Crystal Lee (she/她)

How to write an op-ed, according to Bruce Schneier

November 1, 2022

What we will cover

  • Pitching
  • Writing
  • Editing process
  • Publishing process
  • How to get paid
  • How this can fit into your broader academic / personal goals

Think of one piece of public writing that you can imagine yourself producing in the next few months: think of one publication that might be interested in that piece of writing.

What is an op-ed?

It's a very particular form of writing!

  • Short: 1200 words, 800 if you're in print, 1600 if you're un / lucky
  • Not comprehensive: one or two points, max
  • General interest: not for specialists, interesting to anyone who reads it
  • Makes an argument: it has to take a stand! So and so what are important (so what even more so)!
  • Affects the debate: something that is being discussed / something that matters. You want to move the needle on public opinion
  • Poorly footnoted: cross out all the 10 word references; you get a link. NOT like academic writing.
  • Iterative, not foundational: it's part of a broader conversation. Usually the issues is that people are trying to say too much. NOT related work, NOT references to other work. You're trying to do one or maybe two things (mostly one thing and a subthing).

Why write op-eds?

  • To change something
  • Inform people
  • Bring other voices onto the table (publications are much more aware of this now than ever)
  • Get an audience
  • Legitimize an argument so that people have something to work with
  • It's fun!
  • Fame / exposure (when CNN is calling, they're looking for op ed people)
  • Explaining yourself to the masses help you crystallize your own thinking
  • Sell / promo your book! (This is usually in the bio blurb at the bottom.)
  • Money (lol)

There is a need for op-eds online -- publications are putting out multiple pieces a day. Salon, Slate, NYT, Wired, WaPo. They might be putting out 3 per day. Internet has really exploded the need for these and they're about all sorts of topics! All of us can be part of that.


There's a new story about a driverless car deciding to hit two men and avoid a mother and child. Who does CNN use to write the op-ed?

  • Driverless car expert
  • Algorithmic ML expert
  • Urban planner working on pedestrian right of ways in driverless car environment
  • Ethicist who studies the trolley problem
  • Concerned parent

Answer: whoever gets their query across the editor's desk first. Everyone thinks they don't have enough expertise, but any of these people can write this. It could be you! They're not waiting for the world's best expert. They're waiting for someone who can do a credible job. Sometimes they'll reach out to someone but usually they are looking for someone who has a take.

Handout: Bruce's example of his expertise

  • What do you want to write about? What can you write about?
  • Start with the most focused and move towards the general as far as you can
Professional expertise Personal Experience
Cryptography Cooking and eating out IT Security policy
Computer security Restaurant reviews Tech policy
Security technology Restaurant industry Tech and policy
Technology policy Public interest technologists

Crystal's sample

Professional expertise Personal Experience
Human-computer interaction Race, food, and culture Public interest technologists
Computer science pedagogy Tech and food Civic media
Disability and technology Food and media
Data visualization
Responsible design / tech

Gender? Race? Personal experience: mental health / race / cultural perceptions

From a colleague...

Professional expertise Personal Experience
History of fourth crusade Father of child with Down syndrome
Modern church politics Disability and parenting
Modern uses of the word "medieval" Parenting
Modern politics and how it uses the word "crusade" Police violence and children

Different publications have different styles in terms of whether or not they want a piece fully drafted beforehand!

  • Emily Oster, "Let's Declare A Pandemic Amnesty" (Atlantic): relatable, personal narrative, author admits that they were wrong
  • David Frum, "Yes, Elections Have Consequences": language is provocative but written for an educated audience, not a personal narrative
  • Masha Gessen, "Why Vladimir Putin Would Use Nuclear Weapons in Ukraine" (New Yorker): assumes a lot from the reader, very wordy, this is not something you read while walking on your phone, edited for a paper
    • New Yorker is different and takes longer pieces, but most people are 1200 words so that it's 2 pages (so that they can place 2 ads)
  • Martha Hickson, "The school library used to be a sanctuary. Now it's a battleground" (CNN): way shorter paragraphs (two sentences!), lots of links, EDIT FOR PHONE SCREEN, not on a laptop, words are very intense (pedophile, pornographer, villain, spewed, etc.)
  • Different audience! Al Jazeera, Ars Technica, Wired, CNN are all different outlets! I write the piece and then decide where I want to put it rather than writing for a particular outlet

The pitch

  • The hardest part about writing is finding someone who wants it! Sometimes the email is just the pitch, sometimes it includes the piece
  • Think about it from the point of view of the editor: they are busy and overworked! Your goal is to quickly convince them that (1) you have a good perspective / topic and (2) that you can deliver on time
  • Know who you're pitching to and know their audience (get their name right! Make sure they still work there! Do your homework!)
  • Know your argument, not just your topic
  • Catch 22: it is easy to sell the piece when you've written many. It's hard to break in. As you get more clips, you're more reliable and your stuff gets published more
  • Being in the news cycle helps enormously! (For example, writing about the thing that's in the news TODAY)

Pitch format

SUBJECT: TIMELY -- Essay Pitch on [Important Thing]


I am a [title] at [place], and I work on [relevant topic]. I have [these expertises], and have been published at [these places, academic or popular].

