Opinion Writing Considerations
This outline was presented to the Editorial Writing class at the Perley I. Reed School of Journalism, West Virginia University, Feb, 26, 2007
Some things, as Orwell wrote, are true even if The Daily Telegraph says they are true.(1)
George Orwell was a prolific writer and excellent essayist. His comments on style are to the point and his advice would be agreed with by other great writers.
Excerpts from "Politics and the English Language," 1946:
I. (Orwell presents five passages by five writers and criticizes them as follows:)
"These five passages have not been picked out because they are especially bad -- I could have quoted far worse if I had chosen -- but because they illustrate various of the mental vices from which we now suffer. They are a little below the average, but are fairly representative examples. I number them so that I can refer back to them when necessary:
1. I am not, indeed, sure whether it is not true to say that the Milton who once seemed not unlike a seventeenth-century Shelley had not become, out of an experience ever more bitter in each year, more alien [sic] to the founder of that Jesuit sect which nothing could induce him to tolerate. -- Professor Harold Laski (Essay in Freedom of Expression)
2. Above all, we cannot play ducks and drakes with a native battery of idioms which prescribes egregious collocations of vocables as the Basic put up with for tolerate, or put at a loss for bewilder. -- Professor Lancelot Hogben (Interglossa)
3. On the one side we have the free personality: by definition it is not neurotic, for it has neither conflict nor dream. Its desires, such as they are, are transparent, for they are just what institutional approval keeps in the forefront of consciousness; another institutional pattern would alter their number and intensity; there is little in them that is natural, irreducible, or culturally dangerous. But on the other side, the social bond itself is nothing but the mutual reflection of these self-secure integrities. Recall the definition of love. Is not this the very picture of a small academic? Where is there a place in this hall of mirrors for either personality or fraternity? -- Essay on psychology in Politics (New York)
4. All the "best people" from the gentlemen's clubs, and all the frantic fascist captains, united in common hatred of Socialism and bestial horror at the rising tide of the mass revolutionary movement, have turned to acts of provocation, to foul incendiarism, to medieval legends of poisoned wells, to legalize their own destruction of proletarian organizations, and rouse the agitated petty-bourgeoise to chauvinistic fervor on behalf of the fight against the revolutionary way out of the crisis. -- Communist pamphlet
5. If a new spirit is to be infused into this old country, there is one thorny and contentious reform which must be tackled, and that is the humanization and galvanization of the B.B.C. Timidity here will bespeak canker and atrophy of the soul. The heart of Britain may be sound and of strong beat, for instance, but the British lion's roar at present is like that of Bottom in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream -- as gentle as any sucking dove. A virile new Britain cannot continue indefinitely to be traduced in the eyes or rather ears, of the world by the effete languors of Langham Place, brazenly masquerading as "standard English." When the Voice of Britain is heard at nine o'clock, better far and infinitely less ludicrous to hear aitches honestly dropped than the present priggish, inflated, inhibited, school-ma'amish arch braying of blameless bashful mewing maidens! -- Letter in Tribune
"Each of these passages has faults of its own, but, quite apart from avoidable ugliness, two qualities are common to all of them. The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision."
(Basic rules of style)
"… one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:
(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article."
>> In addition to "Politics and the English Language," also read "Why I Write", another of Orwell’s essays.
(1)Christopher Hitchens ("A Man with a Score to Settle", London Sunday Times, Jan. 21, 2007)
>> A common mistake in presenting an argument is creating a sophism. A sophism is a fallacy which may at first seem plausible.
Example from "How To Win Every Argument", by Madsen Pirie (2006):
"A US legislator recently noted that a high crime rate correlated with a high prison population, and suggested that the prisoners be released in order to cut the crime figures."
Example from "The Black Tulip", by Alexandre Dumas (Chap. 8):
Mynheer Isaac Boxtel encouraged himself with the following sophism: --
"Cornelius de Witt is a bad citizen, as he is charged with high treason, and arrested.
"I, on the contrary, am a good citizen, as I am not charged with anything in the world, as I am as free as the air of heaven."
