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2.4: Writing Opinions

  • Page ID
    6448
  • "A language is a dialect with its own army and navy."

    - Max Weinreich

    Here, at last—the opinion pages, in which the newspaper gives you, the writer, a stage. So go ahead, leap up there into the spotlight! Twirl around; show off your sequins and your gold tooth! Finally, you are the news!

    Except I'm kidding! You aren't the news! You aren't the news at all, not even here in the opinion pages. No, the news is still the news, flashing its pearly whites, wearing its shiny shoes. And just as in any other story in the paper, if you write an opinion piece, you have to do your legwork first: dig up the sources, gather the information, verify that it's accurate, yadda yadda yadda. And then you can present this news—and your opinion about it—to the world.

    But if you were yearning for more of a moment in the sun, for a place to throw that byline around just the slightest bit, then don't despair, because here in the opinion pages, you do indeed have freedoms you don't have elsewhere in the paper. Instead of just reporting the truth to the extent that it can be ascertained, here you can evaluate it, criticize it, ruminate on it; you can make it dance or sing or play guitar. In short, here you can take liberties with the way you write and even the way you think about the news, because here you can have your opinion and hold it dear, you can announce it to the world, and you can—and should—seduce your readers into agreeing with you.

    How to do that? First, legally. As you have already learned (5,000 times), what you write in a newspaper must be the truth, and that goes for the opinion pages too. If you write a column saying that in your opinion your English teacher assigns grades based on who brings her gifts, while in fact she actually reads your essays and assigns grades based on their quality, she can sue you for libel. And she will, because her reputation is at stake. Furthermore, even if what you write is clearly intended to be a joke, you have written something damaging and untrue, so what you wrote is libelous. And you can't defend yourself with the lame excuse that you meant no harm, not if a reasonable person could conclude that you caused harm and should have known you would. And you can't defend yourself by pointing out that you preceded your statements with the disclaimer, "In my opinion." If you write something untrue and damaging about another person, the disclaimer "In my opinion" is no defense.

    Let's reiterate so this is clear: If you write something damaging about another person that is not true—even as a joke, even if you write, "In my opinion"—you may be sued for libel.

    And so what about your OPINION then? Can't you have an opinion?! Of course you can. You can have any opinion you want about facts, but you can't have an opinion that something is a fact if it's not.

    So you can say, "I find my teacher tedious," because to you, she is. No one can argue about that. You find her tedious; that's your reaction. However, you might be committing libel if you write, "In my opinion, my teacher doesn't prepare for class." Can you tell the difference between the two statements? One is a description of your feelings; the other is a description of her actions. If what you write about her is untrue, you could be in trouble.

    Bottom line: You are entitled to your opinions; you are even entitled to your opinions about facts. But you aren't entitled to the opinion that something is a fact if it's not.

    As for how to write a good opinion piece: Remember to consider your audience. If you write an editorial about policy, you may attract readers interested in systems and ideas, so your writing should be formal, direct, and professional. If you write about a person in trouble, you will likely attract readers with empathy or curiosity about the human condition, so your writing should be descriptive, spare (of course) but evocative. If you write about a championship baseball team, your readers are as giddy as you are, so write as blithely as you please. If you write that a government must stop torturing people, you must—armed with statistics so the premise cannot be questioned—write with a clarity that does justice to your purpose and a serenity that reinforces your commitment to a principle.

    Indeed, the most serious columns demand understatement—not hysteria; the lightest columns allow humor, irony, and wit; and the most emotional stories beg for details, those gems that make every human interest story come alive. Consider the audience you'll attract and the theme of your opinion piece, and write accordingly. Get those readers interested.

    The Editorial[1]

    The editorial is written by an editorial page editor and his or her staff, who are separate from the news staff. Their job, day in and day out, is not to report the news but, instead, to learn as much as possible about it and then to offer an informed opinion. The editorial represents the voice of "the newspaper," an entity in society whose opinion is valued because that opinion is based on factual information and careful, thoughtful study. Most often, the editorial will contain the editorial staff's opinion about the most important or most controversial news stories of the day, but editorials also commemorate events, explain them, criticize them, and celebrate them. While the rest of us are busy attending school or doing other jobs (including, perhaps, the job of a newspaper reporter!), the editorial staff are busy reading, learning, and thinking about the topics of the day.

