Writing to be read – the opinion article

Why public intellectuals should write op-eds, and how they should write them.

8 minutes to read
Ico Maly


You know what they say: opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one. So why should anybody read yours? For one, you, as an academic, can produce something more than just ‘an opinion’. As an academic, and hopefully as a public intellectual, the op-ed allows you to intervene in debates with an argument(ation) that is based on facts, on research and on a solid analytical perspective.

The opinion article is not the preferred tool in the academic’s toolkit. It’s too short, it needs to be written with umph and it will necessarily entail a simplification of a far more complex reality. That being said, the op-ed is one of the tools that can be used to intervene in the public debate, to question the consensus, to trigger thinking and to spark up debate. If you associate op-eds with garbage, you should ask yourself why don’t you take up the keyboard and inject some quality in the debate. The op-ed is not an end in itself, but an instrument to trigger thinking, to lead people to more information and to question falsehoods.

The opinion article, if we use it well, also allows us to intervene in another field: the media field. If we excel in writing op-eds as public intellectuals, it can help deepen and improve our democracy and guide people to spaces where more complexity can be introduced. The opinion article is thus a means to an end and as such it is an opportunity as well as a challenge.

Below I give you an outline on how intellectuals can use the opinion article as a tool to spark up debate, to inject quality information in the public debate, to deepen democracy and lead people to spaces where more knowledge can be obtained. That’s a lot. And to be honest, you won’t be able to reach all these goals in one article. In almost all cases, trying to do all of this would in fact lead to a bad op-ed.  Remember, you can write many op-eds. Here are some pointers as to how to write one:


1. The opener

A good op-ed starts with a strong opener and a telling title. The title is the first thing a potential reader sees and can decide to read or ignore the article based on it. Your title should position the op-ed in an ongoing debate, and it should be concrete. So avoid formulating titles as questions and make sure that your title triggers the curiosity of the potential reader.

Write as an academic but not like an academic

Think about Google-ability.  Many readers will stumble onto your op-ed while searching for information. The title and the first two sentences will appear in the search results of their query. This is another argument for using keywords in your title. Same thing with your first two sentences: the nub of the information, your position and your claim should be clear from the start. If possible, start with an anecdote, a good example or a thought-provoking claim – something that encourages people to keep on reading and positions your opinion.


2. Write as an intellectual!

Remember, you write as an intellectual and an academic. That means that you have a democratic and an academic responsibility. The quality of your content is the most important thing! You can start provocatively or make a controversial claim – but only if you can back it up. It’s a condition sine qua non that you have research, solid arguments or a good analysis to support your claims.

Always keep in mind your long-term goal. You are not just writing to be read, to score or to have clicks: you are writing to make society better, or to question the status quo. Before submitting your piece, think about your op-ed in relation to these larger goals.


3. Words and point(s)

An op-ed is not an academic paper. It is not even an essay and it’s certainly no book. The opinion article is a genre in its own right. In the old days, that is in the first decade of the 21st century, a quality paper would give you between 800 and 1200 words to produce your opinion and convince your readers. These days are gone. Today, especially in digital environments, you have 500 words to build up your argument. Exceptionally, in the case of Diggit Magazine, you will be given a maximum of 800 words.

It‘s however obvious that you cannot say everything in 800 words, so you will have to kill your darlings. Writing an op-ed evidently starts with thinking about the point you want to make. You know all the nuances and the complexities regarding the topic you’re writing about, and this makes writing an op-ed difficult.

Make one point but make it well

As an academic writing about a hot topic in a multivoiced public debate, you will have to choose what to focus on. An op-ed only gives you space to make one major point. The most difficult step is thus to decide on the point (and some sub-points) you want to make. In deciding on which point (and sub-points) to make, it helps if you know who is involved in the debate in question, especially if you think about the long-term goals you as an intellectual want to achieve by participating in that public debate.



4. The point, the argument and the proof

This point has already been mentioned above, but it deserves repeating: you are not writing an academic paper. This means that you do not report on all the different positions in the debate. And you are certainly not writing a novel where you work towards an apotheosis on the very last page. In an op-ed, the point (and the sub-points) you want to make should be clear to the reader from the first half of the op-ed. You start with the ‘thought-provoking’, ‘cool’, ‘exciting’, ‘telling’, ‘surprising’ or ‘controversial’ stuff in the beginning of your article.

