Memo to an Applicant

Posted: Sep 23, 2013 12:01 AM

Dear Job Applicant,

It was wholly a pleasure to be asked to look over your writing samples and offer my appraisal of your prospects as a writer of opinion. I am much complimented. And hasten to send you a few notes for future reference:

--Offer the reader original, even provocative, thought. Don't settle for the conventional clichés employed by your side of the political spectrum, whatever it may be. Be ideologically unreliable. It's more interesting. For both you and the reader. Think your subject through, don't just react the way you're expected to. Or appeal to the lowest common denominator of public opinion -- and I mean lowest.

--Always try to raise the level of public discourse, not just reflect it, or you'll wind up sounding like the typical American newspaper editorial written on deadline. Don't write for the next edition but for the next generation.

--Yes, reflect the standards of your community, but at the same time try to raise them. Which ain't easy, I know, but it's the only thing worth doing in an editorial column; anything else is just space-filler.

--What we seem to have lost in this trade, and need most, is a renewed appreciation of the English essay and the great essayists, the Samuel Johnsons and William Allen Whites. It's bad enough that not many of us can write like those giants; it's worse that so few of us even bother to read them anymore. A kind of Gresham's Law seems to have set in when it comes to American opinionation: the bad drives out the good. As surely as brass drives out gold in common circulation.

--Don't just write an editorial; say something. Something that doesn't sound like talk-show jabber or what you might hear from the guy on the next bar stool. Avoid the obvious.

--Don't worry about failing to persuade the reader. That might even be a good thing when we're wrong. Worry about failing to challenge him. Write to appeal to the most intelligent and educated of readers; the rest may learn something that way, and so will we. A great failure is much to be preferred in an editorial than another kneejerk reaction to the news.

--It's one thing for an editor to have to completely rewrite your work to make it worth running; it's another, after all that time and effort, to have only raised it to the level of the mediocre. At best.


I hope I have made myself clear, and that you will accept my candor as a compliment, for anything less than a candid response to your writing samples would have been an insult to your potential, your intelligence and your ability to accept criticism -- which is another key qualification for this line of work.

Editorializing, column-writing and punditry in general can be a craft when done well, even an art when the Orwells and Menckens do it. But profession it isn't. And shouldn't be.

The First Amendment should not be confused with one of those government bureaus that license professions -- from lawyers and doctors to cosmetologists and termite inspectors. We should be trying our best to be writers, not licensed professionals by the grace of the state.


A fellow Inky Wretch

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