“Why was my op-ed piece turned down?” clients occasionally ask me. And well might they ask.
Most submissions, after all, are declined. Getting your guest essay to run in The New York Times, for example, is probably harder than admission to Harvard or reasoning with an alligator. So it goes with most top tiers.
And clients tend to take these rejections hard.
Hey, welcome to the club.
Rarely do opinion page editors offer any feedback to explain why, either. But this much I know for a fact, if only because they’ve repeatedly told me so themselves: They frequently turn down many pieces they would like to run.
Here, based on my experience helping clients with op-eds for the last 30 years, are the top reasons why even submissions elegantly composed and argued may wind up getting rejected:
1. Space. Publications, especially those with numerous regular columnists, have only so much real estate to spare for outsiders. This is true online, as well as in print.
2. Timing. The controversial issue under debate in your piece flared into public view a month ago, only to cool down of late. In short, the news value has evaporated. If you’re looking to ride the merry-go-round we call the news cycle, you should act fast.
3. Conflicts. A contributor already addressed the same issue yesterday, or is slated to do so tomorrow. You just happen to be a day late.
4. Stature. You’re nobody, or at least perceived to be a nobody. This is unfortunate, not to mention sometimes unfair. Editors prefer marquee value, expertise and a record of accomplishment—a U.S. senator, a CEO, Brad Pitt. Affiliation with, say, a university, a think tank or a new book on the same issue may also stack the odds in your favor.
5. Originality. Your piece about reforming higher education or adjusting baseball’s strike zone is highly persuasive, a model of rhetorical prowess. It’s just that you’re venturing the same point of view as almost everyone else on the planet. Editors seek surprise, insight and, above all, singularity. Going against the grain is always a plus.
6. Friction. Tiptoeing around a topic all namby-pamby without ever getting critical will never endear you to an editor. If you’re going to support something, it means you also have to be against something else. A call for action strongly suggests that something broken has to be fixed. Ideally, you’ll state the gist of it all plainly with my all-time favorite op-ed phrase: “At issue is…”
7. Empiricism. You’re entitled to express your opinion, but only if you also happen to know the facts. Do your homework. Cite some new research. (Then again, that’s just my opinion).
Of course, some op-ed pieces—despite the low acceptance rate—defy the odds and make the cut. Over the last two years alone, ever since going solo as a PR practitioner, I’ve helped clients publish pieces in The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, among many other outlets.
Even so, it takes some doing, and patience comes in handy. One client submission was turned down at 11 places before finally finding a home with USA Today.
Ideally, someone will someday devise a predictive algorithm for op-eds that will guarantee success. It will claim that if only you do A, B and C, certain editors will be more likely to say yes than no.
Meantime, rejections will happen. “Please take some satisfaction in having produced a fine piece,” I tell clients in those cases. “Let’s keep sending it around. Eventually we’ll find a home for it.”
And with any luck, we will.
Bob Brody is a PR consultant, a veteran of Weber Shandwick and Ogilvy, and an essayist who contributes to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Washington Post. He is the author of the memoir “Playing Catch with Strangers: A Family Guy (Reluctantly) Comes of Age.”