Wednesday, September 10, 2003

You too Can Be a Hero Columnist

Thanks to regular reader and commenter dj, for prompting me to get off my bum on Monday and head down to the local newsagent where I was able to grab the last remaining copy of the rainforest edition of The Australian. On page 18, The Oz's school reporter, Sascha Hutchinson, offers some helpful hints for winners of the Caltex All Rounder competition who would like to try their hand at writing an oped [sic] piece for publication in The Oz.

Most of the helpful hints come from working professionals, of the high calibre to be found in the pages of The Oz, such as Janet Albrechtsen. Since the contest's theme is based on an idea from one of Janet's own columns, that "Free speech includes the right to say the wrong - or unpopular - thing", it shouldn't be surprising that a good deal of the helpful advice comes from Janet herself. Here it all is in one lump:

The oped pieces I enjoy reading most are ones that spark debate. The author knows ehat he or she wants to say, knows how to say it well and leaves the reader with a message ...

It is like having a great conversation with someone - except [it's] on the page. You nod in agreement or you shake your head madly in dissent. This is what an oped writer tries to elicit - and clean crisp language and simple sentences beat big words and convoluted sentences any day ...

Whether your style is funny or formal, strident or soft, the arguments and evidence for your opinion need to be there.

If you're expecting that the rest of this post will be looking at Janet's most recent column, to see how well she puts precept into practice, you're right on the money. Here's Janet's conversation starter:

SEPTEMBER 11 stands as a testament to the two sides of humanity – the evil of those who perpetrated the terrorist attacks and the innate goodness, bravery and compassion of others forced to confront them. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, the freedom to remember is too quickly transformed into a licence to forget.

I'm sure you'll agree that if someone opened up with that line at a dinner party, or over a cup of flat white at the local coffee shop, your ears would prick up and you would think to yourself "Wow! I'm in the presence of a great conversationalist. This might turn out so dreary after all." Sadly, you'd be disappointed by Janet's next six paragraphs, after hearing her long exposition of the views of "one of Australia's most distinguished historians, Geoffrey Blainey", you might start to suspect you were in the presence of either a name-dropping parvenu or one of those tedious, lazy people who are content to agree with whatever they have just read, in Quadrant say, and pass it off as their own opinion.

IN the next five paragraphs, Janet turns elsewhere - to The Economist, a 1999 BBC poll, an on-line search of Dymock's catalogue - to find the "arguments and evidence" for the opinion she has borrowed shares with Blainey. She finds alarming confirmation of her Blainey's views in the fact that books "favorable to Marx" (according to The Economist) appear at a much more frequent rate than books favorable to Adam Smith. She notes:

A search of titles in the University of Sydney's library brings up twice as many on Marx as on Smith. Is this to warn students off Marxism and communism? Unlikely. More likely that prosperity and complacency have lulled us into forgetting evil.

Well, it might be a little short on argument and evidence, but at least the crisp clean language and simple sentences are there. To finish, it's back to Blainey, with a few insights from Janet into the thinking behind the great man's writing [I wonder how Blainey feels about op-ed writers' habit of opening up his head to drop a few of their own ideas in]:

Blainey's is a sober assessment from someone devoted to teaching and explaining history. He admits that we do not necessarily learn from history.

"But I would like to think we did," he adds, knowing he is probably being more hopeful about human nature than history warrants. His prediction is prescient given tomorrow's second anniversary of September 11. For those who have never experienced the evils of communism, September 11 is our reminder of the two sides of humanity. Recalling humanity's capacity for evil is one way of protecting ourselves from it in the future.

I'm not sure what the connection between September 11 and communism is - no doubt this will emerge in due course, and we can expect the "islamo-fascist" tag to be replaced by "islamo-communist". Life would be a lot easier if people would just keep their spectres straight.

No comments: