Every year I attend a national conference of editorial writers and listen to us deliver critiques of one another's work. It can be a dispiriting experience, especially when the editorial under the microscope is one's own. But one thing I've learned:
After the editorial being dissected has lost its news value, all that may remain is a desiccated husk - dry, brittle, the same old party line or empty stridency. But if the editorial being examined had more than news value, if it used the news of the day only as a jumping-off point to say something about the human condition, preferably something of depth and value, even of use and beauty, it still interests months, even years, later.
I like what a fiction writer named Nancy Mairs once said: "The trick, with this as with any genre, is to satisfy its requirements while escaping its confines." That's it. The reader's expectations of an editorial, however minimal, should be met. But it's a poor editorial that doesn't go beyond that minimal expectation.
An editorial should express an opinion - about a news event or a public figure or a local ordinance or even the weather - but go beyond the confines of its subject to say something about life in these times, or even first principles. Flaubert would have made a great editorial writer. He took a subject as common as an adulterous wife in a small town and made "Madame Bovary" out of it. He went beyond the confines of his subject.
The successful editorial, or even newspaper column, has gone to a second level. It is still alive long after it appeared in that most ephemeral of products, your daily newspaper.
Too drearily often, we who write editorials don't escape the confines of the form or the subject. Instead of thought, we offer ideology. Instead of laughter, just general irritation with the world. We who write them fail to break the bounds of the news we're writing about and let a revealing light in.
Routine is our deadliest enemy. It's as if editorial writers didn't dare risk a real, original idea. That would involve real work. So we wind up speechifying at a faceless audience instead of addressing a real reader. Or kicking a few platitudes around and calling it opinion.
To judge from the general tone of the conversation at this year's convention, the state of American editorial writing is... well, it's been better. It's not just the economic crunch in which the newspaper business finds itself these days. It's not even the familiar problem of getting the younger generation to put down its cell phones and iPods long enough to read a newspaper. It's something more - a general malaise about the whole calling. A doctor would call it A Failure to Thrive.