|Learn how to build local support by writing compelling guest columns and editorials about community issues.|
What are guest columns and editorials?
What should you consider using guest columns and editorial?
When should you consider using guest columns an editorials?
Whom can you target with your guest column and editorial?
How can you prepare guest column and editorials?
Writing a guest column or an editorial for your local newspaper is an effective way to raise awareness about a community problem, defend your position, or move the community to action. This section explains what guest columns and editorials are, helps you decide whether and how writing one can help your organization or cause, and takes your through the steps of writing a guest column or editorial.
What are guest columns and editorials?
Guest columns and editorials are newspaper or magazine opinion pieces, usually 400 to 800 words long, that are written by someone who isn't part of the publication's normal staff and that appear in the Opinion & Editorial (op-ed) section. There really isn't much difference between a guest editorial and a guest column -- the two terms are generally used interchangeably, although if someone is allowed to write for the publication more than once, it's more likely to be called a column.
Guest columns and editorials differ from regular columns and editorials in only a few ways:
- A regular editorial is an opinion piece written by the publication's editorial board, a group that discusses issues and makes decisions as to what the publication's official position will be. Editorials often run without naming the author; instead they are usually attributed to the entire editorial board. If the author is named, it usually will say something like "Pete Bumstead for the Valley Times Editorial Board."
- A regular column is a regularly-appearing piece written by a single author, often run with the writer's photograph, that stresses the writer's opinion. Here are a few columnists:
Nationally syndicated columnists
The following writers are all well-known American opinion columnists. A wide range of styles are represented here -- from the liberal to the conservative, as well as the humorous. If you'd like to get a firmer idea of what columns are like, you may want to check out a few of these authors' works.
- Ellen Goodman is a Pulitzer Prize winner who writes for the Boston Globe about family, politics, generation gaps, ethics, abortion, and the ever-changing status of women.
- David S. Broder writes news analysis and opinion page commentary on national politics for the Washington Post.
- Nat Hentoff writes commentary about free speech issues for the Village Voice.
- Molly Ivins, the late columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist three times.
- William J. Raspberry, urban affairs columnist for the Washington Post, won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1994 for his writing on such topics as crime, AIDS, the Nation of Islam and violent rap lyrics
- Liz Balmaseda of the Miami Herald won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1993 for her columns about life in Miami and issues relating to Cuban Americans and other immigrant communities.
- George F. Will writes commentary about national politics for the Washington Post and Newsweek.
- Dave Barry was for many years a humor columnist for the Miami Herald.
Why should you consider using guest columns and editorials?
Guest columns and editorials, if written well, can be important in swaying public opinion, especially on current "hot-button" issues in your community. Here are some of the reasons you might consider using a guest column or editorial as part of your strategy:
To bring more of the public over to your way of thinking: If public opinion is against you, an impassioned and eloquent guest piece in the local paper can do a lot to explain your position and persuade people to come around to support your stance.
To show your side of controversial issues: When you're working on a public initiative that is being hotly contested, a guest column or editorial can give you a chance to explain the reasoning behind your view and win over supporters.
To re-open public dialogue on issues that have fallen out of the public mind: If your initiative is lagging and public interest has waned, you can use a guest column or editorial to remind people why the topic is still relevant, add any new information to what people already know, and spark public discourse on the topic.
To counter your opponents arguments against your group or initiative: This is probably the most common way that guest columns or editorials are used. Newspapers will also sometimes allow representatives of both sides of a hotly-contested issue to do "pro and con" pieces, in which both sides have their columns or editorials printed side by side on the opinion page.
When should you consider using guest columns and editorials?
Any time that you want to express an opinion on events and activities of concern to you as a community organizer, you should consider submitting a guest column or editorial. You can also time the appearance of your guest column to your advantage:
Tie it to the start of an initiative, organization, or program: If you're just getting started, the local paper might let you write a guest column or editorial to announce your existence and explain what you're all about.
Tie it to a season: Many issues can be brought up that are connected to the time of year. For example, if winter is setting in, this might be a good time to appeal to the public for donations for the area homeless shelter. In the spring, a recycling education program can point out the connection between the renewal of the season and the renewal of natural resources that recycling offers.
Tie it to an upcoming or current event: Finding a way to connect your group or initiative to some event that is a good way to tap in on things that the public is already thinking about. For example, if you work with an environmental group and a local election is coming up, you might write about candidates who have a good record on environmental issues. Or, if you work with a physical education program and want to address the need for fitness, timing your guest column or editorial to run the day before a big city-wide sports event might be a good idea.