I am writing a piece on [timely topic]. I will argue [lively thesis or hook, no more than two sentences]. I have access to [these resources -- this is optional, like access to a person, access to data, or my current research].

Here are some links that [show I am both timely and saying something others aren't saying. This sentence is important because if it's not immediately in the news, then you have to convince them why they need to pay attention!]

[If you have a draft, mention it here and put it down below.]

[Salutation] [Full signature that re-restates credentials]

The sooner you get rid of being embarrassed and showing people bad work, the better your work will be!

Exercise: write a pitch!

TIMELY -- Essay Pitch on Gentrification of Asian American food


I am an assistant professor at MIT where I work on social media and internet culture. I have experience writing about race and technology, and my work has been published in Slate and Social Media + Society.

You're just trying to convince an editor of your credibility! Just to say that you're not a rando. They want some reason to know that they can do it. The proof is that you can write to deadline!! Secondary credentials aren't that important, if it's (1) you know the biz, e.g. editor job, and (2) the affiliation is fancy, like Harvard.

I am writing a piece on the transformation of traditional Asian food into accessible, all-in-one packages that go viral on Instagram and TikTok. I will argue that the success of these brands (e.g., Fly by Jing, Omsom, Homiah) relies on the commodification of harmful tropes about Asian people and extends

You should be able to say these sentences to a friend who will say "ooh, that's interesting" -- those are your words! If they say "huh?", then those are not your words. You should be able to say this conversationally.

Here are some links that show ...

Put the draft in the email! Don't put it in an attachment. You could also do a Google Doc.

Warmly, Crystal ....................

Crystal Lee, PhD Assistant Professor of Computational Media Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Faculty Associate, Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society Harvard University

Other possible topics

  • Migration culture re: Mastodon / Twitter. "Mastodon won't solve our problems."
  • What to do about misinformation (MIT workshop takeaways)
  • Reformed tech bros suck
  • Jingoism about Chinese social media is bad, actually

Recap of the op-ed

  • Short, clear, pointed
  • Of general interest
  • Makes an argument and affects the debate
  • Iterative, not seminal or comprehensive
  • Poorly footnoted
  • Start with the point and then slowly go back and see how to get there

Find a friend and explain what you're writing about. Those are the words that you use! If there are paragraph asides, delete it. It must be clear and to the point. Why should the reader listen to you? Of all the things you're reading today, why should you read this one? If you don't have a reason, then they won't publish it. It's about the argument. In the argument, show your expertise and be clear about why you should make the argument. Readers are distractible -- be immediately interesting. This is not the place for asides!

Format of the op-ed

  • Lede and news hook
  • Thesis (pull directly from the pitch if it's done well!)
  • Context, if necessary
  • Argument with evidence x 3
  • Counter-evidence, if necessary
  • Closer

Lede: opening lines intended to grab the reader. Can just be the news hook, but often requires something more evocative: an anecdote, a quote, your experience, or other present-tense narrative. If you can link it to a current news story, you will have a much easier time getting published.

Thesis: what is the overall point of this essay? It needs to be stated in the beginning. Calls to action go here.

Context: sometimes it's useful to zoom out from the narrow news hook and give a big picture. Sometimes, though, the essay is just about the context.

What are the tweet-able sentences? How would you distill the piece into a sentence or two?

Arguments: evidence that proves your point. These should be short and punchy.

Closer: something punchy, often returning to the hook or lede as appropriate.

Word count

  • 800-1500 words, generally
  • Newspapers like essays closer to 600 words
  • Some sites (e.g., New Yorker) take essays longer than 1500 words

If you have an area of expertise, you could write a piece and save it for later. The next time Tesla kills someone, credit card numbers get stolen, etc -- you have something ready to go. Next time Elon tweets something stupid, you're ready.

Op-ed analysis

Three good examples of the form: * Volkswagen and the Era of Cheating Software (2015) * What to tell your kid about Christopher Columbus (2015) * What's the Big Deal about Sexting? (2014)

I always start with outlining my piece with each of the points (e.g., lede, thesis, context, etc.) and then move things around as things go along!

The process

  • Drafting
  • Editing
  • More editing
  • Submitting
  • More editing
  • Getting published

You are better off if you don't connect self image with writing! You want someone to tell you that something is bad before you publish it. You can't get it good until you get it down. If you wait till it's perfect in your head, it'll never get done! You can leave huge blanks in your draft and then go back to fix it. The cleaner the copy you submit to the editor, the more your editor will like you.

Often you pitch and you never get a response. NYT will say "pitch to us, if you don't hear from us in 3 days, send it elsewhere." Three days is a long time and you might have lost the news cycle! Other places get back to you but they don't do that to a lot of first time offers.

Multiple submissions

  • Everyone hates it. If you pull a piece out from under an editor, they will remember your name! Write in your email -- "if I don't hear from you in 24 hours, then I will send it elsewhere." You could also pitch twice and write two different pieces on the same topic.
  • Can you publish the same thing twice? It needs to be different enough but what that means is very contextual! NYT will hate it. Lawfare might be a little more lenient since it's a blog. Washington Post / Slate are more promiscuous about previous pieces too.


