Editorial writing consists of writing and publishing an article that takes a stance on a topic. The position must be supported with documentation, reference material, and quotes.
Editorial writing for the web is based upon the fundamentals of traditional editorial writing, similar to op-eds but slightly different, modified by the needs of the web reading audience.
An op-ed piece is an opinion. It is distinguished from other articles in a magazine and newspaper as they may be well written but they do not represent the rules and guidelines required by journalists and reporters. The writers are typically not reports, nor educated in journalism.
An editorial article may be an opinion piece, but it is one that argues a specific point or perspective. On the web, an editorial article may be written by a reporter, journalist, professional writer, or anyone with a defensible opinion.
This article explores the specifics of editorial articles written and published on the web, specifically on blogs. It covers the basics of a web-based editorial article with tips, techniques, guidelines, and references. It is used by the students at Clark College in the web publishing courses taught by Lorelle VanFossen, and may be used by other educators.
Defining the Editorial Article
There are a variety of online editorial positions for web writing:
- One perspective, point-of-view, on a topic
- An opposing point-of-view devil’s advocate
- Exploring all sides of the topic
The exploration of the topic may be a surface commentary or an in-depth, well-thought out and researched article.
Surface Commentary: A surface commentary is usually designed to cover the basics, in other words the core pros and cons and introduction to the subject, supported by the most popular viewpoints.
In-depth Article: An in-depth article considers both sides of an issue, then takes a stance and explores this issue fully. The process of writing an in-depth article requires finding references and resources to support each side and a discussion of the pros and cons and consequences of each issue. Charts, graphs, infographics, and other visual media may be used to define the issues.
The goals of an editorial article are to:
Editorial writing is the most common style of writing for the web. It may be found on personal sites and professional sites.The underlying structure of an editorial post is that of the inverted pyramid. This means the most important points and strongest statements and arguments are found at the top of the piece. As you move down, the editorial will then move towards your opinion, with the most important arguments in the middle, and the least important information towards the end. Remember, building a case for an argument is as important as the argument itself. You must build your case first.
Research and thoughtful consideration of the various references and resources on the subject are important. The research must be sifted through and analyzed to find the relevancy to the topic and each view point. A well-presented editorial article considers the various sides of an argument without dismissing them, and then argues for a specific point of view. Without this consideration, the piece is unbalanced and you will lose your authoritative, expert voice.
Unlike typical informational or general posts, editorial articles typically require extensive editing, a solid crafting of the arguments, and valid, persuasive references.
Take care to fully understand Copyright Fair Use laws for quoting and citation. Paraphrasing is often critical to the article’s success, but take care not to change the intentions behind the words of others, molding them to support your arguments. This can backfire quickly, and authority and integrity lost.
The key to a good editorial article is to encourage thoughtful criticism, debate, and conversation.
Editorial Articles That Changed the World
On August 20, 1945, James Agee wrote the op-ed piece, “The Peace, The Bomb.” Many claim this “meditation on the Atomic bomb” started to change the attitude on what would become “weapons of mass destruction.”
The promise of good and of evil bordered alike on the infinite–with this further, terrible split in the fact: that upon a people already so nearly drowned in materialism even in peacetime, the good uses of this power might easily bring disaster as prodigious as the evil. The bomb rendered all decisions made so far at Yalta and at Potsdam mere trivial dams across tributary rivulets. When the bomb split open the universe and revealed the prospect of the infinitely extraordinary, it also revealed the oldest, simplest, commonest, most neglected and most important of facts: that each man is eternally and above all else responsible for his own soul, and, in the terrible words of the Psalmist, that no man may deliver his brother, nor make agreement unto God for him.
Man’s fate has forever been shaped between the hands of reason and spirit, now in collaboration, again in conflict. Now reason and spirit meet on final ground. If either or anything is to survive, they must find a way to create an indissoluble partnership.
Op-ed (opinion editorials) have long been influential in changing attitudes, behaviors, laws, even governments. These thoughtful editorial essays and articles challenge conventional thinking, prejudice, ignorance, and apathy.
Martin Luther King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is still cited in classrooms and political speeches around the world. King encouraged “Christian action” and the promotion of pacifism for non-violent resistance to racism.
