How to pitch an op-ed

To get an op-ed or essay published, you must quickly and clearly signal your piece’s value to a busy editor. Here are 7 tips for successfully pitching your opinion piece to a digital or print news outlet.

Get to the point

Editors are busy, busy, busy. Pitches should be as short as possible—two very short paragraphs and less than 200 words is a good rule of thumb. One common formulation: In the first paragraph, briefly summarize your idea/message, being sure to include answers to the following questions.

Why is this message/idea important?

In the most compelling terms possible, state your argument, shooting for a single sentence. Be sure to provide the necessary context for an editor to understand why this matters to the target audience. (A common pitfall among academics is to assume that you can leapfrog over this and dive right into the argument, since “everyone” knows the larger context. Quite often, they do not.)

Why is it important right now?

At any given moment, thousands of truly important issues vie for our attention. Make a case that what you have to say is timely—the more urgent the better. Be creative in identifying “news hooks”—opportunities to link what you have to say with what’s going on right now. (Holidays, anniversaries, current events, cultural happenings—these are just a few examples.)

What are you adding to the conversation?

Do you have a counterintuitive or otherwise fresh perspective? New research findings? What you have to say may be important right now—and you may be the single most qualified person to say it—but if it’s already been said, you’ll be fighting a strong headwind.

Make the case for you.

Your pitch should also make clear why you are qualified to write about this topic. Do this in a single, short sentence. Include only the credentials that make you the right person to weigh in on this issue.If you’ve published op-eds or letters to the editors before, say so. For example, try: “My ideas have appeared in outlet-x, outlet-y, and outlet-z,” linking each outlet name to the piece in question.

Do your homework.

Make sure your op-ed is a good fit for the the publication you are pitching. Get to know what they cover and the tone of the pieces they publish.

And remember to read the publication’s op-ed section to see if your topic has been covered lately. If it has, consider pitching it elsewhere. Most outlets won’t revisit a topic for a while.

Check submission guidelines.

If the outlet is new to you, be sure to check submission guidelines, which you can usually find by searching the site or via a resource like the Op Ed Project. Many sites have strict word count limits, most often between 600 and 800 words. Comb the guidelines and the news organization’s website to find a real person—not a generic inbox—to send your pitch to.

No email attachments.

Always copy and paste the piece into the body of your email beneath your pitch. Check formatting to be sure you haven’t lost paragraph breaks, hyperlinks, or other formatting. (You might conclude the pitch saying: “The piece is copied below. Do you see a fit for [name of outlet]?”

Give thought to your email subject line.

Make clear that this is a pitch. Then: Think how best to grab a busy editor’s attention as they scan their jammed email box—your goal here is to get them to open your email. Consider highlighting your Harvard affiliation. If you have a personal referral/connection to the editor, signal that! A couple examples of subject lines from successful pitches:

Pitch: Higher ed profs need to join the sharing economy (via Your Name)

Pitch: A public health approach to tackling campus rapes (by Columbia Univ prof)

After you pitch—and this is critical!—be sure to follow up.

You will find your own rhythm for dealing with editors, but here’s one follow up approach that has proven effective:

If the topic is blazing hot and timely, follow up in 24 hours. Send a forwarded email of the original pitch, saying in subject line ahead of FW: Chance to look? Then in body say something like: “I do not mean to pester, but I was just checking…” (If the topic is less urgent, you might wait longer—say three to five days.)

If no response, 24 to 48 hours after first follow up, ahead of last FW, write in subject line: Assume no? In the body: “I know you are swamped, but I am eager to place elsewhere if it doesn’t work. Thank you.”

If no response, 24 to 48 hours after second follow up: In subject line ahead of last FW: “Moving on” or “Pitching elsewhere.” In body: “Thank you for your consideration; because this is timely, I am pitching elsewhere. I hope to connect with another piece in the future.”

Always keep in mind that some news cycles are far more challenging than others, depending on what else is going on in the world. Be polite and respectful in your follow ups, recognizing that editors are dealing with many stories on any given day.