well-reasoned piece.

8. Spell everyone's name right.

9. Avoid op-ed backfire.

Humor is hard to project in an opinion piece. Satire can bite the writer.

P.J. Gladnick wrote a tongue-in-cheek satire about harmful cartoons for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He showed Snow White exploiting short people, Scrooge McDuck engaging in the capitalistic duck-slave trade, the Three Little Pigs abusing the Big Bad Wolf, and more.

That article made him the hero of the National Coalition on Television Violence, who used it to justify censoring Saturday morning TV.

10. Sell it (typical newspaper op-ed policies).

Do not query for an editorial. Write it, mail it, and wait. If the editor wants it, he will call you, usually within a week.

Include a snail mail address, a daytime phone number, and your Social Security number.

If the newspaper has printed you recently, they generally won't run your new piece for several weeks. Send your next article, a list of your credits, and a S.A.S.E. to a different paper.

10-1/2. Sell it, redux.

A reader approaches you in the grocery store. "I loved your editorial about the woodchuck carrying your milk cans across the dooryard," she gushes.

This is a wonderful selling opportunity. Ask the reader to call or write your editor. Editors need to sell newspapers. Editors who know you are popular with their readers will buy your work because it helps them sell newspapers.

An engineer, Richard B. Harper manages a small Vermont business, teaches college courses, and chairs an arts council. He writes Random Access, an op-ed column, and other features.

Copyright (c) 1997 Richard B. Harper.

This article was originally published by Inklings 25-Mar-1997
Dick Harper may be found at http://www.dickharper.com

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