Writing Editorials

By Alvin Bessent and Carol Richards

An editorial expresses a point of view. It is an informed opinion. It usually is prescriptive, telling readers what the writer thinks people with power – the President, Congress, the governor or the SUNY board – should do.

Because an editorial is the voice of the newspaper as an institution, rather than that of any individual, it usually expresses the consensus of a group of people comprising an editorial board.

Here are some tips about writing editorials.

The Process

Pick an issue. Something that you feel strongly about. The newspaper you write for is the best (though not only) source of material. Chances are good that people who read the article that got you going will also read your editorial. They are already engaged. Talk it over with the board. Decide whether the issue is worth pursuing.

Choose issues close to home. It might be satisfying to rage about the strife in the Middle East, but your words won’t change anything. You can, however, have a real impact if you editorialize about, say, campus security or whom to vote for in student-government elections.

Get the facts. Good editorials demand good reporting. You can rely on facts reported in the newspaper to get started, but often news reporters don’t ask all the questions that are important for editorial writers. That doesn’t mean that news reporters do a bad job. Editorial writers just have different concerns. Interview people on opposing sides of the issue as well as those with differing stakes in the outcome. Challenge your assumptions. Get the facts and figures you need to make your case. Explore the consequences of different courses of action. Try to understand the politics at play.

Get in early. You will have more impact if an editorial appears before a key decision is made. For instance, it is better to decry a looming tuition hike, than it is to complain about one that’s already been imposed.

Don’t overreach. You can’t resolve a complex issue once and for all in one editorial. What you can do is advance the ball. For instance, you can fashion an opinion on whether Suffolk County should raise taxes to hire more police officers without offering a solution to all of the county’s crime problems.

Be consistent. Maintain a clear line of reasoning every time you return to a subject in subsequent editorials. If you argue in the fall that tuition is too high, don’t come back in the winter and argue that raising it won’t be a hardship. You don’t have to be slavishly consistent. But if you change your mind on something, be clear about what your opinion was previously, what it is now and what facts led to the change of heart.

Writing the Editorials

Keep it short. The idea is to be clear, forceful and persuasive, not exhaustive. The typical Newsday editorial runs about 250 to 400 words. Editorials in the Sunday “Currents” section are much longer – 1,200 words for the cover editorial, 500 for the one inside. But that’s a special case.

Don’t equivocate. Avoid “on the one hand…on the other hand” wishy-washiness. Newsday columnist Les Payne often says that a column is a made-up mind. So is an editorial.

State a firm “bottom line.” The bottom line is the sentence that tells the reader exactly what you think. (It is not the last line of the editorial). It should be absolutely clear, and you should get to it quickly: in the first or second paragraph of the editorial. No later.

There is no strict formula for writing an editorial, but the following outline may help you to organize your thoughts.

Introduce the subject.

State your bottom line.

Spell out your prescription.

Provide enough background and facts so that a reader who has no prior knowledge of your subject will understand what you’re talking about.

Meet the tough questions head on. Remember the most convincing points made by people who disagree with you and spell out your counter-arguments.

End with a solid “kicker” that reiterates your opinion in one pithy sentence.

Writing the Op-Ed Piece

A column or op-ed piece is a signed article expressing the author’s point of view. Like an editorial, it should be based on reporting. Unlike an editorial, though, it should be written in the voice of an individual. Not only can it contain the word “I,” but it can also reflect the writer’s personality, quirks and biases.

The steps outlined above hold true for op-eds.

Don’t be coy with readers, you’ll lose them: Make sure your bottom line is clearly stated near the top.

Alvin Bessent is an editorial writer at Newsday. He graduated from Michigan State University in 1971 and 11 years later received a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.

Carol Richards is the former deputy editor of Newsday’s Editorial Page. She graduated in 1966 from Syracuse University, where she was cofounder of The Promethean, an alternative college weekly. She worked summers at the Buffalo Evening News and the Albany Knickerbocker News. After graduation, she was a reporter for the Rochester Times-Union and Gannett in Albany and Washington. She was a founding editor of USA Today.