Charles Seife’s Brief Guide to Writing Opinion

Charles Seife
Charles Seife Courtesy of Charles Seife

We reporters spend our days gathering facts and talking to experts to learn about a subject. If, at the end of the process, we don’t have any opinions of our own about the matter—well, let’s just say that it’s not a hallmark of great intelligence to be so untouched by information flowing into one’s brain. At the same time, though, journalists are supposed to be objective, which means that we are expected to suppress our own opinions, at least to some extent.

Maybe this inherent contradiction is part of what makes opinion writing so fun. On top of the sheer cathartic joy of letting loose a broadside in the op-ed pages against the injustices of the world, there’s a sense of delicious naughtiness, a lingering sense of mischief that accompanies a transgression that was oh so worth it.

After more than a decade and a half of opinion writing, I still love that feeling of mischief, which is all the more bizarre since I’ve long since come to the conclusion that there is no journalistic transgression in writing an opinion piece. An opinion piece is a natural extension of a reporter’s toolkit, sitting somewhere between news writing and feature writing and combining some of the best elements of both.

If you think about it, the seemingly defining characteristic of the form—the opinion—is almost the least important part of the piece. Some of the most memorable and most effective opinion pieces are built around an opinion that’s shallow or even absurd. In 1999, when one of the National Zoo’s pandas died, Slate‘s David Plotz publicly celebrated. “I knew this panda. So I speak from the heart when I say: Good riddance to the semi-bear.” As far as opinions go, “pandas suck” doesn’t look like a promising candidate to carry a 700-word article. But it allowed Plotz to recount, in one blistering paragraph, the tragic history of the two DC pandas:

But Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were not simply dull. They were also unpleasant. Confinement depresses zoo animals, and the pandas were no exception, behaving more like kooks than teddy bears. Ling-Ling, unprovoked, assaulted one of her keepers and gnawed on his ankle. The animals’ decadelong attempt to mate was played as comic opera, but it was much darker. At first Hsing-Hsing failed to inseminate Ling-Ling because he tried to mate with her ear and her arm. (He may have been inept because he never learned about mating in the wild.) Then the zoo imported a male panda from London Zoo to mate with Ling-Ling. He mauled her instead. (So much for panda comity.) Eventually Hsing-Hsing got it right, and between 1983 and 1989, Ling-Ling bore five of his cubs. All of them died within days. One cub perished after Ling-Ling sat on it. Another seems to have been killed by a urinary tract infection acquired from Ling-Ling. Keepers believe Ling-Ling infected herself by sticking bamboo and carrots up her urinary tract, surely neurotic behavior.

Plotz rubbed our noses in the harsh realities of confining the two animals—deftly countering the feel-good fuzzy-wuzzy rhetoric about how the joyful pandas enriched all of our lives.

What made Plotz’s piece hit so hard was the series of unpleasant facts, one after the other, that forced the reader to think beyond the cuddly-teddy-bear image of pandas. The opinion was merely the frame that allowed Plotz to present those facts.

When I think back about the op-eds and other opinion pieces I’ve written, it’s the ones that are backed by interesting reporting that I remember, not the ones which are framed by an interesting opinion. Back in 2008, I was in Minnesota covering the nearly tied election race between Senator Norm Coleman and Senator-to-be Al Franken. The opinion that framed the piece was novel—I argued that Coleman and Franken were, from any reasonable statistical point of view, tied, and that the election should be decided by a coin flip. I didn’t expect anyone to take that suggestion seriously, even though it’s what Minnesota law prescribes. But I did expect people to notice that I was finding lots and lots of missing votes that nobody else was noticing:

A clerical mistake wiped out 25 votes in Blue Earth County.

Others might be due to equipment glitches. A Washington County election official I spoke with blamed jammed ballots in counting machines for possibly creating phantom votes. And some ballots seem to have simply vanished. When I visited Dakota County late last month, I saw an election official and an observer desperately trying to account for the whereabouts of certain absentee ballots. As required by law, the ballots had been duplicated, but the numbers of originals and copies don’t match up—a problem that is apparently happening in several counties.

For example, an auditor in Becker County told me that four original ballots had disappeared. Many other votes are still unaccounted for: 25 in a precinct in Cottonwood County, 10 in another in Pope County and dozens more cast around the state.

The coin-flip suggestion got me on the op-ed page. It was the reporting, at least in my view, which made the piece worth reading. In some opinion pieces, the nominal opinion is so weak that it’s almost vestigial. Christopher Hitchens’s legendary evisceration of that “leathery old saint,” Mother Teresa, got its raw power from Hitchens’s collecting an impressive array of anecdotes illustrating the venality and hypocrisy of the “hell bat.” Nobody remembers that the nominal opinion at the core of the piece was addressed to Governor Jerry Brown.

Hitchens, of course, was a wordsmith of the first order. Even when he misfired (as he often did—quite badly), he would always coin a memorable two- or three-word phrase that would lodge itself in your skull. One of the greatest pleasures of writing an opinion piece is that the quality of the writing counts more than in almost any other form—more so than in even the literary feature. Articulating an idea in precisely the right way, or even evoking a powerful image, can completely reframe the way people think about an issue. It’s hard for me to think of Goldman Sachs without thinking of Matt Taibbi’s image of “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” (Never mind that there’s no such thing as a “blood funnel”!) A good zinger—or a phrase that’s unusually vivid (or even blunt) can make an opinion piece particularly memorable.

It’s not the opinion that makes or breaks an opinion piece. Its strength comes from the facts that form its core—it can even be a reported article—and from the quality of the writing. So, in retrospect, I find it a little odd that so many reporters are uncomfortable with the form. At least, that’s my opinion.


Charles Seife is a professor of journalism at New York University and the author of six books, most recently Virtual Unreality: Just Because the Internet Told You, How Do You Know It’s True?, and he writes opinion for Slate and a number of other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @cgseife.

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