When you’re more excited for a James Luce ’66 letter to the editor than for a Yale Daily News column, you know something’s wrong with the state of opinion on campus.
Many previous columns have expressed opinions about opinion writing, but none has articulated the actual mechanics that should go into every op-ed. In order to set our discourse on a steadier path and ward off the continued onslaught of first-year imposter syndrome pieces, I offer this step-by-step guide to writing (and reading) opinion.
How to Write:
1. Make an argument, preferably in the first line of your column. Even personal narratives or testimonies should have a thesis. Otherwise, they should not be published.
2. Research. Don’t pretend opinion writing is an excuse for lowered journalistic standards. Do interviews. Read every study and Yale policy relevant to your point. Attend Yale events. And, most importantly, read old columns and News pieces that have already discussed your topic. Don’t repeat ideas unless people need to be reminded of something, and even then, address it from a unique angle. Don’t make grand statements about Yale culture unless you’re pretty damn sure about a certain phenomenon (this is especially true for first years). In writing an opinion piece, you have the precious chance not just to relay information, but to present a new perspective for others to consider in the public sphere. If your view is uninformed, it doesn’t belong there.
3. Write to persuade. Believe in the power of charitable, reasoned argumentation. Avoid provoking merely for the sake of provocation, but don’t be timid with your words. The range of opinions you can express that won’t damage your future is vast. If you’re afraid that what you’re writing is false, then don’t write. But if you’re scared that a well-thought-out view is too controversial, then it’s all the more important to publish.
4. Delete. You can always write less. Prioritize clarity over flair — a goal that can often be accomplished by putting down your thesaurus. Make your paragraphs and sentences shorter and snappier. And for the love of God, please avoid cliches. Every word (even in the title) must be meaningful.
5. Write about Yale — thoughtfully. The Yale Daily News isn’t The New York Times. There are so many other places where we can read your foreign policy analyses. That said, insular pieces that regurgitate the same shopping period woes ad infinitum should appear sparingly. A well-written column anchors a specific Yale incident to its broader impact on our community and the world. After all, we Yalies will soon be running it, right? (Cue column critiquing the outsize role of elites in society.)
How to Read:
1. Read! Don’t skim — ingest. If a piece makes you emotional, don’t respond to it without first understanding what it says. In my experience as a columnist, most disagreements stem more from a failure to read carefully than an actual difference in first principles.
2. Following (1), disagreement is not a bad thing. In fact, genuine disagreement should be the hallmark of our discourse. Your raw, negative reaction shouldn’t lead you to hate a writer (unless their writing continually fails to follow the steps above), but should encourage deeper engagement with the stakes of and commitments made by the argument of the piece. If you’re left troubled by a column, reach out to the writer and ask to meet for clarification and discussion.
3. Charity in reading should mirror charity in writing. Don’t dismiss an entire piece if you feel wronged by one point (unless that one point is egregiously out of place), and appreciate the environment in which News columns are written. The act of reading a finished product will always mask the careful work that might have gone into following the steps above (and if a piece is truly sloppy, it’s usually obvious.) But the stress and constraints of a student-run nightly production cycle should prompt sympathy when reading a peer’s work.
4. Show your appreciation for good writing. If you like what you read, reach out to the author. Share the piece with your friends, on social media or in private.
5. Show distaste for a piece through your own writing. I’m not the first person to claim that the News could use more voices, but that can’t be reiterated enough. Write letters, write your own columns and keep advancing important discussions with passion and depth. The intellectual and spiritual health of our campus depends on it.
Writing and reading are two of the most difficult tasks of being human. But they also stand as the crux of a liberal education and the pillars of a democratic society. We dig the grave of any meaningful pursuit — be it against sexual misconduct or power, or for free speech or diversity — when we abandon articulate, respectful and succinct dialogue as the cornerstone of communication. Don’t just state your opinion, do it well.
Leland Stange is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His columns run every other Friday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .