The Secret Sauce for Writing (and Publishing) Commentary Submissions

by Blattel Communications
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Leafing through your Sunday newspaper, steaming cup of coffee in hand, you have no doubt seen commentary articles – opinion pieces written by local citizens and business leaders focusing on specific issues. Maybe the thought has even gone through your head, “You know, I would love to write about X topic and be printed on these pages.”

The reality is that commentary writing is a challenging pursuit. Really interesting, engaging and knowledgeable people are stumped when it comes to this unique blend of persuasive and fact-driven writing. However, bearing a few key tenets in mind, you can greatly strengthen your submission and enhance your odds of being published.

Before we start, I feel I should come clean. I’ve published six personal commentary submissions in major newspapers. So, my suggestions come from personal experience and from consuming an unhealthy amount of newsprint over the years

Let’s start with the key ingredients:

Topical Contents – Your submission either needs to have as its main point a topic active in the news cycle or be supported by recent developments.

Clear Viewpoint – Are you advocating that a piece of legislation be passed? Are you making a direct counterpoint to a current line of thinking? Are you responding to an article or commentary submission/op-ed that you felt was inaccurate or unfair? The editor first – and later the reader – needs to be able to walk away with a clear idea of why you spent the time to write a submission. If you waffle too much and qualify statements constantly, the end product will either look like a news article (not the goal) or lack any muscularity (a surefire way to end up in the recycling bin).

Proper Length and Format – It may take some time to dig up the word count and other parameters, but it is always worthwhile to know what a publication is looking for before pen goes to paper or fingers tap on keys. Cutting a beautiful submission in half is a painful process as there is only so much tightening that can happen and fat that can be cut away before edits strike at the meat and then the bone.

Great! We have the basic elements down. Now, let’s consider some often overlooked aspects of the process.

Have you been reading the targeted publication? – Publications have their own styles, and editors and reporters reveal what topics are of interest on a daily basis. If you are looking to be published in your city’s major newspaper or business journal, you need to be a regular reader. This aspect is directly tied to the “Topical Elements” ingredient above.

Do you actually have time to craft a submission? – You may be really energized by a topic and feel ready to hammer out 500-1,000 words, but freeze up when the cursor is staring back at you. If the subject matter at hand is prominent in the news cycle, will it still be in heavy rotation when your submission is reviewed by the editor? Knowing thyself as a writer is key.

Are you repurposing an alert or byline article? – Finding ways to leverage existing content is wonderful. However, the style of commentary submissions generally demands original text. Partially, this is due to the audiences in question. A commentary article needs to appeal to the widest cross-section of readers possible and often assumes little-to-no knowledge on a topic beforehand.

Do you have a fact set or report to back up your viewpoint? – The difference between a common Facebook rant and a commentary article lies in buttressing opinion with fact. Look for white papers, data sets and research that support your argument.

Here’s one more consideration.

Many commentary submissions are collaborations. – Setting aside co-signed pieces (maximum of two authors, please), the high-level articles that grace the back pages of The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are rarely written entirely, and sometimes at all, by the stated author. The best writing is the product of a process, meaning that marketing and public relations professionals provide a crucial assist in producing a submission.

There is real value in expressing an opinion eloquently and in a vehicle that reaches a mass audience. The process for putting together a commentary submission is fairly straightforward. However, short-circuiting it and drafting a long manifesto in the middle of the night is a recipe for failure and, generally, an exercise in futility.

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