12 tips for writing editorials

Dec 5, 2018 in Journalism Basics
Thought bubble

Editorials are a staple of traditional publications, and their relevance continues even as more and more publications turn to digital as their primary format.

In an earlier article, IJNet explored the blurring line between fact and opinion online. In the face of these challenges, writing and producing quality editorials is even more important.

IJNet spoke with writers, editors and instructors in four different U.S. cities to collect their tips on writing editorials.

(1) Share your knowledge.

Deborah Douglas is the Pulliam Center’s distinguished visiting professor of journalism at DePauw University and a former editorial board member at the Chicago Sun-Times. Through her work with projects such as the OpEd Project — which aims to get more women and underrepresented voices writing editorials — she encourages people to “show up in the world in a stronger way.” She regularly engages with academics through the Public Voices Fellowships and notices that they tend to limit what they can speak about to their specific area of expertise. In reality, Douglas says, they have other valuable knowledge to share.

Journalists, as educated, informed citizens, can benefit from this reminder, too: the knowledge gained through reporting is a gift and should be shared through platforms like editorials, says Douglas.

(2) Gather multiple perspectives.

When a big news story breaks, Douglas doesn’t only stick to her favorite news sources, she reads papers from across the country to see what they’re saying about it.

Her advice is to get out of your comfort zone by reading national and international reporting to ensure that you’re aware of all perspectives. Listen to, and acknowledge, the opposition in your writing to start a dialogue.

(3) Embrace the digital age.

Douglas also suggests that journalists use social media as a reporting tool — especially older reporters who might be less familiar with the medium. Taking advantage of the ways that social media provides easy access to information is another way to broaden your point of view and ensure that you don’t overlook important information.

(4) Entice readers.

Jay Evensen is a senior editorial columnist at Deseret News in Utah, and an instructor in editorial writing at Brigham Young University. He will be turning sixty soon, and says “it can be intimidating” to navigate the new demands of digital journalism.

Though the rules have changed, enticing the reader has always been an important part of the writing process. Along with social media promotion, he suggests strong basics — including a headline and opening — that draws in readers. Compelling writing is also important.

(5) Remove the fluff.

Evensen also emphasizes that editorial writers must “add something of value in order to be noticed” — and do it clearly.

His paper used to publish what he called “thumb-sucker editorials,” which were more or less heartwarming messages for readers. Evensen’s team has gotten rid of sentimental editorials to focus on delivering new information and new perspectives on the public discussion.

(6) Reach your target audience.

Evensen gave a powerful example of an editorial he wrote that reached “a narrow but very powerful audience.” Salt Lake County, Utah had been considering changing its form of government for over a decade. In 1997, Evensen wrote an editorial that led a lawmaker to finally write a bill to change the governing style.

Evensen’s editorial didn’t go viral, but it certainly made an impact.

Evensen suggests that writers shouldn’t expect fanfare for their pieces, and may be discouraged by the engagement, but they should stay patient for their ideas to actually take root when they fall into the right hands.

(7) Consider the big picture.

In Evensen’s opinion, editorial writing is one of the most important parts of a newspaper because he considers sharing journalists’ knowledge from an institutional voice is “important for our democracy.” His hope is that, despite all the changes in the digital age, strong editorial writing will endure.

(8) Just start writing.

After 12 years as an editor at The Denver Post, Fred Brown now works as an instructor in media ethics at the University of Denver. When writing editorials, he suggests to just start writing your thoughts. Write until you are tired, he says, then look one third of the way through your piece and you’ll find your point.

(9) Kill your darlings.

Brown suggests letting go of the words and phrases that you were dying to see in print. Try erasing those and see if your writing is better without it. More often that not, Brown says, it is.

(10) Engage with your audience.

Matthew Hall, editorial and opinion director at The San Diego Union-Tribune, as well as the national secretary-treasurer of the Society of Professional Journalists, approaches editorials as a direct conversation with the reader.

For him, writing and publishing the piece is just the first step. Then you must share the editorial and ask readers if they have any questions, comments or corrections.

According to Hall, journalism is “all about building a better community [and] improving it somehow.” The benefit of digital news is that it allows you to do it in real time through audience engagement.

(11) Get creative.

With fewer staff and less funding, newsrooms have a harder job attracting readers. Hall and his colleagues at The San Diego Union-Tribune have found success through creative editorials that make a bold statement, such as an article published in April that used the names of people killed in school shootings over the past 19 years to spell out the word “enough.” It caught people’s attention, and one reader even framed it and put in on their wall.

“If people are talking about it,” Hall said, “that’s my biggest metric [of success].”

(12) Remember the bottom line.

Hall also stated that his team has taken these innovative approaches to editorials because “we need to to survive.” Publications need to generate revenue to stay afloat. These eye-catching pieces are one way to build an audience.

Digital subscribers are also important, and Hall’s publication keeps tabs on what attracts readers. The week before the Nov. 6 election, the top 25 posts resulting in digital subscriptions were opinion pieces or endorsements.

This piece was updated at 11:30 a.m. EST on Dec. 6.

Main image CC-licensed by Pixabay via stux.

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Freelance writer

Jennifer Anne Mitchell

Jennifer Anne Mitchell works in media and the arts in Washington, D.C. Her words can be found in Washington City Paper, The DC Line, National Geographic, and Craft Quarterly magazine published by the James Renwick Alliance, affiliated with the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery.