Environment Picture

Powerful op-eds and on-point letters: Key tools in standing up for Michigan’s natural resources

Jewel Gopwani, Detroit Free Press
Providing the state’s newspapers, niche publications and blogosphere with strong voices on behalf of Michigan’s natural resources is a critical component of the Michigan Environmental Council’s work. We stand ready to provide professional communications and media relations advice to member groups. In that spirit, we asked Detroit Free Press Assistant Editor for Community Engagement Jewel Gopwani to provide some tips and guidelines for submitting letters and opinion essays to the newspaper. Thanks, Jewel!

1. Conventional wisdom is environmentalists can’t write their way out of a paper bag, is that right?

I don’t think that’s true. I think advocates for the environment—and for anything really—need to be persuasive. That’s an art, and it’s something we appreciate when it’s done right. Environmentalists often rely more on numbers and science, and that’s where it can get tough, but we’ll get to that later.

2. What is the difference between a letter to the editor and an op-ed?

A key distinction between the two at the Free Press is that letters typically are responses to something the paper has published. Op-eds—formally we call them guest columns—are individual arguments that don’t react to something that has already been published. Of course there are always exceptions, but that’s our rule of thumb. That’s because if we publish an op-ed that responds to something we’ve published, someone is going to want to write an op-ed to respond to the response, and it could go on forever. Another key distinction is the word limit. We like letters to be 200 words or fewer. But again, we do make exceptions.

3. What are the three most important things writers should do to increase their chances of getting a guest column published?

Find out what the needs of the publication are first, including word count and how soon they’ll need the guest column and if they’d even be interested in the column. Make sure to stick to the word count. Shorter is good. Before starting to write an op-ed, ask yourself a question. Would you really take the time to read it? Our readers have a lot to choose from, so make sure what you’re writing is provocative, smart and will hold a reader’s interest. And on a similar note, make sure the piece is written for a general audience. Break down the topic and the argument in a way that anyone can understand. Avoid jargon and acronyms, and make your argument as simply and concisely as possible.

Follow up. Try to find out who the contact is. Editorial pages should make a phone number pretty easy to find. Call and ask who handles guest columns. Don’t first ask to speak to the Editorial Page Editor because, at least at larger news organizations, that person is way too busy to keep track of the op-eds that are submitted.

On letters, I don’t suggest this level of follow up. We receive so many letters, that we can’t keep up with each person.

4. What are the most common mistakes or fatal flaws writers make when submitting?

Sending an op-ed without a photo of the author and without links to your statistics and the reports mentioned in the piece. Before we decide to run something, we’ll want to give it a basic fact check. So be sure to include links to the numbers and statistics you use. We need to know that what we’re printing is factually correct, no matter who writes it. Also, be sure to include a photo of yourself.

Be provocative and speak for yourself: I’m not interested in what a campaign or an organization has to say. I want to know what you have to say.

Don’t use op-eds to applaud and give credit and shout outs to too many people. That’s not what our space is for. And would you really want to read that?

We always like to have a group of smart op-eds handy for when we’ll have print space. Print space is often unpredictable, so we need provocative pieces at the ready.

Be prepared to hear that we’re running it only on our digital platforms. We have fewer column inches in print and more space online. We may want to run your op-ed in online and not in print.

5. If we send a valuable gift along with our submission, will that help? (MEC has its logo on some excellent rubber jar openers made from recycled material if you’d like!)

The answer to that is no. Ain’t nobody got time (or space) for that!

6. Is it appropriate to submit the same letter or opinion piece to multiple media outlets?

No. Don’t send your guest column to several news outlets at once. We all want exclusive content, and don’t want to be running what the other guys run. Send it to one, let them know it’s exclusive and that you’d like to hear back by a certain day and time before you send it elsewhere.

7. You worked with Hugh McDiarmid, Jr. at the Free Press, before he left for MEC. Would you say he’s the best writer in Michigan?

 Hugh learned from the best, so he’s right up there with them. -J

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