For many writers, including me, penning opinion (sometimes called op-ed) pieces was our way into the industry. While requiring a slightly different skill set than regular reporting, being able to write a strong opinion piece is part of the foundations of freelance writing. As an extra bonus, developing your opinion writing skills opens up the possibility of doing half-reported/half personal pieces that have a ton of value on the current media landscape. Like this one about Joe Biden’s stutter published by the Atlantic.
Today, we’re taking a look at the nuts and bolts of op-ed writing and why it can be a vital part of your freelance business.
What is opinion writing?
Opinion writing, at its core, is about adding your nuanced and vital perspective to a topic that is already of interest to a particular audience. Contrary to popular belief, good opinion writing is about more than a provocative hook and a few anecdotes. Op-eds add to the conversation and aren’t just the domain of old (largely white, largely male) columnists. Whether that conversation is for a niche audience, one of my favourite pieces I’ve written was for a local arts advocacy organisation, or a far larger one; the fundamentals remain the same. Don’t worry, we’ll get to which publications pay for these pieces later.
Where’s your expertise?
Start with writing down what you have expertise in and what you have opinions about. For me, I’m disabled, I’ve been a para-sport athlete, I’ve worked in media for close to seven years, I’ve lived in both the UK and Canada, and was an arts administrator before I was a journalist. Notice that none of these rely solely on any kind of degree or traditional version of expertise. Op-ed can be the land of personal experience, newer freelancers can use this to their advantage. For example, my national award-winning CBC opinion series, Taking a Sitting Stand, started with my persistent email and a willing editor, but its foundation is my lived experience and whether what I know as truth is typical or not.
From our list we can then expand out. My suggestion is to write down 2-3 ideas per area of expertise. These don’t have to be fully formed, all we’re trying to do is get the ball rolling. Even objectively bad ideas – I have one written down in my digital notebook that just says “Why I struggle so badly” (your guess is as good as mine) – are fuel for the fire. What we want to focus on here is why this story is worth telling and why you are the right person to write it.
A note of caution about opinion writing
At this point it’s important to note that a lot of writers (particularly marginalised ones) get pigeon-holed into op-ed writing about their own trauma. This is a very valid fear and one that it helps to plan for when making op-ed writing part of your freelance business. My suggestion is to use your op-ed writing as a springboard and keep in mind what you’re willing to sell. Make sure you know your own boundaries before that editor hits publish.
Examples of opinion writing
The best opinion writing has value, like any good story, when it understands both its subject matter and its audience. A timely hook and a writing style that matches that of the outlet are vital here. Let’s take a look at three opinion pieces and why they succeed in their mission to inform the audience.
In Defence of Garlic in a Jar: How Food Snobs Almost Ruined My Love of Cooking
Gabrielle Drolet for the Walrus
With this piece, Gabrielle does a masterful job of weaving her own personal narrative with the wider societal perspective of ableism within food. There is no shock and awe lede, just a way for the reader to enter the story in a (purposefully) accessible way.
Rainesford Stauffer for Catapult
In her series Gold Stars, Rainesford takes a wider view of the ordinary and unpacks it for us. Her work is the antithesis of that belonging to a shock jock. This piece, like many of hers, is taking an experience many of us have had – unpacking the future we thought we’d have – with a keen intimacy. Like Drolet’s writing, it disrupts what we think an op-ed sounds like.
Tristen Durocher for CBC
Tristen, an activist and artist, wrote this piece a year after a protest he undertook to try to get a provincial government to introduce suicide prevention supports for local Indigenous communities. I give this example because he reminds us that trauma can be handled sensitively and carefully within an op-ed. Even when the topic is immeasurably hard, we can lean into our softness.
Opinion writing prompts and topics
Still feeling unsure? No problem. Here are three prompts to get you started:
- What event in the news makes you want to jump for joy and/or scream in despair? What can you add to the discourse on this subject that you’re just not seeing in the media?
- Is there a conversation you’ve had recently about current or past events that you can’t help but want to share with more people?
- What’s something, whether it be an event, a story, a person, that you think is timeless but society seems to have forgotten?
And don’t forget, opinion pieces can be tied to particular times of the year – there’s usually a rush of op-eds published around Valentine’s Day or Christmas, so think about a recognised day that means something to you and how you may have an opinion about it that is worth writing about.
If that doesn’t do the trick then you can look at this helpful primer on how to find the best story ideas.
Who publishes opinion pieces
Most people’s first exposure to opinion essays is in their local paper. While that’s a valuable space to stretch your muscles, you can even start with a letter to the editor, going further afield can treat you well. Here are three places where op-ed is a key part of their editorial strategy.
And you can also look at submitting your opinion article to the following outlets (each link goes to the publication’s contributor guidelines for opinion pieces):
Unlike feature articles, some outlets prefer opinion pieces to be written ‘on spec’, which means you write the entire article (instead of just a pitch) and submit it to the editor. Australian outlets tend to prefer freelance writers to write opinion pieces on spec, whereas most American outlets tend to like pitches and in Canada, it seems to be about half and half.
So just make sure you read an outlet’s pitch guidelines to find out what they prefer.
If your piece is timely and linked to something in the news, when you send it to the editor make sure you write TIMELY in your subject line. Also, don’t be afraid to simul-pitch – sending your pitch to different outlets at the same time. Just make sure you communicate that to each editor.
If you feel you’re ready to dive into opinion writing make sure you have the following:
- A good understanding of your different areas of expertise (remember, these don’t have to be formal qualifications – your own lived experience often makes you an expert!)
- A list of topics you can pull from and ideas you can build on
- A compelling idea that forms a strong argument
- A completed piece (or pitch for a piece) that is the average length of opinion pieces in the publication you’re submitting to (usually between 400 – 800 words)
- An email address to submit your piece to. This might be to a general email address or to a particular opinion editor.
- Patience – if you don’t get published on your first try, don’t fret. It can take time, but keep writing and submitting.
John Loeppky is a disabled freelance writer and theatre artist currently living on Treaty Six territory in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. His work has been published by the CBC, FiveThirtyEight, Defector, Insider, and a host of others. He can be reached at John@Jloeppky.com. HIs goal in life is to have an entertaining obituary to read.