"If, therefore, Cornelius de Witt is a bad citizen, -- of which there can be no doubt, as he is charged with high treason, and arrested, -- his accomplice, Cornelius van Baerle, is no less a bad citizen than himself.
"And, as I am a good citizen, and as it is the duty of every good citizen to inform against the bad ones, it is my duty to inform against Cornelius van Baerle."
>> I have heard legislators say that there should be a steep tax on tobacco because smokers have health problems that non-smokers end up paying for. In other words:
All smokers have chronic health problems.
All non-smokers have either no health problems or less-costly health problems.
All non-smokers pay taxes.
All treatments for smokers’ health problems are paid for with taxes paid by non-smokers.
You would have an impossible time sorting out the exact cost of health care for each and every ailment. Cancers, diabetes, and heart attacks correlate more closely to heredity than to diet or lifestyle. There are millions of non-smokers who have heart attacks just as there are millions of non-smokers who have cancer. Visit WVU Hospital and you will find infants and toddlers being treated for cancer or having open-heart surgery.
If you agree with the smoker vs. non-smoker argument above, then you might soon advocate a special tax on sugar (adult-onset diabetes), or a special tax on fatty or fattening foods (obesity), or a special tax on tanning beds, tanning lotion and any clothing that does not cover the entire body such as swimsuits (skin cancer).
Special whiskey taxes haven’t reduced alcoholism, DUI’s or DUI-related injuries and deaths. Indeed, the USA voted in the Prohibition Era, and we know how that turned out.
In the meantime, state legislatures across the nation have spent billions of dollars of tobacco settlement money (effectively, a steep tax paid by smokers) on everything but tobacco-related healthcare.
Develop a historical perspective:
Read and research your topic thoroughly lest you be caught up in the moment of popular sentiment.
(I) Human-caused global warming is a popular issue right now. But did you know that Vikings landed at the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, Canada in the year 1000 and never saw the temperature drop low enough to cause a frost in the two years they remained there? Leif Ericson’s journals tell us that not only did Newfoundland have a mild climate, but that forage grass for livestock was plentiful year-round. Today, the site of Ericson’s settlement (approx. 2,000 mi. NE of Morgantown) is closed to tourists 8 months of the year because of the area’s harsh weather.
(II) Thomas Jefferson is routinely criticized today because he was a slave owner. But did you know that Jefferson inoculated his slaves in 1800 with the first smallpox vaccine? Jefferson also sent the smallpox vaccine with the Lewis and Clark Expedition to inoculate Indian tribes. A century would pass before our nation began widespread smallpox vaccinations as a public health program—even though Jefferson contemplated the eradication of smallpox in his lifetime.
Develop your vocabulary:
It is important to develop a good vocabulary. It is equally important to tailor your words to fit your audience.
When I write a column for the State Journal, I keep in mind that 86% of State Journal readers have a college degree. When I write an article for the Appalachian Blacksmiths Association newsletter, I keep in mind that many of the readers aren’t college-educated and most of the ones that are have engineering degrees. Different audiences require different styles.
Each vocation and profession has its own specialized vocabulary as well as its own set of acronyms. It is imperative that you translate that specialized jargon into words that the everyday reader can understand.
And most importantly, always use active verbs that breathe life into your sentences.
Not many writers can write humor. Some that think they can usually bomb. But good writers can and do use amusing anecdotes to lighten their criticisms.
There aren’t many writers like Dave Barry for a reason. But good writers can effectively borrow from pundits like Mark Twain or Will Rogers for a punch line. (E.g.: "Golf--a good walk spoiled." by Mark Twain)
Examples of use of humor from my columns:
Former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz (under Presidents Nixon and Ford) once addressed the Government Dependency Ratio this way. In the early 1970’s, it had become apparent that Social Security recipients would eclipse the number of workers paying into the system.
Mr. Butz compared the situation to his days growing up on an Indiana farm. He said he overslept one frigid morning and was late in going to the barnyard to feed the cows. When he got there, two heifers were suckling each other’s udder to stave off hunger. Then he added to his anecdote that, in such situations, some milk always ends up on the ground.
