Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Opinion writing: It's not about spouting off

HALLIE EPHRON: Every day the first page I read in the newspaper (after the comics, bridge column, and my horoscope) is the opinion page. I devour editorials and opinion pieces before I read the news.

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?

  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. 

HALLIE:  So here's my queestion. If you could write a knockout opinion column, what topic would you like most to spout off on?? 

Suzette Martinez Standring is syndicated with GateHouse Media.  She is an award winning author and the host and producer of a Cable TV show, "It's All Write With Suzette."  She teaches column writing workshops at universities and national conferences. Her new book is "The Art of Opinion Writing: Insider Secrets from Top Op-Ed Columnists.The book will be used in journalism courses at Johns Hopkins University, Penn State and the University of Maine. "
Contact her at suzmar@comcast.net   


  1. Wow . . . so not my comfort zone. I guess if I could write a knockout opinion column, it would be about on the “me, me, it’s all about me” attitude that is far too prevalent these days . . . .

  2. I believe Watergate changed journalism forever -- bringing Crusader Rabbits (what we used to call the investigative reporters) out of the corner and into the Managing Editor's job. I was trained to be impartial in all things -- to seek out the other side and make sure all points of view were part of the story. Let the reader decide what to believe. I think today's journalism focuses on putting people in jail, electing someone in particular, or ruining a career. Most of the time, the news seems slanted toward a particular opinion. I believe truth has suffered from this post-Watergate idea of activism.

  3. My best and favorite topics I think are boring to other people. A favored topic for my column would be deconstructing the language that defines mental illness. I would change all the terminology including the term mental illness. The mind is not ill. It is responding to illness. When you try to fix the illness by tweaking the mind, you are not treating the cause. See what I mean? No one would read it. But thank you for this moment.

  4. OH, have to be careful here,,as a reporter, I can't have an opinion, publicly at least. ANd Jack, I lived in Washington DC during Watergate--it was amazing to read the Post every day! NOw I'm wondering--when I go to work today--if I asked my interns to tell me about Watergate, wonder what they'd say? Hmm. I might try that.

    An interviewer once asked me how I wold change the world--is that kind of the same question? I talked about hunger. How DUMB and outrageous it is that anyone in the world--let alone the United States--has one moment of being hungry.

    Hello, wonderful Suzanne! Thank you for being here--LOVE your show!

  5. So interesting--thank you for bringing Suzette to visit today hallie! I loved Ellen Goodman's columns about any subject. This looks like a must-read for someone wanting to write opinion pieces.

    The quote about how you can't microwave a life--priceless!

  6. I like what Reine said, and I'd definitely read it.

    If I were to write an opinion piece, it might be about the death of courtesy and good manners.

  7. I have been married to a newspaper reporter, now editor, for about 600 years now, and as Hank notes, he's not allowed to express an opinion. This filters down to me--we can't contribute to political campaigns, display bumper stickers or signs, etc. Until the Lipstick Chronicles and other blogs, and now Facebook, came along, I was a Caesar's wife about my own opinions. Now, Caesar's wife has the freedom to mouth off. (But we still can't contribute to campaigns or display signs...which is okay.)

    So, if I could write any opinion piece, I'd come down like a hammer on people who have shown their ignorance about drug addiction, in the wake of Philip Seymour Hoffman's death. Yes, he was a celebrity and, no, I don't know him personally so his death didn't personally affect me. So why was I--and so many other people--truly upset at the news?

    Because many of us have people like him--young people who suffer from drug addiction--in our lives. That they are addicts doesn't mean we stop loving them. That they successfully get sober doesn't mean we stop worrying about them. When a famous, successful person with children and seemingly everything to live for can't beat off the disease, it's terrifying. Because he is himself, but he represents your greatest fear.

    That would be my opinion piece, since you asked.

  8. All thought provoking comments! What makes being a columnist unique is the perpendicular pronoun (I). Joan Emerson, you are correct about how often it comes across as me, me, me. There is truly an art to universal resonance through the "me."

    Jack Getze, there is truly a blurring now between reporting and opinion writing, which are completely separate. Yet I would argue that even "impartial" reporting is not so because the reporter chooses what information to put forth.

    Reine, no topics are boring. In fact some of the most memorable columns are about the daily things in life, like the Thanksgiving gravy USA columnist Craig Wilson wrote about his mother. Reine, I LOVE your idea of deconstructing language in connection to mental illness, and I'd eagerly read it.
    Hank Philippi Ryan, you are a reporter extraordinaire!
    Lucy Burdette, it was an unbelievable experience learning about the background of the columnists I featured, humbling and inspiring! Thank you.
    Hallie, you're the peachiest of peaches to feature me today.

  9. Ramona - SO thought provoking and profound what you say about drug addiction. Wow.

  10. Provocative piece, and one I'll keep in mind and I read opinion columns from now on....

    Reine, deconstructing the language around mental illness would be a fascinating topic. Ditto for addiction.

