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Column: Have opinions? Back them up with facts
Shannon Casas
Shannon Casas

It’s easy to express opinions. Read a headline and you can immediately react without ever reading the story or doing any other research. But persuasive opinion writing, that’s something else entirely. That requires some factual evidence to backup that opinion. 

The Times publishes some persuasive opinion writing in the form of columns, editorials and letters to the editor. Some of those writings are more persuasive than others, but any reader can take a stab at the last.

When I became editor in chief here at The Times, I inherited management of the Opinion content, including letters to the editor. We have a few standard rules and procedures.

  • Letters must be 500 words or less. Some letter writers use every last word available to them. The best news writing is usually clear and concise. You can make a point well with an allotment of 500 words, and if you can’t, well you obviously didn’t have an old, cranky editor cutting half the words out of your articles. I can cut a word here and there for you, but if you turn in 1,200 words, you’ll have to be your own old, cranky editor. On the other end of the spectrum, every once in a while I’ll receive a “letter” that is one or two sentences. That’s not a letter folks, that’s a Facebook comment.

  • Letter writers must sign their name. Nothing publishes anonymously. I don’t get too many letters from those wanting to publish anonymously — in the age of social media, signing your name doesn’t seem to deter many from putting their outlandish opinions out into the world.

  • Writers can be published once every 30 days. Some of you have a writer or two who you’d rather see less often. I’ll keep my mouth shut on that subject. Except, I will say the same rules apply to everyone, and you’re welcome to take the time to write down your opinion and submit it every 30 days, too. If the letter writers follow our rules, they usually get published.

Those are the easy rules. The harder one is this:

  • We don’t print inaccurate information. 

Writers on our staff at the paper know the importance of sourcing their articles. Nothing is pulled out of thin air. Anything they write is going to be attributed to a person, document or legitimate website. 

Of course, writers on staff at the paper have been trained. They all have a four-year degree in journalism or a related field. Letter writers don’t have that advantage. So, assuming letter writers want to make their writing more persuasive, here’s some advice:

  • Include some facts. When you put forth your opinion, provide the evidence that led you there. Whether a reader agrees with your opinion or not, you’ll do a better job of persuading them that you know what you’re talking about if you back it up with facts. 

  • Provide the sources for those facts. This is a somewhat selfish request — it can be difficult for me to fact check your letter if I don’t know where you pulled your information from. That said, any judicious reader also wants to know where your facts came from so they can decide for themselves whether that’s a trustworthy source. To that end, these sources should be included within the body of your letter, not links as addendums just for my benefit and written like a term paper with citations. A simple “according to” so-and-so works just fine, preferably with a hyperlink.

  • Think about the other side of the argument and write to refute their points. If you leave gaping, obvious holes in your letter, you didn’t make a convincing argument. You could even go so far as asking someone on the other side of the debate to look it over for you and point out these holes. 

It is possible to appreciate an argument that you ultimately disagree with, but only if it’s argued well. Please, send me opinions on all sides, but make your arguments well.

Shannon Casas is editor in chief of The Times and a North Hall resident.