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How to write an op-ed for law students

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How to Write an Op-Ed

As a law student who has successfully published an op-ed in my local newspaper, I want to share some strategies that I found successful. With the assistance of my professor (who co-authored this guide) and other professionals in my network, I published an op-ed in the Tampa Bay Times on a timely subject that I am passionate about. It was much less daunting than I anticipated and came together pretty quickly. So here are some basic steps to get you started.

What is an op-ed?

An op-ed, short for opinion editorial, is an article written about one’s point of view on a certain topic or issue. An op-ed writer’s main goals are to inform the reader about an issue that they may not be aware of and hopefully persuade the reader to adopt the writer’s point of view on said issue.

As a law student, you are in a unique position to do this because you’re on your way to becoming a legal professional while still being in touch with everyday people outside of the law.

With this point of view, you can explain the law and its effects on society in a way easily understood by non-lawyers. For example, let’s say you want to offer a more compassionate perspective on sentencing guidelines or perhaps voting rights through an op-ed. You can do this by simply discussing the law, its effects on society, and then finally proposing some sort of solution or call to action.

How to write an op-ed

Choose a publication

Once you’ve come up with a topic, the first step is to choose a publication that will publish your op-ed. Going with the local newspaper is usually the best choice because they’re always looking to fill their publication with stories from local writers. Once you’ve found a publication, make sure to check whether someone has already recently written about the topic on their platform. If someone wrote something very similar to what you are writing, then the newspaper might not publish yours.

Be aware of timing

For op-eds, timing is everything. One week, the topic you’re writing about may be at the top of the news cycle; and the next week, it’s barely being talked about. This dynamic occurs because large publications often write about several topics while also trying to keep their readers in-tune with the most up-to-date news. For example, let’s say you’re writing about legislation that is in jeopardy of not passing the Senate. If you take too long to write about this and the legislation passes, your op-ed will be useless to the publication. To prevent such a missed opportunity, it’s best to submit your op-ed within 24-hours of the breaking news story.

Structure

Headline: At the top of your op-ed, you will have a headline letting the reader know the topic. Make sure that this headline is one that catches the reader’s attention rather than making them want to keep scrolling. For example, if your op-ed is about voting restriction legislation, don’t just put “Voting Restriction Legislation” as your headline. Instead, give a brief 5-10 word headline that speaks to the importance of the legislation, something like “New Voting Restrictions Will Make Voting More Difficult for Millions.” Just make sure you’re not misleading with your headline.

Introduction: Begin the op-ed with an introduction that puts forth the issue and your stance on the issue in a nutshell. Like the headline, you want to capture the reader’s attention and make them want to read more by giving a short summary of what you’re writing about.

Body: Once you’ve captured the reader with the headline and introduction, the body serves as the substance for the argument that you’re making. This section should focus on why the issue you’re talking about is important, all necessary facts and circumstances surrounding the issue, it’s implications, and why you have the perspective that you do. As a law student talking about matters related to the law, make sure that your argument is supported by facts or statistics, or both. Do not just discuss how you personally feel about the matter. It’s important to also address other perspectives that may seem contrary to your stance rather than shying away from them.

Every legal issue has nuance; so addressing this nuance is more powerful than acting as if it doesn’t exist. This approach establishes your credibility and seriousness.

Conclusion: End by offering a solution to the issue you’ve highlighted. What is the exact solution you are advocating? What can the reader do to be part of that solution? Is there a need for collective action, such as signing a petition or contacting their representative? Oftentimes, there isn’t just one solution, so make sure you close by suggesting all those that you feel are necessary.

Presentation

As a law student, while you may not be a full-fledged attorney, you still have more knowledge about the law than a layperson. Use that knowledge to your advantage; but do so without using legalese. You may think that words like negligent or reckless are easily understandable terms, but, as you know by now, they do have legal significance. So, whenever you feel the need to invoke a legal term, think twice before using it. At a minimum, explain it if you are going to use it at all.

Also, keep in mind that an op-ed is meant to serve as a short, narrative essay, not a full-length research paper. Use an active voice, be precise with your words, and avoid unnecessary “fluff.”

Op-eds usually have a word limit of around 500-800 words, depending on the publication, so make sure you know what that word limit is and stick to it.

Proofread

Proofreading your op-ed is just as important as all the work that you put into it prior. Although running your op-ed through different proofreaders can create a tight timeline, you need a fresh pair of eyes to look it over for errors and for suggestions on how to make it better. Not taking this task seriously may result in there being errors and the newspaper not publishing it.

Submitting your op-ed

Make sure when you’re submitting your op-ed that you know where or who to submit it to. You can find this information on the publication’s website or by running a quick Google search. When you find out, provide a brief note as to who you are and what the op-ed is about. Also, keep in mind that some may want a professional headshot along with your submission.

If submission requires you to email someone, attach your op-ed to the email, and paste it in as text because some editors do not like opening unsolicited attachments.

You got published, now what?

Once your op-ed has been published, spread the word to communities you are a part of, whether it be your law school, student organizations, or others who will help promote it. You’ve done all this work by now, so make sure to share what you’ve written with as many people as possible!

Connor Porzig and Joseline Hardrick Connor D. Porzig is a third-year law student at Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School and the past president of the American Constitution Society, Tampa Bay Cooley Law Chapter. He aspires to become a public defender and devote his life and career to public service. Joseline Jean-Louis Hardrick, Esq. is a professor at Western Michigan University - Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Tampa Bay Campus where she teaches Criminal and Constitutional Law and serves as the faculty advisor for the American Constitution Society‘s Tampa Bay Cooley Law Chapter. She is also founder of Diversity Access Pipeline, Inc.’s Journey to Esquire® Programs which provides scholarships, training, and mentors to diverse law students.