Edit, Aug. 26: If you’re a student interested in writing for the paper this semester, we have two open houses organized. The first is on Monday, August 31, and the other is Saturday, September 5. Both open houses run 1-4pm. Come by, meet other writers and editors, and take advantage of our free food! (Open to NYU students only.) I’ll pin this post to the front page until Sept 5.
This semester, I’m the opinion editor of the Washington Square News, NYU’s official student newspaper. I thought it’d be a good idea to write the blogpost I wish I could’ve read when I started writing op-eds and editorials. As such, this post is primarily intended for folks who show up to open houses or pitch meetings but, hey, if you found it useful, I’m glad.
|Contact Info||Nuts and Bolts|
|Writer Commitment||Editorials and Op-Eds|
|Op-Ed Tips||Why Writing For Your College Newspaper Rocks|
Firstly, feel free to email me if you have questions, either about Ops or the rest of the newspaper. The paper’s been one of the most gratifying and fun experiences of my undergrad life to date, and I’m happy to answer questions or provide advice if I can. Email firstname.lastname@example.org; I generally respond within a day or so. If you want to get in touch with Richard, the deputy editor, he’s email@example.com.
WSN publishes once a week in print, on Mondays. The Ops section publishes 1-2 editorials and 4-5 op-eds in print, and at least 2 pieces online a day, Tuesday through Friday. Articles are due at 1pm the day before they go into print. If it’s not in by 4pm, we run a backup piece and the writer looks bad.
Print pieces generally run 450 words, but in reality can vary by 10 or 20 words one way or the other. (The longest I published was 484.)
We also publish two pieces online each week day. Despite not having space constraints as in print, we try to keep online pieces around 450 words so as not to unduly stress out copy editors and other people involved in the production process. That said, we’ll evaluate longer pieces on a case-by-case basis.
The Ops desk (by which I mean the editor, deputy editors, and interested writers) officially meets once a week for a pitch meeting at Sundays at 5pm. This is our chance to tell writers what’s coming up in terms of special issues and Op-Ed Live (a short video series where two students will debate issues such as Greek life on campus) and also to take pitches for op-eds for the next few weeks.
Pitching an Op-Ed is fairly straightforward, with just two steps:
- You give us the article’s thesis statement (e.g. “GMOs aren’t all bad!“) and some info on your sources — news stories, etc. — and why it’s topical.
- We give feedback. Oftentimes, someone around the table will have read something else that you can use to back up your argument, or add some new point you hadn’t thought of.
Anecdotally, half of pitches I heard were accepted on the spot and half were accepted with “Sounds good, make sure you mention X.” You get the hang of pitching op-eds and what works pretty quickly, and so outright rejection of pitches is rare. (Of those, most times it was a case of “we’ve done that too recently and shouldn’t do two pieces on the same thing so close together.”)
Pitch meeting attendance isn’t mandatory — nobody’s checking names and you can email me a pitch if you’re exceptionally busy or traveling, but by and large I’d like regular writers to show up. It fosters a community and makes scheduling easier. Occasionally, I’ll bring donuts.
Pitch meetings are also when we decide if we’re going to do point-counterpoint, where two writers debate the same issue from opposing sides, such as the benefits and drawbacks of a $15 minimum wage. I enjoy these, and will try to do one every week or two.
A handful of times each year, WSN publishes special issues, focussing on influential students, fashion, mental health, or study-abroad sites. Ops sometimes features in these and sometimes doesn’t. For example, I wrote a piece on the benefits of studying abroad for that issue. We’ll talk about these at pitch meetings.
The bylines are as follows:
- Contributing Writer are the lowest rung of the ladder — these are people who write now and again, on no fixed schedule.
- Staff Writer. Once you write three or more pieces, you can apply to be a staff columnist. Applications for the position go out at the beginning of October (or March, during the Spring semester). These are people who commit to writing once a week and contributing to House (see below) at least once a week. We don’t force people to advance to staff writer, though — you can stay a contributor for the whole semester. (Although if you meet the three-article threshold, I would encourage you to — see the Why Writing For Your College Newspaper Rocks section below.)
- Deputy Opinion Editors are a step above staff writers. As well as writing once a week, they edit one or two nights a week, overseeing the production process and staying with the stories until they go into print.
- Opinion Editor is chief bottle-washer of the Ops desk — they hold pitch meetings (more on this in a sec), keep track of writers, edit, and are generally responsible for the two Opinion pages in the paper. They also oversee Op-Ed Live.
