Questions: Editorials, Letters to the Editor, and Opinions

Questions About the Writing Process

Questions About Writing for Newspapers

Questions about Writing and Being Publicly Active

 

Answers

Questions About the Writing Process

Q: I'm not a professional writer. Will a newspaper publish an article I write?

A: Newspapers' op-ed editors always are on the lookout for well-written commentaries from local residents, especially ones that treat state or local issues.

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Q: Do I need to be an expert to write about an issue?

A: No. You need a basic grasp of an issue and a firm opinion on it. A small amount of well-focused research can provide you the information you need to write a well-informed opinion article.

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Q: I can't devote hours of uninterrupted time to writing an article. Would I still be able to write something timely?

A: Other than professional journalists, few people can devote hours on end to research and writing. But if you choose as your topic an issue whose resolution is not a mere several days away, and can write for as little as an hour or so every other day over a couple of weeks, you can complete a timely opinion article on most subjects.

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Q: Must an article be lengthy to adequately convey an opinion?

A: No. A concisely-written, 500-word article — in which you choose precisely the right words and say exactly what you mean in as few words as possible — is much more vital and persuasive than a long, wordy article.

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Questions About Writing for Newspapers

Q: Are opinion articles, letters to the editor, and commentaries the same as op-ed pieces?

A: The terms "opinion article," "commentary," and "op-ed" are synonymous and used interchangeably; they refer to guest submissions of (usually) 500-750 words written by people who are not members of a newspaper's editorial staff and that are published on a newspaper's op-ed (short for "opposite-editorial") page. The term "letter to the editor" refers to shorter submissions of (usually) 150 or fewer words that (again, usually) are less rigorously documented and composed than op-eds.

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Q: Is there a difference between an editorial and an op-ed?

A: Yes. An editorial is an unsigned article setting forth the official position of a newspaper's editorial board. An op-ed is a bylined opinion article by a guest writer who is not on the newspaper's staff and whose opinion does not necessarily reflect the newspaper's position.

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Q: Will I get paid for writing an op-ed?

A: Some newspapers pay for op-eds (usually a very nominal amount), and others don't. If this is important to you, check with the publication first.

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Q: Will the newspaper edit my op-ed piece? Do I get to review my opinion article after it is edited but before it is published?

A: Most likely, the editor will make a few minor changes in wording and perhaps delete a sentence or two. But if you organize your argument well, choose your words carefully, and adhere to the newspaper's word limit for op-eds, your submission is unlikely to be edited significantly. You will generally not be able to review the article again before publication.

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Q: I've written a letter to the editor that has been published.  Will this increase my chances of publishing an op-ed?

A: It may — especially if the editorial staffer who selects letters to the editor also has a hand in selecting op-ed commentaries and remembers your name.  Also, you may enhance your chances of publishing your op-ed if, when submitting it, you mention in your cover letter that the newspaper has published a letter to the editor you've written.

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Q: Is it legal for a newspaper to restrict my speech? I once wrote an op-ed critical of my mayor and city council, and the newspaper I submitted it to told me it was too offensive to print. 

A: Most newspapers are privately-owned and free to print or decline a submission for any reason they choose.  If you write an op-ed that criticizes anyone by name and want to increase your chances of publication, frame your discussion rationally, stick to the issues and don't get personal.

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Q: I wrote an op-ed article for the local newspaper in my community. Can I submit the same op-ed to a regional or national newspaper, magazine, or web site?

A: Once you submit a commentary to a newspaper, it becomes the newspaper's property; however, if the newspaper rejects your submission, you then are free to submit it elsewhere. If a newspaper publishes your commentary and later you wish to submit it elsewhere as well, contact the newspaper and ask permission to do so; often, it will grant permission so long as the publication or Website that reprints your commentary notes that it was published first in the original newspaper.

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Q: If my op-ed submission is controversial or expresses an opinion different from what most of my neighbors believe, is it more or less likely to be accepted by a newspaper?

A: Op-ed editors always are on the lookout for submissions that will interest and challenge their readers. A well-documented, well-argued, tightly-written commentary that questions "conventional wisdom" on an issue will stand a strong chance of acceptance.

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Questions about Writing and Being Publicly Active

Q: Can the ability to write a newspaper opinion article increase my effectiveness as a political/public-policy activist?

A: Yes. The op-ed page is one of a newspaper's most widely-read sections. If you publish an op-ed in the newspaper of a large or medium-sized city, you will convey your views to — and, perhaps, help mold the opinions of — many thousands of readers in your area.

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Q: What are good topics for an opinion article?

A: Here are some suggestions:

  • Campaigns or elections for your state's governor, Senate and House of Representatives, and for the U.S. Congress
  • State and local campaign finance reform
  • State and local government budgets
  • State initiatives and referendums
  • City and municipal ordinances
  • School curricula and funding
  • Local transit and transportation policies
  • Local law-enforcement policies
  • Local environmental and air-quality policies
  • Local siting of "big-box" retail stores
  • Bond measures at the state, regional, and local levels
  • Urban growth policy
  • Local utilities such as electricity, natural gas, water, sewer, cable TV, and internet service providers
  • Immigration
  • Affirmative action
  • Buildings and architecture
  • Public art

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