We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we stiff creep at horse-and-buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”…There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may won ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there fire two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the Brat to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”
Gloria Steinem rocked the world with her feminist and women’s rights opinions, and helped to promote not only the civil and political rights of women in the United States, but around the world. Her editorial in 1979, “The International Crime of Female Genital Mutilation,” brought to light the attacks on young girls in many parts of the world for religious and cultural reasons. A year before, she stunned the world with her frank editorial, “If Men Could Menstruate.”
So what would happen if suddenly, magically, men could menstruate and women could not?
Clearly, menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event:
Men would brag about how long and how much.
Young boys would talk about it as the envied beginning of manhood. Gifts, religious ceremonies, family dinners, and stag parties would mark the day.
To prevent monthly work loss among the powerful, Congress would fund a National Institute of Dysmenorrhea. Doctors would research little about heart attacks, from which men would be hormonally protected, but everything about cramps.
Sanitary supplies would be federally funded and free. Of course, some men would still pay for the prestige of such commercial brands as Paul Newman Tampons, Muhammad Ali’s Rope-a-Dope Pads, John Wayne Maxi Pads, and Joe Namath Jock Shields- “For Those Light Bachelor Days.”
…The truth is that, if men could menstruate, the power justifications would go on and on.
If we let them.
If you find an editorial article that helped change the world, let me know in the comments and I may add it here as a resource and example.
Editorial Writing Voice and Persona for the Right Audience
As described above, historically editorials could inspire change in a community and nation. Media outlets were few, but a well-crafted editorial could fly through word-of-mouth quickly.
On the web, long-winded rants, raves, and opinions do little to sway opinion as there so many of them. The competition to be heard is great. Therefore, the voice and persona of the author must be carefully chosen and crafted to speak to the smaller audience and move them to change.
Editorial writers on the web tend to be very niche-focused rather than global, even if their topics cover subjects that impact the world such as politics, climate change, population, and food and water issues. The audience is usually the choir, those interested in the specific topic.
Therefore, the editorial web writer must speak well of and represent their audience’s interest, passion, and expertise on the subject. The writer must use words appropriate to the industry, cite industry (or niche) experts, and write to stimulate the interests and passions of the demographics they serve. The author must understand the values, beliefs, morals, and ethics of their readers, and take care in challenging them.
In general, the best editorials are written in second person, rarely first. First person tends to be an experiential article rather than editorial. “This is what happened to me!” as opposed to “This is one point of view on what happened, you might have another experience.” You are more likely to be considered an “expert” on a subject if you keep yourself out of it. Once you slip into the “I” voice, you will lose your authority with the reader, and your argument will be relegated to simply an opinion or rant.
The editorial is a conversation, representing the viewpoints of the topic as well as their own. It should feel like the author is talking to the reader.
Active voice is critical. Passive voice shows uncertainty, often failing to influence or persuade others. It also creates wordiness, and often times lacks the clarity that the active voice provides.
Authority on this or other subjects is established. You don’t have to be a world leader, but you’ve created trust as an authoritative writer, conveyer of information and sound opinion. The content previously published is consistent in style, presentation, and voice. Trust is established. And the reader trusts you not to break that trust, nor the relationship in the process.
The key to good editorial writing on the web is not “this” article. It is all the articles that led up to this particular one. Authority and respect comes from all the content on the site, the categories, tags, site title, site tagline, information in the sidebar, post title, and design, structure, layout of the the site. All are used to create a first impression–yet that reader is not a first time reader. The perfect reader of an editorial article is a “fan,” a person familiar with the site and the author, and is a return reader coming back for more.
The most persuasive editorial articles are the ones that come from someone the reader trusts, someone who participates within their social media niche and industry, and someone whose voice and style is respectful of others, and themselves and tells a story while including the reader. An author that makes the reader feel like they “know” them, have met them, spent time with them, and that they are sitting down over a beer or cup of coffee and having a good, healthy debate and conversation.
Editorial Styles and Types
These are just a few of the many examples of a few typical styles and types of editorial styles.