Mr. Butz, of course, was making a joke. Cows, unlike humans, are weaned from the teat. (Borrow It Forward, Jan. 19, 2007)
And now for the pièce de résistance—the Capitol cafeteria. This eatery gave new meaning to La Cuillère Grasse (The Greasy Spoon.) In fact, if the kitchen grease had caught fire, then the Capitol would have burned to the axles before fire crews got there! Fortunately, nervous cockroaches drew attention to the fire hazard which, in turn, prompted the health department to close the cafeteria. I am told that cockroaches are sensitive to fire hazards and need no special training to alert humans that danger is at hand.
Don’t laugh. The two prior state capitol buildings weren’t lousy with cockroaches and they each burned to the ground! (For Government, Trailers Make Sense, Dec. 1, 2006)
Define your topic:
Writing an opinion column or editorial means you have limited space to convey your message. After you present your premise, you have to methodically and logically pursue your arguments to arrive at the conclusion. You have no grassy space to graze.
If you do go off point, you will most likely lose your reader.
One of the most common mistakes that writers make is "showing off." This happens when a writer has researched a topic at great length and then he proceeds to write paragraph after paragraph telling you about that research. Meanwhile, the reader is saying, "You’re telling me more than I need to know."
Be succinct and concise in your setup, premise, argument, and conclusion.
Be wary of bias:
Every writer writes with a bias. Men write like men, women write like women. Conservatism and liberalism are learned mainly from parents and upbringing. Geographical regions impart bias. A Louisiana Cajun’s idea of a good meal is much different than how Manhattanites dine in the Upper East Side.
Be aware of your own baggage before criticizing others.
If you were to write about a logging debate, you might quote the head of the local Sierra Club chapter for some background. That person will say that the trees shouldn’t be cut for any reason. At the least, balance the preservationists’ concerns with those of the logging industry. Their lobbyist will preen that "We are stewards of the forest and forests are renewable."
Reality is always somewhere in the middle of the debate.
In this instance, your readers will be amenable to pristine forests which provide habitat for not only Bambi but also for the endangered five-toed owl. At the same time, your readers also love to sit in front of the fireplace, solving the newspaper crossword with a #2 pencil while sipping Scotch whiskey that was aged in oak barrels.
Political bias is particularly daunting because of the desire to believe that Democrats are for the blue collar workers and Republicans are for the white collar professionals. In truth, Democrats and Republicans just want more spending money. They only differ in how they will get their hands on that money.
Actions, as well as inactions, have consequences, intended and unintended. Make your arguments based on how you view action or inaction. A good contemporary example of this is legislation raising the minimum wage.
Avoid promoting the agendas of competing lobbyists. Otherwise, there is no need for you to spend the ink. If you allow yourself to become a parrot, then you have failed as an opinion writer.
I majored in Economics and took two semesters of Statistics. I was also required to read How To Lie With Statistics by Darrell Huff, a clever primer that points out how people get selective when presenting numbers.
I strongly recommend that you read How To Lie With Statistics. It will demystify the numbers games. Another good book is Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences by John Allen Paulos.
In Dragnet, the 1950’s television series, Sgt. Joe Friday always told the crime victim, "Just the facts, ma’am/sir." Crime victims are always hysterical and Joe Friday tried his best to sort out the facts during his investigation.
When George W. Bush was elected president, many opinion columnists wrote with near-hysteria that the number of homeless would increase by huge numbers. The facts have never supported this claim. But, many writers continued to make the claim based on subjective observations by the very people (or their trade associations) whose livelihoods depend on welfare programs for the homeless and destitute.
Think of facts this way. A policeman estimates the crowd that showed up for a public demonstration at 10,000. Without having a metered turnstile, we can never know the exact headcount. The policeman’s estimate is just that. However, such estimates are often reported as fact.
On the other hand, we know that precisely 68,918 fans attended the football game between the Univ. of Pittsburgh and Fordham University on Oct. 29, 1938. This was the turnstile number—a fact. Even so, Pitt’s publicity officer reported to the newspapers that 75,000 fans attended—a claim he later had to retract.
