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Have Something to Say? Sell It: Writing for the Op-ed Market
by Karen J. Gordon

Remember that article you read in the paper? Or the report you saw on TV or heard on the radio? You know the one I mean. It was the news item that got you hot under the collar. Or maybe it was that story that tugged on your heartstrings. Your mind went into overdrive with a stream of thoughts, opinions, and facts, and you said to yourself, "I have something to say about that!"

If you do, then you should try your hand at writing op-eds. You might have heard it's a tough market to break, and I won't tell you otherwise. But the good news is that every month hundreds of op-ed pieces are published in national and regional newspapers, and though not all of the publications pay, a good number of them do. Before you start thinking about getting paid for your opinions though, you need to know exactly what an op-ed is.

1. The name op-ed comes from the term "opposite the editorial page" which is often where you find them.

2. An op-ed usually runs between 600-850 words.

3. The piece is focused on one newsworthy idea or issue.

4. Research, facts, and/or personal experience are used to support the opinion.

5. An op-ed offers a creative solution to a problem or a new way of looking at a timely subject.

In addition to understanding the defining characteristics of op-eds, you also need to be able to share your strongly held opinion in a unique way. By expressing your original viewpoint with creativity and intelligence, you can draw in a wide audience with your enthusiasm.

Kate Walter, freelance writer and journalism teacher at NYU, sold op-eds to The New York Times, Newsday, and the NY Daily News. She says, "You must have a personal connection to a topical issue. I'm usually angry and funny at the same time. I think all my published op-eds stemmed from outrage." Some of her topics were: why I hate NYC street fairs; why I could not get a credit card when I have no debts and have a job; and various pieces about living in NYC rent stabilized apartments.

Jeff Manthos, violinmaker and writer, also had a personal connection to his subject. He wrote his opinion piece in response to an article in the local paper about Vic Wood, a Vietnam Veteran who'd crashed in 1970 on the jungle covered side of Vietnam's Dragon Mountain. Manthos met Wood in 1971 at the Brooke Army Hospital, but it was in May of '97 that he read how Wood's name was the most recent addition to the Oregon Vietnam Living Memorial. When asked why he thought The Oregonian chose his piece for publication, Manthos said, "I think the editors chose it because of its deeply personal nature and because of how their own article touched me, a nice interplay of themes."

Both Manthos and Walter targeted their work toward a regional audience that was familiar with the subject matter, but you can also find success writing op-eds with a larger audience in mind. Janine Adams, a freelance pet writer in St. Louis, Missouri wrote about "bringing outdoor dogs inside during cold weather." She was inspired to write the piece one bitter, cold day when she was out walking her dog who was wearing a polar fleece coat. She felt bad for the dogs she saw shivering in their yards and she felt mad at their owners. "I came home and penned an op-ed. And I just faxed it in." Even though her piece was published by her local paper, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, its audience was not specific to her locale, and Adams said she "...could have sent it to cold-weather newspapers all over the country."

Another writer with success penning op-eds for a more universal audience is Jen Singer, freelance writer and creator of www.MommaSaid.net. Slanting each piece in a unique direction such as "lost in the shadow of the Baby Boomer generation and defining their own American Dream with entrepreneurial solutions," she sold op-eds about Gen Xers to The Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and The Miami Herald.

After setting the tone with your unique viewpoint, use tight and intelligent writing in the body of your op-ed to strengthen your opinion. Cincinnati based freelance writer, Rita Colorito, who sold her first op-ed to the Los Angeles Times, wrote her piece on how, "...watching television programs in English, like Sesame Street, can help non-native English-speaking children or children raised in a bilingual household. I tied it to my own experience growing up in an Italian-American household and also related it to that of my childhood classmates reared in Portuguese and Creole speaking households."

If you read op-eds, you'll notice that many of them are written by experts, but don't let that dissuade you from trying your hand at this market. As Colorito says, "The topic of bilingual education was really big at the time, with tons of experts writing op-eds. If I had tried to do an op-ed on the pros and cons of bilingual education it never would have been published. So I came at it from my own experience--which unless you are a noted expert in a particular field--is really the best approach to writing and selling op-eds. Your experience is your expertise."

Your closing paragraph should tie back to the beginning by clearly restating your opinion or offering a solution. And even though you're writing about a newsworthy subject, it never hurts to add humor if it's appropriate. Most editors want to see the full manuscript, but check the guidelines on their web sites because there are always exceptions. And whether submission is by regular or e-mail, always include a cover letter. Most importantly, choose a subject that's dear to your heart. It's your passion for the subject combined with your unique viewpoint that's going to get your voice heard.

Here are a few markets to get you started:

Baltimore Sun; Richard C. Gross, Op-Ed Page Editor; richard.gross@baltsun.com; 300-700 words; $50-150; Exclusive rights.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer; forum@plaind.com; to 700 words; $75; Non-exclusive worldwide rights.

The Orange County Register; Linda Svehla, Executive Assistant Editorial & Commentary Department; lsvehla@ocregister.com; $25.

Newsday; oped@newsday.com; 700-800 words; $150; queries preferred.

© Copyright 2003, Karen J. Gordon

Karen J. Gordon writes for both print and online publications. Some of her writing credits include The Busy Freelancer, Pineapple Path, Reiki Magazine International, Western Territory, and The Oregonian. Her essay, "Touched," has been accepted for the book, "Freedom Isn't Free" by Kim Wilson.

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