- Research and fact-finding
- Opinion and Commentary
- Tutorials (not step-by-step instructions or commands, just educational material)
- Marketing and Promotion
- Rants (sub-specialty of editorial writing)
- Reviews (specialty)
When asked to guest blog or contribute to an online site, general editorial writing is the most popular style with links to supporting documentation and research.
Editorial Article Structure
While the article structure is based upon the above styles, the following is the core format and structure for an editorial article.
- State your agenda: Your opinion on the subject, and how you are about to tackle it, must be clear from the beginning. State your agenda and goals for the article clearly.
- Build the argument: In order to inform and educate, then persuade, declare your agenda and argument, and find supporting facts, figures, surveys, stats, quotes, citations, and supporting documentation. Define your argument, and criticize opposition or alternative views.
- Strengthen the argument: Analogies often support a specious argument that may not support your specific subject, but may tie-in to your topic to support it loosely by commonality. Other people’s opinion, while not fact, can sway, especially if they represent themselves as an authority. It’s not just about your opinion. You need to assure the reader with the strong opinions of others, especially experts, which makes you become the authority on the subject by association.
- Ask Questions and Offer Solutions: Question your argument. Ask the hard questions. According to Kasia Mikoluk of Udemy Blog, “An editorial is primarily meant to indulge in constructive criticism i.e. even though it critiques one point of view, it must be able to provide a possible alternative.” While it is fun to rage and rant, without offering a solution to the problem, you are just ranting and not participating in the conversation of change.
- Be willing to listen: You just taken a stand on an issue and given your opinion. Great. Now what? Without feedback, without discussion and interchange of ideas, supportive and argumentative, your job is half done. End the article in a way that helps and encourages the reader to respond and state their case, good, bad, right, wrong, indifferent. This is all opinion, and theirs must be heard. Closing online editorial articles is an art form to encourage the conversation to continue.
Reporters and bloggers often tackle a subject they know nothing about, and become “short term” experts on the subject. These people are often sought for interviews because at that moment, close to the time they recently published, they are the experts, even though there are others with more expertise on the subject with years of experience.
Technical Structure and Format
The following is the typical structure of an editorial article published online. Each section is typically led with a heading and may consist or one or more paragraphs, lists, quotes, and multimedia.
- Introduction (Agenda): One to three paragraphs introducing and outlining the view point on the subject.
- Explanation/Definition: With a heading for the section titled the name of the topic, this section defines the topic objectively to educate the readers about what is to follow so everyone is on the same page.
- Connection/Timely News/Motivation: While this information may be in the introduction, it may also be a section that puts the topic in perspective as to time, place, culture, environment, topical or newsworthiness, in relationship to a time and place. Why is this topic important now? To whom? Why?
- Support for the argument: This section begins the persuasion, taking sides and offering supporting information, documentation, quotes, and citations. The section may stand alone, or feature subsections with collected points featured together.
- Writer Opinions: Framed carefully, this section offers the writer’s opinions and views on the subject. It may be supported by analogies and quotes from others to support the writer’s opinion.
- Alternatives: This section offers the solutions and alternatives to the current state to encourage change.
- Summary: A summary section that concludes the argument, sums up the points, and encourages readers to participate in the discussion and share the article with others.
- Links and Linking: Links are best when they are incorporated into the sentences as part of the normal flow of writing, so the reader may read the words and links without pause or instruction to click (and not link dumps), or in “article titles” as links. An HTML bullet list of reference links (article – title format) may be found at the end of the document under a heading (and introductory paragraph) typically titled “For More Information” or “References Articles.”
- Bold and Italic: Bold and Italic are rarely used as these can be easily misinterpreted.
- Over-emphasis: Mixing font styles, bold and italic, and exclamation points to convey emotion is a no-no. Let the words make their point without help from styling.
- Headings: Headings are used throughout the article to lead the eye from section to section. The size and style of heading is based upon the individual web page design (WordPress Theme). Headings are to be h1, h2, h3, h4, etc, not bold or forced styles in the content. The article does not start with a heading.
- Blockquotes: While paraphrasing and quoting within the article is appropriate, the general rule of thumb is that if the quote is one sentence, quote it in the paragraph. If the quote is two or more sentences, put it in a blockquote with a citation link leading to, after, or within the blockquote. A blockquote is not for quoting your words (pull-quote), just the words of other people to clearly indicate they are not the words of the author.
