Kerby: How to Write an Opinion Piece

Steve Kerby, Staff Columnist

So, you want to write an opinion article?

First, get the preliminaries out of the way. Make a new Google Doc, and choose a font. The editors will use an official typesetting program so you might as well use something fun. I’m a Georgia man myself. Put some good music on in the background, unless you’re writing in Kelvin Smith Library.

Next, choose a topic. This is the most difficult part of the entire process. As a regular columnist, you can’t write straight-faced social justice or politics pieces every week; the readers get bored of righteous indignation. I like to alternate between serious topics and fun topics. Serious topics can be politics, philosophy or calling for Spitball to be defaced with chalk. Airy topics ensure that everyone who hated your serious article will come back for the next one.

Be careful if you’re dead set on writing a really controversial article right off the bat. I’m not talking about “Trump stinks.” I mean something along the lines of “abortion should be banned.”  You’ve got to earn the trust of your audience and the editors before you can pull that off. I wanted to write a piece about putting chalk on Spitball months ago, but I waited a while before really pursuing it. Look at it this way; you can’t lose all your credibility by making a last stand in a losing battle if you don’t have any credibility to begin with.

If you’re not a regular columnist, write about a medium-sized campus or local controversy. You can’t write about something deep because you haven’t earned enough credibility to be taken seriously. On the other hand, the editors probably won’t approve of a more frivolous piece, I would know.

So, you’ve got a subject for your piece. Brilliant, that’s the most difficult step. Now you need to decide what sort of tone you’re going to use. Are you going to be formal? Casual? Apply grandiloquence? Remain terse? Be friendly or confrontational? Just like the topic itself, I find it useful to switch between formal and informal writing from week to week. It keeps everyone awake.

The first paragraph of a piece is a gnarly beast, but it’s OK to skip that and just dive into the middle of the piece. If you’re like me, you’ve probably paced around your room for a few hours pretending to argue your opponents into submission. This means the body of the piece is already mostly complete. It’s often easier to just start with the body of your argument for that very reason.

What if you have an opinion that is so controversial you worry people are going to read the first line of your article and throw the paper down in disgust? There’s a two-step process for getting your intrepid reader through the piece. First, be sneaky. Don’t whack them over the head with your argument, be subtle early on. Second, stay agile. Most controversial arguments can be broken down into parts, not all of which are controversial themselves, so go back and forth from contentious to mundane points. Your critics will find themselves agreeing with you half the time which is better than never.

All right, your main arguments are down on the page. Time to change up the music in the background and nail down the first and last paragraph. It’s a nice change of pace to use a funny anecdote in a serious article, and it can provide an evocative but artistic title as well. Now you’ve got a draft of the whole article, close the document and do something else for a while. Don’t write and edit in the same sitting.

You’re back, time to edit. Read the article aloud to yourself or your pet. Make sure you don’t use a single word repeatedly, it gets boring.  Don’t worry about deleting Oxford commas, if the copy editors want to wage that war, let them wage it on their own time. Other than that, please be nice to the copy editors.

Once you’re done, share the doc with your opinion editor. They’ll make some comments, most of which you can use to improve your article. Then, they’ll send it to the copy editors and onwards. All your Oxford commas will probably vanish here, unless you contort yourself to use sentences that absolutely need them.

Et voila, out of this meat grinder comes a fully-formed opinion article. Congratulations.

It’s quite the rabbit hole, but opinion writing is extremely liberating. You get to drive a discussion with an entire campus and meet some amazing new people while honing your writing skills.  Most of all, you can change a little corner of the world.

Steve Kerby is a fourth-year, heading to Penn State to pursue a Ph.D. in astronomy.