Forget everything you were taught about writing essays and scientific papers, here are a few tips on how to write an opinion piece (or op-ed, as journalists say) that people will actually want to read and talk about.
Remember, you usually only have 500-800 words to work with, so this will help you keep it tight and sharp.
As always, preparation is the key to media communication. Before you even put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), work out the point you want to make and the three key messages you want to deliver to your audience, in priority order.
All three of these points, should ideally be in the top half of your article. They should NEVER appear for the first time in the conclusion.
This is media, we don’t do English essays here.
Avoid headlines that are questions
This is not a hard-and-fast rule but it is useful.
When a headline is a question, readers mentally insert an answer that is linked to their experience. Often the answer is a joke. This sets the reader up to enter your story with a preconceived position and emotion that can completely take the wind out of your opening sentence and even the entire article.
Try to make your headline an active statement. If you are stuck for headline ideas, write it in the active form of X does Y to Z. It’s a structure that helps anyone to come up with something snappy.
Open with a strong first line
Start with an attention-grabbing opening line that cuts to the heart of your key message and encourages people to read further. It “must” evoke an emotion or an element of curiosity. It can be a strong fact, statement or even the beginning of an anecdote that has audience connection.
Why? Because readers make decisions on whether or not to read an article by how they respond to the headline and the first sentence. The first line is the display-window for all the goodies you have inside. It is why reporters can sometimes spend more time on getting the first line right than in writing the rest of the story.
If readers like your first line, they are prepared to give the second line and then the third a go. Once a reader is four sentences into an opinion piece, the chances that they will read it right to the end go up significantly.
If you are struggling with the opening line, write the whole article first and then come back to the lead line at the end. Often the process of writing will reveal the key theme and the sizzling introduction.
Just as a note, there are things called delayed (para) graphs that are very effective and add colour but they require practice. Let’s keep it simple at this stage.
You aren’t there just to help
Hard to believe isn’t it? Unless you are writing an explainer you better be making an argument or a call for change. Back your call with mounting evidence, data and stories.
You have a point, so make it. You are not a teacher explaining the world.
Don’t try to explain everything at once
Make the point, or points, first then introduce the qualifications later. Scientific training means too many scientists try to put in all the qualifications around a subject at the beginning of a paragraph or at the top of an op-ed. Do that and your readers will quit before the end of the sentence.
Put your best stuff early in the article
Structure your opinion piece so that the best stuff is towards the front of an article, just as you do in a conversation.
Essay formats and academic writing have done a great disservice to scientists trying to communicate through opinion pieces. The structure of introduction, point, point, point and big conclusion has its place in high school English but only rarely in op-eds.
In casual conversation we instinctively say the most exciting things first to keep the interest of our friends. Reporters take the same approach writing stories because long experience and research tells them this is the way to keep the attention of readers. This approach has been formalized and is known as the inverted pyramid format.
So, when you are writing think of how you talk to your friends, which brings us to…
Use active and conversational voice
Journalists and successful writers use active voice because it is direct and engages the audience. Sadly, science journals demand passive voice and technical terms.
To engage the public, write in active voice. You can find a nice explanation of the difference between passive and active voice here.
At the same time, be conversational. Write to the level of your audience and in a natural voice. This increases readability and projects personality. It is also vital for establishing your public persona as a writer and media commentator.
A natural voice helps media types to decide whether you are worth an interview after they have read your very engaging piece. Interviews are a bonus that drives your message even further.
Keep paragraphs self-contained, short but variable
In general, paragraphs should be no more than three sentences. Each paragraph must have its own content, integrity and structure to deliver a single concept built on sentences that fit together in an easily understood unit.
To accomplish this, make sure sentences deliver one idea at a time. If a sentence is overly long and has too much going on, it usually means there are too many ideas. There is a cure for this.
In overly long sentences it is likely there is a rogue “and” to be deleted. Find that rogue “and” – as I did here – then replace it with a full stop (and). Start the word after that deleted rogue “and” with a capital letter to create two single-idea sentences. Simple.
Variety in sentence tone is important to maintain reader interest. You can dazzle your readers with long, wandering sentences that read like a yellow brick road of colourful images irresistibly taking them towards your final conclusion. Or not.
Contrast your sentence and paragraph lengths to make reading interesting. But if you want to deliver a really punchy point, remember...
Single sentence paragraphs are deadly.