- Multimedia: Video, audio, graphics, charts, tables, graphs, and photography are used as supporting evidence to the argument, information on alternative viewpoints, or comparisons of the various view points. A well-written web-based editorial article often relies upon more than one of these such as a table and a graph, or comparative chart and video.
- Paragraphs: Traditional media treats the paragraph as a conveyer of a single thought, concept, or idea, grouping them together with many sentences. Huge walls of text are not welcome, nor readable, on the web. Break paragraphs into points, small digestible chunks. Use short sentences as paragraphs to convey key points, arguments, and emphasis. Use the blocks of sentences and paragraphs like a paint brush on the virtual canvas, designing the flow of the content visually.
Biggest Problems with Editorial Writing
The following are some of the most common problems and challenges with writing editorial articles on the web. Before publishing your article, review this list to spot the symptoms of a poorly written editorial.
- Unsupported Evidence: If the information to support your opinion and argument is specious, weak, and inappropriate, trust is lost. If the cited positions, quotes, and support references come from weak sources, rather than community, business, and industry leaders, the argument falls flat and trust is weakened, if not lost.
- Use of Passive Voice: The more wishy-washy the tone, the less people will accept your viewpoint. Write in active voice.
- Lack of Attention to Details: Every pixel matters. It takes one misspelled word, grammar mistake, broken link, or odd formatting to throw people off, losing focus, and traction on the subject, thus less likely to respond. It lessons your impact, point, and often stops people reading or being influenced, and judging the writer instead.
- Asking the wrong questions: It’s easy to ask the hard questions, but easier to ask the wrong or inappropriate questions. Be specific, keep on track, and make the rhetoric specific to the topic.
- Tangents: It is easy to take the subject off on a tangent, rambling as the author uses the article to get their thoughts together. Get them together first, then stick to the key points. A tangent is a future post, not the current one. Stay on topic.
- Preaching/Dictator: You are not in charge, nor the only one with this issue. You are offering opinion, not ordering people around.
- Too bias: Everyone has bias, which defines and editorial article. Being too bias, unwilling to present the opposing view, makes an article difficult to read, and sings to the choir not persuades the fence sitters.
- Too personal: If the topic is too close to home, the voice can become a rant or whine, which is why second person is critical to the voice of the article. It separates the author slightly from the argument, taking a step back if you will, placing the author in a less bias position to defend the argument, using other voices to support their own.
- Personal Attacks: Defamation and Libel are serious criminal acts. Take care to not make personal attacks as you tackle the subject.
- Snark: Snark is a skill. Take great care with satire, sarcasm, insults, and humor as they must be presented carefully, used judiciously, and wisely. The snark must support the argument, not destroy it.
- Lack of Defense: The action happens in the comments, social media, and on other sites. Be prepared to defend your opinion and argument, or to change your mind. A lack of defense is painful, but inflexibility in a public forum can be more damaging to the author’s reputation.
- Inability to Forgive and Forget: We are all wrong, often more than once. Be willing to listen, be influenced by others, see the other side, and forgive, and sometimes forget. Get over it. This is just a moment in your writing career. You will survive it all.
- Quoting Without Permission (Privacy): Understanding Copyright Fair Use law is essential. Inexperienced web writers will often use the editorial style to start the debate with an email, publishing the email in its entirety. Emails are considered private conversations, and publishing a document or content in its entirety or majority breaks privacy laws, ethics, and copyright. If the information is published, such as in a post, article, or comment, with open access to the public, privacy doesn’t come into play. While this is done, it opens the editorial author to defamation, libel, privacy violations, copyright violations, and legal and criminal action. Paraphrasing may work to cite from the email, but take care to protect the privacy and copyrights of the cited author.
The following are lists of reference articles on editorial writing.
