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Teaching takes patience and encouragement.

* Give honest feedback, plus the freedom to experiment and grow.

Sure, you can teach editorial writing. You can teach a dog to bark for biscuits, too, but that doesn't mean he can sing Puccini.

We can teach the basics of barking for biscuits. And we can teach the basics of writing editorials: Write in complete sentences. Most of the time. Make a point. Get to it before you're finished, though preferably in the first few lines.

I know it sounds easy. But those of us who've been at this a while have seen the clips of hundreds of aspiring editorialists who can't even get a credible bark down pat.

Let's say, however, you've hired the applicant with the most promise. Assuming one gets past such preliminary hurdles, the issue becomes how you help still-struggling writers make their stuff carry clout.

I taught high school and college-level writing courses for years. I was never much impressed by the results of having students carefully examine writing models, though that's been the staple of composition courses for generations. I believe research backs me up on that.

The other strategy, centerpiece of NCEW annual conventions, is the critique session. The critique of the finished product seems to make sense. Learn from your mistakes, right?

And it so happens that during all the years the editorial writers have been putting themselves through this exhibition of masochism, editorial pages probably have improved and the writing, at least what I've seen, is brighter and better informed.

But before we pronounce critiquing done in this fashion to be the salvation of us all, keep in mind that most editorial writers have attended sessions only sporadically, if at all. Smack Fido with a newspaper once a year for whizzing on the carpet, and he'll probably never improve his toilet habits.

At the same time, NCEW has fostered a higher standard for editorial writing - one that emphasizes good reporting and strong opinions. My hunch is that it's this role and not the critiques that has contributed the most to improvement of editorial writing.

I think the best approach to teaching editorial writing is when it's being done. Have your writer compose a draft, send it to the editor/teacher, and then make suggestions for improving the piece. Sound like a familiar strategy? If there's more than one person in your shop, you probably do this every day.

But it's a strategy you need to give a lot of thought to. Bleeding all over somebody's piece doesn't necessarily inspire the editorialist to do a better job. Overdone, it can be demoralizing.

So it's always made sense to me to concentrate on a few problems at a time. And rather than just saying, "Make this clear" or "Punch this up," give examples of how the language could be changed.

Keep in mind, too, that teaching someone to improve his or her editorial writing requires more than a few pedagogical tricks up your sleeve.

It's caring enough about how the person presents himself or herself to the community to give honest feedback on tone and attitude. It's giving the writer the freedom to experiment and grow. It's being the writer's advocate for his or her choice of topics.

Helping someone improve such a complex, often personal thing as editorial writing takes patience and lots of time and a friendly relationship.

With such a commitment, can editorial writing be taught? Certainly. And it depends as much on the teacher as the student.

NCEW member Larry Hayes is editorial page editor of The Journal-Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind., and former president of the Education Writers Association.
COPYRIGHT 1997 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Can Editorial Writing Be Taught?
Author:Hayes, Larry
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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