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9 tips to improve the chances of getting your op ed published

by Shari Graydon

Wait! Read this blog post before you press “send” on that unsolicited commentary

In the dog days of summer 2017, when many people were at the beach, or glued to the media coverage of Charlottesville’s neo-Nazi march and the shocking response from the leader of the free world, a small posse of women with informed opinions were speaking up to make change.

University of Ottawa law prof, Liz Sheehy and Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre executive director Sunny Marriner co-wrote about sexual assault; Rakhi Ruparelia, also a member of the law faculty at UOttawa, called out racism in Canada; Canada Research Chair in Global Women’s Issues, Bipasha Baruah, linked the rise of acid attacks around the world to toxic masculinity; Amira Elghawaby chronicled the affluent empathy gap; and Michelle Stack challenged educators to take responsibility for addressing tough issues in the classroom. (All of these pieces are featured in the 2017 graduate showcase section of our website, where we’ll post your published commentaries, too, if you send them to us.)

Even though Rakhi was nursing an ill relative, when she received an email from Christina Spencer at the Ottawa Citizen asking her to weigh in, she says,

“I didn’t hesitate… I reminded myself the article
didn’t have to be perfect, just out there.”

This is important advice for all of us to remember – I call it “the reasonable man approach”. We don’t allow ourselves to turn down an opportunity that a reasonable man would be quick to embrace.

When people approach you to write commentary, be interviewed, or speak at an event, they never ask if you’re “the best”, and they’re not expecting perfection. They’re usually looking for someone who can offer context, add value, or provide insight.

And if they’ve reached out to you on the basis of their past knowledge of you, your internet profile, or someone’s explicit recommendation, you can likely do all of that and more. This is the conclusion a reasonable man comes to right away. (For more on this principle applied to public speaking, read this.)

If you haven’t yet taken our Writing Compelling Commentary workshop, or if you’re worried you’ve forgotten much of what we shared, our new online Learning Hub has an entire section featuring reminders and strategies. In the meantime, you can learn a lot from the advice someone gives to others – and it’s often less painful. Especially when the insights permit you to avoid making mistakes, as opposed to having to rectify the ones you’ve already made.

In that spirit, here are some suggestions I’ve given to a handful of smart women whose first drafts contained one or more elements that were likely to get in the way of them persuading their intended audience, or being accepted for publication in the first place.

Before you hit the “send” button on your own submission, it’s worth revisiting the following:

  1. Decide on the publication you want your comments to appear in before you start writing. Targeting your work helps shape how you write it, what arguments you marshal, and what examples you give (e.g. If you’re extolling the benefits of meditation to a business audience, you’ll emphasize findings about boosted productivity; if speaking to educators, you’ll cite research showing an improved ability to stay awake in class). Identifying the publication in advance also tells you the number of words the editors are looking for.
  2. Anticipate and explicitly address the resistance to new ideas, or a different perspective on a misunderstood issue. Effective commentaries anticipate, acknowledge and then refute at least some of the objections that readers are likely to have to the opinions being expressed. If you’re going to advocate that more city-dwellers should trade their cars in for bikes, you need to acknowledge that those with physical disabilities or a long highway commute have legitimate reasons not to.
  3. Conceptual language is usually a deterrent for anyone who’s not already familiar with or interested in your topic. Look for ways to translate theoretical phrases into concrete ones so readers can visualize what you’re describing. That’s why “performing surgery” is better than “surgical intervention”, why “feeling optimistic” is better than “optimism”.
  4. Exclamation marks are almost never a good idea. (Among other things, their inclusion immediately tells the editor that you probably don’t read her page! And she’s not going to like that!!)
  5. Too much data is overwhelming. Each stat cited becomes less impactful as a result. Pick one or two of the most compelling stats in support of your point, and then provide a concrete, relatable example that fleshes out the numbers, plants an image in readers’ minds, and elicits an emotional response that will complement the intellectual one.
  6. Save the self-interested promo for a news release. Any piece that explicitly and unapologetically focuses on telling the government to appoint a champion to promote a policy that neatly aligns with your organizations’ mandate is, by definition, too self-interested; it reads more like a news release, and that’s not what comment sections are for.
  7. Yes, you need a news hook. Demonstrating the immediacy of your argument – by tying it to an emerging trend, recent government announcement, or upcoming event – gives the editor a reason to publish your piece now, as opposed to “next month.” (Because “next month” usually translates into “never” — unless you re-submit next month, with a now-timely news hook).
  8. Avoid repetitious language. When readers come across the same word or phrase repeated several times in the course of a paragraph, or throughout an entire article, they’re more inclined to tune out and move on to something else. Check your thesaurus for other commonly-used, accessible ways to refer to the issue, and/or rewrite sentences to eliminate duplicate words and phrases.
  9. In many cases where you’re providing examples in a list, sticking to the old rhetorical rule of three is a good idea. Speechwriters and playwrights have long demonstrated that three is the perfect number to establish and reinforce a point (I came, I saw, I conquered), but four or five becomes too many, muddying the point or becoming redundant.

If you’re seeking to publicly position yourself as a credible authority in your field, offering analysis in the form of an op ed disseminated through a respected publication is a good strategy.

And the good news is that regular columnists like to take time off in the summer, just like the rest of us. That means that it’s sometimes easier to get into the publication of your choice in July and August.

But reviewing your work in light of the tips in the above checklist gives you even more of an edge.

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