Today we take a little detour from fiction to talk about opinion writing. Welcome Suzette Martinez Standring who is a syndicated columnist and past president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Her new book, The Art of Opinion Writing: Insider Secrets from Top Op-Ed Columnists, shares wisdom from fifteen established opinion writers who have won journalism’s highest awards.
As I read Suzette's book, it brought home to me how opinion writing can be dangerous and subversive -- if you're doing it right, there will be people who disagree, sometimes vehemently. I think it takes a special kind of nerve to put yourself out there, and it's something I greatly admire.
For me, one of the main challenges is the form itself. What, 700 words? In which you are supposed to persuade the reader of your point of view without overwhelming with detail or a strident or preachy tone.
Suzette, please tell us what do you see as the main challenges of opinion writing?
SUZETTE STANDRING MARTINEZ: Everyone has an opinion, and too many people equate opinion writing with just politics, but Ellen Goodman said, “The personal is the political.”
The biggest challenge is creating a reputation for accuracy, and delivering one’s opinion through a compelling story that enlightens or entertains. Too many writers rant but offer no new information or fresh perspectives to the reader.
HALLIE: You interviewed some of our most talented opinion writers. Can you share some of your favorite quotes from them?
Ellen Goodman, (retired, The Washington Group), “If you write from a narrow, petty, didactic point of view, you may get a lot of attention – it’s like screaming in a public place – but you probably won’t last a long time.”
Michael R. Masterson (The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette), “Evil flourishes in direct correlation to the extent that truth is violated.”
Cal Thomas (Tribune Media Services): “When I was 20-something I thought I was ready to conquer the world, but I wasn’t. Your experiences change you and your worldview. You can’t microwave a career or a life.”
Kathleen Parker (The Washington Post): “Most people are herding creatures and they will go with what’s allowed in their particular neighborhood or peer group, seeking approval and acceptance. You have to shed yourself of those expectations and those needs. So read, think hard, and be brave. Be very brave.”
Derrick Z. Jackson (The Boston Globe), “If you are going to be successful, have the courage to let an editor speak honestly with you about your work.”
Hallie, these quotes speak to me because it is clear that integrity and a willingness to break away from the herd, as it Kathleen Parker says, is what sets a columnist up for success and career longevity.
HALLIE: What subjects do opinion writers cover, if not just politics?
SUZETTE: Almost any interest a person has can be parlayed onto the op-ed page. For example, Joanna Weiss of the Boston Globe writes how politics is mirrored in pop culture. Connie Schultz won the Pulitzer Prize for writing from a working class perspective. Jeff Seglin writes an ethics column for the New York Times called, “The Right Thing.” Derrick Jackson of The Boston Globe meets readers at the intersection of sports and race. Years ago, the iconic Ellen Goodman was influenced by the feminist movement and the new grid it put over women’s lives.