Five tips to get that op-ed out of your head and into the headlines

By Ethan Gilsdorf

[Another entry in the monthly column, The Freelance Life, by Ethan Gilsdorf, about the trials, tribulations, triumphs --- and tips to share --- along the path to becoming a freelance writer.]

Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has an ax to grind.

At least that’s my experience. It’s natural to want to express your point of view about something—the plight of the Red Sox, the disaster that is health care, the evils of social media—and get up on that soapbox to tell the world.

But don’t just fire your cannon off loosely into the stratosphere, either missing your target entirely, or blowing the heads off potential readers or allies for your cause. Plus, you want to offer something new to the conversation, rather than churning out a knee jerk response or a flabby retread of some other pundit’s ideas.

So how do you shape your random rantings into something that an editor of the op-ed or commentary pages of a newspaper, magazine or website might want to publish?

Here are five tips:

1) Be timely. Editors want commentaries to be reflective of the real world of news and news cycles. Hence, all the insane coverage and opinion pieces about the Boston Marathon bombings this week. Think of connecting your op-eds to fresh breaking issues, anniversaries, and other news pegs, and make this clear in the top part of your op-ed.

2) Begin personally. Often the best way to get your op-ed published is to show how a larger issue affects a single person. Tell that story in a short narrative: “I was with my dog Esmerelda in one of Cambridge’s off leash dog parks the other day when I noticed all the dogs were doing X .... And it made me think that the real issue is...” The personal story serves as the on-ramp to your larger point.

3) Think of your expertise. Don’t get all wackadoodle about health care reform, the Mideast peace morass, or the Red Sox, unless you have personal, academic or professional expertise in those areas. It’s better to leverage your own expertise—as a parent, a lawyer, a pipefitter, an amputee—than to try to solve the world’s socio-economic troubles. That's what politicians and think tanks are for. Pick topics for your op-eds that are closer to home.

4) Have a purpose. Is the goal of your commentary to enlighten? To get us to go to the polls and vote? To make sure a complex issue is brought down to earth and made relevant to the average shmoe? To argue against someone else’s view? Have the goal of your op-ed in your mind as you draft it, and go back through during revision to hone your point of view. Thinking of who your audience is—and op-ed pages are usually for general audiences—should help you sort this out.

5) Be unique. Remember, editors of op-ed pages receive hundreds of submissions a week (and in the case of the New York Times, probably hundreds per day). Your core idea needs to be something unusual. If everyone is saying baseball is great, you want to argue that baseball will the end of western civilization as we know it. (Well, hopefully something better than that.) Be controversial, be counter-intuitive, be candid.

Before you send out your op-ed, think of the ways it can incorporate the 5 points I’ve just outlined above. With any luck, and persistence, your commentaries and op-eds will soon find a home. Good luck.

[For more about op-ed writing and publishing, Ethan is teaching the 6-week class "Freelance Essentials: Writing Columns & Personal Essays for Publication" 6 Tuesdays from 10:30am-1:30pm, starting June 24th. This class should be posted soon on the Grub Street site. Ethan is also teaching the new 4-week class "Freelance Essentials: Navigating the Freelancer's Market in Boston" 4 Wednesdays from 6:00-9:00pm, starting June 4th.]





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About the Author

A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.

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