Saturday

28th Jan 2023

Opinion

How NOT to write an op-ed

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As comment editor, I receive around 10-15 unsolicited op-ed submissions every 24 hours. That includes weekends. At peak periods, it can be 20 in one day. Even at slow times, e.g. Christmas or mid-August, it is never fewer than five.

At 800 words each, that is 10,000 to 15,000 words of cold-calling text daily to read and evaluate — about an Iliad's worth of text every week. And this is not including ones I proactively commission from academics, think tanks, NGOs, journalists, experts, even — god forbid — politicians themselves.

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  • My daily email inbox of unsolicited submitted op-eds - they never stop coming (Photo: Matt Tempest)

And all of this for one, at most two, slots a day.

While we're grateful for the submissions — especially the good ones — I reckon we can all save ourselves time by having a clear guide on how to not write one of those many, many, many pieces that end up on the chopping block.

Here is how NOT to get published.

Don't neglect your homework.

Have a good read of EUobserver first (if you don't already — and if you don't already, why are you pitching to us?). Have we already covered the topic you are writing about? Do we never ever, in fact, cover the topic you are writing about?

If you don't know or know and don't care, you can be pretty sure your op-ed on Nancy Pelosi's role as Democratic Speaker is not going to end up on EUobserver.

Don't send me a mini-essay as an email, please. Make it short (two or three paragraphs), saying who you are, why you're a qualified expert on the topic, and what the piece says. Include the piece. That's enough.

If you send it to anyone else than ME, chances are I will never see it. We have an About Us page — why spend several hours/days writing the piece, then not bother looking up the correct person to send it to, dooming it to the 'not-for-me, too-busy-to-read' unread emails list?

Too much deviation from 800 words is dooming your effort. 800 words is the industry standard. I'll take 700 and I'll take 900, but over or under that, it's either too short or too long, and I won't read it.

Don't plead with me about how it's "it's too important to condense to 800 words". Everything is. It's your job to make it short, snappy and concise. Essays of more than 1,000 words are for think tank journals, academia and general wonkery. We are journalists, serving everyday readers.

You just read about the amount of email I have to go through, so I plead you DO NOT email on every subsequent day to "reach out to check if you got my email?" Instead, add a final line saying "please let me know if you are interested, or not, so I can pitch it elsewhere".

"Rough drafts" are no-nos. Send your absolute final and best attempt at saying what you have to say. If it's good enough, I can polish it up. If it isn't, I don't have time to teach the world how to write a piece about which you are supposed to know more than I do.

How to not get a NO

Follow one golden rule: Is this NEW, and is it INTERESTING? If it's both, you're probably going to get a yes. If it's well-written as well, that's the Holy Trinity, and a bonus, but I can patch it up, so long as it is clear and intelligible.

However, one word of warning: do not pitch to me because the 'peg' is that it will be that some random Tuesday is "International Day of X". Clean water, adult literacy, female genital mutilation — these are all worthy topics in themselves, but no one cares that some PR department pronounced it their day. If it's NEW and INTERESTING, that's enough.

"Put 'the intro' ... in the INTRO." A maxim of the late, great, Eugene Duffy, my first ever Fleet Street editor, but basically it means: start with your most arresting and interesting fact or opinion. Do not start with six boring paragraphs of scene-setting, history and context.

And I beg you, don't start your Ukraine War op-ed with a variation of "Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022...." etc. We all know that — what's the NEW, INTERESTING thing you've got to say?

Like every publication, WE WRITE THE HEADLINE. However trivial it might seem, it's a dark art that's only truly mastered by few. Suggest your best one, but then leave it to the editor.

Photos? Nice if you have some, but not essential.

ACRONYMS — avoid like Covid, but where necessary, always spell them out first, or even add an apologetic 'known as/so-called 'x'. You might live and work in the Brussels Bubble, and know perfectly well what CSDDD stands for — real people have no idea what you're talking about.

FACTS/FIGURES/QUOTES — good to include new/fresh figures and sexy quotes, but get them right. Check them, and double-check them. You're supposed to be the expert on this. An almost guaranteed way to never get published a second time is if we have to publish a correction on simple factual errors you've made. If the mistake is at our end, in the editing process, then the blame is on us for getting it wrong or not double-checking.

LIBEL/ACCUSATIONS. Sourcing is the big difference between professional journalists and civilians. If president X or prime minister Y has been convicted of corruption, or is under investigation for it, you can say that (but only, precisely, that). Non-factual accusations will get us sued for libel.

Here are a couple of good examples from op-eds from this year, to give you the idea.

Take this prosaic, everyday example. Nothing could be more niche, complex and dull than EU chemicals directives, right?

Wrong.

Immodestly, the other one is by me. Rare that I write anything these days, but having actually attended and covered the 2008 Nato summit in Bucharest, where Ukraine was offered the (long-term) assurance of Nato membership, thus tossing a match for the current conflagration, I thought it was about time someone set the record straight, whilst offering up some of the flavour and colour of that slightly weird summit 14 years ago.

The observant among you will have noticed by now I've broken one of my own golden rules.

This piece is now 1,106 words long. Which is too long for an op-ed — but proves that rules are there for breaking, and the writing's good enough, it can sustain any length. Not saying this is the case here, but I'm the editor, so hey.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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