  11. Suzette, I was struggling to iterate the idea behind "There is truly an art to universal resonance through the 'me,' " and then I read your comment! Perfect.

  12. I would read both Reine's and Ramona's essays!

    I sent in a letter to the editor of our little 2x/wk local paper -- maybe it will run today!!

    My letter:

    My Sunday School students at St. Barnabas, all third and fourth grades in the Falmouth Public Schools, were learning about Gospel Music. We talked about how music can express joy and bring comfort. I asked if they could think of music that was comforting.

    I expected them to mention lullabies, but one child began to sing and the others all joined in, a song they had learned at school about children sleeping while snow was falling.

    Children learn in so many ways, and they make connections. How do we measure that? Please, do not make any cuts in arts education. The arts are ways into the minds and hearts of children, and before you know it, they are understanding concepts!

  13. So many thoughtful responses here. But after all, this is a group of well-read folks, and I wouldn't expect any less from avid readers.

    My passion is the environment, and ways to stop harming it, including population control, water conservation, and organic, non-GMO farming and urban gardening. I could writer about all those topics, and more. And I really wish I had a "bully pulpit" to write about water conservation, as I see it as a huge part of climate change and worldwide drought.

  14. Dangerous territory for me here, since I rarely leave my soapbox too far away. One thing, huh? okay. The distribution of wealth in this country and why it exists. NO person who works for a living trying to support a family should live in poverty.

  15. So interesting! And thank you, Suzette, for being here today.

    Reine, I would so read your opinion piece! And yours, Ramona.

    I do, like Hallie, usually read the op-ed page first--partly because I no longer trust news to news, but a slanted version of events meant to sway a particular group.

    Opinions? Boy, do I have opinions. But I try to express them with tact.

    So I'll just mention one thing, the first thing that came to mind, that really bothers me. I see a growing lack of charity in our culture. I don't mean in the literal sense, but in a "meanness of attitude" sense. Charity, compassion, generosity. So many people seem to be obsessed with holding on to what belongs to them and making sure no one takes anything away from them. I guess this is a continuation of "me me me", but maybe the upside is that it seems more prevalent in older people than in the younger generation.

    I've tried very hard to be apolitical here--I hope I get a gold star for that:-)

  16. I'm loving everyone's ideas for opinion pieces. Also, I'm a huge Connie Schultz fan. Not just for her more political pieces, but for her "slice of life" columns.
    Like Ramona, I tend to be reserved about my opinions in public. Partially b/c my husband works for the federal government and partially b/c I was raised that way. My dad was in the military and he was fairly liberal and opinionated, but he believed that arguing about politics in public was a big no-no. I was also often the lone liberal in some pretty conservative school and work environments. You learn to pick your battles!

    But if I could magically write an opinion piece about anything, it would probably be the complexities of autism as I see it as a mother with a son on the spectrum. I want people to understand that yes, my son has challenges and that he may need extra help for the rest of his life, but I don't want him to be seen as a tragedy or a burden or completely incapable of anything. I feel like a lot of people who are not familiar with the issue want everything to be black and white (He'll grow up to be the next Einstein! He'll spend his life in a horrible institution!), but truthfully there's a lot of gray.

  17. This is really interesting. Thanks for introducing us to Suzette, Hallie!

    I need to buy Suzette's book because I bet it would help with my blogging. What surprises me about writing my opinion is that the more sassy I am, the more I express a definite opinion, even if it's just something about writing craft, or it's a little rant, or whatever, the more responses I get. And I'm often surprised by how many people agree with my often contrarian opinions.

    There's something to be said for not always being nicey-nice.

    The word "rhetoric" comes to mind -- but I've never understood what exactly that is: the art of persuasion?

  18. Lisa Alber, the "art of persuasion" is leading the reader to understand your viewpoint through compelling storytelling and facts. Emotion and vulnerability are key. A good columnist doesn't beat the reader over the head, but persuades the reader to come to her own conclusion. The reader may still hate the writer, but will respect her because the reader can see clearly how the columnist arrived at her conclusion.

  19. Jill, I'm a huge Connie Schultz fan, too, and it would surprise everyone to know that when she received the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary, she was not featured on the opinion page, but in the women's section! She made up her mind to use her newspaper space for important issues, despite the criticism of her editors.
    Also, I'm blown away by the incredible column topics since idea generation and fresh angles pose huge challenges for all bloggers and columnists.

  20. Denise Ann, I agree that arts and music should not be cut from schools, and personally, Gospel Music, has the power to sing to the heart what cannot be "said" to the brain.
    Ramona, you are right on about drug addiction being a parent's worst nightmare. When Philip Seymour Hoffman with all his talent, resources and connections falls to addiction, it just confirms the horrific battle involved.
    GMO farming, a lack of charity (goodwill) in our culture, hunger - all compelling topics.
    Jill, your suggestion about the complexities of autism is so right on! One of my former students, Julie Fay, now writes a column for the Patriot Ledger about autism in her family. Well, it's really about daily family life with a little autism thrown in. I had encouraged her to write from that perspective because so many such families would welcome a kindred voice in which having children on the autism spectrum pose special considerations, and yet the joy and routine of family life is universal.

