Essay 1 Assignment
English 102

First Assignment: write op-ed piece


By John B. Padgett
English 102 Instructor

Company newsletters are becoming increasingly important methods by which corporate America communicates with employees, clients, and customers, and oftentimes, the task of putting together newsletters falls upon younger, more recently hired employees--in other words, folks like you when you when you get your first job.

It is for that reason that I've decided to make your first assignment an exercise in a kind of writing you might experience in the "real world," for an audience of your peers.

The headline reads "op-ed" piece, a term referring to the "opposite editorial" page of newspapers, a page traditionally reserved for columnists, letters to the editor, and other guest opinionators. It operates as a complement to the newspaper's own editorial positions, usually expressed in an unsigned article and offering the official opinion of the newspaper's editorial board.

A good op-ed piece is topical, offering a perspective on a current item of interest to the readers of the publication. The writer offers a unique, focused look at the subject, often using both logical and emotional appeals to persuade readers.

The writer's tone is balanced and consistent, and his or her voice unique--humorous or cynical, angry or sorrowful, objective or contemplative, but definitely the voice of the writer. Op-ed pieces are the product of an individual, not a committee.

Also, while it may seem obvious, it bears repeating: the best op-ed pieces are lively, informative, and good pieces of writing.

Your assignment, then, is to write an op-ed piece on a subject, any subject, of your choosing.

I will allow you a chance to experiment with your writing somewhat--you may opt to write an opinion piece for a newsletter in your field of study or another subject of interest to you. If you'd like, you can even format your essay in a newsletter style (like this assignment sheet). But remember, you must formulate an opinion about a subject and attempt to persuade your target audience.

Regardless of which route you take, there are some things you should be aware of, so here goes:

Know your publication

One of the worst things you can do when writing is to write in a manner inconsistent with your target medium. Just as you adopt a different tone in letters asking Mom for money than you would in a letter asking for a loan, you also must know the conventions of the place where your writing will be read.

In this case, you are "publishing" in a newspaper or newsletter, so you should be aware that newspaper articles have very short paragraphs. In general, no more than two or three sentences make up a typical paragraph.

The reason is "gray space," the way a long block of text tends to turn gray upon glancing. Also, because newspapers are printed in columns, paragraphs seem longer than they would in a book because the lines are shorter.

The most important consideration about shorter paragraphs is that they are easier for readers to read. Long unbroken blocks of text are daunting to most readers. Frequent paragraphs promise a sort of "rest stop" to readers.

Don't feel you need to keep your paragraphs wholly unified and long. In newspaper writing it is perfectly legitimate to begin new paragraphs often, even if it means continuing a thought begun in an earlier paragraph. If you've been paying attention at all, you'll notice that I have been doing just that throughout this article.

Another consideration about newspaper writing is that you must grab the reader's attention quickly. Newspapers are meant to be read quickly, and rarely are they ever read again. And if an article is not interesting, readers generally will not bother finishing it.

For that reason, it is crucial that you begin with a good lead, an opening sentence that "hooks" readers immediately and makes them want to read on. A good lead tantalizes, informs, and sets the tone for the piece. It can even be creative. For instance, an editorial on gambling in the Wall Street Journal began with a paraphrase of Dr. Seuss: "I do like gambling, Sam-I-Am, I really like it, and I can. For I can do it in a plane, on a boat, at the track, and in the rain. I can do it in a casino, with the lottery, or with Keno."

A final consideration for op-ed pieces is that it must be short and concise. Although lengths of op-ed pieces in real newspapers vary--those in the New York Times may be longer than those in smaller papers, for example--you should waste no time in getting to your point.

For this assignment, I recommend a maximum length of 800 words. If you can't get your opinion across in that many words, you should probably narrow your topic.

Likewise, a god op-ed piece cannot be too short. If the opinion can be encapsulated in, say, less than 400 words, then it probably isn't unique enough to be worth writing about in the first place. A minimum length for this assignment, then, is 400 words.

Know your subject

Presumably, since you're writing an opinion piece, you will know something about your subject. However, that doesn't mean your readers know about it, so it is important to present your knowledge sufficiently to your readers.