It’s not just about data. Find the story/context in data
We all love dazzling our friends with great data and facts, but to really make an impact with your opinion piece wrap your data in a story. Do that and you can explain to your audience what is happening in a way that directly relates to them. You can find an excellent article explaining the value of data storytelling and visualisations here.
In short, if you have great data, give it context. Refer to real world events or personal experiences that you and your audience have likely encountered.
Don’t try just to teach your readers, touch them emotionally as well
The research is unequivocal about the importance of emotion in helping people remember an article, so don’t deliver nothing but data and bland conclusions.
With an emotional kicker, your readers understand your data and develop an emotional response that lodges your op-ed in their memory.
Be prepared to comment
With op-eds, it’s not over until the comments are closed.
If you write an op-ed that runs online, it is in your own self-interest to engage with commenters. There are a few reasons for this.
If you engage with them, you will find that media outlets will be much more inclined to run your pieces again in the future.
Secondly, there is quite a bit of research that shows comments can colour reader perceptions of an article. If the first few comments are negative, then readers take away a negative perception of your article. If they are positive, readers are more positive about an article.
If you write the first few comments, the tone of the engagement immediately changes to one of a conversation rather than an argument.
Thirdly, you can add to your op-ed. Dropping in comments early may give you the opportunity to add statements or data that didn’t make it into the article but which you consider important. Leading a comment thread with additional data can be very useful in allowing the author to fill in key pieces of background, link to data and create a positive response to an article.
One last note with comments under articles, don’t get dragged into name-calling with trolls. As climate scientists, we expect to run into trolls more than most. In comment sections, just work with the science and if a conversation appears to be getting out of control, stop responding. Other commenters will soon pick up the thread of an argument. Your job is to be reasonable, personable and scientific.
If this all sounds like too much to remember or you need help structuring an op-ed, chat to Alvin, or whoever your media communications person may be, and they can help you put a cracker op-ed together.
An editorial is a newspaper article that expresses one's opinion. An editorial can be about any topic, but is usually written about an issue that deals with our society. To build credibility, the opinion in the editorial must be backed up with facts and evidence to substantiate your opinion.
The facts and evidence must be gone through extensively to find the point of view you want to argue. With a point of view through an editorial piece, issues are given solutions that could be rendered to solve the actual problem at hand. A newspaper editorial may seem hard to write; but, initiative and passion about an issue gives you, the writer, the inside knowledge of making editorial writing easier.
Steps for Writing Newspaper Editorials
There are several different steps you need to follow in order to be successful when writing an editorial:
Choosing a Topic
The topic you choose is the most important part in writing a newspaper editorial. The best topics are those that are current issues among our society. If the topic is a current issue that everyone is already interested in then your editorial piece will engage reader’s attention.
If the topic you choose is an ongoing issue in our society, make sure to use the most recent information. However, you can use older information as sources to help prove your case. Do not make your editorial a controversial topic, unless that is that is your whole reason for writing it in the first place.
Choosing Your Opinion
You need to ask yourself, are you for or against the issue you have chosen as your topic for your newspaper editorial piece. You can not be on both sides of the fence when writing an editorial piece. The purpose for the editorial is to give your opinion, the writer’s opinion. With this in mind you must give a strong opinion, if not readers will not be as inclined to see your point of view.
Outline Your Editorial
Oh, the dreaded outline. With any type of research paper you have to do an outline. This is one of the biggest tips on writing newspaper editorial format that you should always follow. With an outline you know where you stand on the issue. The outline helps you, the writer, get your thoughts and opinions in order. The outline also helps you discover any swaying of opinions you may have missed by just diving head first into writing.
Writing Your Article
The first step to writing your newspaper editorial is to pick a headline that grabs reader’s attention. If you grab their attention from the very beginning they are more inclined to keep reading. Your opinion on the topic should be addressed in the introduction to your new editorial.
Newspaper editorials should have at least three arguments. These arguments of course should be backed up with facts and evidence from your research of the topic.
Other tips for writing editorials are:
- Use statistics to help prove your argument.
- Make sure your strongest argument is left for last.
- Do not be passive in the arguments that come before the strongest. If this happens you are most likely not going to have readers reading your entire newspaper editorial.
Conclusion of Article
In a newspaper editorial, and with most anything else you write, your conclusion should sum up all the information you wrote about. The conclusion should be tied up into a neat little package so as to let readers get a recap of all the facts that you presented in your editorial.
Your conclusion should also have a few solutions you think would help with the issue at hand. You are getting the reader to engage in asking him or herself questions on how they stand on the particular issue in our society.