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How to Write an Op-Ed

by Cynthia Ryan, PhD

One of the inevitable side effects of being diagnosed with cancer is having a unique perspective on a host of subjects. Many survivors discover a voice that they never knew they possessed and suddenly feel the urge to weigh in on everything from surprising gaps in health insurance coverage to imbalanced media reports on cancer research to the inappropriate language choices some well-wishers use when talking to a survivor. A great way to reach a wider audience for these ideas and possibly influence what people are thinking, saying, and doing is to write an op-ed.

Op-eds, short for essays that run opposite the editorial page in a newspaper, are powerful vehicles for communicating important arguments. Unlike the rest of a newspaper (as well as other print and social media sites that also welcome opinion pieces) which is written by staff writers, the op-ed page represents a range of voices, from experts to everyday people who bring a fresh perspective to public issues. Landing a place on the page requires the ability to craft a solid argument and identify an appropriate market for the essay. Follow these tips for basic guidance on writing and pitching your ideas.

Some Guidelines for Publishable Op-eds

  • Essays on the op-ed page are usually brief, typically 500-800 words in length, so arguments must be made concisely. Most published op-eds follow these guidelines:
  • The point being argued is sufficiently narrow. While it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to make a convincing case for a complete overhaul of the healthcare system in so few words, you could draw attention to a troubling policy regarding patients’ rights sprouting up in hospitals across the country.
  • The subject of your essay is timely. A well-crafted op-ed sparks interest because it’s tied to something that readers are already talking about: a recent research finding linking a particular environmental risk factor to cancer, an upcoming vote in the state legislature that will affect survivors in some way, or a celebration of a milestone in the medical field.
  • You bring another perspective (personal and/or professional) to the table. Published op-eds offer something new to an ongoing conversation, a point that hasn’t been argued ad nauseam. You might frame your argument along the lines of”While we know x and y about ________, we haven’t considered z.” Your job will be to flesh out the reasons why z matters to the discussion.
  • Your op-ed does more than offer an opinion. You’ve brought in evidence to back up your claim and have considered that there’s more than one way to think about the position you’re advocating.

Structuring Op-eds

Most op-eds follow a similar structure:

  • Opening paragraph: Establish the particular conversation you’re entering, offer your contribution/argument to the conversation in a single sentence, and state or suggest the importance of considering this view. For example,
    • There’s been a lot of discussion about the relative safety of e-cigarettes as an alternative to smoking traditional tobacco products. However, few have addressed the ways in which the promotion of e-cigarettes sustains the culture of smoking in our society. If we hope to dissuade future generations from smoking, we must rethink our strategy of replacing one product with another.
  • Body paragraphs: Offer supporting points to back up your argument and provide appropriate evidence for each point. Paragraphs building on my argument about e-cigarettes might include the following:
    • Point 1: Many behaviors that turn into habits are adopted by those hoping to connect with a particular social group. Evidence might include data from a recent study suggesting that a high percentage of smokers began smoking to fit in.
    • Point 2: By maintaining the culture of smoking surrounding e-cigarettes, we are prioritizing the interests of those in the tobacco industry over the health of our citizens. Evidence could include information about how much advertising money is spent each year on glamourizing smoking and smoking products compared to the cost of treating individuals with smoke-related illnesses.
    • Point 3: By replacing tobacco products with e-cigarettes, we are encouraging smokers to trade off one bad behavior for a somewhat better one rather than urging them to rid themselves of the behavior altogether. Evidence to back up this point might get personal, for example, you may include a quote from a family member who is frustrated by his continued reliance on e-cigarettes.
  • Qualifier paragraph: Acknowledge your consideration of those who may not agree with your position.
    • But isn’t an alternative that might lower an individual’s risk for certain kinds of cancer, heart disease, and other serious conditions a good thing? Yes, but the alternative (if scientifically proven to decrease these risks) should also address the cultural values fueling the problem.
  • Take-away paragraph: Offer a message that directs readers to rethink their previous assumptions or to act in a particular way based on the argument you’ve presented. Readers of an op-ed addressing e-cigarettes might respond to a closing paragraph like this
    • If we are serious about creating a smoke-free society, then we must commit to the eradication of all tobacco products. Our acceptance of alternatives falls short of our goal to promote a culture of health.

Finding a Home for Your Op-ed

Once the op-ed is written, it’s time to send it out to editors. Most newspapers and other print and online outlets provide specific instructions for writers hoping to be published. As a seasoned op-ed writer, I typically review guidelines for the outlets I hope to target before I write an essay and then take another look at the newspaper’s criteria prior to submitting the finished piece. In some instances, the scope of issues covered on a publication’s op-ed page is limited or the requested word length is beyond the standard. It’s important to know these things before writing your op-ed.

Several websites are extremely helpful in providing tips for increasing your chances of acceptance and answering questions about the etiquette of contacting editors about op-ed ideas and submissions. One of the best is The Op-Ed Project.

We survivors have a wealth of information and ideas to share. I hope that the information provided in this article encourages all of us to get out there and make our voices heard!