Is there a real difference between an op-ed and a letter to the editor?
They are both opinion pieces. In that sense they are very similar. The differences are often cosmetic.
Letters to the editor are generally printed in the editorial page. “Op-Ed”, which is short for “opposite editorial” means the page, is physically opposite the editorial page.
A Letter to the Editor is short – 200 to 300 words. An Op-Ed is a longer piece – 750 to 1000 words.
A letter to the editor can be in reaction to a day to day or a larger issue. An op-ed should generally be about a larger issue.
As a result, there can be many letters to the editor on a single topic. A particular issue is unlikely to have more than two op-eds at a time – one for and one against.
Here is an important difference. A letter to the editor is generally a reaction to an editorial or an op-ed or a news item. An op-ed on the other hand, often addresses issues introduced by the writer.
Anyone (well almost anyone) has a shot at having his/her letter printed. The author of an Op-Ed will almost always need to have knowledge, experience or expertise in his topic. The “Standing” of the author is often the most important criterion in getting the Op-Ed published.