    As outlined in Effective Editorial Writing by veteran journalism instructors Rod Vahl and H. L. Hall, there are essentially six types of editorials, many of which, in practice, will overlap and combine:

    The Editorial of Explanation

    Here, the editorial explains an issue or problem. Interestingly, readers often feel passionately about an issue even when they do not really have a grasp of it; they don't understand who wields power or how, why things stand as they do, where the issue has been in the past, what's already been tried, or what remains to be done. The editorial of explanation describes these things, as well as why this issue or problem is worthy of the readers' attention and concern.

    The Editorial of Argumentation

    Here, the editorial takes a stand in support of or in opposition to an action, policy, or proposal. Here, the editors want to persuade their readers; thus, the editors' writing must be clear, direct, and, above all, logical. Indeed, if you're writing an editorial of argumentation, then, by definition, there's a counterargument out there, perhaps circulating among your readers and almost certainly described in your very own news pages. You do not want to gratuitously make your opponent's case stronger by offering up a weakness in your own; therefore, you must take care to avoid all logical fallacies.

    The Editorial of Criticism

    Here, the editorial points out a problem. Here, the power of the editorial, its effectiveness, can actually depend on the editors' attitude. If the editors love the fact of their pointing out a problem, and if their (deep-down secret) purpose is to show their readers how smart and critical they are, then the editorial will be smart and certainly critical but also probably very limited in scope as it simply describes a problem. This sort of editorial can be entertaining in its way but also off-putting, as readers get an eyeful of the editors' energy, while the issue at hand takes a back seat to those editors' motivation. If, on the other hand, the editors' purpose is to identify a problem, examine its causes, and recommend a solution, then the editorial will clearly be less about the editors' taking a stand than about the newspaper's trying to fix something that's busted. And the readers will be grateful for the criticism and the advice. The tone? Here is the place to write like a gentleman or woman.

    The Editorial of Commendation

    When someone does something terrific, editors should mark it in the pages of the newspaper. The paper contains a chronicle of a society's truth. Editorials must not be reserved exclusively for a society's problems but should chronicle its triumphs proudly.

    The Editorial of Commemoration

    Here, the editors serve as a repository of the community's collective memory and thus a part of its identity by commemorating events that define the community's history or mark the passage of time in its predictable cycles. Each event added to the calendar creates a layer of meaning: Easter, Passover, Ramadan; 7/4, 11/11, 9/11; Halloween, Thanksgiving, the Super Bowl.

    The Editorial of Entertainment

    You can write them to amuse or to stress an important point, but your tone here is light and funny, and you can write in the first person plural. Go ahead, crack a joke, ruminate, be edgy if you want, and hog the spotlight, because here you have a free pass to produce some performance art. This type of piece is only off-putting when the writer is sarcastic or narcissistic, but that can't happen in an editorial, because your name's not even on the piece! Thus, an editorial of entertainment will almost surely delight the readers.

    Op-Ed Pieces

    These pieces, which appear opposite the editorial page (and thus are called "op-eds") are written by guest writers and experts. They, too, will fall in the categories above—you can write an opinion piece that's an explanation, a criticism, an argument, or a celebration. But an opinion piece carries your name, so your writing voice can be more particular than the authoritative voice you'd use in an editorial. You can write an opinion piece in the third person if you're discussing events outside your personal experience; you can write in the first person if you have direct experience with the matter at hand. You should entrance your readers, win them to your point of view—and in this battle for their attention and allegiance, your weapons are your words. Select and deploy them to your maximum advantage; pay attention to their connotations and the impact of their sound. And above all, whenever possible, use them to tell stories.

