Op-eds can boost a client’s profile, but they require careful structuring and plenty of hard work. A former HuffPost editor shares her advice.
By Jody Thompson,
Whether you’re writing under your own name or ghostwriting on behalf of a client, a well-timed op-ed can do wonders for any business. As well as showcasing the expertise and knowledge within your firm, they also give businesses a relatable, human face. As such, they are increasingly important in an age where potential clients, partners and customers demand authenticity and transparency from brands.
What’s more, op-eds can deliver a strong return on investment and could boost your bottom line by leading to new business and media opportunities. Potential clients will read a wide range of titles, not just those focused on their specific industry, so don’t forget mainstream newspapers. A good op-ed for a respected title will give you the prestige of appearing in the press and win you respect from your peers.
Wherever they’re published – and don’t forget LinkedIn, where 45% of the 610 million users are in upper management – almost all op-eds are hooked to a news angle. There’s no point writing a brilliant op-ed only to sit on it for days. The news angle will be dead tomorrow – and so will your chances of getting the piece published. Speed is of the essence.
That means staying on top of the daily news agenda and being aware of upcoming newsworthy events. It’s not just about your industry; consider wider events such as International Women’s Day, Black Friday and Fair Trade Month. You also need to be aware of lead times if the piece is intended for a weekly or monthly title, as you might need to pitch well in advance of the newsworthy date.
Write the damn thing
Keep it punchy, passionate and accessible. First thoughts tend to be the best thoughts, so try and rattle out a rough draft in 30 minutes. A good technique is to imagine the piece as a conversation down the pub with a friend, or even an extended Facebook rant. You can go back to flesh it out and hone your argument later.
Be subtle about plugging your business: you’ll get a byline featuring your company name, and that’s enough. Don’t assume the readers will have any inside knowledge, and avoid jargon and acronyms.
You must write to the word count specified by the publication – and certainly never write way under what’s required. Use the word count to maximise your message. Generally, 800 words is the optimal length for an op-ed, but editors will probably give you 10% leeway in either direction, so if the word count is 800, you can get away with 880 or 720.
When it comes to structuring your piece, it’s widely accepted that it takes just three seconds for someone to decide whether or not to keep reading an article, so try to grab people’s attention in the first paragraph.
In the next few paragraphs, outline why you care about the topic and what the overarching point is. Flesh out your argument in the next five paragraphs or so, while backing up any assertions with links to stats or sources, before offering solutions. Then, loop back to your first paragraph in your last one by restating your overarching point, before concluding (hopefully) with a killer payoff line.
When editing your work, kill your darlings. That means getting rid of elements that don’t really help your argument, however much you love them. And when you’ve done all of that, delete as many adjectives as you can. The less flowery the language, the better.
Finally, if the op-ed is going to be online (and most are eventually), make sure you optimise it for SEO, with plenty of keywords relating to the topic at hand to ensure maximum visibility and potential hits and shares. If you’ve gone to the trouble of writing an op-ed, you want as many people as possible to read it, not least from a business perspective.
When you’re first pitching your piece, send the editor a précis of the argument. Explain why you or your client are writing this now, and why you have the expertise to write it. Op-ed editors want unique, authoritative voices, so include a brief biography of the author. Equally important is knowing the title’s house style, tone and which section to pitch to – while also checking that your angle hasn’t already been covered.
This should go without saying, but it’s surprising how many people don’t get it: you must be opinionated. An op-ed is not a news story or an academic paper – you need a clear, persuasive argument.
If your pitch is accepted, try and write a catchy headline that actually says what the piece is about. Don’t try to be too punning or clever with it – and don’t be offended if the editor chooses to write their own instead.
Ultimately, you need to cater to the editor and their readership – then you stand to reap the op-ed rewards.
Jody Thompson was formerly blogs editor at HuffPost UK and now runs her own business, Jody Thompson Media Consultancy.
A version of this article was originally published in Influence magazine, Q4 2019.