On Opinion Writing by Larry Persily

The first opinion piece I ever wrote for a newspaper was published on April 15, 1969. Unfortunately, it was disguised as a news story. Not too cleverly, I should admit.

I was a freshman at Purdue University, in conservative Indiana (my oops for taking the scholarship and not thinking about much else). The dorm had a dress code for dinner in the dining hall: No pants with the seam on the outside (meaning no jeans); no collarless shirts; belts and socks required; freshmen had to wear a silly beanie and sing the school song to get into the dining hall.

Of course, I was young and indignant. I had paid a lot of money for the meal service and thought the dress code was an unreasonable assault on my hunger. Figuring others agreed with me, I took a poll. I wrote the questions and tallied the results.

And though not a journalism major (yet), I knew the poll results would be much more helpful to me (disruptive to the administration) if printed in thousands of copies of the daily Purdue Exponent (an engineering school, get it).

I wrote a news story about my own poll, the editors gladly accepted it with little editing — all in the name of “activist journalism” — and my “news” was shared across the campus. (I was later told not to come back to the dorms as a sophomore, but at least I could wear jeans when I moved into a frat house that was so disliked no one would pledge to join.)

Only later, when I actually started to take journalism classes, did I realize that I had broken a more important rule than violating the dress code. I had stepped so far over the line of journalism ethics that I am surprised my professor didn’t make me write on the blackboard 100 times: “Personal opinions have no place in news stories.”

Since then, I have undertaken real opinion writing and learned there is a large difference between personal opinion columns and editorials. And that’s something I want to discuss in my upcoming opinion writing class.

A newspaper or broadcast editorial is the opinion of the entity, the station, the publisher, a committee, a process. There is no “I” in an editorial because they are unsigned. They are not a personal opinion and should use facts to build a convincing argument, not witticisms or personal commentary.

But opinion columns with your name at the top, that’s where you can tell readers how you think, you can showcase not only the facts but your personality, your reasoning and all the emotions that you can squeeze into the 650-word limit.

A good opinion writer will develop such a clear personality that readers will know it’s you, even without looking at the byline. Whereas an editorial writer is anonymous, a column writer wants readers (and podcast listeners) to develop a connection and keep coming back for more.

Just be careful that your personality doesn’t become such a dominant force in the opinion piece that it drowns out whatever points you want to make. The opinion writing should be by you, not about you.

Unlike the dress code poll that was about me.

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