I love reading op-eds, and I’m counting the days until the new NYT Opinion app launches in June. As much as I love reading them — I love writing them even more.
But for all that love, the truth is that op-eds aren’t always the best use of my time and energy when advocating for a cause.
A good op-ed can take hours to write and edit. And that’s the easy part. Once your piece is finished, the process of placing it in the media can drag on for days or weeks as you wait for outlets to take their turn telling you, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
The smallest amount of time I have ever spent writing and placing an op-ed in an outlet like USA Today or Politico is 10 hours. The longest is 10 months. I (and you) could achieve so much else in that amount of time – meet reporters for coffee, refresh a media list, create and pitch an infographic, watch a season of The West Wing.
And all that time means nothing if you can’t get your piece printed. There are no guarantees with op-eds, even if the author is a famous archbishop or U.S. Supreme Court justice. The reality is you are 28 times more likely to get an acceptance letter from Harvard than you are to get an acceptance email from the op-ed editor at The New York Times.
Editors at the nation’s top outlets solicit submissions the same way reporters solicit sources. If a newspaper prints 10 op-eds a week, 7 or 8 of those op-eds were probably commissioned. And the rest were selected from a crowded pool of hundreds of hopefuls.
But setting aside the odds of seeing print, the biggest question you have to ask yourself before you sit down to write is this: Will this op-ed pressure the decision-maker I need to reach?
I won’t deny that op-eds can make a splash and get you noticed. Placing an op-ed in The Washington Post about food safety will build power for your cause, but so will pitching a story about food safety to a reporter who works at the hometown paper of the Senate Agriculture Committee Chair.
Too often, campaigners write op-eds because they feel the need to check the op-ed box on their communications plan. Well, I am here to tell you: you do not have to do an op-ed. You don’t even need a checkbox for it. Feel better?
There are of course instances when op-eds are an effective use of your time. Op-eds by local authors in local newspapers can be both easier to place and more influential when they’re from voting constituents. And big-idea op-eds can skyrocket your expert positioning or inject life into an overlooked cause.
Another important point to remember when it comes to op-eds is to work smarter, not harder. Because of the uncertainty of op-eds, there’s no harm in reaching out to the editor with an idea for an op-ed and asking her if she’s interested before you go through the trouble of writing it. If the editor is interested, move ahead with the writing — but don’t have any illusions that you are assured a spot on the page. In the end, the only ink that seals the deal is the ink on the op-ed page.
By the way, “ink” doesn’t always mean “ink” in 2014. Don’t be discouraged if an editor at a major outlet says her page is full this week but offers you space online. And when pitching, don’t forget about targeting online outlets like CNN.com and Bloomberg View to reach an engaged community of readers.
If you decide an op-ed is worth your while, reading recent op-eds in your dream publication to get a sense of style is useful as you start to write. But you will likely have to shop your piece around to more than one outlet, so remember these four rules that will make your op-ed shine in any editor’s eyes.
1) The writing quality alone should entice them to keep them reading. Op-ed editors love language and rhetoric. So give them something to love.
2) Use personality and stories to keep your piece moving. An op-ed is not a report, overflowing with data. It’s a lawyer’s closing arguments – a crucial chance to make the personal appeal to a jury.
3) An op-ed is also not a press release. Any whiff of self-promotion will result in swift rejection.
4) Be novel. In a conversation with a top editor, he said that he says yes to op-eds that make him think of things in a way he never has before.
Finally, the cardinal rule of op-eds: never exceed 800 words.
Word Count: 800 – on the dot!