- Qualities of a Good Editorial Writer – Global Post
- Editorial Writing Examples and Tutorial – Freelance Writing
- For the Sake of Argument: Writing Persuasively to Craft Short, Evidence-Based Editorials – The Learning Network of the NYTimes.com
- Basic Op-Ed Structure – The Op-Ed Project
- Tips for Op-Ed Writing – The Op-Ed Project
- Opinion/Editorial | Student Media at N.C. State
- BYU Writing Center | Writing 150: The Opinion Editorial
- Guide to Persuasive Writing Activity Sheet (doc) – PBS
- National Conference of Editorial Writers – Code of Ethics
- Writing an Editorial – Annandale High School
- Association of Opinion Journalists
- How to Write an Editorial – Pacfic University
- ASNE’s Youth Journalism Initiative: Editorial and Opinion Writing Lesson Plans
- 3 Ways to Write a Notable Editorial – wikiHow
- How to Write an Editorial: Follow These 5 Steps
- Texas University Interscholastic League – English – Editorial Overview (pdf)
- Dan Gillmor on Grassroots Journalism, Etc.: Where Newspapers Can Start the Conversation
- It Is Editors’ Fault | Henryk A. Kowalczyk – Huffington Post
- Henryk A. Kowalczyk: The Perfect Test That the Chicago Tribune Failed – Huffington Post
- Don’t take me to your leader: the Pulitzer and the lost art of editorials | Dan Gillmor on Media | The Guardian
- Arguments That Changed the World – The Op-Ed Project
The following are online and print magazine and blog editorial guidelines and articles on creating editorial guidelines.
There is some confusion over content and contributor guidelines and editorial policies and guidelines. The format establishes the content guidelines for submission and publishing, which are applicable but not specifically editorial writing guidelines. Policies and guidelines specific to editorial writing may be included or featured separately.
- 11 Editorial Guidelines Every Business Blog Needs – HubSpot – Inbound Marketing
- 5 reasons your blog should have an editorial policy: Web Development Blog: Marketing and Communications: Case Western Reserve University
- Nonprofit MarCommunity » Blog Archive Nine steps to developing nonprofit blog editorial guidelines – Nonprofit MarCommunity
- Creating a Simple Editorial Policy for Your Corporate Blog – John.do
General Editorial Guidelines
- Blog Guidelines | Content Marketing Institute
- BBC – Editorial Guidelines – BBC TV, Radio and Online standards guidelines (Site and Service-wide Editorial Guidelines)
- Publishing Network: Editorial Guidelines | BlogHer
- Article types and Editorial Guidelines | BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal)
- Editorial Guidelines | American Society of Magazine Editors
- Outbrain Content Guidelines | Outbrain
- Editorial & Funding Standards : PBS
- Editorial Guidelines – Sierra Magazine – Sierra Club
- Corporate Responsibility Magazine – Editorial Guidelines
Examples of Editorial Writing
Finding examples of editorial writing is challenging as there are so many good articles.
The Op-Ed Project is a project to increase the exposure of world thought leaders through editorial and op-ed writing. They feature many examples.
DailyOpEd is a searchable database of recently published editorial (op-ed) articles. Their sources include The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, USA Today, and many other notable newspapers and magazines.
Among the list below of examples articles is a link to the Pulitzer Prize winners in editorial writing, including the 2014 winner from The Oregonian. Also included are some articles by WordPress Community members dealing with issues related to WordPress and web development and design, showcasing the possibilities in editorial writing. If you’d like to suggest an editorial article sample for this list, suggest it below.
- The Pulitzer Prizes | Editorial Writing
- Lowercase p, dangit! – Justin Tadlock (WordPress Developer and Designer)
- One multi-task plugin vs. several single-task plugins? – Justin Tadlock (WordPress Developer and Designer)
- It’s legal but unethical – Justin Tadlock (WordPress Developer and Designer)
- Editorial: Good example | The Columbus Dispatch
- The Four Freedoms – Matt Mullenweg
What really hit home for me was the need to not seem to be going off on a rant. The need to not be making things personal or self focused it what stood out most; probably because most posts I have made have to do with things I am doing or have done. Upcoming articles will surely be taking in to account this fact.
On the note of breaking laws I have a great quote from my sociology professor, “disfunction is functional”.
Thanks for a great article and keeping me thinking!
Always glad to get you thinking, Hunter.
It’s a powerful thing when you can make your argument calmly, collectively, and powerfully without ranting and raging. People listen to those who speak clearly and factually. Those that rant, wave their hands in the air, and bellow to the air are entertaining for about the first 30 seconds. 😀
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