The positions are steps on a ladder — you have to be contributing writer before you can be staff, and you have to be a staff writer before applying to a deputy editor position.
While you’ll be discouraged from expressing opinions or taking sides if you write for News, this is exactly what opinion sections are for. There are two types of opinion piece, an editorial and an op-ed. (I use “Ops pieces” to refer collectively to both.)
An editorial (known around the office as “House” or “the House piece”) is the paper officially taking a stand on something. In general, we try to keep these New York- or NYU-focussed. The byline is “WSN Editorial Board,” and they’re written by the opinion editor and deputies, with the help of staff writers and anyone else who wants to join in.
Editorial pieces are a cowriting experience, with everyone sitting round a table and deciding what the piece should say. Generally speaking, 3-4 people write the piece, each researching and writing their own paragraph. This happens at 7pm the evening before the editorial’s published. The record for writing an entire 450-word editorial stands at 32 minutes — I’m hoping to break it.
For an example, check out “Decriminalizing minor offenses a positive step“, where the WSN Editorial Board praised a city council proposal to reclassify relatively minor misdeeds such as public consumption of alcohol, being in a park after dark and public urination as civil rather than criminal offenses.
An op-ed is an individual writing a piece expressing their own opinion. One of the last op-eds we published in the Spring semester was “Jenner interview should be model for future,” in which Annie Cohen lauded Diane Sawyer’s sensitivity in Caitlyn Jenner’s first interview. The paper doesn’t have to agree with the opinion once it’s well-substantiated and in good taste.
Some tips from two semesters writing weekly op-ed pieces.
- Good ops pieces are three things: timely, relevant to students, and NYC-focused. Great articles have all three of these things, but you can get by with two. How timely are we talking here? A piece on something more than two weeks old doesn’t get published. (Although there was that time I wrote an op-ed which hinged on a 5-year-old news story. I changed the focus about 30 minutes before submitting it. Every rule gets bent occasionally.)
- The very best op-eds and editorials are about something the entire NYU community’s talking about. Something the entire student body is talking about is probably something the newspaper should be featuring, so write about blizzards, campus rape or city-wide protests where relevant.
- Ops pieces are 3-4 paragraphs — use the first to state your argument, one or two to back it up, and then the last paragraph to reiterate your thesis statement and tie it to some larger point.
- Specialize, but break out sometimes. When people ask what I write about, “technology, privacy and student life,” is my short answer. But there was that time I wrote about 50 Shades of Grey. Having a niche is good for story ideas (there’s always something happening in tech), but writing about a wide variety of topics offers the opportunity to grow.
- Use anecdotes sparingly. They’re good for teeing up an argument but ultimately your job as an op-ed writer is to convince me, the reader, that your point-of-view on a topic is right.
- Source your facts. If it’s not common knowledge (Obama = POTUS), source it, especially statistics etc.
Some weeks, an op-ed would be dropped in my lap. This was the nice part of being known as the guy who writes about tech. Other times, I’d be totally at a loss. How to come up with stories when you can’t think of anything.
- Don’t be afraid to ask around — senior staff (the editor-in-chief, the managing editor, and folks who work on news desks) will generally have a good idea of what’s going on around campus. Feel free to use them as your springboard. If they look annoyed, tell them Tommy sent you.
- I like writing about tech, politics, and NYC, so I follow a good few tech blogs, some political reporters, and some local news outlets like DNA Info.
- Follow the news. Almost all our editorials are in response to something the NYU administration did, or something big in the news.
I joined the WSN in fall of my freshman year, writing a handful of news stories before switching over to the opinion section in fall of my sophomore year, after spending some time around non-profits, advocacy and digital security literacy. Write to convince people, an activist friend at EFF told me, and so I gave it a try.
I can point to conversations with working journalists who tell me they wouldn’t dream of hiring someone who didn’t write for a news outlet in college. I can point to my resumé or the stack of newspapers and say I now have a body of work to draw from. I can point to the fact that writing well is like a muscle that improves with continued use and which, conversely, atrophies with neglect. I can point to the fact that it wasn’t until I started writing weekly columns —some on privacy, others on social justice, some on free speech, and a couple on housing— that I figured out what I wanted to do with my life or my major.
And while all of that’s true, it misses a more fundamental point.
I get to spend a few hours every week with a bunch of other people my age who also love writing. I feel part of a team, I learn, I try new things.
I joke that I’ll get my journalism degree from 838 Broadway, the paper’s address, rather than 20 Cooper Square, the journalism department’s address. But people I met in the WSN newsroom are people I call my best friends, and that rocks too.