Your opinion matters. But how you express that opinion in print can mean a yawning reader or one who can’t stop thinking about your ideas.

Writing something worth reading
Girl reads by flashlight under the covers. Illustration by News Decoder.

If you go to a gathering and someone starts to speak you will either pay attention or ignore them. A bad speaker will put people to sleep. A good one will attract a crowd. What’s the difference between how the two stories are told? Could you get the second reaction rather than the first with an article you write?

News Decoder publishes personal reflections pieces by our professional correspondents as well as from our student authors. Some of the latter have been selected as award winners in our twice yearly storytelling contests. But we don’t publish just any essay that comes our way.

There are some general criteria we follow when we decide if a personal reflections piece is worth publishing. We look for the stories that will attract the crowd, not produce yawns. Here is what we look for:

First, it needs to be an honest reflection of someone’s thoughts. That seems obvious, doesn’t it? But sometimes opinion pieces feel more like someone is pushing an idea or that it came out off an ideas assembly line.

In other words, it doesn’t seem as if  the person writing the article came up with the concepts themselves. Instead it seems as if they were spoon-fed the ideas. Does the article include political catchphrases of the day like, “It’s time to choose our own future,” “America First” or “European strategic economy”?

A journey of ideas

Ideas come across as honest when the author takes us through a path of knowledge and awareness. How did the person start thinking about these things? What direct observations did they make? Are they based on personal experiences?

Then, how did their thinking change? What changed their thoughts? When you write a compelling article based on personal reflections, you tell a story. All good stories are journeys. Sometimes journeys are external — you physically travel from one place to another. Sometimes they are internal — your thoughts evolve from one space to another.

A column by News Decoder founder Nelson Graves, for example, discussed how accuracy and objectivity were once sacred rules of journalism but now he worries that speed seems to be more highly valued. He takes readers through examples but then reaches this conclusion:

Still, I’m hopeful. Neither the GOP nor the Democratic Party will be quite the same a decade from now. At some point, like wide neck ties and narrow lapels, the principles we stood by — accuracy, balance, expertise, a global perspective — are bound to come back into fashion.

A compelling personal reflection story reaches a revelation — some moment where the author realizes something they never thought about before. Maybe it is a 180-degree turn — someone who thought they were young realizes they are old. Maybe it suddenly occurs to them that they are far from home, or that in some way perhaps they are no longer the same person they were just a little while ago.

Revelation without reservation

The revelation should tie to an important concept. Maybe it is something political. Maybe it reflects some sort of culture clash or how we relate to our fellow human beings.

A student from School Year Abroad in Spain last year wrote about what it felt like living in a foreign city. He wrote:

As the cold creeps into my room on a quiet evening, the piano quells any sense of loneliness and encourages me to try to read one of the leather-bound books. It reminds me to “seize the day” because I will never again be 17 running around a Spanish city I love so much. 

He realizes that his exhilaration has to do in part with his youth and having little responsibility and that both of these states are temporary. It occurs to him that this may be the freest he will ever be. So this is a story partly about adventure but also about becoming an adult.

Finally, the story needs to include details. Readers don’t connect to the abstract. You want to place your readers in a specific location and show them what you see and hear and smell and touch.

Show the reader what you see and hear.

News Decoder published a story in 2019, by a student from Ryerson University in Toronto, for example, about the duality of being Chinese Canadian. The student described being at a lion dance performance and wrote this:

Suddenly a lion reared up on its hind legs, going in for the kill. At the last second it pulled away, circling around, rising up to strike, and then falling away again in a ritualistic trance. The audience roared and cheered, waiting in anticipation. I watched its head twist and writhe under the sun, its mouth gaping in my direction.

In that paragraph, we see the lion move and we hear the audience. We are there with the author, experiencing what she experiences, so that when she reaches the conclusion that being Chinese Canadian is living a duality, we understand how she came to think that:

I feel symbolically connected to the lion. It takes two to make the lion come alive, one at the head and one at the tail. Those commanding the head and the tail might have conflicting values, but in the end they work in harmony.

A personal reflection story can be a tedious read. Think about a relative who drones on and on about what it was like when he was a kid, or a teacher lecturing you on a topic you have no interest in. But then again, there’s that uncle who tells great stories you would listen to over and over, and the teacher who gets you excited to learn.

The difference? The good storytellers and teachers are thinking about their audience as they tell the story. They don’t just expect you to follow along. As a storyteller you need to connect to your audience if you want to keep them awake.

Then again, a nice nap is often appreciated.

Questions to consider:

  1. Why do you think readers might have a difficult time connecting to abstract ideas?
  2. What does the author mean by “political catch phrases” and why should you avoid them when writing an opinion column?
  3. If you were to write a personal reflections article, what topic might you focus on?

Marcy Burstiner is the Educational News Director for News Decoder. She is a graduate of the Columbia Journalism School and has taught journalism for more than 15 years at the California Polytechnic University, Humboldt. She is the author of the book Investigative Reporting: From premise to publication

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