How to write a news editorial, opinion piece or op-ed

5 Aug

This is the quick and simple formula for writing a news editorial.

The short version:

  1. Intro: your main argument (if stuck, write two paragraphs naturally and delete the first one as it will often be weaker and waste the reader’s time)
  2. Example point X 3 (minimum): Each point should show an example of a problem or trend within 1-2 sentences with additional sentence to show the impact of specific example that proves your argument
  3. Overall trend: what the trend means, summing up the problem again, this time incorporating previous points. Sometimes you can move this ahead of the example points depending on how they read.
  4. Prediction of impact: highlight potential impact on subject that hopefully shows importance of this as an issue. You should start to wind up the piece here.
  5. Solution: optional but it is ideal as it can encourage more conversation
  6. Conclusion: sum up your argument and its importance (if stuck, write two paragraphs naturally and delete the first para).

 

Now all you have to do is deal with the comments.

 

Note this is not a universal formula. This is an ideal for those moments when you have 40 minutes to write something and, if you’re anything like me, have a fag hanging out of your mouth, screeching expletives and driving the keyboard like a pilot about to crash land. I actually do that. Also while burbling “but what are you trying to say?”, a question I am sure is also asked by editors and readers alike when reading my work.

 

The long version:

Notes taken from notes prepared for youth group I mentor.

When people ask me how to write an opinion piece, I tell them to write to their worst enemy. Here’s how it can be done…

Starting out

1. Work out what you’re trying to write
Is this a personal essay? A persuasive analysis? A rant? A fisk?

  • Personal essay: a personal take on a popular issue
  • Persuasive analysis: using facts and/or rhetoric to persuade the reader to your point of view
  • Rant: enough said? It’s emotional, topic-based and exists to provide catharsis for writer and reader alike
  • Fisk: a point by point factual response highlighting the errors in a speech, interview or article

2. What do you want to say?
Can you define your argument in one sentence? This may not happen when you begin to write but you should be able to summarise your article in one statement once it’s been written. If you can’t describe it, you can’t pitch it and odds are we probably won’t be able to read it.

3. Research
If you’re writing a fact-based piece, have your research on hand – links, quotes, statistics, etc.

4. What can you offer?
Ideally, it should be different – a different take, a different fact, take it deeper and into uncharted (or at least unpublished) territory.

The basic structure

You need to take them on a journey towards agreement and you need to goddamn hold their hand to cross the road. Each point needs to lead them to your destination.

  1. Introduction of argument: what is it I think?
  2. Inform: what happened?
  3. Introduction of argument: what do I think?
  4. Explain impact: why should you care?
  5. Conclusion: why and how you should act, what I want you to walk away with.

THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT OF ALL: MAKE CONNECTIONS
Connect with current events, connect with history, connect with theories. The best opinion pieces place an event in context for readers and gives them a better view of an event or topic than they previously held. That is your job – you are there to educate and inform.

Funny or not?
You can be funny, you can be factual, you can be funny and factual – just do it consistently.

Don’t assume
Never assume people know the things you know or see and read the things you see and read. Explain things briefly to include more readers.

Use YOUR voice
No one else. Just you. Always read your work aloud to hear how it flows as it will bring up more areas for editing and let you get a better feel of the piece. Talking aloud while typing even helps because it allows your work to sound more fluid and natural which can result in a better (hopefully persuasive) reading experience.

….but use it sparingly

At best you will have 800 words, at worst 300. You have to make those words count and, in the battle between expression and argument, argument has greater importance. People are there to understand your argument and, should you choose expression over argument, you show people you have nothing to say which will leave them with nothing to read. Expression is still important but never at the expense of argument.

In the first draft, write however much you want but be prepared to go back and edit harshly. Zinsser (On Writing Well) suggests removing any word that is not crucial to a sentence. It will help you reach word count and ensure a more enjoyable read for the audience.

 

I don’t always follow my own advice and am still refining my style. Different topics will always vary according to subject, publisher and writer. This is just a guide for when times are tight – you will develop your own style the more you write.

 

This post was spurred by a conversation with Craig Hildebrand-Burke about how to write op-ed introductions, I was reminded of Jessica Reed‘s (Editor of The Guardian’s Comment Is Free) advice on the matter: write the first two paras as you normally would and delete the first. She also has the same advice for conclusions. 

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