Long, long ago, in the year 2014, an opinion writer for the New York Times wrote a plea for more professors to come down from the ivory tower and write for the public. Our knowledge demands to be shared beyond the academy! And for many good reasons, not the least bit that op-eds can have lasting effects on readers’ views. Yet, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Which is why I wanted to write this academics guide to op-ed pitches.
There actually are many op-eds written by current and former academics. But more can be done. This is also very easy to say. I have not written an op-ed but I plan on it. I have an ideas journal and scribbles of various notes on public engagement, digital nomadism, travel, and the trials and tribulations of life that are awaiting its 700 words in the daylight. Until then, I have this blog.
An introduction to the op-ed
Op-eds are opinion pieces by a guest writer that makes a clear argument about a topic usually (but not always) in the news. They are independent of the position of the publication and its staff.
The purpose of the Op. Ed. page is neither to reinforce nor to counterbalance The Times’s own editorial position, which will continue to be present as usual in these columns. The objective is rather to afford greater opportunity for exploration of issues and presentation of new insights and new ideas by writers and thinkers who have no institutional connection with The Times and whose views will very frequently be completely divergent from our own. NY Times Editorial Board, 1970
Op-eds are meant to serve the reader, not the writer and their interests. The author usually writes the entire piece unassisted, and the publication fact checks and edits the work. Submissions for op-eds usually are full written pieces but can be short pitch ideas. This depends on the publication submission requirements.
Pitching an op-ed is structurally very different from pitching an idea or your expertise to the media. Op-ed, which actually means ‘opposite editorial, is named for its location, not its content. Its purpose always remained the same, though.
An Academics Guide to Op-ed Pitches
Who are you pitching
Typically, op-ed pitches are submitted to the Opinion section editor. You might be able to find contact information on the publication’s website on their masthead. Publications will state their submission guidelines which may include an anonymous email solely for op-ed submissions or an automated form. If you are lucky, they will list an actual human.
BUT! If you are looking for contact information or submission guidelines for the top newspapers and magazines in the U.S., The OpEd Project maintains an solid list of major daily newspapers and their submission information (with email addresses!)
If you find contact information for a human Opinion Editor, be sure to personalize the message and the pitch.
Whichever publication you choose, be sure to read what is published in the op-ed section to get a sense of writing styles, topics, and content. Read as many op-eds as you can, even the ones that do not interest you.
What are you pitching
Typically, op-ed submission requires a fully written piece for submission. They are short in length (between 600-850 words). You don’t need to include citations or links in the submission, but you will need to be able to support your points with evidence and have the references ready during fact-checking.
The Washington Post publishes op-eds that:
- Help people more deeply understand a topic in the news.
- Help them understand what it means for them.
- Equip them with arguments they can employ when talking about the subject.
- Elevate ideas that help them think about the world differently.
- Expose them to topics they might not have heard about.
- Help them better articulate their own perspective.
- Help them understand perspectives different from their own.
- Op-eds that break news. They reveal something of consequence that was not previously known to the public.
Many publications will accept op-eds, or guest essays, in various formats.
The New York Times Opinion guest essays make an argument, delivered in the author’s own voice, based on fact and drawn from an author’s expertise or experience. Our goal is to offer readers a robust range of ideas on newsworthy events or issues of broad public concern from people outside The New York Times.
We welcome ideas for submissions in all mediums, including audio, illustration, data and visualization.
Get personal. Or not.
Don’t be afraid of writing about something personal as it relates to your research (or whatever topic you want to write about!). Our lived experiences impact the way we see the world and our unique perspective, and should be brought to light. You want to connect on a deeper level with the reader in op-eds versus other types of writing. Not every op-ed needs a personal connection, but if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
This Washington Post op-ed, written by Christina Cipriano, assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center and director of research at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, is an excellent example of personal writing punctuated with research. The author implores parents to stop telling their children not to stare at those who are different from them. She pulls from own experience as a mom with a child with a rare genetic disorder.
Ultimately, you have to present a narrative worthy of reading. Think about all the great narratives and prose you’ve read. What keeps you interested? A good damn story! Emulate that in your own op-ed writing.
Where are you pitching
The dream is obviously to publish an op-ed in the illustrious New York Times. Well, at least it’s my dream. But we should start small and practical. And if you have an angle that is more local or regional, it makes sense to start there. There are plenty of local and regional papers and magazines. There is the trade publication option as well if your op-ed is more niche.
Also, research to see if the op-ed you are pitching has not been written or if something similar was already published. If so, you’ll want to make sure your angle is especially unique and different from what was previously presented.
And similar to research publishing, you’ll want to pitch to one publication at a time.
When are you pitching
You will have a much better chance of publishing an op-ed if it is connected to a news event. This is also called newsjacking. This also means being ready at any moment to write your little heart out.
If you have an op-ed that is evergreen (isn’t time sensitive), take a look at the editorial calendars to see if there is somewhere you can newsjack. Otherwise, spring and early fall are slower times for publications (barring any major local, national, or international events).
But if your op-ed is time sensitive and needs more immediate action, follow up with the editor after 24-48 hours to nudge them and reiterate the timeliness of the piece. This also gives you time to submit somewhere else if rejected.