Today, it is common to actually misrepresent sports attendance numbers to the high side. When you hear terms such as "paid attendance" or "total attendance", know that neither number represents the actual turnstile number of fans who purchased a ticket for the game.
Facts are facts. And just as important, is the way that the facts are derived.
We know, for a fact, the exact number of voters who voted in the last election. Or do we? If you tracked down every registered voter who supposedly voted, you will find that some dead people still find a way to make their vote count. We also know that, in recounts, the recounted ballot totals are almost always different from the vote totals counted on Election Day.
And finally, remember that in our legal system, hard evidence and facts can be disallowed for various procedural reasons. This happens in both civil and criminal cases. Many cases also turn on the opinions offered by hired experts. When trying to understand our legal system, keep these two "facts" in mind as you try to make sense of the verdicts. We have a legal system that accepts opinion as fact and rules out fact by procedural technicality.
USING THE INTERNET:
The Internet is a great place to find erroneous information. You should rely on sources such as almanacs, dictionaries, encyclopedias, government agency reports, research papers that appear in peer-reviewed journals, and the like. (Primary sources)
I was schooled to avoid even periodicals (secondary sources) such as Time and Newsweek.
Also, familiarize yourself with several web search engines. There are many specialty search engines that deliver more consistent results than Google, Yahoo, etc.
Be wary of personal attacks:
The late Ned Chilton, publisher of the Charleston Gazette, once wrote an editorial about then-Gov. Arch Moore. He titled the piece, "The Sleaze Is Back!" Those four words told me that there was no reason to read further.
Harsh, shrill writing does not appeal to mainstream readers.
More importantly, if you have to revert to using words like "sleaze", then you have failed as a wordsmith.
There oughta be a law!
Editorial writers love to endorse the most recent act passed by the legislature. A year later, they end up writing an editorial pronouncing that the very same law either
(a) went too far.
(b) didn’t go far enough.
(c) wasn’t supposed to do what it did., or
(d) has actually made the problem worse!
Nine times out of ten, legislation is a combination of knee-jerk reactions and special interest favors. That is because the average legislator is not too bright of a thinker and owes his/her job to a special interest group.
A good example of this is the ongoing comedy of errors known as "ATV safety laws." In recent years, the WV legislature has passed law after law to regulate operation of ATV’s. Every year, editorial writers praise these new laws only to write a year later that the state has set a new record for ATV fatalities and that "new laws are needed."
Be careful what you wish for when you write: There oughta be a law. You’ll regret it.
Goldberg, Bernard: Bias
Huff, Darrel: How to Lie with Statistics
Orwell, George: Why I Write and Politics and the English Language
Paulos, John Allen: Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences
There are two great satires that you should read: Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift (1726), and Erewhon, by Samuel Butler (1872). In both instances, the authors wished to criticize their present-day. Doing so openly would have earned them the wrath of the English Crown. Thus, they created sophisticated novels to do the job. You will learn a great deal about using imagery (see Orwell at the beginning) as you read these books.
A best seller in Europe, England and the USA when published in 1944, The Road To Serfdom, by Nobel Economist Frederich A. Hayek, is an excellent economics book for the non-Economist. A condensed version appeared in Reader’s Digest, and Book-of-the-Month Club featured it. The Road To Serfdom explains the limits of government and the role of the marketplace in understandable prose.
The object of the lesson is for you to learn to polish your work.
After you are satisfied with the first part of the lesson, then use the blackboard eraser as a metaphor for Martin Hall in this exercise:
Try at first to develop this essay in 500-700 words. In time, you might be able to turn it into a short story.
If you need inspiration, read: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; Act V., Scene 1, by Wm. Shakespeare. (Plus Cliff Notes and other references to the scene.)
(Excerpt:) Hamlet, holding Yorick’s skull in the graveyard:
Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times…
(Yorick was the court jester when Hamlet was a boy and, in this scene, he reminisces about his forgotten childhood friend.)
Copyright 2007 David G. Allen