My creativity is drained these days from dealing with the illness of my elderly father and keeping a watchful eye on my Mom who is now in her apartment alone. While I've heard many writers say writing provides a release in times of difficulty and stress, I'm too distracted to think outside my own situation and too deep in the forest to write a story or essay about my situation that doesn't sound whiny or vitriolic.
Enter the op-ed piece. As David Shipley notes in the explanation of op-ed in the New York Times, the term comes, not from the word "opinion," but because the page appears opposite the editorial page. The idea is to collect opinions from average citizens not employed by the paper, though having "standing" on the topic you write about helps.
I published my first op-ed in the Inquirer following a year that started with shuttling my uncle to chemo/radiation treatments every weekday for eight weeks. Shortly after my father was hospitalized and then in rehab for nearly three months with a broken hip.Three months later that same uncle went into hospice care for cancer that had spread to his liver. Following the funeral lunch where my boomer siblings and cousins decided we did not want our lives prolonged past 85, I submitted "Boomers may choose not to prolong their lives." (One note about op-eds, the paper always chooses the title.)
Writing an op-ed was much easier than fiction because it required no creativity, only expressing my thoughts in an organized manner and quoting some statistics I found on the Internet. At the same time it was cathartic as it allowed me to work through the feelings I'd been struggling with the past year and more. I actually didn't care whether it was picked up, though I was pleasantly surprised when it was. Especially as it paid.
This brings up an important point about op-eds: it's hit-or-miss. While the ingredients that make a good op-ed piece, like timeliness and focus, aren't nearly as nebulous as fiction or creative nonfiction, much will depend on whether your piece happens to fit with the other editorials and op-eds being published that week. Editors receive so many submissions, they rarely hold them for future. They read them and if they fit––both in topic and length––your piece will be considered. If not, that's it.
The good news is that lower profit margins are causing many newspapers to include more average citizen op-eds because they cost less than a syndicated column or something by a famous ex-pol. They have probably also guessed that those who submit op-eds to newspapers are also the people who still read them with their morning coffee, and they want to hold onto those folks as long as they can.
The policy for simultaneous submissions varies. Some newspapers are fine with simultaneous submissions as long as the piece wouldn't appear in the same geographic area. Others, like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, want an exclusive, but you also know pretty quickly if your piece has been accepted, so unless the topic is extremely time-sensitive, you can shop it somewhere else within the week.
I'm already running some ideas through my head regarding the ups and downs of our healthcare system. It will be nice if it gets into one of the major newspapers, but even if it doesn't, writing it will provide an escape valve for all the frustrations I've dealt with these past weeks.