  21. This piece really brought out the real thoughts and minds of a lot of your readers.... congratulations! I tend to hold my opinions to myself, due to the kinds of jobs I've had most of my life... but blogs seem to bring out my inner frankness... then occasionally I go rigid and remember - hey, anyone on the globe can read this, girl!!! Thelma in Manhattan

  22. Ramona, the drug addiction issue was what I first thought of, too, due to Philip Seymour Hoffman's death, a recent tragedy close to home, and an op-ed piece by Froma Harrop in the newspaper. The title of Froma's piece was " 'War on Drugs' is more class warfare". I strongly urge everyone to look up this piece and read it. Since Froma words echo my own passionate views on this issue, I'd like to share a few of her major points. "... though drug overdoses are democratic in choosing victims, the War on Drugs is anything but." As I agree with Reine about redefining mental health issues, drug addiction fits into that reclassification, too. Again, as Froma points out, the norm now is to label most drug addicts as criminals, denying them the medical label and help needed to confront the addiction. Outed drug users who are politicians or celebrities or wealthy don't usually suffer the same consequences as the majority of addicts. Froma made me aware of the fact that students who "commit drug offenses while in college" are denied student aid. So, it doesn't affect the rich, just those who are of a lower socio-economic status, the ones who need a break and the aid. Also, I thought it interesting that an intense search for Hoffman's drug dealers followed his death, while your average addict is swept under the carpet as just another sad statistic, and probably just had it coming. Don't misunderstand me. I greatly admired Hoffman, was a big fan of his acting, but why is his addiction a disease and others a criminal offense? What is especially interesting is that Froma stated "Jailing someone in Vermont for a week costs $1,120. A week at a state drug treatment center costs $123."

    Please forgive me for my verbosity. Soapboxes are difficult to disengage from. Another op-ed writer I particularly enjoy is Leonard Pitts. And Ellen Goodman was always interesting. Suzette, I for one will be buying your book. I love reading the editorial page, and my favorite piece of writing I used to teach to high school students was the persuasive piece. They became cognizant of supporting their opinions about issues, and that they actually did have opinions.

    Great thought-provoking issues brought up by all today.

  23. Suzanne, how interesting, that Connie Schultz affected change via the only avenue open to her.

    Karl Maslowski, my father-in-law, wrote a column for the Cincinnati Enquirer for fifty years--the longest running column by a single person for that paper--and he very often snuck in his own opinions. Most of the time he wrote about natural history events and issues, but at times he very gently guided his many readers to think differently about how their own actions affect the natural world.

    The Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, with my husband's help, recently published a compilation of 100 of Karl's columns. It's fascinating to read through them and to see how the natural history of the area and how public opinion both changed through the years.

  24. I love this piece. And Suzette, I get your point about unbiased pieces still being biased. I once was on jury duty and was arguing that point with the defense attorney—how can I ever be truly unbiased? However, if I were to write that opinion piece, it might be about the lack of an attempt by many of today's journalists to even try to report all of the facts. The days of Walter Cronkite are long gone and we're faced with a polarized society because so many people only hear one side of a story. Of course, that's not the only reason, but I go on too long already!

  25. Just realized I typed Suzanne instead of Suzette.

    My apologies!

  26. Debs, you hit the nail on the head for me, too. Ditto Kaye. A full time job should mean a LIVING wage.

  27. This was a great piece. I write a humor column, always adding my opinion on something. But I try to stay away from the political.

  28. Kathy Reel, loved your excellent points on the disparity of addiction treatment between poor and rich (disease v. criminality).
    Karen in Ohio, Karl Maslowski your father-in-law demonstrated how a subject like natural history can come alive by injecting his personality into it.
    Terry Ambrose, I agree that our society has become so polarized and plagued with incivility in print, too. However the lack of reporting all the facts is also due to the immense pressure reporters are under to be the first to report any details, no matter how inaccurate and speculative. That's one of the beautiful facets to being an opinion writer. You can return again and again to the subject with new information and fresh angles. Reporters must move on to new stories.
    BTW, this is an incredible site for intelligent discourse. I'm LOVING it!

  29. Can't write much today. I over did my PT and got cocky so spasticity acting up. Want to thank everyone for support of my hearts-desire topic.

    Ramona comments and idea about addiction is very moving and exactly right I am sure. My thoughts on how both topics of mental illness and addiction are made institutional with official language are about co-opting how one must think about oneself and others. One of my columns would be on the motivation behind these categories.

    Wonderful blog and comments today. Special thanks to Suzette for being here and Reds for inviting her.


  30. I would read all your op-ed pieces--mental health, addiction, disparity of wealth, the environment--all timely, all important. I would add: get legislators OUT of the classroom! Stop micromanaging our public education system! Stop with the mandates on what to teach in biology or health or history class!Find a way to equalize school funding so that teachers have the resources they need to teach effectively! I'll get off MY soapbox now....