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An Editorialist's Opinion of How to Write Better

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti and this week on WORDMASTER: Another voice from the recent Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages convention in Boston. Patricia Kelvin has a doctorate in the teaching of writing. She was an award-winning editorial writer on a newspaper. And she says thinking like an editorial writer can help students improve their writing.

Patricia Kelvin
Patricia Kelvin

PATRICIA KELVIN: "So much of English writing is based on writing about literature, which is because most English teachers are first and foremost literature teachers rather than writing teachers. On the other hand, the kinds of writings that most students will do in their futures doesn't really have to do with writing about something that's already been written.

"And if you look at what a journalist does in editorial writing, they're writing about something that's very topical. They have to find out information about that topic. They have to develop arguments for the newspaper's position. They have to be able to refute the arguments of anybody who's opposed to that. And they need to do it very quickly, and they need to do it in a relatively short way. You can't write a thousand-word editorial, for example."

AA: "So a little bit about your background with editorial writing -- what did you do?"

PATRICIA KELVIN: "For seven years I was a member of the editorial board and an editorial writer for the Vindicator, which is a regional newspaper in Youngstown, Ohio. And because of my own academic background, I wrote editorials on anything from agriculture, science, education, medicine, local, state, national and even international politics. I also wrote most of the sports editorials, which the men on the editorial board thought was sort of funny. But I've written on football and golf and baseball."

AA: "And so when you're writing a newspaper editorial, this is not under your name. This is under the newspaper, stating the newspaper's position."

PATRICIA KELVIN: "Correct. Generally what would happen is the editorial board would meet. We'd discuss what issues were facing the community or the nation, and then we'd try to come up with a position that represented how we believed that the newspaper had traditionally felt. Or we might be breaking new ground, and it might be on an issue that had not been discussed before."

AA: "And so, in terms of -- I know that some people, when they write, it's a natural tendency to use hedging terms, to sort of begin by saying 'I believe this ... ' You know, to sort of soften it, to not just come out and make a statement or take a position. How do you feel about that?"

PATRICIA KELVIN: "There's no point to say 'I believe blah-blah-blah' because what you're saying already is what you believe. So instead of saying that 'I believe that health insurance in the United States doesn't meet the needs of all people,' you can simply say 'Health insurance in the United States does not meet the needs of all people.'"

AA: "Although I guess, maybe in a case like that -- see, the journalist in me says, well, you'd want to maybe say 'experts agree' or 'many say.' I suppose you have to be careful what you state, that it's accurate and true."

PATRICIA KELVIN: "One of the former, or she's now the former associate editor of the editorial pages of the Miami Herald, told me that when you become an editorial writer, you have to be a better reporter than a reporter. Because you're going to be trying to persuade people to see things from your perspective.

"And it's certainly true in practice that your research has to be impeccable, so that you can certainly know where to find the experts, and a good editorial writer will be able to call anyone in the country to get a fact, to find something out. And I've done editorials where I've found that a congressman or senator that's railed against a certain issue never bothered to talk to the people that he was railing against. And so when I did, I could write an editorial refuting his assertions."

AA: "Now of course in certain cultures, you could end up in jail or worse by publishing something in the newspaper."

PATRICIA KELVIN: "In the United States, of course, we have freedom of the press. But I have to tell you, my dissertation research was talking to Pulitzer [Prize-winning] and other editorial writers around the country to learn how they wrote. And somebody else told me that everybody is entitled to an opinion, but nobody is entitled to have anybody take that opinion seriously. So if you want your opinion to be taken, you have to be able to substantiate what you're talking about."

AA: Patricia Kelvin is a former editorial writer in Ohio. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. You can friend us on Facebook at VOA Learning English. I'm Avi Ardittii.

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