August 9, 2022

More Than You Wanted to Know About Op-ed Length

How long should an op-ed be? Well, that depends.

I’ve looked at close to ten how-to guides for op-eds, all written by respected PR pros over the past 25 years. The conventional wisdom varies a bit: Under 700 or 800 words, most say. Many zero in on a “sweet spot” of 600 to 750 words. However, my analysis of 200 opinion pieces by college presidents tells a somewhat different, and more nuanced, story.

In looking at the op-eds from the first half of 2014, I did a word count on those that I had put in the database and could access the full text for such a count. (I did exclude one extreme outlier – a 2,500-word New Yorker piece.) Here’s a graph of all 200:

AllWordCounts1

Graph 1

Note the long, gentle curve from about 300 words to 1,800 words, showing a broad distribution of op-ed lengths. Conventional wisdom is, in fact, somewhat right: that 600-750 word “sweet spot” does lie near the middle of the graph, and accounts for over a quarter of the op-eds studied. However, almost as many are shorter than 600 words, and nearly twice as many are longer than 750 words.

Looking at the op-eds by medium reveals even more:

Op-ed Word Count Comparisons 2

Here you can see some major differences in op-ed length, depending on the publication or website:

  • The recommended 600-750 word length probably can be traced back to traditional print newspapers. For these media, it still seems to be a good rule of thumb, although many newspaper op-eds are even shorter – 400 to 600 words.
  • At the very low end of the word counts are op-eds in USA Today and the New York Times “Room for Debate,” along with a smattering of Huffington Post pieces.
  • Of the 25 longest opinion pieces, almost all appear in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, or the Huffington Post.
  • Speaking of the Huffington Post, this op-ed megastore has the widest diversity of lengths, with examples scattered across the entire Graph 1 spectrum.
  • Inside Higher Ed lengths also vary widely, but tend toward the upper end of the 430-1,800 range shown in Graph 2 – a half dozen examples are more than 1,000 words.
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education op-ed lengths start at 720, but most are grouped around 850 to 1,000 words.
  • Forbes magazine op-eds fall in the narrowest range, with most – like the Chronicle – being 850-1,000 words.

The Take-aways

  • For op-eds in traditional newspapers, keep it really short – just as folks have always said. The same holds true for the NYT “Room for Debate” and USA Today.
  • If you’re addressing a particularly complex issue, think about approaching Forbes, Inside Higher Ed, or the Chronicle, where their more generous length will give you some additional breathing room to make your case.
  • At HuffPo, with op-ed lengths among the shortest to the longest in Graph 1, it appears that pretty much anything goes.

 

Comments

  1. Roland King says:

    Glad you found the info useful, Matt.

    Roland

  2. Matthew Patrick Boente Sr. says:

    Thank you very useful.

    Matt Boente

  3. Cody Romano says:

    After researching the average op-ed length and finding conflicting stats, I found your post very useful. Thanks for this analysis!

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