The 3 Rules for a Publishable Op-Ed

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Over the span of 20 years, I’ve probably written more than 100 op-ed articles that have been published. If there’s a magazine or newspaper or website that takes guest commentary and opinion pieces, my words have more than likely been in it.

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An op-ed is a great way to establish or build credibility as a leader and influencer in your field or community. It’s also a virtually unrivaled way to move conversations or debates in ways that favor your views or interests.

But partly because op-ed space is so valuable, it’s not easy to get. Doing an op-ed right requires offering an argument editors want and writing it with solid preparation and discipline. In my time working with business, political and social leaders to get attention for their issues and ideas, I’ve developed three rules to assess whether what someone has have is op-ed worthy.

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So, before you spend the time to write and, heaven forbid, pitch, something that won’t work, check these three rules to see if your op-ed that will work or, alternatively, be more appropriate for a Facebook post.

1. Are you an unquestioned expert or have a unique voice?

Do others recognize your contribution or standing? Would everyone recognize your expertise based on your experience in this area? Have you been there and done that?

This doesn’t mean that you’re an expert in everything -- it means you're an expert in what you’re writing about. If you’re a retired four-star general writing about military preparedness, yes. If you’re the same four-star general arguing that pepper does not belong on gourmet salads, no.

To weigh in about pepper and salads, you’d better be a chef who owns a few restaurants or have written the definitive book on pepper.

Unique voices also work. You can be a refugee and comment on immigration policy or a local police officer writing about keeping the peace in Iraq. You don’t need to be an expert on either Iraq or immigration policy to have something interesting to say on these subjects -- your personal experiences can substitute for academic credentials or career standing.

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2. Is yours an original idea?

This one is the toughest because truly unique ideas are rare. But ask yourself, has anyone said this before or shared this thought? Check. Do some research.

This works especially well for proposing solutions to problems. Have a better way to get people to recycle? A cure for a disease? If you have a really good, novel or ground-breaking idea, your background or expertise won’t matter and if you can explain your idea well, an outlet that covers that subject is likely to publish it.

A note of caution, though. If your solution to the problem you identify is your business model, that will likely be seen as (and likely is) self-promotion. Editors are exceptionally unlikely to publish op-eds around self-interested answers – even if they are unique. If you’ll profit based on the solution you’re suggesting, think twice.

3. Are you making a minority point or picking a fight?

You don’t have to be unquestioned expert or have an original idea if you’re on the minority or seldom voiced side of an issue and can make a good argument. If you’re not a climate scientist or other expert scientist offering a solution, your op-ed on why global climate change is bad isn’t going anywhere.

If, however, you can credibly argue that climate change is a blessing in disguise, you’re on to something, op-ed-wise.

Picking a fight also works. Want to share evidence that your police chief is wrong about an issue or your congressional representative's view is backwards? Cite studies and examples and you’ll also be on to something. But if you’re going there, be direct. Point the finger.

Hitting just one of these op-ed rules is good, but getting two or even three into your op-ed is even better. If, for example, you’re a retired general writing to oppose the U.S. president’s plan for policing in Iraq, and you want to offer a brand new approach, you've got the trifecta of op-eds.

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