Section 3-1: Op-Eds

In the US, key opinion forums feed all other media and drive thought leadership. The Op-Ed pages and commentary forums of major media outlets—whether print, online, or broadcast—are followed by diplomats, business-people, scholars, and those in the highest levels of government. They can sway public opinion and change the world.

During this month, The Op-Ed Project will push you to hone the ideas and causes that you care about, and help you to write about them to make a difference. We will explore the source of credibility and how to establish it quickly; the patterns and elements of a powerful argument; the difference between being "right" and being effective; how to effectively make your point with people who don't necessarily agree with you, how to think bigger about what you know, and how to make a bigger impact on the world.

This month is not about writing op-eds—it's about empowering you to find your voice and make a difference, and it is about the collective impact we can all make by doing so.

Purpose of an Op-Ed

An op-ed is an argument backed up by evidence. Op-eds are different from hard news in that they are not meant to be objective, nor are they expected to present both—or all—sides of an issue. However, op-eds strive to be fair. Op-eds are also different from editorials, which are written by a newspaper's publisher and editorial board; and they are different from regular columns, which are written by staff columnists.

To be published, an op-ed should be original, timely, well reported, and well expressed. It should be of civic value, meaning it should add something to the public debate. And, of course, it must be short. In other words, op-ed writing requires discipline: The best pieces express large ideas with little ink.

Besides being short, op-eds come in many forms—satirical and earnest, entertaining and devastating, straightforward and sly—and they can employ a wide variety of tactics to get a point across. A declarative op-ed ("policy X is bad; here's why"), a staple of the page, relies on a straightforward argument presented in a logical progression of points, and often suggests an action that should be taken.

Sometimes op-eds will read more like personal essays—if the personal experience is used to shed light on an issue or problem of greater significance. Humor is an effective way of getting a point across (so long as it's funny). And sarcasm, too. In 1978, Gloria Steinem wrote her now famous and hilarious essay for Ms. Magazine titled, If Men Could Menstruate.

Sometimes an op-ed can be a call to action. Writing in the Los Angeles Times in 2003, Susan Estrich challenged the newspaper's editor to do something about the dearth of women writers on the Op-Ed page—and sparked a debate that played out over months on the Op-Ed pages of almost every other national newspaper.

Sometimes an op-ed can call a leader to task. In an op-ed for the Financial Times, Priya Satia calls on US President Barack Obama to end drone air attacks on Pakistan, which under his leadership intensified in the first four months of 2009.

Meanwhile, some op-eds will take a stab at deciphering social and cultural trends, offering insight on, for example, the history, mythology, or economy that drives or underlies them.

Reasons to Write an Op-ed

Why write an op-ed? After all, they're short. And in most countries they don't pay well. (Sometimes they don't pay at all!) Perhaps you see the Op-Ed page as a place for politicians and public policy wonks to air their grievances—not a place for regular people to weigh in. Besides, you might think, op-eds are mostly written by experts, right? Perhaps you don't consider yourself one of those (you should!). Fair enough, but that's not the whole story.

Improve the World

Op-eds are one of the most powerful and effective ways to get YOUR voice out there. The Op-Ed pages of major newspapers are read by diplomats, businesspeople, scholars, and those in the highest levels of government. They can sway public opinion and change the world.

For example, American diplomat Joseph Wilson's famous, scandal-sparking op-ed—in which he argued that the Bush administration had manipulated intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq—ultimately forced the White House to change its story about the "war on terror."

Improve Your Career

Op-eds also attract the attention of television producers, book agents, and policy makers. A single op-ed can make you part of a national debate. Launch a career. Land you a book deal. Those two potential objectives—improving your career and improving the world—are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they overlap:

The Op-Ed page is a place where, if you have a good idea and express it well, you can not only establish yourself as an expert writer and thinker on an issue, but also become a much more powerful advocate for the ideas and causes that you care about.

Finally, the Op-Ed page is the one section of the newspaper dedicated to the voices of outside contributors, including those without lengthy credentials, fancy jobs, or famous names—and includes those who may disagree with the views of the newspaper's editors. Materials created by The OpEd Project exclusively for World Pulse.