Writing Guide for Opinion Pieces
This writing guide is meant to help you review your pieces before submitting them for publication at places such as Speak Freely. Guides such as these are descriptive, not prescriptive, meaning they should be used to help improve your first draft and prepare subsequent ones. This guide outlines an opinion piece as an ideal type, which means not all opinion pieces will have every feature listed below, and depending on the context some points are simply not suitable. However, once you have found a topic of interest, and you have written your thoughts down, comparing them to this writing guide will help you with the style and structure of your piece, and may help in making the content more accessible to readers.
- Dazzle the readers with a compelling hook: The opening sentence is your chance to really engage readers by making things relevant to them and their interests. Refer either to something that is either of immediate relevance in the current news cycle (within 48 hours of it breaking, when every source is covering it), or that is a prolonged topic of debate (thinks such as business deals and new legislation take a long time to finalise so remain interesting even if they began a while ago). Quotes or citations can help make your piece seem fresh.
- Have a clear and concise argument: An opinion piece must have an opinion, and it must carry your distinct voice. Unless you have some reputation as a writer already, it is not advisable to have a smorgasbord of your thoughts on things. You should instead have a clear topic in mind, and have something to say directly about that topic. Your piece should then elaborate and defend your opinion, not state it as fact, and not lose focus on your thesis.
- Your opinion should be yours: The purpose of writing is to share your take on a topic. This means doing something to leave your mark on the reader, influencing their interpretation. This may seem daunting, but if you are really interested in your chosen topic, you certainly have a unique take. By simply highlighting the claims of others and explaining, contrasting, or critiquing them, you have created a new idea. Drawing connections between different sources, or attempting to simplify more complex material are all valuable contributions to writing. Simply restating the claims and opinions of other people, however, is not.
- Avoid obscurantist and meandering prose: Many writers think that using technical or complex language in their work increases its merit, but it does just the opposite. The harder it is to follow what you are saying, the less likely someone is to even read the whole thing. Those who do will be convinced that you do not understand your own topic since you cannot convey it simply.
- Explain things: There are certain things you can get away with asserting as they are common knowledge. While you may not need to explain who the current President of the United States is regardless of the audience, the leader of Ubekibekibekistanstan may not be so obvious. While the law of supply and demand may be common knowledge when it comes to an economic argument, the principle of comparative advantage is not. There is not a clear line where something moves from common to niche, but it is important think of who your target audience is, and what is considered common knowledge among that group. Then try and strike a balance between helping your reader understand, while avoiding a condescending tone.
- Concrete examples: While you may know why your opinion on a topic is correct, your reader may not. Whenever you make a claim, especially a generalisation or an appeal to a principle, make those concrete by providing an understandable example. If you are going to use an ethical principle such as double effect, provide an example of it in action. “The principle of the double effect would say that you are allowed to drop a strategic bomb at a military target and not be responsible for foreseen, but unavoidable civilian casualties, but you would not be able to drop a bomb on civilian targets if your intention is to use them as a means to pressure the government.”
- Citations, Citations, more Citations: When you say something meant to be asserted as fact, we should know where you found that out, and be able to fact check it ourselves. If you claim that the average upper class UK household spends 60% of their disposable income on tea and crumpets, direct your reader to the relevant study. Everything that is not wholly your opinion or expected to be common knowledge should be cited (though its pretty commonly known tea and crumpets are the oil of the British economy).
- Be humble, but not too humble: What you write will not be the definitive take on that topic, unless maybe you’re writing about the political analysis of the shape of cucumbers. If you are writing that piece, skip to suggestion 9, or better yet, write something else. The rest of us, however, are only going to be one voice in a sea of voices on any given issue. It is best to keep this in mind, because the multitude of voices means that there is a reason people disagree. You should not present your interpretation as the definitive one, dismissing all others, for it will come off as arrogant. At the same time, do not be too conciliatory, as readers will doubt whether you believe your own points. You should be confident, but not self-absorbed, as with everything in life.
- Short and sweet: The rule of thumb for an opinion piece is that it should be between 600-800 words. This gives you enough time to set up the topic, describe your opinion on it, and give between 3-5 pieces of supporting evidence to back up your point. Shorter and your point will not be fleshed out, and if you write for much longer you will bore the reader.
- Have a memorable conclusion: The conclusion should leave your reader both thinking and curious. You can leave them with a message of hope, or a warning of impending doom; a call to act, or a question that leaves them wondering. It should be emotionally charged and speak to your audience. A good closing is one that readers will tweet when sharing your article, drawing more people in to engage with your ideas. It is your opportunity to leave a mark on the reader. Will you take it?