Many students return from studying abroad on fire with new insights and new perspectives. There’s a place for fresh ideas gained from unique vantage points—the op-ed pages of local, regional, and national newspapers.
If you’ve ever worked for a student newspaper, you know that the search for good copy—for solid, interesting, unique stories about the news and about other subjects—is neverending. Editors of major newspapers must fill many pages each day, and they hold even more articles in reserve in case a big story falls apart or events shift in a new direction. Professionals write most of these articles, but on the op-ed page (the page opposite the in-house editorial page) guest writers deliver brief opinion pieces on topics they know better than anyone else. The expansion of news on television and on the Internet has only increased the vitality of this part of the newspaper—the page where debate and controversy reign.
Did your study abroad experience prepare you to be one of these guest writers?
For an editorial to be successful, the writer must have a compelling perspective that transforms mere opinion into informed insight. Residence abroad is a wonderful starting point for such insight: you’ve lived, studied, perhaps worked in another culture, learning its outlooks, understanding its particularities, and absorbing its rhythms. Whether the issue is an international one involving your country or a local one specific to your village or town that has larger implications, you will have a perspective that most readers won’t have, an outlook that will expand most Americans’ view of the world. Everyone knows that there has been tension between France and the U.S. over the invasion of Iraq, for example, but someone who has lived in a French town where there is a large population of Muslims might have a very original way of looking at this controversy. That story could become an editorial.
A unique perspective or a clear opinion is only a starting point for an op-ed piece. The goal of an editorial is to persuade readers to change their minds on an issue, or to take action, or both. Mere opinion is unlikely to lead to those results, however; editorial writers must hone their knowledge of the situation, making sure that they have assembled facts and other concrete evidence to back up their main ideas. An editorial essay presents opinion, but it is always informed opinion—clear arguments that spring from solid facts. Your ten months in Seoul will give you an angle on relations between North and South Korea, but don’t forget to find out what’s happened since you left and to corroborate everything you learned while abroad. Once you’ve thoroughly studied the topic you want to write about, think about aiming your essay at one well-defined part of the problem. It’s tempting to blurt out everything you think about healthcare in Ghana, for example, but more reasonable to focus on one health issue.
Are you ready to join the debate?
Editorials tend to follow a fairly standard structure. Unlike research or other types of papers required in most college courses, editorials build from beginning to end toward the most dramatic and complete version of their main point, which is usually stated in the last paragraph. The first paragraph of an editorial announces and defines the problem and suggests the direction of the main argument. Subsequent paragraphs present supporting points and refute key opposing points, building a convincing case with the best argument saved for last. The concluding paragraph makes the clearest and most eloquent statement of the author’s point of view: ideally, readers should look up from the editorial with those last powerful words echoing in their minds.
Another expression of opinion, letters to the editor respond specifically to an article, an editorial, or even another letter published in the newspaper during the previous week. Cite the earlier piece in your letter’s first or second sentence: the letter should spring from that reference but move on to present its own well-defined perspective. Letters are shorter than editorials, of course, and since newspapers publish lots of them every day, letters offer the best chances for breaking into print. To insure that your letter is current, send it by email and include a phone number; if your letter is chosen, the editor may call you to confirm your identity and finalize the agreement to publish.
Start by studying the op-ed page for several weeks. What are the characteristics of the best work? Most newspapers are looking for editorials of about 700 words and for letters of about 100 words. Check the paper’s Web site or call the editorial office for guidelines. The closer your work adheres to the published form in length, structure, and format, the more likely it is to be accepted.
Putting your ideas out there in published form is a bold but very satisfying step that usually generates responses. While you are likely to hear from people who agree with you, you might also inspire others to write letters or editorials that attack what you’ve said. That dialogue is what makes an op-ed page great. Turning you study abroad experience into an editorial or a letter to the editor creates an opportunity to reflect on what you learned and to engage others in discussion. It’s also an exciting way to bring your experiences home.