A good op-ed piece is one that gravitates around one simple notion: bullshit.
Take a topic, any topic. Let’s start with red light cameras. To be interesting, your op-ed piece has to take on one of two sides: either they’re a good thing or they’re a bad thing. There's no middle ground. Since no one thinks they’re a good thing, you’d have to position your piece around the notion that red light camera are bullshit. Boom. Done. You have your op-ed piece.
And really, that’s it. Think of it as YOUR theory as to why something happened or why something is the way it is. You can contrast and compare. You can do anything as long as you pick a side or have something to argue.
But debating the merits/disservices of red light cameras is a tired one. To really get people talking, you have to dig deep.
I read a lot of op-ed. Why? Because I read a lot about sports. Op-ed pieces are often the very fabric of sports journalism. Why? Because sports is all about emotion. And emotion is something everyone (well, almost everyone) can relate to.
The best way to write an op-ed piece is to find a story (preferably a recent story), research its background and foundation, and have a comprehension of what most people hope the outcome of the story is going to be. Having a grasp on the last point is vital, because that’s where the op-ed piece is borne.
Example: the death of Sarah Burke.
Background: Canadian Olympic skier Sarah Burke died while skiing in Utah as she hit her head as she was nearing a run inside a half pipe. She was a Canadian skiing pioneer who will forever be remembered as a trailblazer and champion. Since she was participating in a non-sanctioned event, she didn’t have any insurance. All of the operations and care that went into trying to save her life totaled over $550,000 in medical bills, which had to be paid by her family. People hearing this donated money and setup ways for more people to donate money until all of her bills were paid in full.
Now, a solid op-ed piece, or specifically one that would certainly cause debate, would be to call bullshit on the last part of the Burke story: the fundraising for her medical bills.
A good op-ed piece would question why Burke deserved the public support she received, when so many other economically disadvantaged people in similar situations struggle and go forgotten. Yes, it’s devastating what happened to her and the financial hardship thrust upon her family. But what other people who die tragically and unexpectedly? And for crying out loud, she was skiing! I’d rank that along with skydiving, swimming with piranhas, and sword juggling as some of the most dangerous things a person can do. What happens when it’s someone who isn’t famous and who doesn’t come from a wealthy background? Why are they forgotten?
And so on so forth. There’s the basis of an op-ed piece: taking a popular notion and then arguing its exact opposite.