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Analytical Writing

By Michael Petrou, journalist

There are two main types of analytical writing in newspapers: editorials and opinion columns.

Editorials are usually printed on one page, towards the back of a newspaper's front section. In tabloid-style newspapers, which are smaller and consist of only one section, the editorial page can be found towards the end of the news pages. The page is usually labeled "Editorials," but is easy to recognize because it also often contains a large editorial cartoon in the top right corner of the page.

Opinion columns are often found on the page opposite the editorial page. The page is usually labeled "Opinions" or "Comment." Opinion columns may be found elsewhere in the newspaper as well, especially on the page preceding the editorial page. Opinion columns are usually labeled as such, to separate them from news reports.

The main difference between analytical writing and news reports is that editorials and opinion columns are subjective rather than objective. This means that they express an opinion or make an argument. A news report, for example, might list various mistakes that a politician has committed. It would not however, go on to state that because of these mistakes the politician should resign. An editorial or an opinion column, however, may do exactly this.

When reading an editorial or an opinion column, it is helpful to imagine that the writer is engaged in a debate with his or her readers. The writer is trying to persuade you or convince you that a certain point of view is the correct one. There are, however, important differences between editorials and opinion columns.

An editorial is generally written on behalf of the entire newspaper. It represents the point of view of not just the writer, but of the newspaper at large. In reality, of course, not everyone at the paper will agree with any given editorial. But in principle, an editorial speaks for the newspaper as an institution, not just the person who has written it.

There are two types of editorials: consensus editorials and signed editorials.

Consensus editorials are not signed by the author, so it is impossible for the reader to know who wrote the editorial. This is to emphasize the collective argument that is being made on behalf of the newspaper. Typically, four or five senior editors from the newspaper's editorial board will meet to discuss the editorial topic. After they have reached a consensus, one of the senior editors, often the editorial page editor, will write the editorial on their behalf.

The stand that the editorial board takes in the editorials may be influenced to a degree by the owner or publisher of the newspaper, but the publisher and owner rarely take part in the day-to-day editorial board meetings.

Signed editorials are similar to consensus editorials, with the exception that the author is clearly identified with a byline and often with a small photograph as well. Signed editorials are usually written by a senior editor, sometimes the editor-in-chief. As they run on the editorial page and are written by senior members of the editorial board, signed editorials carry the weight of the newspaper as an institution behind them, but they are generally understood to reflect the views of the individual author. Signed editorials, as opposed to consensus editorials, are much more common in French-language newspapers in Canada than they are in English ones.

It is important to note that in a typical newspaper office journalists who write news reports and journalists who write or discuss editorials, never work in the same area. This is because of the fundamental difference between editorials and news reporting: news reporting is supposed to be objective and editorials are meant to express an opinion. The physical division in a newsroom is symbolic of this difference. It also prevents news reporters from knowing what stand an upcoming editorial might take on an issue they are writing about, which could influence how their report is written.

Opinion columns, like editorials, express an opinion; but the opinion expressed belongs solely to the column's author, not to the newspaper or to the editorial board. In fact, it is quite common for an opinion column to argue against an opinion expressed in an editorial in the same newspaper.

Opinion columns might be written by columnists who are employed by the newspaper, or by guest writers who have some expertise to share or a specific argument to make. Politicians and others in the public eye will also frequently write opinion columns -- to refute accusations made against them, to test ideas and to express themselves to potential voters who might not otherwise pay attention to them.

When evaluating editorials and opinion columns, pay attention to whether the arguments made are supported by evidence. A good writer will back up his or her arguments with examples. If there are obvious counter-arguments, these should also be addressed and dealt with.

Ultimately, however, the best way to judge an opinion column is to imagine that the writer is a trial lawyer making a closing argument and that the readers are sitting on the jury. If the writer is able convince the readers that his or her point of view is correct, or can even make them reconsider their previously held opinions, the column or editorial may be considered a success.