How to Write an Opinion Piece

Can’t make it to Washington D.C. for the big March for America? Be there in spirit- submit an opinion piece to your college paper or local paper. An opinion piece is NOT the same thing as a Letter to the Editor. An opinion piece is essentially a short essay, published alongside regular columnists and the editorial. It is also submitted to a different department or email address than where you would normally submit Letters to the Editor (search the newspaper’s website).

Samuel Sukaton, Assistant Viewpoint Editor for the award-winning Daily Bruin at UCLA shares what it takes to get published:

Below are five points I feel are absolutely essential to any good op-ed piece.  While I’m not particularly formulaic about writing, I catch myself mentioning these five words or variations on them as I read pieces:

1) Brevity.  Brevity is the sine qua non of opinion writing in every venue. People read a newspaper online with Tumblr, Facebook, and the Daily Beast all up in different tabs; understand that you have one shot to get eyeballs, unless you’re in the New York Times or a similar paper. One thing online I found said “700 words good, 500 words better.” While I’m unsure about the 500 thing, I agree that 800 is the absolute upper limit. DO NOT go beyond 800 unless your last name is Kristof, Krugman, or Klein.  So basically, keep it as short as possible. Bare bones, people.

2) Structure. While I generally detest formulaic writing, there are some elements that make an op-ed pop. Keep in mind what I said above: Unless this is inNewsweek or the Nation (or even if it is) you have one chance – a five-second window, usually –  to get people reading.  Let’s start with The Lead: You need to lead with a hook – something interesting, shocking, or new about the DREAM Act that is little-known. A good example of this would be saying that “40 percent of undocumented students in the UC system are Asian American.” (Which is true. My eyes popped out of my head when I heard it!) A little-known, well-sourced fact is best in this instance – “giving undocumented grads citizenship will pump x number of tax dollars…” or something like that. Question leads are good, but they can come off as a little cheesy sometimes – be careful. Most of  the best leads I’ve ever read are quick, jarring anecdotes.

Then, comes the Nut graf: this should be your second paragraph – your “thesis statement”, to use the hackneyed old phrase. It should always be a variation on “Passing the DREAM Act is fiscally, politically, and morally good for this country.”

And finally, your facts: you can never have enough; but that doesn’t mean you have to use all of them at once. Structure your narrative around them and use them to make different parts of your argument pop. Source all of them, and triple-check to make sure they’re true. There’s nothing worse than getting calls from angry copy editors the night before it runs (or worse, newspaper ombudsmen the day after it runs).

3) Newsworthiness: Play the news cycle and know when people’s eyes will be on the immigration issue. If there’s a huge rally, be sure to put an op-ed in just before it. If there’s a legislative package coming up that could use immigration legislation in it, write in.

4) Novelty: talk to people that haven’t heard about your issue; if they have, tell them something they don’t know. There are a lot of brilliant activists and commentators in favor of immigration reform in Los Angeles. Try somewhere new.  Write to the Denver Post, the Salt Lake Tribune, places that might be hostile only because they haven’t heard your side of it directly.

5) Localization: Newsworthiness is about proximity in time. Localization is about proximity in space. Hook your op-ed to a local event. In LA, the story about the church as sanctuary; in Texas, the local mayor who stepped down to marry his undocumented Mexican lover. Localizing a story to the media market you’re pitching the op-ed to will guarantee more people will read it and remember it, as they’re linking it with the local story you piggybacked on.

So there you have it.  Advice from a real newspaper editor.

And now, some advice from your DREAMActivist editor: Tell a story.  A narrative, even if it isn’t your own, is always more powerful than a policy statement.  Be real.  Try to write the same way in which you would explain the issue to a classmate.  You don’t have to use big words, you don’t have to use big concepts. This isn’t a complicated thing to explain:  DREAM students are Americans, through and through. Period. Finally, draw on school spirit.  Make references to school mottos, school history (if it has a history in civil rights organizing, which most universities do…) school sports teams, etc.  And to extend upon what Sam said about “localization”, include an action item.  Tell people to visit Dreamactivist.org, call their senators/congressperson, to sign the petition, to go to the rally.

For examples, check out these submissions, to the University of Michigan’s The Michigan Daily and UCLA’s Daily Bruin, respectively:

“Accessing the American Dream”

“It is time to speak for the DREAM Act”

Good luck!  Happy writing, you can do it, and if you need any help, please feel free to email me at flavia.delafuente@gmail.com

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