As the Associated Content Ambassador for the opinion/editorial page-I don’t know, for some reason I’ve earned this reputation around here for being opinionated or something-I feel it is part of my job to give a little advice on writing for the editorial page. It’s a tricky thing, of course. More so than any other part of Associated Content, the editorial page should be exempt from too many rules. This is the place where you should feel free to express yourself in practically any way you want. However, like the old adage about free verse poetry, it’s not much of a challenge playing tennis without a net.
I have neither the need nor the ability to tell anyone how to express their opinion. You should find your own style. But an opinion that exists in a vacuum is of no value to anyone but the person expressing it. In other words, if you have a lot of opinions to share you want to make sure your readers come back for more. You can’t expect to keep getting lucky with your topics. A good writer can turn even a boring subject into a fascinating editorial.
The first place to begin when writing an editorial or opinion piece is to know what you are talking about. Too many writers want to get their articles read so they write about whatever the hot topic is at the moment. That doesn’t mean you can’t write about a topic because you aren’t a fanatic about it. Take, for example, a very popular topic around here and the Internet in general, American Idol. Many writers have chosen to write an article about American Idol because they know it means a certain instant level of page views. Me, I couldn’t even begin to write an article on American Idol from the point of view of knowing who sang what, or what the judges think about who, or anything specific to the program. However, I am more than capable of writing an article about American Idol that looks at the show from a broader cultural perspective. For instance, how the whole talent show concept is changing the way the music industry is run. Or how American Idol represents an attempt to bring society together around the campfire again in the age of 150 channels. See what I mean? I am incapable of writing an opinion piece about the actual show, but that doesn’t mean I have to avoid the subject altogether.
Take the words of Homer Simpson to heart: Facts are meaningless, they can be used to prove anything. Look, if your work appears on this page, you wrote an editorial, not something that some fact-checker should be going over with a fine-tooth comb. That means you can disregard facts and stats? Not at all. It means your approach to an article should focus on how you feel about a certain subject. If you want to write an article that tells your readers how many bombs Hezbollah sent into Israel and how many bombs Israel responded with and how many civilians on both sides died, submit that to the news section or the history section. But if you want your readers to know how you “feel” about all that bombing, it really doesn’t matter if you get those facts exactly right. Did Hezbollah send 2,000 or 3,000 rockets into Israel? Who cares if what you’re really writing about is how violence has always been present in the Middle East and the political approach to ending that violence is no different today than it was 500 years ago?
On the other hand, don’t play fast and loose with stats and facts. Don’t just grab facts out of mid-air and for God’s sake don’t go to just one source for them. (Especially if that source is Wikipedia!) You are not a journalist writing for the NY Times, so you can get away with merely saying thousands of rockets were sent into Lebanon by Israel. What you cannot get away with is repeating something as fact that “everybody knows.” To give you an example, “everybody knows” that the only man-made structure visible from the moon is The Great Wall of China. Guess what? It’s not true. Check your facts, but even better advice is make judicious use of facts.
Probably the most important advice I can think to give when writing an opinion piece or editorial is to remember that an editorial is just like any other piece of writing. It should have a beginning, a middle and an end. I cannot tell you how many editorials I’ve read here at Associated Content that offer some really good information, but in such a shapeless and formless way that it offers no incentive to get to the end. Or else, there just is no end; the article simply stops. Basically what I’m really talking about is build-up. Don’t shoot your wad in the opening paragraph. Ease into the real meat of your opinion by starting off with something that either makes a universal topic more personal or a personal topic more universal. And while you’re at it, even if the opinion is about something intensely personal, try to expand it to a larger audience. An opinion or editorial piece kind of suggests that you need only give your own opinion on a subject and be done with it. But a truly outstanding editorial considers the alternative viewpoint as well, weighs the pro and cons, and attempts to convince the reader which is the better. In a way, then, an opinion piece should at heart be an argumentative essay. It’s simply not enough to say that Pres. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was wrongheaded, you have to meet the opposition viewpoint squarely in the face and show the errors. In that particular case it’s fairly simple, but other subjects topics aren’t quite so easily argued.
There have been some fine editorials published on this page that have presented both sides of such currently raging debates as the gay marriage ban, the illegal immigration issue, and the Israel/Hezbollah war. Regardless of where you stand on any of those issues if you are going to write about it your article can only be improved by engaging with the side against which you are arguing. For instance, just writing down your opinions that gay marriage is wrong because it’s immoral from a Christian perspective adds nothing to the debate because it is too simplistic, it’s already been done to death, and no matter how well you write it’s probably not going to convince anyone of the opposite opinion. You can therefore not only flesh out an editorial to give it more depth, but by going beyond your own moral qualms over the issue you will probably expand readership by expressing how what you consider the immorality of homosexuality impacts everything else that marriage touches upon. Marriage isn’t simply a religious ritual, it has social, economic, political and legal components. Your editorial will only benefit if you can make a connection between your concerns about the immorality of homosexuality and how it will affect the nation’s social fabric, economic basis, or the legalities associated with the marriage contract.
This advice is certainly not meant to be comprehensive and as I continue to read more and more of the submissions to the op/ed page at Associated Content, I hope to learn more about what separates an adequate opinion piece from a truly outstanding opinion piece. But I think it’s important for those who plan to consistently use Associated Content as a soapbox for furthering their own messages to understand that too often writers take the idea of simply writing an opinion as an excuse to get a little lazy. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with merely writing down what you believe, if you want readers to keep coming back to read what you have to say it is incumbent upon you to take opinion writing as seriously as if you were writing a college paper or an article advising people about the dangers of eating raw food. Construct your editorials with a beginning, middle, and end. Really work your piece toward a final statement, a summing up of what you think and why. Nothing will bring readers back to your next submission more than a solid ending that gives them pause to think.