Your message should be clear in the first paragraph of the article. In the rest of the op-ed, you back it up with arguments, proof and recognizable examples. The digital space works in your advantage here: you can include hyperlinks to full-blown analyses or files, and you can also include for instance YouTube movies, graphs and Sound Clouds.


5. The form

You are not only writing an op-ed, but you are writing it specifically to be published online. Apart from what has already been pointed out – an attention-grabbing opener that gives away the nub of the information –  there are other tools available in guiding the reader to the end of your piece:

  • First of all, write a story: your arguments, data, claims and examples should be brought together in a telling story sustaining one message. Do not just give a collection of claims, but make sure that all your arguments are connected together.
  • Write in short sentences and short paragraphs. Paragraphs are units of sentences that belong together and build on one argument.
  • Write in the active voice. This gives a more dynamic character to your text and speaks to the audience.
  • Include journalistic quotes. Readers, and especially online readers, tend to scan texts for information. Highlighting certain striking quotes from your text can push the reader to read to the end.
  • Make sure that you structure your op-ed well. When the reader comes to the end of the text, they should at least understand your opener – even when they do not agree with it.  


6. Make sure you are understandable

Don’t try to be and write like ‘the important intellectual’. Writing op-eds equals entering the public sphere which means that you talk to a very diverse group of people. Make yourself understandable, be compelling and convincing for that broad audience.

That does not mean that you should be simplistic, but rather that you need to make your point clear. If you need to introduce ‘difficult words’, then you need to do that, but make sure that you explain them!  Always make sure that you do not write everything in your academic jargon; you need to be understandable. The intellectual and the academic should of course be there in the background in the sense that whatever you say, you need to make sure you can defend your claims!


7. Engaging with the debate

You do not write in an empty space: your op-ed is part of an ongoing (political) struggle, a discursive battle for meaning. All kinds of arguments have been presented before, some discourses are dominant and others marginal in that debate. Your voice enters a field of power.

Knowing the different actors, their arguments and their positions is important for you to position your arguments and to make them stick. Ask yourself what you want to do with your op-ed. What was your initial goal and how does this relate to your long-term goal? What is wrong with the arguments of the other actors in that debate? Engage with those arguments, and refute them. And, importantly, ask what should be done now regarding the topic you’re writing about, and what is wrong with the object of your criticism.


8. What your op-ed tells about you

Everything you write, can and will be used against you. Of course, this all depends on how politicized the debate is in which you intervene.  If you write an op-ed on the necessity of museums, you will probably not have many activists attacking you ad hominem. Topics like antiracism, migration, Islam, strikes, and asylum on the other hand prove to be highly controversial. No matter which topic you tackle, be prepared to be attacked. These attacks will not only target the content, they can also attack you: Prepare for comments writing about who you are, or in most cases who you are not.

The public sphere is a lot dirtier than one would think after reading Habermas on the rational and democratic public sphere. This is especially true online. Trolls and certain kind of activists won’t engage in a ‘rational democratic’ debate to deepen democracy and introduce rational arguments. They can try to discredit you in all imaginable ways. Having a thick skin helps, and knowing your adversaries and their base can help even more. Writing as a member of a team of intellectuals is the best remedy.


9. Bring it home

If you managed to do all the above, you are ready to bring it home. End with a ‘bombshell’, that is to say, finish your piece with a strong end that underlines once more the general point of your article. Choose something that appeals to people, something they will remember.


10. Reread and rewrite

Almost there. Before you submit, it is important that you reread your article and tweak it until it has a good flow. If you need to stop and think about a sentence that means there is no ‘flow’. Rewrite. If you say the same thing twice: rewrite. Repeat this exercise until the text reads as if it was written in one go.  Then think about all the criticism you will get and on which points your adversaries will try to attack you. Make it difficult to undermine your writing by making sure your argumentation is watertight.


11. Prepare for what happens next

The op-ed is the beginning, not the end of your intervention in the public debate. Prepare for being asked for interviews, for writing a response op-ed, and engaging with comments from your readers.