New York Times writer, Jennifer Finney Boylan
Op-ed pieces are unique in their structure, length, voice in comparison to other non-fiction writing. Knowing how to merge your opinion with factual information is an important part of writing op-ed pieces and attracting readers to your story, is a skill that takes time and practice to finesse. Jennifer Finney Boylan, author, speaker, and writer for New York Times Opinion joined our last #ConnectChat discussion, where she not only shared how she writes op-ed pieces and turn them into compelling stories, but also about how to pitch them to major publications. Here are 13 tips from Boylan all op-ed writers should remember:
Write a clear headline, but don’t expect it to make the final cut.
Writers almost never choose their own headlines. In fact, the editor won’t even consult you about the headline most of the time. This is an ancient writer/editor practice. Headlines are chosen based on space as much as anything else, and positioning. My recent piece in the NYT, “Home is Where the Horses Are” was originally titled “Why the Long Face.” Still, you need to have a headline on your piece when you submit it. That helps the editor know what you’re up to, especially if your piece is a “gimmick” piece.
Hook the reader in right away with an anecdote, humorous ones work best. Then try to “show” how the story connects to an issue in the news, or of note. Wrap up it up by circling back to the joke in a new way.
The ideal length for op-eds is 800 words; original pieces 1,200 words.The NYT prefers 800 words for a standard op-ed column, like the regulars: Brooks, Collins, Bruni, etc. If I’m pitching an original piece, I go as long as 1,200 words with a note to the editor saying, “This is long; I can cut.” Having a relationship with the editor is an advantage because I know she will read my work. Sunday columns are a bit longer as well because there is more space in the Sunday Review.
Tell a story that also advocates a “position” backed up by fact and research. Op-ed pieces differ from other nonfiction in that it really is about opinion -you can’t just tell the story and leave it at that. For example, acclaimed New York Times economist Paul Krugman discusses economic facts, but he makes those stats into a compelling, moving story. The story generally comes first, along with your own charming voice, then the research.
Be aware 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.
Be true to your personal writing style. Each writer has his or her own style, of course. It might be cliché, but your best bet is to be yourself. People can tell if you’re faking it. I bet you could read a “typical” column by one of the Times’ dozen or so regulars and know within a graph who wrote it.
Target your pitch to the most relevant publications that will connect with that story. If your story has a strong connection to a place, go to the paper in that town. You can also build a portfolio of clips starting small and going more national. My first published column was for the Middletown Press, in Connecticut about graduating from that town’s Wesleyan University. If it’s your first story, it’s good way to establish your credentials.
Pitch stories tied to seasonal events a month ahead of time.
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 be flooded with pieces about daddies. So if you’re going to write a Father’s Day piece, write it in May and send it in early.
Prioritize breaking news stories. Finding a good hook is an art, but sometimes you have to wait for the news cycle to give you your lede as well. For example, 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 sent a note to my editor saying, “Hold the other piece, I’m writing an SAT thing,” and sent it in next morning, which was published the day after. If I’d waited two days later, the editor would have been swamped in SAT pieces.
Take advantage of Summer writing opportunities. 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.” For up and comers and freelancers, this is an ideal opportunity.
Format your email pitch appropriately. In addition to attaching your piece as an email to the editor, paste it in as text as well. That way the editor doesn’t have to open your word document to read the piece; It’s right there and your lede is already grabbing their attention. Also, seriously: use 18 point type in the email paste. Make it big. Editors are not in their 20s. Have pity. Also, even though this is very particular, use a serif font, palatino or, say, times. Never use sans-serif font.
Be considerate to your editor and continue to build upon your relationship. Be respectful. Don’t be too annoying. If they encourage you, keep conversing. Be pleasant on email, but brief; keep in mind that editors are usually overworked. If they say no, accept that no means no. But if they pass on your story in a nice way, send them something else, although not right away.
Don’t give up hope – opportunities arise when you least expect them. How I went from a one-shot column to a regular political “postcard” series in the New York Times is a good story. I’d had a really great lunch with the editor in NY. Later, I saw the Times building and thought it would be a good idea to stop in and say hello. Next thing I know, he and others were sitting around a table asking me, “What do you got?” Suddenly I realized they thought I was there to pitch.
Thinking quickly, I pitched a half-baked idea about two general stores in my hometown– one Republican, one Democratic. They sent me on my way, and I didn’t hear anything back. Three months later, I receive a call from the editor saying, “That thing about the general stores? Write it. Need it by tomorrow.” In my case, another columnist’s work wasn’t any good, so they needed a filler and remembered my story. I scrambled and wrote it in a day and that’s how I landed the gig. The moral of the story is: you never know when the publication of your dreams will need you, so don’t lose heart.
Author Polina Opelbaum is the editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. To read more from Polina, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.