More op-ed tips

A few years ago, I put together a list of tips for budding opinion piece writers. My friend Dalton Conley (an NYU sociologist who thinks like an economist) has just emailed me his own set of suggestions, which are much better than mine. Since they weren’t already online, Dalton has kindly given me permission to host them on my website.

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8 Responses to More op-ed tips

  1. Chris Scarcella says:

    Thanks Andrew, and it really does compliment your opinion piece tips article. I have a question to ask however as I am doing a bit of an essay on the opinion piece for one of my journalism courses at UNSW.

    How much could you tell me about the opinion piece’s history? Has its role changed since it began (whenever that was?) from an authoritative source to society (spurring the undecided masses and whatnot) to something completely different? What changes to content have occurred as it moves into web based realms? Basically, i need to know a little about the foundations of the ‘opinion industry’.

    Any information is greatly appreciated


  2. Chris Scarcella says:

    No problem Andrew, although I’m not exactly proud of it (don’t feel guilty though!)

    In the meantime, you can check out my blog here:

    This was the second part of my opinion piece project and the essay is the 3rd and final.

    P.S I hope you dont mind me hosting your opinion piece pdf file on my blog, but it really needs to be out there, truly a great practical source.

  3. Rob says:

    great tips – thanks

  4. Corin McCarthy says:


    I really like both of the pages you pointed me too.

    One tip that has been successful for me is to try and lead the news rather than follow it. I have written 9 pieces for the Oz Op Ed page and 7 have been published – some after tailoring and revisions. The ones that have not got up have failed due to me simply following the news. For example I wrote a humorous piece on the Broadband Network (I tried to write a PJ O’Rourke type piece) but it was too much a change of pace and frankly there were people better able to discuss this issue. The regular columnists also write about politics, so trying to be Dennis Shannahan is probably not the best path even though I’m sure it is what many aspire to … I’d suggest they join the press gallery rather than write Op Eds.

    These would be the themes I have sought to develop:

    1. That unpopular ideas can often have their merits and that good policy can eventually see unpopular ideas raised up the political order; so for example I wrote in early April that raising the GST would allow a narrowing of the fiscal gap over the medium to long term and also provide scope for significant tax reform (this is becoming a stronger narrative now – I also note others said this earlier – but you get the drift);

    2. That ideas which appear ‘right wing’ can in fact help low paid families, so long as they are tailored to fit; for example raising HECS could help if it opens up more uni places or wage-tax-trade-off policies can work to reduce inequality (this is something you have done well); and

    3. That simplicity and nuance can go together but it is hard to do in 850 to 900 words. I write as simply as possible for the reader but I often use friends as sounding boards to peer review; so more nuance can emerge should it be necessary.

    On my point 3, in some ways, not being an academic as a first job, helps me write for a mass audience. Perhaps it is a blessing and a curse. But I then often use academics or experts to review. I guess it is whether there are any LAUGH OUT LOUD moments. I guess as a result I can write about the intersection of policy and politics lucidly as a result. Although I also accept that academia is no bar as you show every fortnight.

    I suppose having worked in politics, my job was to conceive or take very complex ideas and distil them to an essence or argument. For example the policies on incentives for regulatory reform that I helped generate in opposition with my Shadow Minister.

    I still try to conceive of big ideas for the future by and large. I try to be balanced though. Edge is still a requirement and this can be difficult to mediate.

    Lastly, the writer must be broadly comfortable with the newspaper overall.

    I think writing a fortnightly column like you would be more pressure again. So hats off. I tend not to try and push my articles and when I do they are generally flawed. I also write better after some peer review and when I don’t do this the articles can suffer sometimes. Though not always … They tend to be sharper but sometimes not as fresh.

    I find it is better for me to let articles ‘bubble’ until they write themselves. It also makes it fresher; But then to have a few days of peer review.

    I’d be very interested in how you deal with the requirement of saying something important every fortnight … I try to write a barnstormer every time but I can’t imagine how I would regularly.

    Lastly, given that Op Eds are so important in Australia, I genuinely believe, though I can’t know for certain, that writing Op Eds can be as influential as advising a Government. May be you have thoughts here given your involvement.

    I suppose from my point of view, being in opposition, advisers had a great deal of influence, but perhaps less influence in Govt; which may surprise people. I suppose it is being one among 40 or 50 … perhaps others have views here like Andrew Norton or others who might have worked for both and written Op Eds too.

    Also it is far better now that I get home at 6:30, earn good money and rarely if ever work weekends. Perhaps I found the best of both worlds … It is a big trade off I guess,

  5. Good advice. I also recommend that people study style guides such as those by Richard Lanham or Joseph Williams. They are not aimed specifically at opinion writers, but their advice on how to trim wordy sentences and ensure flow between paragraphs is doubly important for newspaper writing.

  6. Corin McCarthy says:

    For Chris’ essay – here is a question I am constantly asked as a non-blogger by bloggers: “Why write Op Eds when you can have a blog?”

    I’m not sure of the answer but it may have a lot to say about the future of Op Eds and blogs if not the past. In my case it might be simply that I like papers and I don’t wan’t to check a website regularly … but for others, what they blog on and what they Op Ed on might indicate their various worths.

    Basically, blogging appears more democratic but it is also a lot of work for the host I think. Hat’s off to you bloggers, you are the snow boarders and the Op Ed writers are the skiers …

  7. For me personally, I think the medium of print seems, ironically enough, more withstanding. Blogging is an opportunity open to everyone, but having a piece published in one of Australia’s broadsheets, while fleeting in accordance with concepts of ‘newsworthiness’ (people will forget about it as things are constantly updated)it is still a mark that contains greater significance than the act of linking someone to something on the web.

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