    I once had to interview a neo-Nazi. I met him in his brightly lit basement decorated with swastika flags. He thundered away about the problems in America "all caused by n______ (fill in the blank with the racial slur) and Jews." He wasn't a leader of his neo-Nazi group, just an inarticulate foot soldier. He had bad skin and a doughy, listless wife. Halfway through the interview, I told him I was Jewish. I don't know what possessed me; I think I could just tell he was on autopilot running his mouth, and I wanted to see what would happen if I threw a wrench into the machine. His mouth fell open. He literally shook his head. I started to feel sorry for him. I could just see the gears spinning behind his forehead, failing to gain traction. My interviewing him was the only interesting thing that had happened to him in years. He wanted to keep talking to me and be a big shot with a passion. But just like that, his convictions deserted him.

    I wrote a proper profile about the guy but also passed along an informal set of notes to the editorial page editor who was working on a piece about the psychology of white supremacists. I wrote, "This guy is miserable in his life with his homely, surly wife, and he's not real smart. Being a Nazi, that was his fun." The editors wanted to quote me verbatim, but I wouldn't let them. I never really talked to the wife, so my characterization was pretty superficial; plus, I didn't want her coming after me with one of those huge shotguns from the wall cabinet. What a chicken I was. But anyway, that's a little a story for you about my days as a journalist, and I offer it to remind you that whenever possible, you should embed stories in your anecdotes and your arguments. Because no one can walk away from a good story.

    This document, from Harvard University, contains terrific advice for writing an effective opinion piece.

    Columns

    These opinion pieces are written in the first person by members of the newspaper staff or guest columnists, and the way to write these is to find a columnist you adore, read as many of her columns as you can, and try to figure out how she writes so well. Then do that. Columns are called "columns" because usually they're laid out in a column, and they appear throughout the paper. So hunt through the news, the Living pages, Sports. Find your favorite columnist, read, and imitate. Do not fear that by doing so you'll lose your individuality. No matter how much you are inspired by another writer, your very DNA will appear in every word you write on your own.

    Cartoons

    Cartoons are extremely cool, and you must be both a clever thinker and a good artist to create them. Some illustrate stories; they should be cleanly drawn.

    Others are satire, and these are more difficult to pull off. One rule, though, will help you do it: Be sure that the object of your satire—the person or thing you are criticizing—is in your drawing. For example, if you are trying to illustrate the idea that your school's teachers don't seem to like the students, you might draw a very ugly, very mean teacher looking with loathing at a student, right? You wouldn't draw a big, vicious, horrible student. This seems rather obvious, but several of my students have drawn a satire of the wrong target.

    A wonderful website filled with information on the history and crafting of cartooning comes from The Ohio State University's Opper Project.

    Chris Britt, editorial cartoonist for The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Illinois, describes his process for thinking up and executing cartoons in this video:

    In the next clip, you can watch The Chicago Tribune's Scott Stantis polish off an editorial cartoon in two minutes:

    Finally, to try your hand at creating a cartoon, follow this study guide from the Pelican Publishing Company.

    Exercises

    1. Write a short opinion piece about a controversial issue at your school. Before you start, be sure you truly know what the controversy is about, and be sure you know all the facts involved. (It won't do you any good to write an opinion piece based on inaccurate or missing facts—no one will be persuaded to your point of view, no matter how beautifully you write.) Write 400 words without worrying too much about how your craft the piece. Just get it down on paper. Then read this link from Writer's Digest and see how well you did. Edit your piece accordingly. Then submit it to your newspaper!
    2. Write an editorial of commendation about something wonderful going on in your town or school. Don't spend much time telling the reader's it's wonderful; instead, describe it in such a way that they know it's wonderful.
    3. Write an editorial of commemoration in which you acknowledge that something significant is going on at this time in the year or in the calendar. Perhaps the leaves are falling, or it's the first snow; perhaps it's prom time, or September 11th. Write an opinion piece in which you describe the moment and offer your thoughts about it. Connect with readers who are aware, as you are, of this significant moment, and match the tone of your voice to the tone of the event.

    [1] Vahl, Rod and H. L. Hall, Effective Editorial Writing (Iowa City: Quill and Scroll Foundation, 2000).

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