What's this job all about?

Posted: Nov 03, 2006 12:01 AM
What's this job all about?

Dear Student,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your message asking how to write editorials, and I am happy to oblige, since advice costs so little. In his "Devil's Dictionary," the all too realistic Ambrose Bierce defined advice as the smallest coin in current circulation.

I must warn you that I may not be your best source of counsel if you're looking to rise in the world. I came to Arkansas as an editorial page editor, and now, more than 40 years later, I'm still an editorial page editor, if at a different paper. My job title hasn't changed a bit. No upward mobility at all. So you may want to take my advice with a carload of salt.

If you're looking for writing tips, there's no need for me to bore you with what you can find in great profusion in textbooks, magazine articles, how-to manuals and the reams of other guides out there. They're usually put out by writers who've found that the easiest thing in the world to write about is writing.

It was the great short story writer Raymond Carver who warned that when a writer starts talking about technique, you know he's fresh out of ideas.

On slow days, I used to devise lists of different ways to write editorials. At one point, I was up to 42.

No. 1 was H. L. Mencken's sage counsel, "Take a line." Rather than write all around an issue without ever saying what ought to be done about it.

No. 42 was "Read poetry." It doesn't matter whether you prefer Longfellow, Emily Dickinson, Seamus Heaney or the Song of Songs. Poetry awakens the ear, revives the soul, and generally enlivens the spirit within prose. It's like going back to the wellsprings of the language.

In between No.'s 1 and 42, there was the sort kind of sage advice that's harder to practice than preach. Such as: "Aim for a masterpiece, not just another editorial," (No. 25) and "Attack the strongest point of your opponent's case, not the weakest. This is sport, not persecution." (No. 14)

But beyond all those easily given and just as easily forgotten tips, the opinionator needs more than technique. Editorials ought to be based on thought-out principles, which means the young editorial writer ought to develop some. So he won't be blown this way and that by every new idea that comes down the pike.

When the editorial writer finds it necessary to alter or refine or deepen or even abandon a conviction - it's called growth - he should at least be aware of it. That's why he (or she) needs a liberal education, which is what you've had the sense to seek.

Maybe you'll even acquire a sense of history, which gives perspective, so this swirl of a little wheat and a lot of chaff that we call the news won't come as a complete surprise every day.

Adlai Stevenson once said a journalist is someone who carefully separates the wheat from the chaff, then prints the chaff. Lord, the truth hurts.

It's too easy to pander to the kind of readers who like to have their own shifting moods mirrored and magnified every day in their morning paper - or on their favorite Web site. So do we all. It's very gratifying. But only for a little while - before we start to think about it, and realize that gratification does not equal vindication.

The object of this game, always, should be to elevate the public discourse, not further degrade it - however satisfying it may be to parade our pet prejudices in print. We can safely leave that sort of thing to zealous partisans and ambitious politicians, especially in an election year.

A lapsed editorial writer who used to work here at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - this year he's managing the campaign of a gubernatorial candidate - once told me an instructive story about his grandfather back in Georgia. As a sophisticated young man, he was trying to explain to the old man that not all issues are black and white in the real world, but rather there are different shades of gray, there's not always a right and wrong, yadda-yadda-yaddaĆ .

To all of which his grandfather listened patiently, then replied: "Son, there's always a right and wrong. You just have to find it."

That's about the best description I've ever heard of an editorial writer's job. Now go and study.

Good luck,

Inky Wretch