Elements of an effective editorial

For more of my commentary on life in Richmond, Indiana check out RichmondMatters.com.

Lighthouse stairsIn October I concluded my time as a member of the Palladium-Item's community editorial advisory board, which I joined about two years ago.  I enjoyed the experience and while (as expected) I didn't always agree with the views published by the paper, I felt like I was able to bring a perspective and approach that helped shape the overall conversation.  There have been few other places in my day-to-day life since college where people regularly gather in a room to vehemently but respectfully talk (okay, and sometimes shout) in depth and in person about current events and important issues facing the city.

I was already a fairly close reader of the viewpoints page in the Pal-Item and other publications, but being on the editorial board inspired and required even closer attention to what topics local writers were submitting letters and columns about, and how they went about presenting their views.  As a result, I've put together a list of elements that I found to be present in the most effective and engaging editorials I've read:

  • There's a clear and specific idea that the writer is trying to address, and anyone who read the piece could agree on what that core idea was.
  • The writer finds a way to make the topic relevant to the average reader, no matter how obscure it might at first seem.
  • The piece offers a distinctive contribution to the conversation, bringing in new information, new ways of thinking about it, or new stories that might reshape how others see the matter.
  • The writer asks questions that prompt further exploration and discovery about the topic.  If the writer wants to see a change, they offer specific ideas for how to make it happen.
  • If there are controversial or uncommon statements of fact, they're backed up with references that can be verified.
  • The piece uses as few words as is necessary to get the point across.
  • The writer makes it personal somehow, showing us why this topic matters to them in their life.

There's no right or wrong way to write a letter to the editor, of course, and I would rather someone submit something that completely ignores this list than not submit anything at all - our community certainly needs the increased public discourse.  But I also notice there's an abundance of letters to the editor locally that (in my opinion) miss that opportunity to effectively make a point, or that just flat out waste the space.  These letters are usually some combination of:

  • Asking a simple question that could easily have been answered (or working from an incorrect premise that could easily have been debunked) with a little bit of research
  • Attacking or insulting another person for their views, instead of addressing the views themselves
  • Highly prescriptive and full of absolute imperatives for how other people must think and/or act
  • Employing one or more logical fallacies

So, those are my lists of what I find helpful and what I don't.  What elements do you find most effective in a newspaper editorial?

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