Thoughts on the short piece

Posted: Nov 06, 2006 12:01 AM

The universe of writers is first divided into two fields: those who write poetry and those who write prose. The former is further divided into subsets that include the authors of free verse, blank verse, rhymed verse and godawful gooey sonnets. We set them aside today. It is not a bad place for most of them tomorrow.

No, today our topic is the essay, defined by the gnomes of Merriam-Webster as "an analytic or interpretive literary composition, usu. dealing with its subject from a limited point of view." For our purposes, it's a prose composition ranging in length from 500 to 1,500 words. The field includes a minister's brief homily, an author's introduction, a student's book report and, more particularly, an editor's editorials.

What are the elements of a good editorial? It must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The opening sentence should lure the reader into reading on. The middle should inform, arouse, provoke, persuade, console or comfort the reader. The end should sum up what the reader has just read. The headline should function as bait.

Let us consider the editorials provided by The Washington Post and The New York Times on Oct. 13 and 14.

The Times carried seven editorials. Bait-wise, they were titled, "A Growing Free-for-All," "Tragedy on the Skyline," "Something in Hong Kong's Air," "AIDS Tests, Everywhere," "Science Ignored, Again," "A Medical-Legal Travesty in Libya" and "The Politics of Power." Did the headlines grab you? Five of them grabbed me.

The Post carried six editorials. Each of them carried a main headline and a supplementary subhead. The principal headlines were "Deficit Diversions," "Mr. Reid's Nondisclosure," "Giving Gallaudet a Bad Name," "Mr. Wolf's Diligence," "Smoking Bans Work" and "Prince George's School Board." Were you lured into reading on? Only two of the six were even mildly inviting.

Opening sentences are important. This was the Times' lead on the 13th: "By approving the merger between AT&T and BellSouth unconditionally, the Bush administration has again abdicated responsibility for protecting consumers when huge companies combine." On the 14th, its lead editorial began, "The Bush administration loves to talk about the virtues of 'sound science,' by which it usually means science that buttresses its own political agenda." Good leads, both of them. Readers knew from the git-go where the Times was leading them.

This was the Post's lead on the 13th: "And then what? That's the question everyone should be asking in the wake of Wednesday's announcement that the 2006 federal deficit came in at $247.7 billion." On the 14th, its lead editorial began, "Over the years we have had our disagreements with Rep. Frank R. Wolf, the Republican who has represented Northern Virginia's 10th District since 1981." Would you have been grabbed?

A North Carolina editor, Bill Polk, long ago laid down an aphorism for editors, debaters, preachers and argumentative spouses: "A self-respecting bee never sits down without leaving a sting." Polk's rule can be employed too often, but in moderation it works: A short piece should end on either an accented syllable or a mouth-closing consonant.

The editorial writers in this sample had never read Polk's advice. The 13 editorials on these two days had some of the sorriest, flabbiest, wishy-washiest endings ever put in print by a major newspaper. This cracker, from the Times' preachment on AIDS, was a real door-slammer: "And donors should ensure that every clinic has a reliable supply of AIDS tests." Or this, from the Post: "It's an essential element of financial disclosure rules, the purpose of which is to know how and with whom public officials are financially entwined." Got it? Kind of grabs you, right? Surely two great newspaper can do better.