In the past two and a half weeks, my TVP Communications colleagues and I have noticed a significant surge in the number of faculty and administrators sharing opinion pieces related to the COVID-19 outbreak. While we consider this increased participation in media relations a positive and welcome byproduct of an otherwise dire situation, we know it means there are editors out there dealing with an overwhelming -- and arguably unprecedented -- volume of submissions.
In fact, editors have confirmed this on several occasions in the past week. Some have responded personally to accepted pitches with notes about the number of pieces being juggled and editing timelines taking longer than normal. And we’ve received auto-response emails from some editors about increased submissions and prolonged response time.
This reality translates to intense competition for space in coveted op-ed pages, which are already known to be highly selective even during slow news cycles. So, it’s more important than ever that submissions stand out and deliver on what editors are looking for. Below is advice to keep in mind while crafting op-eds during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic to get editors’ attention and increase the chances your piece is accepted for publication.
Make sure you have an argument
Op-eds are not topical reports or explainers. They are based in opinion and backed up with evidence. This is a big shift in thinking for many faculty in higher ed who are trained to present all sides of an argument so students can draw their own informed conclusions. It’s a wonderful approach to teaching, but it doesn’t work with opinion writing. Op-eds must contain an argument within the first few sentences that is supported with facts (including data, links and examples) in subsequent paragraphs. The bolder an argument is, the more likely it is to be of interest to editors and their audiences.
Make sure your idea is really, truly (seriously!) new
Right now, nearly everyone is writing about COVID-19. And they should be. The magnitude of the pandemic is such that every aspect of people’s lives across the entire globe is impacted -- and we are all trying to sort out what it means for us. The good news is that there is no shortage of angles from which to examine the pandemic and there is still a lot that is not understood by the general public. In other words, our current situation presents ample opportunity for academic experts to help provide insight.
The bad news is that competition is unlike it’s ever been. Editors need ideas that have not appeared elsewhere, so if you provide originality, you have a leg up on other writers. Experts in the same fields often arrive independently at similar arguments because of their shared knowledge. So it’s worth googling your idea to get a sense of how widespread it may be. You may to need to tweak your approach or language slightly to create a piece that is truly different.
If you have a target outlet in mind, it’s worth reading what they’ve published over the past few weeks on their op-ed pages. If you can present an idea they haven’t covered yet, and it’s relevant to their audience, you’ll have a better shot at breaking through.
Pay attention to timelines
Things are changing very quickly as this situation unfolds. Successful op-eds will address issues that are timely and likely to remain relevant for days to weeks. The most successful will anticipate the next phase of the story.
Also be cognizant of editors’ timelines. If your piece is accepted and an editor request edits or shares a contract to be signed, be sure to respond as soon as possible. Editors are working around the clock right now, and chasing down contracts slows the process for everyone. By being responsive and dependable, you not only increase your chances of placing additional submissions with the same outlet, but editors may actually solicit additional pieces from you if they know you’re a writer who can deliver. We have seen this scenario play out more than once in the past few weeks.
Things are moving quickly and in-boxes seem to be filling up faster than usual, but making time to send a note of thanks to an editor who showed interest in your piece, put time into editing it and helped share your idea with their audience should be a priority. Posting on social media is another great way to help drive traffic to media outlet’s website, which is critical to journalism’s bottom line. Many outlets are offering free to access to COVID-19 content, which is a great public service. Help them share fact-based news and opinions when you can.
This pandemic is an important opportunity for higher education to help the nation through uncertain times by offering expertise, research and data. I am grateful that so many have stepped up to help in this way and proud to work with so many faculty and administrators at colleges and universities across the nation who are putting in the work, despite many competing priorities. I’d also love to hear about other experiences with op-eds since the pandemic began. Please share your tips in the comments section or start a conversation with us on Twitter.
Kristine Maloney is assistant vice president at TVP Communications.