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How to write an Opinion column for The Signal

Posted: July 1, 2008 9:02 p.m.
Updated: December 22, 2009 1:58 p.m.

Political commentary is the backbone of The Signal's Opinion page. While syndicated columnists who address state, national or world issues are part of our mix, our focus as a community newspaper is on local columnists who address local issues, and we welcome your contributions.

We ask that local columns be no longer than 750 words in length, and that you e-mail them to

If you write more than 750 words, we will have to return it to you so you can edit it to length.

A column is essentially an essay. With that in mind, we offer the following "column-writing do's":

1) Do have a clear point, and make it just one clear point. A practiced essayist may be able to imply the point of his/her essay, but we recommend a clear statement of the point - what essayists call a thesis statement. We don't want readers scratching their heads at the end of the column and asking themselves, "Now, what was that all about?"

2) Do have a clear goal, which is usually persuasion. Unless the goal is strictly informational, which political columns usually are not (Dan Walters being an occasional exception), your column should be aimed at persuading readers to agree with your point of view and/or to take action on your arguments.

The most effective way to persuade is by logical, reasoned argument. That's not to say that emotion can't be part of an effective argument, but arguments should be grounded in a logical appeal. Each argument should be supported by specifics - examples, analogies, anecdotes. Alternatively, the column may recount one long story/anecdote that illustrates your point, but it should be specific and well told.

3) Do have an awareness of audience. Our audience is, of course, The Signal's readers. It's not just the City Council or a water board or town council. It's much broader than that. Address the public.

4) Do seek fresh, thoughtful topics. Trust your personal impressions/feelings, but analyze them for logic. Being a local paper, we of course value columns that deal with local issues. But if we've already published 16 columns on the hospital expansion, for example, we would appreciate it if you sought topics elsewhere - unless, of course, you have a spanking-new perspective that nobody else has mentioned.

5) Back up your claims. Attribute your information. It will add credibility to your point of view. "A recent poll said that..." is not enough. Cite the poll, study or whatever, who or what entity released it, and when. Provide a Web address if possible. Columns with unattributed information will be returned for revision.

And we offer some column-writing don'ts:

1) Don't write lengthy introductions. We're happy you visited Luxembourg, but there's a reason that "How I spent my summer vacation" is a cliché for clichés.

2) Don't crusade. A columnist with only one cause is boring. It's unlikely a Signal columnist will, through his or her writing, succeed at halting all illegal immigration or leading a coup at City Hall. Give it a rest and write on something different. Remember that the editor's job is, among other things, to provide a variety of reading options for our audience.

3) No shameless plugs. You're attempting to sell your point of view, not a product or service.

4) Don't engage in mudslinging and shrill accusations. That's counterproductive. True, public figures such as City Council members are virtually impervious to libel. But if your goal is persuasion, are you going to win hearts by calling the opposition the slime of the earth? No. Name-calling does not constitute an argument; all it does is drive away everyone who doesn't already agree with you. A reasoned argument will be much more effective.

Thank you for your interest in contributing to The Signal Opinion page.


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