How To Write Thought-Leadership Pieces That Get Published And Don't Make Editors Want To Die

If you want your Op-Ed or contributed content featured in The New York Times or, heck, Fast Company, read this (handslap!) before you even reach for your pen. Are you listening, PR?

If entrepreneurship is, as Harvard professor Howard Stevenson calls it, "the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled," then business builders have a lot in common with journalists. And whereas entrepreneurs can learn much from the journalism trade itself, some of today’s top business leaders are actually participating in journalism, with enterprise-worthy results.

The way they do it is through guest writing, and the point of attack is the Opinion section or other places where publications print expert commentary. Whether it’s the governor of New York guest writing a persuasive essay on climate change in a daily newspaper or this guest column you’re reading right now in Fast Company, most magazines, newspapers, and blogs allot space for industry experts to share their points of view.

But most publications won’t take just anyone. And they won’t print thinly veiled marketing messages with no takeaway. Here are four tips for getting printed and breaking through the full-to-bursting inboxes at your top-choice publications:

Establish Credibility
Editors are busy people who are constantly badgered by pitches that are far off the mark, and they are the gateway to publication through which you must pass. So don’t waste their time. Convince them to give you a shot through at least two of the following three:

  1. Show you’ve got a track record of writing for legitimate places (the editor will infer you’re a good writer, and probably easy to edit). Your pitch email itself is another opportunity to show your writing ability, so let a little personality in. If your email bores them, why would they want to subject their readers to a longer version of it?
  2. Write a concise story pitch that shows you can write well in few words. (I recommend keeping your story idea pitch to 300 characters or less.)
  3. Tout relevant credentials or expertise in the subject matter (CEO of a relevant company, Albert Einstein’s apprentice).
These will make a wary editor’s leap of faith a little easier to make.

Have Something To Contribute To A Larger Conversation
To get the gig—and the audience respect that comes with it—"you have to truly be a valuable source of information," says Michael Lazerow, CEO of Buddy Media and frequent guest writer for Advertising Age and Fast Company.

A former journalist, Lazerow understands that his industry—social enterprise software—is full of people hungry for information and fearful of being left behind. His guest posts about Facebook, advertising, and social marketing help his audience make sense of the industry, while establishing Lazerow (and his company) as a thought leader.

"Think about who you are trying to reach, and then think about the top questions those people would ask about the topic you're writing about," Lazerow says. "Try as best as you can to answer those questions."

For the social media newspaper The Daily Dot, guest writing is a way to simply get on people’s radar.

"We wanted to find opportunities to tell our story to audiences we weren't already reaching," says founder Nicholas White. White’s stories at places like PBS discuss the future of newspapers, using The Daily Dot’s experiences as conversation starters. To be successful, says White, "it has to be a real contribution to a conversation, not just an ad for your site." Telling compelling stories about your personal experiences or citing case studies from your own company in some instances can help illustrate points about your industry or area of expertise and give you material that no one else has.

Use Journalistic Rigor
As the prestige of a publication increases, so does the credibility and rigor necessary to be published. For example, in a recent Op-Ed I wrote about America’s freelance economy for The Washington Post, I researched and interviewed economists, business professors, advocacy groups, and man-on-the-street freelancers, and pored over dozens of government reports in order to back up my point, that the growing number of freelancers in the U.S. is helping the economy and needs infrastructure.

Thorough research, reporting, and proper attribution of sources prevents writers from being dismissed as self-promotional gasbags. And with all information publishing—whether objective news or content marketing—be ethical. Never betray your readers with misleading material.

Take A Stance, If You Have One—And You Should
Guest writing, says White, often best succeeds when it’s opinionated. "It can't be like, no, duh," he says.

In many cases, that’s exactly the reason publishers will print expert commentary; you’re bringing something to the discussion that a traditional news story can’t. Your business should stand for something anyway. Why not leverage your unique point of view?

Focus On What You Can Contribute, Not Self-Promotion
"Too many founders think about guest posting in terms of, ‘How can I translate my sales deck into a guest post?’" Lazerow says. "If you're just going to use a guest post to plug your widget, it's useless and people will see through it."

Guest writing ought not to be thought of as marketing. The likelihood of directly tracking ROI (e.g. someone clicks on your byline in a guest post, then immediately buys something on your site) is very low, and not the best use of guest writing opportunities. For young companies with small footprints, or established organizations wishing to align with certain topics, guest writing raises awareness, builds brand equity, and cements the idea that a company cares about an industry, topic, or cause.

"Being a good source—through speaking with journalists and writing guest columns for publications—is one of the best ways to create value," Lazerow says.

And in the long run, it can drive business. As White puts it, guest writing is like giving out samples in a grocery store. "You get a taste and hopefully you decide to buy a bottle."

For more tips on how to get your story published (maybe even in Fast Company), subscribe to the Fast Company newsletter.

—Shane Snow is a New York City-based technology writer, infographicker, and cofounder of Contently.com, a new media company that empowers journalists and brand publishers.

[Image: Flickr user Lucho Molina]

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13 Comments

  • K.Singh, London

    Great advice. As guest posting and guest contributions become increasingly popular as a marketing activity, editors of most sites are being inundated with the usual guest post enquiries. If you want to stand out and be taken seriously, you have to do much more than drop in a one liner requesting permission to post. Simply listing the topic you wish to cover is also not enought. At the same writing 800 words explaining yourself too will not get you anywhere.

  • Susan

    Great advice, I like the suggestion of using personality from the very first email. Don't be boring!

  • Dhana

    Shane, On avg, how many hrs should one put in to create a 300 word unhashed, authentic and high quality post irrespective of industries ? It will help people to come to a decision whether they are 'in' or 'out', than just merely 'trying'. As Curt below pointed out, most people think they are good at writing, but in actuality they aren't unless they put in the hrs (Outliers ?). About your freelance economy example, looks like it was hard work for you. How many hours did you put in ? Is producing great content that easy ? Unless you are a media company and producing content is your bread & butter matter, it is extremely hard to sustain it week after week without the necessary resources.

  • Brittany Botti

    Shane, thanks so much for the advice. I want to make the jump from industry blogs to news publications, so these tips are very helpful.

  • Jan Roessner

    Great article. I'm eager to write an article myself. And I must agree with Melanie: the headline is often the ultimate key to open the door

  • Patrick

    Authenticity is the key here. And not creating authenticity, but ACTUALLY being authentic. If you have to spend more time positioning than writing, than you may as well quit now.

  • Curt Buermeyer

    Many people think they're good at writing, but truly stink. I thought I was decent at one point, until I realized I wasn't really providing any high-value content that people want to print out, share, or add a comment like I am right now. So congrats.

    Now where to I find someone who can write cool stuff for me? Contently? 

  • melmatho

    What you failed to mention, but so aptly did - create a killer subject/lede/headline! :) Great piece - always enjoy your work.

  • xeniar

    Nice piece... totally forgot about Albert Einstein’s apprentice... thanks for reminding me...