Yes You Can: Write and Submit an Opinion Column

I’ll never forget the time I was talking to my dad on the phone about how my freelance writing career was going. It was 2005 and I’d been getting published, for pay, since 2002 (the Plain Dealer op-ed pages were the first, thank you, Brent Larkin). I had a 20 hour per week, two-year contract to write about education reform being funded by the Gates Foundation and led in Ohio by the KnowledgeWorks Foundation and I had a bimonthly personal essay column in a regional parenting magazine – and it had won the highest level award in its very first year of existence from the Parenting Publications of America. And this blog – barely even born yet.

I thought, you know, for someone who never went to journalism school and didn’t major in English, this was pretty good. Of course, I’d done a ton of writing as a political philosophy and sociology major, and as a law school student and social work masters student. So, it wasn’t like writing was foreign to me.

However, my dad asked me during this one call about what I was up to. And I told him that I had been asked to be on a panel called, The Business of Freelancing, at the annual conference for Society of Professional Journalists. His response?

“REALLY?” It was indeed said with all caps.

Ummm. Yeah, dad. Really.

Wow, he said. He just didn’t understand how that could be. Why me – what did I have to offer about the business of freelancing?

I don’t recall this precisely, but I’m guessing that I muted the phone while I counted to ten, composed myself and then managed some cursory response that outlined my role on the panel.

Somehow, though, my dad couldn’t get over that I had this small business that was my writing career. He couldn’t understand how that could be since I didn’t go anywhere to study or learn it and yet here I was making money and being seen as someone who could give people who considered themselves professional journalists advice on how to have a business as a freelancer.

My point: Moving on from yesterday’s awareness raising about the lopsided nature of opinion pages, we’re going to add solutions to the conversation.

And one solution is to become an opinion column writer yourself – even if for just one piece. If you can put together a beginning, a middle and an end, with a good lede and hook at that beginning, a persuasive case made in the middle and a call to action or an ask of the reader at the end, keeping focused, usually, on one central point you want as the take away, all composed and compelling – well – those are the basics.

I figured it out by 1) reading a lot of opinion pieces (which I always did anyway), 2) searching the Internet and writers’ resources for “how-to” articles, 3) taking a class here and there at the local writers’ league and at conferences I’d attend, and getting advice and time from pretty much every journalist friend I had. I started the blog and wrote a lot (tried to do at least a thousand words a day if I could).

And then, in 2008, I met Katie Orenstein of The Op-Ed Project (and hopefully you will meet her too sometime this year – we’re working to get her to Northeast Ohio).

Please. There’s no venting into the wind here and I’m no writing instructor. But you can browse, breathe in and absorb the advice and tools on The Op-Ed Project’s website to good effect. Then, think about what’s on your mind, what you wish people were doing or thinking about or would stop doing. Think about how your experience qualifies you to be a voice on the subject, and then make your case for the action you would recommend – in writing. You don’t ever have to send it to anyone, but you might also find that you’re compelled to advocate for one thing or another, and maybe even more after that.

Where can you submit such things? Well, we are trying to change the ratio at our paper of record, so here is where you can submit opinion articles to the PD. But in addition, here’s a list of the top 125 online and print publications in the U.S. as of late 2009. Here’s what appears to be a more current list of similar markets, including website links for every single one. Be sure to visit a site before you submit and double-check the guidelines.

Ready, set, go write!