This post is primarily for City University journalism students, but if you are interested in writing comment articles then please read on….
In our two previous workshops, we covered news writing and feature writing. Our last workshop, on Thursday 6 November, will be on comment writing. This seems like a natural order to me, not least because it reflects my own career doing first news, then features, and now, primarily, comment. It is an intuitive evolutionary path for journalists because:
news is about telling a story, features is about telling a story with style, and comment is about telling a story with both style and attitude.
All good journalism should make readers stop and think – but comment and opinion pieces really should have balls. Sitting on the fence is – and should be – an uncomfortable position to be in.
Here is an utterly brilliant opinion piece by my former Times colleague Matthew d’Ancona. It epitomises the art of comment writing: a strong, surprising premise, elegantly constructed, tightly and bravely argued, full of facts. It’s not science but it’s the structure and tone that I want you to take notice of.
In some ways, comment writing is the most difficult style of journalism to learn (and teach), because it relies on experience. Generally, writers first develop a specialism, such as science or politics or the arts, and acquire a reputation for expertise and knowledge in that area. Only from a position of knowledge, can one reasonably offer an opinion or comment that might influence public opinion and debate. But it is no easy task to graduate from news to comment: it takes practice, practice, practice. Good comment writers are valued by newspapers and magazines because they guide readers in how to think about the big issues of the day.
As science journalism students, you come with a ready-made specialism (although, please, I want you to think of yourselves as journalists) and so, on starting work, you might be asked to write a comment piece on a specific science issue (although, hopefully, your editor won’t tell you what your opinion should be). The essential questions to ask yourself are these:
Do I have something interesting and novel to say about it, that goes beyond the obvious? Am I bursting to articulate it?
If you answer yes to these, then you have the seed of a decent opinion piece.
More terrifyingly – this happens to me around twice a week, and now excites more than terrifies – an editor may ask one or more of the following open-ended questions:
“What’s going on in the world of science? What should our readers be caring about? What do you fancy writing about this week? We’ve got three pieces on quantitative easing/UKIP this week – can you deliver something that stops our readers getting depressed?”
I find this exciting because I am in the enormously privileged position of being able to shape how readers think about things. Plus, I’m buzzing with ideas: I’ve always got two or three science issues that I’m quietly turning over in my head. Whatever kind of journalism you are doing, you always need to have ideas, and for that, you need to do lots of reading/surfing. Here are some topics I’ve been mulling this week:
- what is the future for space tourism, after the Virgin Galactic setback
- the 16-year-old boy who has admitted killing a teacher and, chillingly, shown no empathy or remorse (I’m interested in psychopathy)
- the new IPCC climate change report
- a new website that challenges the public to Ask For Evidence when confronted with dodgy claims (eg homeopathy can cure Ebola).
The challenge is to turn one of those subjects into a piece of compelling, opinionated writing. And, for that, you need an opinion (obvs, as my daughter would say). But what makes for an interesting opinion? I think it should be:
- sincerely held
- a bit left-field or arresting (Virgin Galactic would have to pay me to go into space, not the other way around)
- and involve a fair bit of devil’s advocacy.
What do I mean by that last point? I mean that you should be able to anticipate a opponent’s arguments against you, and ideally have answers for them. By tackling counter-arguments in advance, you increase the persuasive power of your own stance (Would you pay $250k to strap yourself to a giant firework? Because that’s what you’re getting when you sign up for space tourism).
Since comment pieces usually build upon recent news stories, you need to summarise the story (you don’t want to lose a reader who hasn’t actually read the initial story) and then move it on a notch. One way of moving things on is to predict where a debate might go.
For example, the schoolboy who has admitted murdering a teacher has been sentenced to life but could be released aged 36. If I was commenting on this, I could go on and on about how awful and tragic the whole case is – which, while true, wouldn’t be that interesting or informative. Much more fascinating is that there is little evidence that violent criminals incapable of remorse or empathy can be truly rehabilitated. What, if anything, does this case say about the difficulty of reconciling justice with science? If science says psychopaths can’t be reformed, should we throw away the key?
Comment pieces also need a narrative. They need an arresting beginning, a substantial middle and a punchy end. Structure and flow are important. As a rough guide, try to make a new point every paragraph, ideally one that follows naturally from the preceding paragraph. Throw in some human interest – it can be personal or someone else’s story, but it must be relevant. If, at any point, you start losing sight of what you are arguing for, retread your work with a ruthless eye and junk the bits that slow things down/don’t add anything/are tangential to your argument. You are building an intellectual edifice: once you get a few solid bricks down, the walls will follow.
Here’s one that I’ve written (one of three pieces that won me a prize, no less) – I think it fits all the criteria above.
I also like this one, because I have a personal interest in the subject and it made me think.
And your last couple of sentences should be your crowning glory, the persuasive punch line that finally convinces the reader that you are quite the cleverest writer in town.
Exercise: Please bring in a comment/opinion piece on any subject that has made you think differently about something. It can be from any magazine or newspaper, but ideally should be more than about 700 words long (ie long enough to contain a proper argument). I look forward to seeing you on Thursday!