Why are you pitching (finding the angle)
This is the most important question to ask yourself. Because op-ed writing takes time, patience, and a healthy does of humility. What topic(s) do you feel so strongly about? I’ve found that the pen really moves for me when something I’ve read pisses me off (see: Twitter was never ours to begin with or My thoughts on the knowledge deficit model).
Personally, I think a lot about the patterns I see as a digital nomad and as a former academic (these are mutually exclusive ideas, obvi). I’m currently working on a op-ed on the age of borders and (digital) nomadism. But I am also seeing patterns in the psyche of the digital nomad as I travel full time. I keep a journal of scribbled notes and a iNote full of random thoughts that bear the markings of an op-ed. One day, when the mood strikes, I’ll type up the notes and attempt to write a coherent and valuable piece on a small part of the culture that could have a bigger impact on the world.
If you are unsure of what to write or what your angle could be, spend time every day free writing. This can literally be 5-10 minutes a day. This will help you flesh out ideas, give you practice with public writing, and be better prepared when a newsjacking opportunity presents itself.
How are you pitching
You must start with reviewing the publication’s submission guidelines. Here are a few of the biggies, for reference:
The structure of an op-ed is pretty formulaic (but also not set in stone, in case you were looking for some real clarity here). Lede/intro paragraph, main argument points (up to 3, depending), counter-argument, conclusion that offers a solution or call to action. Since op-eds are so short, you have to make every word count. Get to the lede and your main point(s) quick. The lede is the hook. It is what draws the reader in and keeps them reading.
How are you pulling people into your piece and keeping them interested? A story? A reference to a related news story? With humor? Are you connecting it to something in pop culture? Are you connecting it with your lived experience? Think about all the op-eds you’ve read (and should be reading if you are preparing to submit). Note the form, the word choice, the flow. What is it about the good ones that draw you in? Also, try reading op-eds that you would not normally be interested in reading.
The style of writing for an op-ed should come off the page. Light writing with punch. Engaging. It is unlike academic writing in every facet. It is persuasive, free flowing, yet structured and refined. Read as many op-eds as you can to prepare for your own journey.
Op-ed writing should have no jargon. Few statistics. It can be data-driven but should not riddle the reader with numerics. Short sentences and paragraphs. Action words. Bear in mind that the average American has an 8th grade reading level (though the average American may not be your audience…this is still something to consider!). Write in your own voice. Not the voice of an academic, but the voice of someone who cares deeply about the topic and is informed well enough to do so in a deep and engaging manner. Use first person. Talk about the ways in which this topic impacts you.
Here are a few examples of op-eds written by academics, researchers, and scientists.
- Can a Neuroscientist Fight Cancer With Mere Thought? // NY Times
- The Dictionary I Read for Fun // NY Times
- NFL season is here but I won’t be following anymore. I can’t un-see the harm it causes // The Guardian
- Should Vancouver pursue the 2030 Winter Olympic Games? // The Globe and Mail
- Stop Blaming Faculty of Color // Inside Higher Ed
- ‘Pose’ Celebrates Stories The Rest Of The World Ignores // HuffPost
- Taking educational equity to the next level // Cal Matters
- Abolish the Term “Student-Athlete” // Diverse Issues in Higher Education
The follow up
Most submission guidelines include the turnaround time if accepted (3-5 days). So you should not expect a response from the editor if your submission was rejected.
If your op-ed is not accepted for publication
No need to fret! Similar to the peer review journal game, one must always be prepared to embrace rejection. But we mustn’t become a victim to it. Treat every pitch rejection as an opportunity to adjust and send it somewhere else. There are plenty of publications. Just make sure you submit where the piece would be relevant to the audience.
If your op-ed is accepted for publication
Congratulations! Be sure to share share share! Share with your university public affairs office, your discipline listserv (ignore the haters, you rock!), your social media accounts, your college/unit, your mailman, everyone! What an accomplishment!
You’ll also want to obviously thank the editor for their work and help. Keep in contact with the editor after your op-ed is published. Send them the occasionally ‘check in’ email or however you deem fit to keep professional ties with someone you may eventually need help from again.
Also, make a plan for if and how you will respond to comments (good, bad, and ugly) on comment boards, emails, social media, snail mail, etc. If your op-ed is especially controversial, have a conversation (before your piece is published) with your unit head, IT department, and campus safety on how you can be protected. There are plenty of risks with public writing, but there are also plenty of ways universities and departments can be proactive to minimize the harm.
Keep track of references as you are writing (more than likely, they will ask for your sources before publication) for fact checking. You don’t need to include citations or links in the submission, but you will need to be able to support your points with evidence.
Respect deadlines and respond in a timely manner to any and all requests. Be prepared to move quickly with edits, feedback, sources, etc.
Keep track of your op-ed(s) and any media hits not only for your RPT packet. This includes quantifiable metrics like shares, website visits, etc. Also track and post your media hits on your own portfolio. I like this Padlet version, but you can easily do this on LinkedIn, your own personal website, etc.
…but wait, there’s more!
Are you looking for more on media pitching including pitch templates, examples, and deeper insight and advice? Well, you’re in luck! We built An Academics Guide to Media Pitching that covers op-ed pitching and pitching story ideas! Access it here.