RenewThoughts: How to write op-eds and guest blogs so they’re easy to place and fun to read

By Peter L. Kelley
Managing Partner, RenewComm

We were working for a client the other day, and wound up updating our tips for writing op-ed articles and guest blogs. Following these dozen tips will help you wind up with a piece that an editor will actually want to put in her publication, and that people will actually want to read.

Because when you think about it, you’re competing against every other thing your would-be readers can spend their time on — which includes anything else they could be looking at on their phone at that very moment.

So make it good! Here’s how.

Top 3 tips for writing op-ds 

1.  Use concrete examples, not just abstract ideas. These include colorful things you can see and touch, people with names, comparisons to other familiar things, as well as full case studies. This may be a challenge if you’re constrained in mentioning specific companies or investment opportunities, let’s say. But there are plenty of ways around this, such as by simply describing what something looks like. Example: 

Invenergy is one of America's largest developers of wind turbines. Yet today, it also invests in long rows of lithium-ion battery packs as big as freight cars, painted lime green with the company's logo, increasingly placed within sight of those same tall white turbines.

If you’re writing for a specific publication, it’s especially important to describe things and quote people from their local area or industry sector.

2.  Make it personal. What is your unique perspective because of who you are? How do you talk? What are some things you like to say (which can turn into good soundbites)? And/or, how does this relate to the life of an individual person who is reading the story, or the people involved? Example: 

So you're thinking of putting a solar roof on your house. Have you ever stopped to think about where those panels came from, who made them, and whether they are minimizing their own carbon footprint and the pollution involved? X company has, and it says it has a better product as a result. When I visited their factory this summer, I met the plant foreman. He said his workers have fewer sick days since they cleaned up their operation.

Important: If you’re helping someone else write their op-ed, first interview them and record their exact words before you outline the draft. (If you’re doing it from your cell, we like using the TapeACall Pro app for this purpose. Once you’re done, it lets you slow down the resulting audio file to transcribe quotes.) The best quotes then go into the draft, so the author can stand behind the work because it’s their own ideas and words.

3.  Use short plain words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. Everyone wants them that way now for online scanning. The period is your friend; the comma is your enemy. After you write something, go back and see if you can cut every sentence you just wrote in half. While you're at it, delete all the words you can. Cut out most duplication, unless it is intentional for emphasis.

More tips from placing over 100 op-eds

Make the ideas in your op-ed "unconventional wisdom." This is actually the most important thing at the beginning, before you even sit down to write. No one wants to read another piece on Forbes.com about how the transition to clean energy is inevitable and those who don't adapt will be left behind. We need to have something new, different, or at the very least from a new and different perspective. One good place to start is by asking yourself, "What’s something I think most people are wrong about?"

Break news if you can, or at least refer to recent news. If you know something that has not yet been publicized, start off with that. Or quote from a news story, the more recent the better. Since most readership is now online, embed a few links to recent articles to underscore your op-ed's timeliness.

Sum up everything people need to know about the issue and your argument somewhere around the first 3-5 paragraphs. The Associated Press calls this a "nut graf" — it contains all the background you need, compressed down into a single paragraph that is dense like a nut. This is especially useful if you have a soft lede (often a good way to open, which does not immediately say what the piece is about, but rather describes some specific person or example).

Have an action you are arguing for. Someone needs to do something. The world needs to be different than it is. Who needs to do what so that it gets that way? Include this "call to action" in your piece, possibly both close to the beginning and again at the end.

Consciously choose the sources you cite.  Give a source for most facts. It should be appropriate to the person writing the article, e.g. your client may be more likely to cite a report from McKinsey than Greenpeace, or vice-versa. You don't have to give the whole academic citation; a shorthand description and a link are enough.

Use direct quotes. Many people forget that, just because they are writing in the first person, they can still quote other peoples' words. This greatly eases the task of making the whole op-ed sing and be memorable — you can borrow someone else's memorable phrase and quote them by name and where they said it.

Spend a lot of time on the beginning and end. For many of your readers, the first 1-2 paragraphs and the last 1-2 paragraphs are all they will ever read. Edit them until they are well-written and carry your message.

Have only one clear message for the entire piece. This means one central idea, which ideally can be summed up in three words (try it!). Everything else you're trying to fit should first be outlined into three points that support that message. Four is too many and two is not enough. You might try organizing these as “problem, challenge, solution,” or “past, present, future.”

Then flesh out your outline by inserting under the three supporting points a favorite statistic, a quote or soundbite, and/or a tangible example for each. Try your best to leave everything else on the cutting-room floor.

Avoid adjectives. Instead, use colorful nouns and verbs, and comparisons ("as big as a freight car," not "massive"). 

For more ideas, we recommend the "Without Bullshit" blog, by another professional writer and coach, Josh Bernoff. His advice is spot-on and he’s entertaining, too. He has a framework for business writing he calls ROAM, that focuses on who your audience is, and what it is you want them to do or think of you. Bernoff says before you write, fill in this sentence: 

After reading this piece, [readers] will realize [objective], so they will [desired action] and think of me/us as [desired impression].

If after reading this piece, you realize you could use a little help in following these tips, we hope you’ll think of us and hit the contact link above!

Thanks for your time. Now back to the phone.