Tie it to an upcoming holiday: Another idea might be to time your guest column or editorial to coincide with a holiday, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. day if you work with a civil rights group, or Valentine's Day for a healthy heart initiative.
Whom can you target with your guest column or editorial?
Your target audience will depend quite a bit on who reads the publication in which your guest column or editorial appears. Newspapers generally tend to reach a wide local audience, although if your town has more than one paper the demographics of each one's readership may be quite different. Magazines and specialty newsletters tend to have smaller, more specialized audiences.
Things to find out about the readership of the publication you're going to write for:
- Gender makeup -- Are there more men than women or vice versa?
- Average age -- Is it a younger audience, a more mature one, or a mixture?
- Where they live -- Keep in mind where the readers are. For example, if you're trying to make a shoreline preservation project appealing to an inland community, you may need to come up with an angle that's more relevant to their lives.
- Income level -- As with their location, the readers' income level is important to keep in mind. For example, if there is a high percentage of low income citizens, appeals for financial donations might not be the best idea.
- Education level -- Again, be sure that your audience is able to relate to what you're writing. Try to write in a way that's understandable to those who are less educated, but take care not to patronize or condescend.
- Knowledge or skill level -- For example, if your guest column is appearing in a publication aimed at people who work in engineering, you can use a lot of terminology that you might not use in a regular community newspaper.
- Ethnic/racial background -- What, if any, effect will this have on your audience's views on your issue?
- Attitude/community values -- This is particularly important if your issue is controversial or involves thorny moral questions, such as anything having to do with sexuality.
How do you prepare guest columns and editorials?
Find out in advance what the publication's policy is on guest editorials and columns.
Call the publication's editorial office ahead of time to find out what their guest editorial policy is and what their formatting requirements are.
You may need to explain why your views are important and why the publication should grant you this space. Space is limited and competition is fierce for guest editorials, so be prepared to try to persuade the paper to let you write.
If a phone call isn't enough, send out a "pitch letter". Most papers have an op-ed review process that takes a day to a week. Many larger papers will require an exclusive -- an agreement that you won't print your piece in other papers.
Guest Column Pitch Letter
February 11, 2001
Wendy O. Williams
Opinion Page Editor
The Brownville Bugle
123 Smith Street
Brownville, NY 12345
Dear Ms. Williams:
Thank you for taking the time to explain your publication's policies and requirements on submitting guest editorials to the Bugle when I spoke with you on Tuesday.
I understand the reasons that the Bugle is unable to publish all of the many guest pieces that are submitted during a public controversy like the current one over condom distribution in school health clinics. I also understand why you normally encourage readers to send in letters to the editor instead. I hope that you will make an exception in this case, as I feel an editorial from our coalition would be particularly crucial to any public debate on the matter of teen pregnancy.
Our point of view is needed in order to have a balanced public debate on what is clearly a controversial and sensitive topic. Councilman A. B. Stinence, in his admirable efforts to discourage teens from having unprotected sex, has specifically (and, we feel, mistakenly) attacked the Brownville Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition repeatedly in his remarks to the press, on his weekly radio program, and to readers of the Bugle.
If there is to be an informed and logical public discussion of the issues being raised by Councilman Stinence, our coalition needs to have a chance to explain our position clearly, calmly, and in detail. While we greatly appreciate the news coverage that the Bugle has done so far on this issue, we feel that the best way to lay out our entire argument for the public's consideration would be through a guest editorial in your paper. We hope that with the Bugle's agreement to allow us to explain our side of the issues, we can have a much more open and informed public when everyone goes to the polls in two weeks.
Again, thank you very much for your assistance and guidance, and I hope to hear from you soon regarding our request to air our message.
Brownville Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition
Select a writer for the piece.
If possible, find a known public figure who is involved with or sympathizes with your cause. People DO notice who the author is. If you can't get a well-known "name " to write the piece, it won't be disastrous, but it always helps.
More importantly, find someone who is a good writer! Even if your author isn't that well known in the community, a guest column or editorial can be very effective if it is well written. If necessary, your organization may have to have others help in writing the piece, but they will have to agree to be unsung heroes in this case.
Know the format requirements for guest columns and editorials.
These requirements vary -- be sure to find out the requirements of the specific publication you?re writing for. Most of the time, newspapers require the following of guest columns and editorials:
Submissions must be typed, double-spaced
Title and author should be listed at the top
The piece should be 400 to 800 words long
At the end, the author, title, organization, and a one-line description of the mission and membership base should be listed. For example:
Greater Whoville Citizens Against Smoking
GWCAS is a 200-member nonprofit organization dedicated to educating Whovillians about the health risks of smoking.