The key is to understand your target audience: try to think like them, anticipate what they may not understand. For example, if you're arguing about tort reform in the legal system, and you're writing for a newspaper, your readers may not know what "tort" means.

By the same token, however, if your intended publication is a newsletter for lawyers, you would not need to define "tort"--your readers would know it is a wrongful act, injury or damage not covered by a contract for which lawyers can sue.

To define a term, the first place to begin is usually with a dictionary definition, but very often that is insufficient. Other ways of defining terms include stipulation, negation and examples.

Stipulation means you're asking readers to accept a definition that may differ from a more conventional one. When a writer says "national security is at an all-time low because of current immigration laws," the term national security is being used in a way that may differ from, say, a military general.

In recent years terms such as "family" and "family values" have been the target of much stipulation as writers and politicians offer their opinion on them. Sometimes, stipulations are used to make negative ideas seem more positive, as when a terrorist group uses the word liberation to describe its activities.

Negation is also sometimes useful in defining terms. By saying what something is not, readers may get a fuller picture of what something is.

Examples also provide a means of defining a term and are among the most useful means by which a writer can illuminate difficult subjects. Justice is a term that is difficult to define in abstract, but a writer who gives examples of what it means to him gives readers something concrete by which to evaluate his argument.

Supporting your argument

Regardless of who you're writing for, you need to explain your subject and support your argument in ways that are both informative and persuasive. This is especially true of technical or complex subjects, such as economics or science.

One way is to draw comparisons and analogies that the typical reader can relate to. It is no accident that politicians in Washington arguing for a balanced budget compare our nation's spending to a family's financial situation--something most people are familiar with.

Other ways to support your argument is to use voices of authority, such as experts and statistics, and to appeal to the needs and values of your readers.

Obviously, having experts who agree with you is a boon to your argument. Keep in mind, however, that your readers may not agree who is an acknowledged expert. When Philip Morris issues a scientific report on the harmfulness of tobacco, most people view it skeptically because Philip Morris stands to benefit from a favorable report.

If you do use expert opinion, do so wisely, quoting exactly (if you quote) and establishing the credentials of your expert if he or she is unfamiliar to your readers. Often you can do this quite simply in the first attribution, as in "Harvard physicist Joseph Smith, author of The Atoms Family, says ..." By explaining that Smith is a physicist at Harvard and has written a book on atoms, you subtly suggest he is an expert who can be trusted.

Statistics, too, can and often are used in writing, but you should exercise the same reservations with them as with expert opinion. You should make sure they come from a reputable source, and you should let readers know the source.

Keep in mind that statistics can be skewed. If a glass is described as 25 percent empty, it is also 75 percent full. Statistics about gun-related deaths from the National Rifle Association may be skewed to favor the NRA's views on gun control.

Also, make sure pertinent terms are clearly defined. A few years ago, the number of farms in one state was reduced by several thousands by changing the definition of "farm" in the government agency that keeps track of such things.

Finally, don't over-rely on statistics. Too many numbers tend to convolute an argument. Whenever possible, you should use statistical information alongside appropriate comparisons or analogies that vividly illustrate the relationships. An argument about the number of drunk driving fatalities, for example, could be compared to deaths resulting from other causes, such as cancer or heart disease.

Factual evidence from acknowledged authorities may suffice for a factual argument, but when making value or policy claims (see "Know your opinion"), you may require more. In such cases, it is essential to appeal to the readers' needs and values.

Of course, to do this effectively, you must understand your audience. In a newsletter, it is often not very difficult to determine your readers' main needs and values. If you are writing for the Association for the Advancement of Retired Persons, for instance, you can safely assume they are keenly interested in Medicare, pension plans, and Social Security. In fact, the AARP has been one of the most vocal supporters of these programs in recent years.

If you are writing for a general newspaper audience, it is a bit more difficult to determine your readers' needs and values, but you should still employ such appeals and hope that decent and reasonable people will share many of the needs and values that underlie your claims.

"Needs" are simply things important to your target audience. If your intended publication is the Daily Mississippian, for instance, you can assume that many of your readers will view financial aid, access to computers and libraries, and good study skills as important needs.

