It’s that time of year. Ugh!
Many students are feeling stressed as midterms loom. Ugh!
The student government met this week. Double ugh!
These are just a few examples of leads from the one type of writing that has plagued every student editorial board I’ve advised for the last 14 years—editorials.
What is an editorial?
An editorial is an unsigned statement written by a publication’s editors. The short, argumentative essays are meant to convince readers of a specific point of view.
An editorial should give the reader added value about a subject. This means it requires actual research, reporting and quotes from real people, not just web references.
What an editorial is not
An editorial is not a reserved space for student editors to rant and complain. It also is not a piece of copy that should be submitted after deadline when the editor finally decides to sit down at the computer and vomit his or her feelings through the keyboard and onto the screen.
Goals of an editorial
In addition to being planned, editorials should do three things:
1. Stimulate – the writing should make readers consider a topic in a way they had not previously, creating a dialogue and igniting public discussion. This means including a “jolt” or “juice” paragraph, catching the readers’ attention by putting the issue in context of importance to them.
2. Explain – the writing should explain issues in a way that adds a new dimension. This may include writing further information about a topic discussed on Page 1 and/or a nutgraph explaining why the editors are addressing the issue at this time.
3. Advocate – the writing should contain a strong stance and call the readers to some type of action or way of thinking.
Editorials need to ignite people. They should make your reader think, want to discuss the topic and, perhaps, want to respond to you.
How to generate editorial ideas
An editorial really can be written about anything that interests your student body. However, there needs to be an obvious reason for publishing the editorial at this time. In other words, it should have a news peg.
The editorial board I advise chooses their editorial topic a couple of weeks in advance. They do so by looking at the story budget for that particular weekly issue and discussing the biggest news planned for the edition. The only problems we’ve found with this approach is that sometimes news stories don’t pan out, which means the editors have to identify another topic for the editorial. Also, sometimes a bigger issue comes up before that edition is published, making it necessary to write on a different topic. But, overall, this process works well for us.
Editorials don’t have to be about something happening on campus. Local, state and national news topics also can make great editorials, but you need to ask yourself what your board can add to the discussion. What can you write that will accomplish the three goals above. It could just be taking a stance from your unique student body’s perspective.
Agreeing on a stance
While discussing the editorial topic, it’s important to identify what stance your ed board wants to take on the issue. Since the editorial is from the board as a unit, everyone needs to supports the argument. We can have up to eight editors on our board, so they discuss the topic until they come to an agreement. This sometimes takes awhile, but the discussion is hearty, respectful and worth having.
If your editorial board can’t agree on a stance, consider whether you want to have a “majority rules” approach to voting on a view. You also could choose another topic that the ed board agrees on, but you don’t want to get into a situation where seemingly every idea is rejected for one reason or another.
The best way to write a weak editorial is to water down your stance. Once you agree on the lane to drive in, stay in it!
Who writes the editorial?
Who is responsible for writing the editorial seems to be as common a problem as determining the topic. The ed boards I’ve advised over the years have approached the actual editorial writing in many different ways.
Some years the editor-in-chief writes all of the editorials. This approach works, if the EIC writes good editorials, represents the board well in writing and doesn’t mind doing them all.
Other years the editorial was assigned to a different member of the ed board each week. This meant each editor was only responsible for writing a couple of editorials a semester. This approach also works, as long as the voice and tone of the editorials is consistent.
Our current ed board agreed that whichever editor is most interested in the chosen topic will write the editorial. For example, this week’s editorial is about the importance of getting flu vaccinations, which some students are strongly against. Our web editor is super “pro flu shot” and feels strongly enough about it that she offered to write the editorial.
I certainly also have advised ed boards that approached writing the editorial as a team effort where one editor would write the shell and others would fill in.
It really doesn’t matter who writes the editorial. Anyone on your ed board should be capable of doing so. It’s more important that you know who is responsible for writing it so you don’t get to pagination and realize it isn’t done.
Agreeing on the final product
Once the editorial is written, each editor should have an opportunity to read it before it’s published. After all, it is meant to represent the views of the board as a unit. The editors then should discuss concerns and agree on any substantial changes before publication. At the very least this means a handful of people or more have edited the copy before it runs.
I hope this post has helped you think more strategically about how to generate editorial ideas, agree on a stance, determine who will write them, and understand how to do this writing well. The most common problems I see with editorials is that they contain no original views or search, and/or they don’t include a strong stance on the issue. These two problems are easy to solve when you begin to think strategically about your approach to editorials, and take planning and writing them seriously.