To my bemusement, I realized recently that over a third of the articles I do in a month are opinion pieces. Back in 2004, when I first started full-time journalism, I wouldn’t have believed that was possible. I believed then that I had no talent for editorials, and the thought of doing one intimidated me so much that I barely knew how to begin.
My background as an academic and a technical writer had a lot to do with that belief. Ask me to summarize or quote accurately in an news story or interview, and I could draw on my experience writing academic papers. Ask me to write an accurate how-to, and I could depend on my experience writing manuals and tutorials. Even a review didn’t seem impossible, because, while it gave an opinion and was shaped by an opinion, the opinion was based on clear facts.
But a commentary on free software-related events? That left me much more exposed. I had only been involved in the community for a few years, and I was all too aware that dozens of people –maybe hundreds or thousands – had more experience than me. So why would anyone be interested in my opinion? I’d be shredded as soon as I opened my mouth.
Besides, years in a university English department had conditioned me to avoid giving a firm opinion whenever possible. I had got used to softening my opinions with words like “almost” or “seems” to lessen the possibility of an attack.
Fortunately, writing at Linux.com and hanging out on its IRC channel every day, I had some strong role models. The late Joe Barr was the master of the attack piece – of angry diatribes full of sarcasm and humor, the kind that is read less for insight than for entertainment, like a review of a play by Dorothy Parker (“And then, believe it or not, things get worse. So I shot myself.”). By contrast, Robin “roblimo” Miller, the senior editor could write editorials just as forceful, but milder in tone and more thoughtful.
These models were important to me, because, when I came to write my first opinion pieces, I had some idea of what I could manage. While I admired Joe Barr’s expression of anger, I knew there was no way that I could match it for more than a sentence or two. I would have to assume a persona that was mostly foreign to me, and would feel foreign – maybe dishonest – to me.
By contrast, my academic background made the thoughtful editorial seem a more attainable goal. While writing academic papers, I had discovered I had a knack for getting to the core of a matter and stripping away irrelevancies. I knew how to anticipate opposing views, and disarm them by answering them before anyone else could make them. I knew that, even if I didn’t always respect opposing views, reporting them fairly made me appear to do, and that the effort improved my own argument. I might still shoot off the occasional one-liner caked in sarcasm, but, most of the time, I had a better chance of managing a thoughtful tone rather than an outraged and witty one.
What I didn’t anticipate was how my style would add to my voice. My model for style was George Orwell, with clarity and simplicity my main goals. In particular, I got into the habit of ruthlessly deleting all the qualifiers that academia had taught me to use to soften my opinions. Add a tone that is partly a reflection of my own speech-therapy influenced conversation and partly the influence of Orwell’s very English tone, and the result is that I come across as more forceful than I initially realized.
This combination of habits and tone meant that, as I ventured into writing opinion pieces, I had a more distinctive result than I realized at first. Not everyone liked it, of course: to this day, I still have critics who claim that my ability to look at all sides of a discussion mean that I will write anything, even for shock value (not true; although I do sometimes write to explore the possibility of an idea). Others find my tone patronizing (usually when they disagree with me). At times, too, I have been called disloyal to free software, or worse.
I can see where these views originate, so I don’t feel much need to argue against them, except to say that they have as much to do with readers’ expectations as anything I actually do.
At any rate, over the years, I have grown much more accustomed to hostile responses than I was when I started writing opinion pieces. If people disagree with me (or with what they think I am saying), they are at least reading me, which means that editors will pay for my opinions.
As for myself, I’m content to express an opinion that I either hold or am considering. So long as I can do one of these two things as thoroughly as possible, writing an opinion piece has long ago lost its terror to me. I sometimes need half a draft to know just what my opinion on a subject happens to be, but opinion pieces have long since settled into being a familiar part of my repertoire.
At times, I can even imagine that I have a talent for them. When Carla Schroder tweeted, “Bruce Byfield writes calm, thoughtful, lengthy articles that somehow ignite mad passions and flame wars,” I couldn’t have been more satisfied. That is exactly what an opinion piece should be and do, and someone, at least, was saying that I was succeeding in doing exactly what I was trying to do.