In 1954, psychologist Abraham H. Maslow established a classification of basic needs that you may find useful in writing arguments. His classification is arranged in a hierarchical order, ranging from the most urgent biological needs to the psychological needs that are related to our roles as members of a society:

Advertisements regularly cater to such needs, even in ways that may not be obvious at first. McDonald's ads, for instance, appeal to the need for food, of course, but many of their ads also appeal to the need for familial and community togetherness. Another ad, the U.S. Army's "Be all that you can be" slogan, appeals to the need for self-actualization.

Needs give rise to values, which can be defined as principles, standards, or qualities which are deemed worthwhile or desirable. Someone whose needs include belonging to a group, for instance, may "value" commitment, sacrifice, and sharing.

Values are the principles by which we judge right or wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, worthwhile or undesirable. They have a profound effect on our behavior, so it is not surprising that appealing to values is a key element of argument.

In the last presidential election, for example, much of the political discourse centered on "family values." While what is meant by this term is debatable, both sides readily argued in favor of family values because most Americans believe family values are worthwhile and desirable goals.

Know your opinion

Finally, to write a good op-ed piece, it is crucial to know where you stand on your topic. While this may seem obvious, too often students write argumentative essays that waffle back and forth and end up arguing nothing in particular.

First, you should realize that it is an argumentative essay, intended to persuade readers to your point of view. You will offer a "claim" and then attempt to support that claim.

In general, there are three types of claims, each of which can be useful in argument:

What to write about

Remember that this assignment is to write a persuasive essay of a specific type: a newspaper (or newsletter) opinion piece. Therefore, it is to your benefit to read as many newspaper editorial page pieces as you can in order to see real-life models of the kind of essay you are being asked to write.

Of course, the Daily Mississippian publishes editorial page pieces five days a week, and occasionally, they are quite good. However, I strongly recommend you get a taste of what is being published in other newspapers as well. Not only will you see models of this kind of writing, you may get some ideas of what to write about and/or support for your own essay.

As I mentioned earlier, you have free reign to choose a topic of interest to you, and the essay you write may be intended for a general newspaper or for a specified real or fictional newsletter. The main requirement is that you attempt to argue some topic of potential interest to your readers.

Let's go through that step by step. First, you must argue. What I mean by that is that you have to present an essay in which you attempt to persuade readers toward a certain conclusion. Don't be thrown by the more common definition of the word "argue"--this is not inherently a hostile encounter (though it can be). In essence, it is dialogue you carry on with known or unknown persons to convince them to think, believe, or act in a certain way. And whether you realize it or not, it is everywhere.

Political oratory, of course, is a form of argument, but so is a religious sermon. Advertisements assault you on a daily basis in their attempt to persuade you to purchase their products. Every time you say you like or dislike a book, a song, a television show, you make a claim of value. If you go on to say why, you are making an argument.

Second, you should choose a topic of potential interest. Since it is your topic and your opinion, it should certainly be of interest to you. Not only does choosing a topic of interest make it easier to write, it also improves you chances of making it interesting to other people, because simply put, students write better essays when they write about things they like.

Third, you are writing for readers. Consider your audience carefully throughout the writing process. Try to anticipate objections they may have. In fact, at some point you should try to shoot holes into your argument so that you can "fix" them.

Of course, as the old saying goes, there are always two sides to an issue. In fact, I would suggest there are many sides to an issue. Effective argument does not have to be fool-proof, and it is perfectly all right not to have an answer to every problem that can arise. Do not feel bad about making concessions on certain points.

Now that you have a general idea of what is involved in editorial page writing, I'll offer a few guidelines on what kinds of topics make for good essays.

First, there are some topics that often pop up in freshman composition courses that are almost never well done. Among these topics are abortion, capital punishment, legalization of drugs, steroid usage, and the perennial favorites at Ole Miss, "Dixie" and the Rebel flag issue.

The problem with these topics seems to be that students seldom explore anything unique about them.

So there is your assignment: write an op-ed piece.

Assignment Summary

Topic: Write an argumentative essay for a newspaper or newsletter on a topic of your choosing.
Format: Must be typed, double-spaced
Length: 400-800 words
First draft due: Tuesday, Jan. 30
Second draft due: Tuesday, Feb. 6