Greenberg advises students to look for original expression.
"Readers don't need to be told how to react," Greenberg said October 2, 2002, at the concluding session of the Foster Conference of Distinguished Writers at Penn State University.
Greenberg, the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, gave advice for aspiring journalists, talked about issues ranging from the Clinton presidency to Iraq, and answered audience questions in a session moderated by fellow NCEW member R. Thomas Berner, professor of journalism and American studies at Penn State.
Another tip on Greenberg's list (distributed to the audience of mostly student journalists) is to take writing to the "second lever" by looking for the broader, more complex issues surrounding an event.
Greenberg used the 2002 withdrawal of U.S. Senator Robert Torricelli from the New Jersey senate race as an example. While many editorials about the senator concerned the ethical violations that led to his downfall, Greenberg said, an editorial exploring his psyche or his positive work would be a more distinctive contribution.
"It's too easy to deliver the coup de grace," Greenberg said.
Reading excerpts from his recent editorial on Iraq, Greenberg talked about the debate over whether President Bush had "made the case" for using military force.
Using the phrase "make the case" as a jumping-off point, Greenberg used his editorial to lay out the instances where he thought Bush had indeed justified military action in Iraq.
"The case has been made," Greenberg said. "Some of us have not been paying attention."
Greenberg also discussed his editorial coverage of former President Bill Clinton, dating to when Clinton was attorney general and then governor of Arkansas. Greenberg, who coined the nickname "Slick Willie," said he had predicted early on that Clinton would someday be president.
"I never understood his charm, but I certainly recognized it," Greenberg said.
Greenberg concluded his remarks with advice for aspiring journalists, telling them to read works by good writers and to broaden their knowledge by studying subjects such as economics or business.
An editorial page editor for more than 25 years, Greenberg began his career in history. He taught at Hunter College in New York before taking his first newspaper job as an editorial writer for The Pine Bluff Commercial in Arkansas. His syndicated column appears in newspapers across the country.
Greenberg was the ninth Pulitzer Prize winner to speak at the Foster Conference, directed by Foster professor of communications Gene Foreman and endowed by Penn State graduates Lawrence and Ellen Foster as a way to give journalism students an opportunity to learn from professionals.
RELATED ARTICLE: 42 ways to write an editorial
1. Take a line.--H.L. Mencken
2. Don't confine humor to the "humorous" editorials.
3. Shorten and if possible eliminate the editorial conference, where more good ideas have been slaughtered than at the United Nations.
4. Vary style.
5. Use clear, sharp, palpable, tangible references, preferably local ones in local language. Write to the ear, not the eye. Write as you speak. Try a conversational tone. The reader should be able to share not only a sense of sight and sound, but also a sense of place.
6. Thinking about editorials is not a job; it's an avocation, hobby, obsession. Let no good idea escape you.
7. Address the reader directly; don't orate. Picture a particular person--your Aunt Matilda?--when writing.
8. Writing is rewriting.
9. Editing is often rewriting. Approach the editorial with a fresh eye and ear each time. It helps to put some time and space between each rewriting.
10. Write with feeling; edit with reason.
11. Three-quarters of the trick is to pick the right subject--one you feel strongly about, know a lot about, are interested in.
12. Put writing first--before layout, before administration, before editing the columnists or addressing the civic clubs or answering correspondence.
13. Set aside time for writing. Keep that time free even if you just sit there, think, and don't write a word. The easiest thing in the world is to be distracted from writing.
14. Attack the strongest part of your opposition's case, not the weakest. This is sport, not persecution.
15. Never hesitate to run a correction. Even when one may not be altogether necessary. It'll be the best-read item on the page.
16. Be tough on ideas, easy on personalities, silent on people's appearance.
17. Remember that the headline is part of the editorial; pay at least as much attention to writing it as you do your most cherished sentence.
18. Don't sit down to write an editorial, but to say something.
19. Arrange your schedule so that you have an opportunity to review the editorial after it is written or even in type, and to re-review it. Allow time between exposures. Time or the illusion of it is the key to good writing and editing.
20. The best writing comes from some emotional spur.
21. Do not abort editorial ideas in embryo. Write them out fully, then evaluate them. Then they can be seen in full.
22. Go to a Second Level of interpretation and comment, a level beyond the obvious. Don't treat an idea or proposal or event only within its own context, in intellectual isolation. Tie it in with some larger meaning or different perspective. Write the only editorial in the country that will appear from your particular point of view--a product of your unique experience, knowledge, wisdom, viewpoint, crotchets and insights.
23. Offer your reader some mental traction. Use a cartoon instead, if all you can offer the reader is pap. Don't write on a subject for no better reason than that everybody else will.
24. Keep your favorite editor or writer in mind. Imitation is the most natural form of writing.
25. Aim for a masterpiece, not just another editorial.
26. The completed editorial should be considered a first draft.
27. Use symbols and metaphors that move and affect, not just for the sake of symbolism.
28. Enjoy your work; it'll show.
29. If you must use a cliche or a worn phrase, change it slightly.
30. Forget editorials that are news analysis, background or general mush. Editorials should be opinion. The facts buttressing an editorial should show, like the beams of a well-constructed cabin, but the whole structure should be about opinion.
31. Give local topics top priority. And write about them in a knowledgeable, local way.
32. Never fudge or cheat or lie a little; you'll be glad you didn't
33. A balanced page of opinion helps.
34. Pay special attention to the letters column. Run letters as soon as you can.
35. Don't forget the narrative style.
36. Remember that writing editorials isn't a chore; it can be art, literature, therapy.
37. Don't forget that you've got the grandest job in the world.
38. Call it the Florence King Rule: "A cardinal rule of writing is never interrupt yourself to explain something. If you must bring up an obscure topic, drop informative hints about it as you go along so that you don't end up with the entire explanation all in one place. This keeps you from skidding to a stop and sounding teacherish. Otherwise it's better to omit the obscure topic altogether, or as mothers might put it: If you can't say it interestingly, don't say it at all."
39. "Shed excess baggage, so you don't slow down the camel train. If you care about good writing you omit words that have no meaning, and prefer shorter to longer ones that mean the same thing. When your prose is lugging freight that has nothing to do with the topic and is only put there to register your support of feminism, the outcome is not merely ugly but ludicrous. It reads as if it were pasted with bumper stickers."--David Gelernter
40. "We read to find out what we already know."--V.S. Naipaul, in an essay on Joseph Conrad." The best editorials articulate what everyone knows but no one has ever said before."--William Allen White
41. Whenever you're about to repeat the conventional wisdom, phrase, or jargon (infrastructure, situation, global economy/warming), think it through before writing--to see if you're not just lazily writing around a point instead of examining it. Don't sweep uncertainties under the rug, settling for some kind of vague run-around instead of direct speech.
42. Read poetry. It doesn't matter what kind, Pick your favorite--good, bad, or indifferent, whether Longfellow, Emily Dickinson or Seamus Heaney. But read poetry. It trains the ear, revives the soul, enlivens the spirit within prose.
Excerpted from Chapter 3, "Writing: Make It Sing" by Paul Greenberg in Beyond Argument: A Handbook for Editorial Writers, published by NCEW. Contact headquarters at email@example.com if you don't have a copy.
Maggie Herb is a senior majoring in journalism and English at Pennsylvania State University. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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