the abc formula
There’s a formula that we call the “ABCs” that can be used to write compelling op-eds, columns, or blogs. The same formula can also be used to write almost any document that offers up an argument or gives advice. This is a “news flash lede,” a comment which will make sense in a moment.
This formula for writing op-eds is based on our experience and our op-eds that appeared in the New York Times,the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. I first came across a version of this formula while I was at US News and World Report. It was called “FLUCK,” and we have tweaked it a bit since then.
This is probably obvious, but this ABC formula is meant to guide writers rather than restrict them. In other words, these are recommendations, not a rigid set of instructions.
Better yet, think of the formula as a flexible template for making an effective argument in print—one that you personalize with your specific style, topic and intended audience in mind.
This guide is divided into five parts.
Part I: Introduction. In this section, we give a brief overview of the approach and discuss the importance of writing and opinion.
Part II: The ABCs: Here we cover the important steps in writing for your audience: Attention, Billboard and Context.
PART III: The ABCS in Example: In this section we give you different examples of the ABC’s in action and how to effectively use them.
PART IV: Pitching: Here we will go over how to effectively pitch ideas and submit ideas to an editor for publication.
PART V: Final tips and FAQs: Here we go over a few more key things to do and answer the most commonly asked questions.
how to write an op-ed
part I: introduction
Op-eds are one of the most powerful tools in communications today. They can make a career. They can break a career.
But there’s often lots of mystery around editorials and op-eds. I mean: What does op-ed even stand for?
Well, let’s start with editorials. Editorials are columns written by a member of a publication’s board or editors, and they are meant to represent the view of the publication. While reporting has the main purpose of informing the public, editorials can serve a large number of purposes. But typically editorials aim to persuade an audience on a controversial issue.
Op-eds, on the other hand, are “opposite the editorial” page columns. They began as a way for an author to present an opinion that opposed the one on the editorial board. Note that an op-ed is different than a letter to the editor, which is when someone writes a note to complain about an article, and that note is published. Think of a letter to the editor as an old, more study form of the comments section of an article.
The New York Times produced the first modern op-ed in 1970, and over time, op-eds became a way for people to simply express their opinions in the media. They tend to be written by experts, observers, or someone who is passionate about a topic, and as media in general becomes more partisan, op-eds have become more and more common.
How to start. The first step for writing an op-ed is be sure to: Make. An. Argument.
Many op-eds fail because they just summarize key details. But, wrong or right, op-eds need to advance a strong contention. They need to assert something, and the first step is to write down your argument.
Here some examples:
How to write. So you have yourself an argument. It’s now time to write the op-ed. When it comes to writing, this guide assumes a decent command of the English language; we’re not going to cover the basics of nouns and verbs. However, keep in mind a few things:
How to make an argument. This guide is not for reporters or news writers. That’s journalism. This guide is for people who make arguments. So keep in mind the following:
Sidebar: Advice vs Argument. Offering advice in the form of a how-to article — like what you’re reading right now — is different than putting forth an argument in an actual op-ed piece.
That said, advice pieces, like this one by Lifehacker or this one by Hubspot, follow much of the same ABC formula. For instance, advice pieces will still often begin with an attention-grabbing opener and contextualize their subject matter.
However, instead of trying to make an argument in the body of the article, the advice pieces will typically list five to ten ways of “how to do” something. For example, “How to cook chicken quesadillas” or “How to ask someone out on a date.”
The primary purpose of an advice piece is to inform rather than to convince. In other words, advice pieces describe what you could do, while op-ed pieces show us what we should do.
A good way to drum up interest in your piece is to connect it to current events.”
part ii: Dissecting the ABC approach
Formula. There are six steps that make up the ABC method, and yes, that means it should really be called the ABCEDF method. Either way, here are the steps:
An op-eds need to advance a strong contention. It needs to assert something, and and the first step is write down your argument.”
part iii: The ABCS in Example
Now that we have gone over the basic ABC formula, let's examine a recent blog item and identify the six ABC steps.
Written by E.A. Crunden, the piece appeared in ThinkProgress and is titled, “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is embroiled in more than one scandal.”
part iv: pitching
Before you can convince a reader that what you’re writing about is important, you must convince an editor.
When it comes to op-eds, most outlets want to review a finished article. In other words, you write the op-ed and then shop it around to different editors. In some cases, the outlet might want a pitch — or brief summary— of the op-ed before you write it.
Either way, you’ll need a short summary, even just a few sentences that describe your argument. Here is an example of the pitch that I wrote that landed me on the front page of the Washington Post’s Outlook section. Note that this pitch is long, but I was aiming for a more feature-like op-ed.
I wanted to pitch a first-person piece looking at Neurocore, the questionable brain-training program that's funded by Betsy DeVos.
DeVos just got confirmed as Secretary of Education, and for years, she's been one of the major investors in Neurocore. Located in Michigan and Florida, the company makes some outlandish promises about brain-based training. The firm has argued, for instance, that their neuro-feedback programs have the ability to increase a person’s IQ by up to 12 points.
I was going to take Neurocore's diagnostic program to get a better sense of the company's claims. As part of the story, I was also going to discuss the research on neuro-feedback, which is pretty weak. Insurance companies are also skeptical, and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan recently refused to reimburse for Neurocore's treatments. I'd also discuss some of my own research in this area and talk about some of the dangers of spreading myths about learning.
There’s been some recent coverage of Neurocore. But the articles have typically focused on the conflict of interest posed by the company since DeVos herself has refused to disinvest. What’s more, no one appears to have written a first-person piece describing the experience of attending one of their brain training diagnostic sessions.
A few bits of advice:
Advice pieces describe what you could do, while op-ed pieces show us what we should do.”
part v. faqs and tips
I have lots to say. Can I write a 3,000 word op-ed?
Not really. Most blogs articles, op-eds and columns are short, less traction. What’s more, your idea is more likely to gain traction if it’s clear and simple. Take the Bible. It can be broken down to a simple idea: Love one another as you love yourself. Or take the Bill of Rights. It can be shortened to: Individuals have protections.
I want to tell a story. Can I do that?
Maybe. If you do, keep it short and reference the story at the top and maybe again at the bottom. But again, the key about an op-ed is that it makes an argument.
What should do before I hit submit?
We could suggest two things:
What’s the difference between a blog article and an op-ed?
A blog article can be about anything such as “What I had for lunch today” or “Why I love Disney World." An op-ed typically revolves around something in the news and is meant to be persuasive. It typically runs in a news outlet of some kind.
What if no one takes my op-ed?
Be patient. You might need to offer your op-ed to multiple outlets before someone decides to publish it, and you can always tweak the op-ed to make it more news-y, tying the article to something that happened in the news that day or week.
Also look for ways to improve the op-ed. You might, for instance, focus on changing the “attention” section to make it more creative and interesting, or try to improve the context section.
What is the best way to start writing an op-ed?
Before writing, make sure to create an outline. I will often write out my topic sentences and make sure that I’m really making a strong, evidence-based argument. Then I’ll focus on a creative way to open my op-ed.
Don’t worry if you get writer’s block while writing the "attention" step. You can always come back and make it more interesting. Really, the most important step is having an outline.
Should I hyperlink?
Yes, include hyperlinks in your articles to provide your readers with easy access to additional information.
Will you edit my op-ed?
Yes, the Learning Agency provides editing services. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Quizzing is one of the most effective ways to retain information. Here is a short, low-stakes pop quiz on some of the lessons that we’ve covered in this guide, with answers to follow.
Note: This article got more pick up than we expected and we've updated it with different framing and examples.