How to write an opinion, not just have one

Courtesy of Ciara Murray-Jordan

Over winter break I read a 600-page novel called “Ada.” It had beautiful prose, multilingual jokes and an intricate-bordering-on-incomprehensible plot, all of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I realized however, the literary styles I like to digest and ponder in my free time are the exact opposite of what I think an opinions article should be.

I’m in full support of stylish prose, but in an opinions article—be it written for this publication, The New York Times or your own local paper—nothing should get in the way of trying to communicate your ideas to your readers. While you might feel warm and fuzzy on the inside knowing that you used “prophylactic” (I’ll save you a run to the thesaurus. It means “a preventative measure”) correctly in a sentence, all you’ve really done is make your reader disengage from the idea you desperately want to present (and in fact you’ve probably only made them engage with their dictionary). Nesting clauses upon clauses like some demented sentence-bird is not going make your thoughts come through clearly. If your purposes are to actually engage and convey—which, if you’re writing for me, they should be—write so that my dad’s coworkers, all mechanics with little to no college education, can easily understand and grapple with the ideas you found so powerful that you wanted to share them. It’s a mistake to assume that everyone who reads a college newspaper reads at a college level, and it’s a mistake that I’m guilty of committing over and over again.

Just to say it again, I have no personal issues with advanced word-choice or complex sentence structures. There is a time and a place for them and sometimes ideas can only be communicated with full force in that manner. The vast majority of the time, however, elitism is unnecessary and unwarranted. This is more than a personal like and dislike list too, because making your writing inaccessible limits the type of people who can respond to you. Screaming into the void is fun, but reaching people and starting a dialogue is the really rewarding aspect.

There are other things besides word choice and sentence structures that can derail an otherwise stellar article, so what else do I look for in an opinions article? General coherence is nice. A logical flow from one point to the next is pleasant but not totally required, and a lot of that can be covered by transition sentences between paragraphs. To bring up another anecdote, I love the movie “Memento,” which jumps backwards and forwards in time until the plot meets in the middle, but if there was an article that was structured the same way then I would probably throw a fit. If you’re really trying to express an opinion, the whole point of writing an opinions article, then forcing your reader to break out a jar of pins and a spool of string just to follow your thought process is counterproductive. We all probably wanted to be part of the Scooby Gang, but that doesn’t mean we want to do an investigation just to figure out what somebody is trying to tell us.

In-jokes and self-referentiality are fine in small doses; it can be fun to play with the medium, but try to show some self-restraint (I’m doing a very bad job of it with these asides, but they are at least semi-educational in this context). There’s more personal freedom in opinions just by the nature of the section, but it’s not the best home for the literary and artistic. The English department has full-credit classes on creative writing. The Vassar Student Review accepts fiction, as does the Vassar Insider. In the opinions section, the idea is to spread ideas on campus and beyond, not to stroke your ego.

Let me wrap up a few miscellaneous things and then I’ll let you go (see how it’s both conversational and includes a semi-stealth pun on the newspaper’s name? Switching between high and low diction can be a choice, just make sure that it fits the rest of the article and that it’s not too jarring). Thing one: The opinions expressed here aren’t the opinions of The Miscellany News as a whole. If someone calls your group a bunch of privilege-assed white kids, fuckbois or etc., that’s not the official position of the newspaper. It’s just the opinion of one person who has availed themselves of using our platform. While we won’t let just any random, non-Vassar associated people write for us, we do want to share students’ ideas, publishing the opinion of the writer even if it’s not one we, or you, share.

The last thing I want to touch upon is that anyone can write an opinions piece. You don’t even have to follow these guidelines; in fact, some of my favorite articles don’t follow a single one of these rules. I think I broke every one—again, for educational purposes—in this very piece. But what I want to make clear is that you don’t need to write like Tolstoy to be a writer for opinions. You don’t need to be intricate and exquisite. You don’t need to overcomplicate things and end up so far up your own ass that you need a flashlight. Just write passionately about some cool idea you had or some concept you have some thoughts on. And, if you want to share it here, send me an email.

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