Forget everything you were taught about writing essays and scientific papers, here are 10 tips on how to write an opinion piece (or op-ed, as journalists say) that people will actually want to read and talk about.
Remember, you usually only have 500-800 words to work with, so keep it tight and sharp.
As always, preparation is the key to media communication. Before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), work out the point you want to make and the three key messages you want to deliver to your audience, in priority order.
All three of these points, should ideally be in the top half of your article. They should NEVER appear for the first time in the conclusion.
This is media, we don’t do English essays here.
1. Avoid headlines that are questions
This is not a hard-and-fast rule but it is useful.
When a headline is a question readers often mentally insert an answer linked to their experience. Often the answer is a joke. This sets the reader up to enter your story with a preconceived position and emotion that can completely take the wind out of your opening sentence and even the entire article.
Try to make your headline an active statement. If you are stuck for headline ideas, write it in the active form of X does Y to Z. It’s a structure that helps anyone to come up with something snappy.
2. Open with a strong first line
Start with an attention-grabbing opening line that cuts to the heart of your key message and encourages people to read further. It “must” evoke an emotion or an element of curiosity. It can be a strong fact, statement or even the beginning of an anecdote that has an audience connection.
Why? Because readers make decisions on whether to read an article by how they respond to the headline and the first sentence. The first line is the display-window for all the goodies you have inside. It is why reporters can sometimes spend more time getting the first line right than they do writing the rest of the story.
If readers like your first line, they are prepared to give the second line and then the third a go. Once a reader is four sentences into an opinion piece, the chances increase that they will read it right to the end.
If you are struggling with the opening line, write the whole article first and then come back to the lead line at the end. Often the process of writing will reveal the key theme and the sizzling introduction.
Just as an aside, there are openings called delayed (para) graphs that are very effective and add colour but they require practice. Let’s keep it simple at this stage.
3. You aren’t there just to help
Hard to believe isn’t it? Unless you are writing an explainer you better be making an argument or a call for change. Back your call with mounting evidence, data and stories.
You have a point, so make it. You are not a teacher explaining the world.
4. Don’t try to explain everything at once
Make the point, or points, first. Introduce qualifications later. Scientific training means too many scientists try to put all the qualifications around a subject at the beginning of a paragraph or at the top of an op-ed. Do that and readers will quit before the end of the sentence.
5. Put your best stuff early in the article
Structure your opinion piece so that the best stuff is towards the front of an article, just as you do in a conversation.
Essay formats and academic writing have done a great disservice to scientists trying to communicate through opinion pieces. The structure of introduction, point, point, point and big conclusion has its place in high school English but only rarely in op-eds.
In casual conversation we instinctively say the most exciting things first to keep the interest of our friends. Reporters take the same approach writing stories because long experience and research tells them this is how to keep the attention of readers. This approach has been formalised and is known as the inverted pyramid format.
So, when you are writing think about how you talk to your friends, which brings us to…
6. Use active and conversational voice
Journalists and successful writers use active voice because it is direct and engages the audience. Sadly, science journals demand passive voice and technical terms.
Write in active voice to engage your readers. You can find a nice explanation of the difference between passive and active voice here.
At the same time, be conversational. Write to the level of your audience and in a natural voice. This increases readability and projects personality. It is also vital for establishing your public persona as a writer and media commentator.
A natural voice helps media types to decide whether you are worth an interview after they have read your very engaging piece. Interviews are a bonus that drives your message even further.
7. Keep paragraphs self-contained, short but variable
In general, paragraphs should be no more than three sentences. Each paragraph must have its own content, integrity and structure to deliver a single concept built on sentences that fit together in an easily understood unit.
Make sure sentences deliver one idea at a time to build the paragraph. If a sentence is overly long and has too much going on, it usually means there are too many ideas packed into it. There is a simple cure for this.
In overly long sentences it is likely there is a rogue “and” to be deleted. Find that rogue “and” then replace it with a full stop (and). Start the word after that full stop with a capital letter to create two concise single-idea sentences. Simple.
Variety in sentence tone is important to maintain reader interest. You can dazzle your readers with long, wandering sentences that read like a yellow brick road of colourful images irresistibly taking them towards your final conclusion. Or not.
Contrast your sentence and paragraph lengths to make reading interesting. But if you want to deliver a really punchy point, remember…
Single sentence paragraphs are deadly.
8. It’s not just about data. Find the story/context in data
We all love dazzling our friends with great data and mind bending facts, but to really make an impact wrap your data in a story. It allows you to explain to your audience what is happening in a way that directly relates to them. You can find an excellent article explaining the value of data storytelling and visualisations here.
In short, if you have great data, give it context. Better still, refer to real world events or personal experiences that you and your audience have likely encountered.
9. Don’t try just to teach your readers, touch them emotionally as well
The research is unequivocal about the importance of emotion in helping people remember an article, so don’t just deliver data and bland conclusions.
With an emotional kicker, your readers understand your data and develop an emotional response that lodges your op-ed in their memory.
10. Be prepared to comment
With op-eds, it’s not over until the comments are closed.
It is in your own self-interest to engage with commenters if you write an op-ed that appears online. There are a few reasons for this.
- If you engage with commenters, you will find that media outlets will be much more inclined to run your pieces again in the future.
- Research tells us comments colour perceptions of an article. If the first few comments are negative, then readers take away a negative perception of your article. If they are positive, readers are more positive about an article. When the author writes or engages with the first few comments, the tone of the engagement immediately changes to one of a conversation rather than an argument.
- Your comments can add more detail. Dropping in comments early may give you the opportunity to add statements or data that didn’t make it into the final edit but which you consider important. Leading a comment thread with additional data can allow the author to fill in key pieces of background. This often creates a more positive response to an article.
One last note with comments, don’t get dragged into name-calling with trolls. As climate scientists, we expect to run into trolls more than most. Take the high road, just work with the science and if a conversation appears to be getting out of control, stop responding. Your job is to be reasonable, personable and scientific.
If this all sounds like too much to remember or you need help structuring an op-ed, chat to Alvin, or whoever your media communications person may be. Guaranteed they can help you put a cracker article together.