Opinion: Please Learn to Write a Good Op-ed

by Ruby Foxall

You may have seen some salty jokes about The Student Life floating around: for example, on Yik Yak, 5C students have anonymously posted things like “Leaked TSL Opinion: Racism bad” or “tsl be like OPINION: 5C Sophomores Do Not Need To Be Nobel Prize Winners.” In general, students across the 5Cs have started to notice that the opinions published in TSL are repetitive and hardly opinionated.

Part of the problem lies in TSL editorial staff’s expectations for opinion columnists. By asking students to write a new opinion piece every week or two, TSL tells writers to prioritize quantity over quality. This focus on quantity often skews the balance of articles in TSL away from thoughtful discussions of campus policies and toward repetitive and overly general opinion pieces. And, by imposing such a short turnaround, writers aren’t able to come up with interesting and nuanced topics.

However, the onus for thoughtless opinion articles does not solely lie with TSL’s writing staff. Since the editorial board changes every semester, TSL leadership lacks the institutional memory necessary to make significant changes to the structure of the organization that could result in stronger editing of the direction of opinion articles. This issue is also reflected in the repetition of opinions every few years — for example, an opinion piece about equally valuing humanities and STEM was published by TSL in 2021, 2019, and 2017, with few significant differences between each article. One might assume that an editorial staff member present in 2019 and 2021 might have noticed a similarity between the two articles and steered the writer in a unique direction — but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to happen, and this kind of repetition is far too common for a campus newspaper with a storied history and 12 years of articles available on their website.

One remedy for the institutional memory problem is a longer-term archivist position — a member of the editorial board who seeks out older articles to reference and has a deep knowledge of past opinion topics. At The Muddraker, the webmaster position fills part of that gap. As the webmaster for The Muddraker, I’ve read through archived issues of our newspaper and am deeply familiar with our historical content. Thankfully, The Muddraker doesn’t often publish opinions, but when we do, we can easily go back and find older articles using the tags and search functions on the site or scroll through PDFs of past issues.

So, if thoughtless and repetitive op-eds are the problem, what does a thoughtful op- ed look like? Let’s go through some do’s and don’ts when writing opinion articles.

DO think about your audience; DON’T preach to the choir.

When writing an opinion article, consider who you’re trying to persuade — is this piece aimed at students at your particular college, at the 5Cs in general, or at a group that isn’t made up of current students at all (like campus administration or alumni)?

Opinions like “we should value humanities as much as STEM” are likely to be well- received at a consortium of colleges where 3 of 5 colleges offer little to no STEM degrees and the majority of students are studying humanities, social sciences, and/ or the arts. Try not to “preach to the choir” — instead, offer a nuanced opinion that your audience may not have considered before or a new solution to an old problem.

DO write a unique argument; DON’T write an argument that isn’t an argument.

What makes an op-ed special is its writer. What do you bring to the table with your specific perspective? Why should you write about this rather than someone else? By establishing yourself as someone worth listening to on your topic of choice, your opinion piece will become more unique.

Not every opinion is really an opinion. Make sure you’re discussing a point of view, not a list of facts. We can certainly all agree that racism is bad, or that 5C sophomores shouldn’t be expected to be Nobel Prize winners. You don’t need to make up a bogeyman counterargument just to make your point stand out.

And, last of all, make sure to do your research, distinguish yourself from other voices on the topic, and ask your editors for advice on how others have approached the topic before (if at all) so that you can put a fresh spin on the subject. If you feel like your voice needs to be heard on a certain topic, first ask yourself “why me?”. Then, if your answer is more than just “why not”, start fleshing out your argument.

Hopefully these tips help you, dear reader, think more critically both about how op-eds are published and how to clarify your own opinions, so that there isn’t an article published after I graduate titled “Why Can’t Anyone Write Good Op-Eds?!”.

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