February 6, 2003

To mark the 25th anniversary of the Best Newspaper Writing series this year, Poynter Online each month will feature past winners, their winning work and contemporary advice. This month, we feature a 2002 winner for Editorial Writing, John McCormick.

John McCormick, Deputy Editorial Page Editor of the Chicago Tribune, has encountered the voice before. It is stuffy, omnipotent, often pompous. It’s the Editorial Voice as so many editorial writers across the country believe it must be. It’s a voice McCormick wouldn’t mind muffling.

“It’s the Wizard of Oz voice that we think we’re supposed to mimic,” says McCormick, who led a workshop on editorial writing at Poynter’s Persuasive Writing seminar this week. He was delivered from that mold by a boss, Tribune Editorial Page Editor Bruce Dold, who told him to “write essays, not editorials.” He used that strategy to win the 2002 Editorial Writing prize from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

His winning editorials (which you can read at the ASNE website) ranged from the contradictions of praying for peace in Afghanistan while waging war, to a touching tribute for a murdered Chicago police officer. The prize-winning entry included a deadline editorial written on Sept. 11, 2001, that gave words to the devastating loss of life and the stunning loss of security.

“From this day forward, our lives and our institutions will not be the same,” McCormick wrote. “This nation’s sense of relative isolation from the kinds of disputes that have put the civilians of other lands squarely in harm’s way — from the Middle East to the Congo to Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka to Colombia — now vanishes. If, as suspected, the assaults of Tuesday are in fact the work of murderers with international agendas, then our comparative indifference to world affairs likely will vanish with it.”

Editorials, McCormick says, are meant to “express a newspaper’s convictions and to help readers synthesize the wealth of information and argument they encounter. Your ability to perform that task well,” he says, “depends on your determination to never let your editorial page become the dull place some readers, and some journalists, feel that it is.”

Feel free, then, to “burn the gray shawl or the tweed jacket your predecessor left on the back of your office chair,” McCormick says, and write persuasive essays instead. He suggests seven key questions to guide the process of editorial writing — and they work for columnists, too.

The Seven Questions

1. To whom would this be written? Are we writing for power elites? Average readers? Or are we just writing to ourselves?

2. What’s our attitude? Are we angry? Pleased? Perplexed? Befuddled? What tone will we project?

3. What, exactly, are we trying to accomplish? An official response? A public change of attitude? An explanation? Entertainment?

4. What are we contributing to the debate? What’s the added value here? Just our opinion? New facts? New arguments, contexts, or dimensions to consider? The best opinion is reported opinion. The power of your voice comes not from your job description, but from the strength of your facts and the reasoning that drives your arguments. When you feel queasy about stating an opinion, it’s often because one of these elements has come up short.

5. Do we have something new to say about this? Are we advancing the conversation or just dishing up warmed-over wisdom from the editorial board? Yes, we have a topic and an opinion. But do we have a solution in mind?

6. Have we fiercely attacked our own premise? Does our position survive the scrutiny? What would be our opponents’ most compelling arguments against our position? Are we right or just rote?

7. Are we stirring up a “three-bowler?” That borrowed phrase refers to the possibility a reader will be so bored by the unrelenting earnestness of a newspaper article as he sits at breakfast that his face flops into his cereal bowl once, twice or, if the article is especially boring, three times.

It’s one thing to have an opinion. It’s something altogether different to sell it. To write persuasively in an editorial, McCormick says, is to offer readers an organized debate that is rich with context and considers the likelihood that the reader needs to be brought up to speed on the issue.

The bottom line, he says, is this: “Are we, by our imagination, our open-mindedness and our conviction, adding something to the public discussion? Will our mastery of those attributes today draw readers back to our editorial page tomorrow? Or, by our predictability, our self-satisfaction and our arrogance, are we short-changing our best arguments and driving our readers away?”

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The Dean of Faculty, Keith teaches reporting on race relations, editing, persuasive writing, ethics and diversity. He's a former reporter, city editor, editorial writer and…
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