In the stand-up comedy world they call it ‘funnybones’ – an indefinable quality that, irrespective of material, confidence or experience, makes someone funny. It is not a technique, it can’t be taught, it doesn’t come with practice – you either have funnybones or you don’t.
The good news for budding scribblers is that writing – specifically, comment journalism, is different. Yes, there is such a thing as a ‘natural writer’, but many of the most successful members of the commentariat are not natural writers and don’t have to be. That’s because the bottom-line isn’t a perfect command of language, let alone literary flair, but having something to say. As long as you’ve got that, then there’s at least the possibility that the putting-it-down-on-paper-bit can be licked into shape. Assuming, of course, you haven’t been ruined by an education system that can’t be bothered with the basics of good English.
I’m also hoping that your immersion in digital culture hasn’t fried your ability to process more 280 characters at a time. That may be a vain hope. I’m coming across more and more writers, especially younger ones, who excel at Twitter, but who can’t extend their skill across multiple paragraphs or even sentences – not with any coherence. That’s a shame, because the best comment journalism is still measured in hundreds of words, not characters.
So, in the hundreds of words left to me here, I’m going to focus on how to structure an opinion piece, not on matters of style or content.
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There’s a very old formula for the classic three-part sermon that goes something like this: ‘First, you’ve got to tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em; then you tell ’em; then you tell ’em what you just told ’em.’
That’s not bad advice for any argument, but for an opinion piece, I’d recommend a five-part structure: introduction, proposition, expansion, resolution and conclusion.
Let’s begin at the beginning with the introduction. Your first job is to grab the reader’s attention. You could use a joke, a quote, a fact, a question, an anecdote. It ought to be relevant in some way to what follows, but you don’t have to prove its relevance upfront – as long as it draws the reader in, then half the job is done. The other half is to set the scene. If you’re lucky, your editors will have supplied a headline and sub-headline (or ‘standfirst’) that signposts the subject and even the purpose of your article. However, the latter part of the introduction is where you fill in the details. Once you’ve told your readers what you’re going to tell ’em about, you can move on to the proposition – i.e. what you’re going to tell ’em.
This doesn’t have to be single argument, you can advance a number of propositions if that’s helpful to the overall thrust. Nor do you need to be 100% convinced of your argument. You can advance a case tentatively, even doubtfully or ironically. It might not be your argument, but rather a description of somebody else’s (there’s a lot to be said for the opinion piece that saves one the bother of having to read a recently published book or report).
But wherever it comes from, or however strongly held, an opinion piece does have to have an opinion. And whatever the caveats, qualifications and side arguments there needs to be a central argument to which everything else in the article ultimately relates.
You’d be surprised just how many writers dodge this basic requirement. Of course, there’s plenty of room in journalism for the fact-filled report, the impressionistic ‘colour piece’ or the thoughtful, question-raising analysis – but, if it doesn’t make and sustain an argument, then it’s definitely not an opinion piece. And if that’s what you’ve been asked for, then both you and your editors have a problem.
But let’s assume that you’ve proposed your argument – and can move on to the next stage, which is expansion.
There’s all sorts of ways of expanding an argument. As with the piece you’re reading right now, it may just be a case of unpacking the constituent parts of the central argument (i.e. what I mean by “introduction”, “proposition”, “expansion”, etc). Another approach is to introduce complications i.e. counter-arguments, exceptions, acknowledgements of flaws and weaknesses. Changes of perspective and interesting asides might also work – but, take care, the middle stretches of an op-ed are where a lot of authors lose the thread of the argument – and, hence, their readers). For instance, at this point, I’d love to tell you that the ‘op’ in ‘op-ed’ is short for ‘opposite’ (the editorial) rather than ‘opinion’; but it’s important that digressions provide texture, not obstacles, to the flow of the argument.
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Having proposed and expanded upon your argument the penultimate stage is to resolve it. If you’ve raised objections to your case, then make sure you’ve answered them; if you’ve left loose ends dangling, then tie them up; if something important remains unsaid, then this is where you say it.
What I ought to say right now is that there is more than one way of putting together an opinion piece. The five-part structure I’m setting out here is a practical and sturdy option, but there are others. For instance there’s the apoplectic rant or stream of consciousness – both difficult to do well, but entertaining when they are. Then there’s the exploratory approach – a sorting and sifting of the evidence, with the opinion arrived at towards the end. A variation is when the author serves as both prosecution and defence, before switching to role of the judge and handing down a final verdict.
The advantage of a stage-by-stage structure is that it directs the flow of your argument. You can strengthen this effect by jotting down the key points that you want to make in each part of the article. Does the overall list of bullets form a logical sequence? If not, reorder or get rid of those that don’t fit.
While you’re planning out your article, review the ingredients you’re putting into it. Have you supported the argument with enough items of evidence? Have you salted it with illustrative and/or entertaining content? It is, of course, possible to base an opinion piece on logic and rhetoric alone, but only if the insights and flourishes are sweet enough to keep the reader going.
What's the point of arguing with an idiot?
Let’s conclude with the conclusion. It doesn’t have to be long – or do a lot of work (the resolution should have wrapped up the main parts of the argument). It doesn’t need to be a fancy peroration either, you’re not writing a speech. One or two lines of pithy summation will do.
Another approach is to refer back to something in the introduction – especially if it answers a question or completes an anecdote. Complex references back and forth within an op-ed are not usually a good idea, as it disrupts the flow – but that doesn’t matter so much at the conclusion, so if you can finish up with a satisfying element of circularity in an otherwise linear argument, go for it.
For the same reason, you can also use the conclusion to say something that’s connected the main body of your argument, but also distinct from it. Thus by way of a coda to this article, I’d urge all writers, whether experienced or not, to remember that once you’ve finished drafting your piece, you’re only half-way through. In fact, you’re less than half-way through because before you start redrafting what you’ve written, you should walk away from it and not return to it for at least an hour. Ideally, sleep on it.
If, upon re-reading your first draft, you’re thoroughly disgusted with it – and, indeed, yourself – then, congratulations, you might just be a writer.
However you feel about it, though, you’ll be sure to thoroughly sense-check and fact-check every word and reference, won’t you? Because you wouldn’t submit dashed-off, uncorrected copy to your long-suffering editors, would you? No, of course, you wouldn’t.
But that reminds me, there’s another way of concluding an op-ed: a challenge to your readers.
Now, stop reading and start writing!