Columns, cartoons, letters

Editorial writing

Editorials represent the consensus opinion of the Northern Star’s editorial board on a particular issue. Generally they should relate to a news story. Here are a few types of editorials:

1. Interpretative or explanatory
2. Critical or persuasive
3. Appreciative or praise-giving
4. Entertaining or humorous
5. 10-second — quick hit

Organizing it

1. Select a topic that is specific, timely and of interest to readers.
2. Have a purpose in mind. What are you going to tell people to do or think?
3. Be sure you fully understand your topic. Research — get reliable information. Use newspapers, magazines, library, Internet, etc.
4. Ask yourself: Has the Star run a news story about this topic? Should it, before we editorialize?

Writing it

1. State an opinion in the first sentence. Editorials have leads, just like news stories. They tell readers where you’re headed. Keep the lead short and concise.
2. Develop the body using facts. Build a strong case. Don’t use more details from the news story than needed to build your case. Get in and get out.
3. Document quotes and sources, just as you would in a news story.
4. Avoid a preachy tone. Criticism should be constructive and offer a solution.
5. Remember that the best way to win an argument is to lay out the opposing argument, then shoot holes in it. Then, tell why your solution is better.
6. Anticipate questions and objections to your argument. Answer them.
7. Write in third-person voice. Don’t say “We think …”
8. Remember, short editorials usually are more effective than long ones. Readers stay interested.
9. Suggest a solution, or an action, in the final sentence.
9a. If you’re telling people to take action, tell them how. For instance, if you tell readers to write their congressman, give the address and e-mail address. Don’t make them go look it up. They won’t.
10. Don’t neglect the headline. Think of it as an important part of your editorial. It is.

Other tips

  • Never write an editorial without research. You might write one in anger once in a while, but don’t run it without letting your anger cool, then reviewing what you wrote.
  • Have an early enough deadline for editorials that there’s sufficient time for another editor to review what you wrote. Last-minute, hurried editorials tend to be the weakest.

Column Writing

Columns give writers a chance to do things they can’t do as reporters: inject personal opinion and experience into what they write. This is a chance for the writer to become intimate with his/her readers. You can speak your mind, reveal things that have helped shape your life, make people laugh or make them cry. Or, you can take news and feature writing another step by injecting your observations and opinions.

Who makes a good columnist?
First, and obviously, the best writers often make the best columnists. But a columnist also needs insight, and a keen awareness of the world. You need to be interested in people and understand what’s important to them. As a columnist, you’ll run across numerous column ideas every day. About the only reason you won’t have ideas is that you’re not trying. Read newspapers and magazines every day. Listen to conversations in public places. Listen to talk radio. In short, know what people are talking about and address topics keyed to that.

Types of columns
You’ll develop your own style and tone. Readers will start to associate your column with that particular style. You might prefer an investigative style, or humorous, or one where you profile an interesting personality or situation (and add your own commentary). Chances are, you’ll come up with a hybrid style all your own. Remember, successful columnists maintain a consistent style; readers know what to expect from you in terms of style, quality and insight.

But … though your style may be predictable, your choice of topics should not be. Don’t give readers a reason to read the headline, see your
picture and say, “There she goes again” and turn the page.

Humor is difficult to write well. That’s why good humor columnists are at such a premium. What’s funny to one person may not be funny to someone else. What you think is a hilarious personal experience for you and your friends might, in a column, end up making you look foolish. Or boring. Or worse. None of this is to say don’t try writing humor. But it’s a good idea to bounce it off someone (not a close friend) to tell you if it’s really funny.

Political commentary: If you want to write about national or international issues, first ask yourself two questions:

  • What do I bring to this debate that is original? (Not just parroting my favorite liberal or conservative columnist or commentator)
  • How can I bring this topic home so NIU and DeKalb readers see an impact on them?

If you can’t come up with good, honest answers to those questions, why would anyone want to read your column? And why would an editor want to run it?