Decide on the main message of your piece and keep it in mind while you're writing. For example, your main message might be "Whoville residents should take part in the Great American Smokeout"
Start off by stating the subject of the controversy or issue. Put it in simple terms, and be as clear as possible. For example, if the controversy is over an initiative to fund sex education in the public schools, go ahead and say so. "Here's what people are disagreeing over," you're saying. Then you can go on to explain why your side of the disagreement is right.
Be persuasive! Use documented facts to back up your case as much as possible, and make sure your arguments are clear, logical, and easy to follow. If you're not very experienced with logic and making good arguments, you may want to do some reading on the subject. Books on communication and debate are a good place to start.
If you have vocal opposition, present a counter-argument to your opponent's position. Refute their statements with factual evidence, and don't stoop to name-calling. The web sites mentioned above can be helpful in forming your counter-arguments.
If possible, ask the reader to Do something -- register to vote, attend a meeting, write a letter, protest. Appeals that ask readers to take some sort of action are more likely to stick in their minds.
Review your work and get feedback.
Check carefully for errors first, then get additional, objective opinions from as many people as you possibly can, including people from outside your group. Get their honest opinions and use their feedback to help you decide on the final version of your guest column or editorial.
Submit your piece for publication.
You're now ready to send it in. Double-check to make sure that you've met all submission and format guidelines, and get it in before the deadline. Be sure to follow up with a letter to the newspaper thanking them for letting you write your piece!
Tips for writing:
- Be creative, but to the point. Don’t get so involved in composing your piece that you forget to present information clearly and simply.
- Focus on local angles; this makes your message more relevant to the reader. You can focus on the experience of a local person, for instance, to make your point.
- Stay focused -- deliver a clear message with facts to back it up.
- You can't just say ANYTHING in editorials! Your assertions must be based in fact. Controversial ideas MUST be backed with evidence.
- Consider how your opinions fit the goals of your group.
- Don't use words or phrases that turn your audience off unnecessarily. Try to stay away from loaded language – words that identify you as being on the extreme end of an argument, or accuse people of thoughts or intentions they may not have. Particularly avoid words that lead to the next suggestion.
- Don't resort to name-calling. Use a professional tone, and be respectful, even to those who may not be respectful to you. In addition to being the right way to proceed, that will cast you in a better light than your opponents, and help people see your side as the more reasonable one.
- Know when a light-hearted approach or humor is appropriate and when it isn't.
Things that can be used to make your writing more interesting:
- Startling or eye-opening facts.
- Intriguing questions.
- Exploring common myths.
- Interesting or amusing anecdotes.
- Presenting new information on the subject – use the most recent scientific/sociological/ whatever info available (especially if your topic is viewed as "old news").
- Slice-of-life examples.
- Interesting comparisons.
- Real-life testimonials
- Practical tips on what the reader can do to make a difference.
Following these guidelines can get you space in the local newspaper – or air time on local radio or TV – that can serve you well as a platform from which to raise the profile of your effort, counter the arguments and misinformation of your opposition, and gain support for your cause and your work. Once you write an editorial or column, you may be able to continue the practice, if not regularly, at least from time to time. Gaining a foothold with the local media in this way could mean a great deal to your organization or initiative.
Whether you're trying to sway public opinion on a controversial issue, raise awareness on a health risk in your community, or motivate people to take some sort of action, guest columns or editorials can be a great way to get your message out to a lot of people at once. When used in combination with other media methods like public service announcements, brochures, posters, advertising, or fact sheets, guest columns and editorials can be an integral part of an overall media campaign to help you influence public opinion and make things happen.
Activity: Letter to the editor, from the Berkeley Media Studies Group, offers a sample letter to the editor format to help you organize your ideas.
Newswriting Basics, by McGraw Hill, is a comprehensive guide introducing the concepts and formulas to writing a news story.
Tips for writing effective letters to the editor, from the Berkeley Media Studies Group, offers guidelines for what makes a compelling letter, and how can advocates increase their chances of getting published.
Adler, E. W. (1991). Print that works: The first step-by-step guide that integrates writing, design, and marketing. Palo Alto, CA: Bull Publishing Company.
Brigham, N., Catalfio, M., & Cluster. D. (1991). How to do leaflets, newsletters, and newspapers. Detroit, MI: PEP Publishers.
National Education Goals Panel Members: 1993-94. (1994). Guide to getting out your message. 1994. Washington, DC: National Education Goals Panel.
Rosenbaum, J. (1987). Media how to notebook. (H. Leone, Ed.). San Francisco, CA : Media Alliance Community Media Project.
Weiner, L. (1989). Gaining access to media resources. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University School of Medicine, Health Promotion Resource Center.