Powell Tate Australia’s Alistair Nicholas gives some tips on how to write and get opinion articles published in major publications. Alistair has worked in freelance journalism and has written numerous opinion-editorial (Op-Ed) articles for politicians and corporate executives, as well as under his own byline. His most recent opinion articles under his own byline include “Stuart Robert in China: guilty of cultural naivety or foolishness” (The Australian, 9 February 2016) and “Four Rolexes puts you on a death watch in China” (The Australian Financial Review, 17 February 2016). (It should be noted that both The Australian and The Australian Financial Review require subscriptions to view their articles.)
Here are Alistair’s 12 steps to Op-Ed publication:
- Be topical and timely – The first rule to getting any opinion piece published is that it should be topical and timely. It is easier to get an opinion piece published if it relates to something that is happening in the news now than it is to create a new subject of public debate. News is a perishable commodity and it is better to link to current events if you want to be published. (The exception is that if you are so famous that the media hangs off your every word and idea.)
- Be relevant – This is about you, not your opinion. It is important to put forward articles in which you can be positioned as an expert or as having relevance. Not too long ago a friend of mine sent me an opinion piece she had been trying to place in several papers. She wanted to know why she hadn’t had success. It was a good piece that was well written and well argued. However, it was on a topic that was outside of her field of expertise. She was writing as just another member of society with an opinion. There was no compelling reason for any publication to run the piece because she lacked relevance and expertise. As the old adage has it, “stick to your knitting.”
- Be unique – It is important that you have something different or unique to say on a topic. You must have a perspective or a point of view (POV) that is different; or you must find a new wrinkle or angle to the topic that helps to differentiate you. There is no point in arguing something that is commonly believed or that already has been argued by someone else. A good couple of questions to ask yourself are, “Why should anyone be interested in my point of view? How is it different to what is already being said?” If you cannot give compelling arguments for you being the best person to speak on the topic, it is best to remain silent.
- Be challenging – Your opinion should challenge the orthodox view or challenge someone else’s view on the topic. Don’t be afraid to take others to task. Of course, you should do it respectfully. But the great thing about the opinion pages of our newspapers is their editors believe in freedom of speech and they try to foster debate on topical issues. They thrive on controversy.
- Be opinionated – An opinion piece should be just that. It should state an opinion and, as a consequence, it should be “opinionated”. It is not the time to be shy about what you think. You need to put your point of view out there, forcefully. Of course, you should have some interesting facts and figures to back up your case; otherwise it may be considered nothing more than propaganda and in all likelihood won’t be published.
- Be the objective third person – Generally you should adopt an objective tone in your writing and write from the point of view of the third person. You can use the second person point of view, as I have used throughout this article, if you are trying to speak directly to your audience, especially to elicit some action from them. You should only write in the first person if you are a well renowned expert on the topic or a celebrity with relevant personal experience that everyone would be interested in reading. Normally the first person voice is reserved for memoirs and autobiographies.
- Be well read – It’s good to be well read in general, to know what is going on and which issues are driving the media. You don’t need to be a total media junkie, but you should have a general sense for current affairs to identify opportunities for an op-ed. More importantly you need to be well read to understand the editorial perspective of the paper you are looking to be published in. You need to know its readership and whether they are the right audience for you. And you need to know the publication’s writing style. Should you target The Guardian or The Telegraph? Or are you better of pitching your piece to The Australian or to The Australian Financial Review? When you have decided who you are writing for, try to write in the style of the publication.
- Be bold – Before you start writing your piece you should pitch it to the opinion page editor of the publication you are targeting. This can save you a lot of pointless sweat, blood and tears writing your article. There is no point in writing an article that will never be published. So call the editor and pitch your piece to him or her. If they like the subject or your angle they will tell you. If they don’t like it they will tell you that too. Once you know they are interested you need to negotiate how many words they will give you (see point 10 below).
- Be persistent – This is a kind of “if at first you don’t succeed try and try again” point. Essentially don’t take “no” for an answer. Ask the editor why your story isn’t right for the publication and see if you can re-work it to meet requirements. And if you can’t get an editor from your first choice publication don’t give up on the idea if you believe in it. Approach another publication. There’s always someone out there who will be interested.
- Be concise – Remember you will have negotiated how many words you will be given for your piece. Generally you will be given somewhere between 600 and 800 words. This is not a lot of words and it is very easy to go over. If you go over your allotment the publication may not run your article, or someone will edit it and you may lose control over the final copy. It is best to stick to the agreed length of the article. Keep your opinions on point and tight.
- Be omnipresent – That is to say, be everywhere. Don’t settle for being published in just one publication. You should look at how to re-purpose your opinion piece for other publications. Once you have done that, pitch your op-ed article to various publications with a different angle or different take on subject. It cannot be identical. You will have to change it considerably. You will have to work through steps one to 10 again. But the effort can be worthwhile if you get published in several newspapers or magazines.
- Be resilient – there’s no two-ways about it; you will probably receive considerable criticism for your opinion if it has any merit. It might come in the form of a rejoinder opinion piece, it might come in the form of a letter to the editor or it might come in attacks on your Facebook page or your Twitter feed. But criticism will come. If you cannot handle criticism don’t write for the Op-Ed pages.
And two important don’t’s:
- Don’t be promiscuous – don’t send the exact same Op-Ed piece to two different papers at the same time. It will be embarrassing if they both publish it simultaneously. And, neither publication will take anything from you again. Note this is not contradictory of point 11 above. You can re-purpose the same opinion piece – but you must make changes to it so it is not exactly the same.
- Don’t sweat the headline. I know too many people who work themselves into a lather to come up with the perfect headline. This is a waste of time. All publications have sub-editors who are better at headline writing than you will ever be. Their job is come up with headlines that “attract eyeballs” and which are “click-bait” in the parlance of the internet savvy. Interestingly, the headlines used in print editions are very different to those used online, even for the same story. Rest assured the editors won’t use your headline anyway no matter how good you think it is; so stop worrying that you cannot come up with that perfect, eye-catching pun.
A word on “ghost writers”
A lot of people tell me they can’t write, even though they have something important to say. You shouldn’t worry about that. Help is at hand. There are plenty of freelance writers around and firms like Powell Tate with writers that are experienced in writing and placing opinion articles. Don’t be afraid to have your piece ghosted. If your opinion is worth anything it is worth getting a professional writer to write it.