The Ins and Outs of Op-Ed Writing

Op-ed pieces have their own structure, length, voice, etc. Knowing how to merge your opinion with factual information is an important part of writing an op-ed piece and attracting readers to your story.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, author, speaker, and writer for New York Times Opinion joined a recent ProfNet #ConnectChat to discuss op-eds.

Jennifer Finney Boylan. Photo by James Bowdoin.

Jennifer Finney Boylan. Photo by James Bowdoin.

In addition to writing for the New York Times, Boylan has authored 13 books, including her national bestselling memoir She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders.

Boylan not only shared how she writes op-ed pieces and makes them into compelling stories, but also talked about how to pitch them to major publications.

If you missed the Twitter chat, here is our recap. You can learn more about Jennifer Finley Bowlan, her new novella I’ll Give You Something to Cry About, and other writings on jenniferboylan.net.

How did you get involved in op-ed writing?

I was a novelist for years then became a memoirist. As a man I wrote fiction. As a woman I wrote nonfiction. Symbolic? An editor at The New York Times wrote me one Halloween and asked me to write about growing up in a haunted house. So my first op-ed for NYT Opinion was the result of an editor reaching out to me. After that, I started writing for the NYT “political postcard” series in election ’08.

How does an op-ed piece differ from other nonfiction writing?

An op-ed piece differs from other nonfiction in that it really is about opinion. I’m a storyteller, so this is hard. What I mean is, as a novelist (or a memoirist), the story is the opinion. I hate to spell it out. Show don’t tell, and all that.

But in opinion writing, they want the story, but also the opinion, the “telling.” At a certain point you have to tell the moral, make your opinion clear. Generally, you can’t just tell the story, and leave it at that — which is what my instinct is.

So an op-ed is a particular kind of story that also advocates a “position.” And that position has to be backed up by fact and research, as well as your own charming voice.

When writing an op-ed where should one draw the line on opinions if they work in a client services-based industry?

Do know that your opinions become public and will become associated with you. For instance, I’m the national co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD, and I have to be careful. People will think that my opinions are GLAAD’s opinions if I write about LGBT issues.

As a writer, I don’t draw lines — I want to write about everything! As a public figure, I have to be careful not to damage the brand of the organization. Bottom line is, I try to be very careful, and don’t write when I’ll jeopardize the organization.

What’s your philosophy on structure for nonfiction and op-ed pieces?

I always try to start with a story, preferably humorous. Then I try to “show” how the story connects to an issue in the news, or of note. And then I try to wrap up by circling back to the joke again, preferably in a new way. That’s how I do it, but there are other methods. I like leading with the story that pulls readers in.

What is the typical length of an op-ed piece?

On op-ed ideal length: NYT likes 800 words for standard column, like the regulars: Brooks, Collins, Bruni, etc. If I’m pitching a piece at them, I’ll generally aim for 800 words, especially in the summer. Why summer, you ask? Because the regular NYT columnists take vacations in the summer, so they’re always looking for people to fill. That’s how I became a regular after the “postcard” series — I became a designated summer filler — columnist “substitute teacher.”

If I’m pitching an original piece, I go as long as 1,200 words. I send to editor with note, “This is long; I can cut.” Because now I have a relationship with an editor, and I know she will read my work. They allow Sunday columns to go long too, because there’s more space in the Sunday Review. But if you’re trying to be the Best Little Freelancer In All The World, aim for 800 words.

What type of language should writers use in their op-ed piece to help move/capture their readers?

Each writer has his or her own style, of course. Gail Collins has mastered a casual, comic tone. David Brooks is more academic. Your best bet– hate to say it– is to be yourself. People can tell if you’re faking it.

My own regret is that I can’t be quite as funny as I’d like to be in NYT Opinion. Collins is the grand master of funny-but-serious on the page. I think I am funnier in person than on the page, but maybe that’s a good thing. I bet you could read a “typical” column by one of the Times’ dozen or so regulars and know within a paragraph who wrote it.

What is the first thing you do before you sit down to write a first draft?

Step one is, asking: What am I passionate about? Step two is, asking: Do I know a story that’d help me get into the subject?

Let’s say I want to write about cows. Maybe there’s a news story about cows making chocolate milk. So I’d think, “Hm, chocolate milk.” I’d do a little research. Is milk good for you? What causes lactose intolerance? I’d sketch all that out.

Then I’d think, “What stories do I know about chocolate milk?” Then I’m remembering this kid who had chocolate milk come out his nose in 1965, Richie Barnhart. Then I sit down to write.

Open with the Richie Barnhart story. Then transitional graph: “I was thinking about this recently when I heard that genetically modified cows now produce chocolate milk.” Then I go to the research on lactose intolerance, on how much milk kids drink. Then end by circling back to Richie Barnhart, who, in the ideal world, would now own a dairy farm.

Sometimes, it’s the reverse: I’ll have a good story for an opening, and look to see what it connects to.

How important is timing when pitching an op-ed piece to a publication?

Timing is everything in pitching. As is a hook. Editors aren’t interested in your random genius. So know that, the Monday before Father’s Day, editors will have seven jillion pieces about daddies. So if you’re going to write a Father’s Day piece, write it in May, and send it in early.

I had a piece ready to go for the Times this spring when I heard the news about the new SAT on the radio. I wrote my editor, “Hold the other piece, I’m writing an SAT thing.” Wrote it that night and sent it in next morning. It ran the day after. If I’d waited two days, the editor would have been swamped in SAT pieces.

Other times, you have to search for the hook. I had a piece about Winnie the Pooh they took in April, but no hook. We waited until Christmas Eve, which was the 84th anniversary of the first Pooh story in London Telegraph. It took that long.

Anniversaries can always provide great hooks. But it’s also a cliché, especially now with the 50th anniversary of the 1960s. Finding a good hook is also an art. Otherwise, sometimes you have to wait for the news cycle to give you your lede.

What suggestions do you have on cultivating a relationship with an editor?

Be respectful. Don’t be too annoying. If they encourage you, keep conversing. Be pleasant on email, but brief. Again, have pity on overworked editors. If they say no, accept that no means no. But if they’re nice with the reject, send them something else, although not right away.

What are the benefits for writers in writing op-ed pieces?

Well, the benefits of being in the NYT Opinion are that I’m in the company of some of the best writers in the world. When I have a piece in the Times, I feel, for a day, like one of the most influential writers in the world. Passionate email pours in from across the globe. People arguing that I’m wrong, or that they love me.

There are very few things in a writers’ life as powerful as that — instantly feeling the effect of one’s work. Then, the next day: it’s back to being a loser. The op-ed form is hard. It looks easy, but it’s such a high-wire act. I’m humbled to be included there, among my heroes.

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Polina Opelbaum is a community services specialist with ProfNet. To read more from Polina, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

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