Personal experience: These can be funny, serious, sad, poignant. The key is creating an emotional connection with your reader. Look for experiences readers will identify with. Minimize the use of the word “I” – it can make the writer appear too self-absorbed.

Before you write a column

The best thing you can do to learn how to write columns is to read good columnists. Find at least three or four you like and read them regularly. Don’t necessarily copy their style, but do learn from the way they make their points.

A key to good column writing is research. Don’t just sit at the computer and write off the top of your head without delving into an issue. Use newspapers, magazines, books and the Internet to research your column. Interview sources and quote them directly. Quotes can be as vital to a column as to a news story (especially for a personality profile). All of this works together to make your commentary believable and credible.

Don’t rely on second-hand quotes
Too many novice columnists rely on Internet research alone, and the result reads more like a term paper or a book report than a newspaper column. It’s OK to quote sparingly from another publication (with proper credit, of course), but this is your column. Get out and talk to people – especially those affected by your topic. Give readers something they can’t get anywhere else.

A good column is structured much like a good news story. It has a beginning that has to grab the reader, a logical body linked by good transitions, and a memorable ending. And, just like in a news story, it’s important to be concise. Don’t write long, windy paragraphs (unless you use that technique to be funny). Keep it simple. And keep it personal.

Be careful
Yes, you can voice your opinion in a column. Remember, though, that columns are held to the same legal standards (and the Star’s own standards of good taste) as anything else in the paper. Know what can get you in trouble, and be careful.

Talk to your editor
It’s a good idea to tell your editor several days in advance what your next column’s topic will be. You editor may have helpful advice or warnings. Also, this greatly decreases the chances of your column being rejected.


Over the years, cartoons have caused the Northern Star more criticism than any other part of the newspaper. Cartoons are subject to the same decency standards as the rest of the Northern Star – both in pictures and language.

In addition, cartoonists must be cautious about racial matters:

  • Do not exaggerate facial features or include anything else in a cartoon that would reinforce racial or ethnic stereotypes.
  • If a cartoon is commenting on a racial issue, be sure the point is clearly understandable … and realize that it probably will be misinterpreted by some readers. Is the cartoon worth the flak you and the Star may take?
  • Do not use animals to represent members of racial or ethnic groups. And, if someone could conceivably think that a cartoon animal refers to them, it’s best to avoid it.

Letters to the Editor

The Star must apply the same legal standards to letters to the editor as it does with any news story. The Star is liable for everything it publishes, both in print and online, regardless of who wrote it. Any libel, invasion of privacy or copyright infringement in a letter must be spotted and removed before the letter is published.

Verifying letters to the editor

No letter to the editor should appear in the Northern Star’s print or online editions before it is verified – that is, until the editor is sure
that the person whose name is on the letter or e-mail is really the person who wrote it.

The process:

1. In all cases, even if it’s a “regular” letter writer, the person must be contacted by phone or in person – not solely by e-mail. E-mail
addresses can be faked or fabricated.

2. Look up the number in a telephone directory (print or online). Do not just call the number listed on the letter. That could be fake, too.

3. When you reach the person by phone, say something like: “We received a letter to the editor from you, and I’m calling to verify that you wrote it and would like it to be published. Could you summarize your letter in a sentence or two?”

4. Once everything checks out, mark the letter “Verified,” along with your name and the date. If it’s an e-mailed letter, print it
and mark it the same way.

Tricky situations

For hand-delivered letters: Ask the person for a driver’s license and match the name on the license with the name on the letter.

If a person’s number is unlisted and the letter was e-mailed: E-mail the person back and ask him/her to stop by the Star so we can verify the

If the number is unlisted and the letter was snail-mailed: Snail-mail the person back and ask him/her to stop by the Star for verification.

Other things to watch for:

Same names. If the person has a common name (like Robert Smith), or if you see more than one of the same name listed in the phone directory, also get a middle initial. That way, conservative Robert Smith doesn’t get mad when liberal Robert Smith states an opinion.

Use good judgment. A letter that congratulates the flower club on a successful garden show does not need the same amount of scrutiny as a letter that accuses a public official of wrongdoing.