  • A good editor will really make your piece better! The amount of work the editor does really varies. Deletions to fit and some minor questions versus someone who completely rewrites the piece. Take these comments seriously; what seems like a major comment can often be fixed with a sentence. What is it that the reader say X -- the problem might be 2 paragraphs before. You might need to remind them again for that point.
    • You can argue with changes! It's your byline, not a joint one with the editor. Everything you say will be attributed to you. Explain why and the editor will probably say ok. Always make sure that they don't change your words. Read it through -- make sure that the copyeditor didn't change the meaning.
    • Is there any advantage to writing the thing and including it vs. just pitching it? It depends; I usually just send it if I have already written it to cut down on back and forth.
    • There have been times that I've pulled a piece because the editing has changed it so that it's not the piece that I'm ok with having my name attached.
  • If you don't get a response in a day, bump it. If someone says no, send it elsewhere. News cycles come back around; Elon Musk and Twitter will circle back.
  • You have no say in the headline. Everything else you should have final say over.

What editors want in a pitch...

Pitches should consist of two paragraphs, no longer than two or three sentences each. You may insert your essay in plaintext (not as an attachment) below your signature, but you don't have to do so

Four editors on pitching

Susan Rigetti, op ed editor at New York Times: "I'm interested in pretty much any topic, as long as you have a straightforward argument in your piece. Read a lot of NYT op-eds in our Opinion section to get a feel for structure and tone(don 't read the unsigned editorials or the columnists, who have different rules --read the op-eds!). Once you know what you want to write about, there are two different ways to pitch: (1) Send me one paragraph describing the piece and the argument you'll make in it. If I think it sounds interesting, I'Illet you know and ask you to send me a full draft on spec for me and my colleagues to review. (2) Or you can send me a full draft to review. This should be anywhere between 800 and 1500 words, with a clear, straightforward argument and a very simple structure (one introductory paragraph that summarizes your argument, your argument, possible objections, then a concluding paragraph that summarizes your argument again).

Mike Farrell, editor at Politico: Pitch the publications that make the most sense for your piece. Don't go to Politico with something that's isn't related to politics or policy. Don't pitch Foreign Policy with something that's not about international affairs. It's best to pitch opinion editors when your topic is hot. Like news editors, opinion editors want their pieces to be part of the news cycle. Pitch yourself, too. Editors want to know why you're the best person to write on a given topic. What's your unique knowledge? Don't be afraid to be annoying. Editors get lots of emails. If you don't hear back, send your pitch again. Persistence pays off.

Ted Scheinman, op ed editor at "Get to the point editors often receive dozens (or more) pitches each day, so an easy way to stand out is to save the editor time by condensing the argument of your op-ed into a short, crisp paragraph right at the top. Familiarize yourself with an outlet' 's style and recent coverage, So that you can ensure your tone and lexicon are suitable for that outlet, and that you're not pitching an approach that' 's already been done. After that first paragraph, give the editor a bit more detail, including a brief but precise outline of the argument you intend to make. It's important to indicate how your argument will further the current conversation on a given topic how it will stand out among a glut of content. And one last note: avoid cliches. Specialists or experts sometimes try to pull off punchy sentences (which isgood!) by resorting to cliches (which are bad, and condescending to the reader)

Adrienne LaFrance, Politics Editor at The Atlantic (online): "Short and direct pitches are best. Even better if you can propose a compelling working headline that demonstrates a clear understanding of the publication and its style. Always make sure you're pitching a new angle, something the publication hasn't already covered. And remember to respect the reader in how you frame your argument/essay you're writing for a general audience that brings its own varied expertise and perspectives.

Getting paid

All sites pay something. They often don't tell you, but they do. $200, 300, 500 (NYT)...these are the numbers per piece. You must ask to get paid. Ask: what is your rate for freelance pieces? You might not need the money, but there are people who do. Don't destroy the market for people who need the money. Ask for the rate when the pitch gets accepted.

The NYT almost never publishes something with 3 authors because it breaks the perception that this is one person's opinion. You could make a secondary career with this! $500/week is not so bad. Some places won't publish a couple pieces in a row from you (e.g., WaPo) but there are a lot of pieces. If you are prolific, you could get a regular column -- you have to have stuff in a pipeline, a document with 20 ideas. When I was a contributing editor at The Atlantic, I had a piece due every 3 weeks. For a regular contributor, I did one every 2 weeks.

The process is just to write. It's a muscle: the more you do it, the better you get.

Long term, this is a way to affect the debate. This is a way to make a difference more than our academic work. This is how to get lawmakers' staff to read this. No one reads The Big Stuff anymore, especially books. This is how we make a difference. If you get good at this and write fast when there's a news hook, you make a niche for yourself. David Perry was studying the 14th century and fortuitously could write about the Pope abdicating -- this is how a historian of nobody got started! This is how you become a voice in your field, how you get book contracts, how you influence things. The key is to practice.