Notes From a Hired Pen

Four steps to writing persuasive commentary

On Friday, Philadelphia Magazine ran my commentary about a new law that could ban smoking in all of New Jersey’s parks and beaches. I wrote about why this ban would be ineffectual if an amendment allowing for smoking beaches became part of the final bill.

I think this is a rather simple argument to make since smoking kills, and second hand smoke is a known carcinogen. But I knew I couldn’t just say that and expect people to agree with me, since I’ve written about this topic before and smokers came after me telling me I’m a moron. I knew they’d probably call me a moron again, but I at least wanted to present a sound case.

Here’s what I do when I write commentary, using this piece as an example:

1. List all the points in favor of my argument. In this case, those were:
-Restaurants pre-indoor smoking bans were unpleasant
-Beach winds can be strong and will carry smoke
-A handful of N.J. beaches have already banned smoking
-Cigarette butts are the number one type of beach trash recovered in New Jersey
-Second hand smoke has 70 known carcinogens

2. List all the points in favor of the opposite side’s arguments. In this case, there was only one I felt I needed to address:
-Smokers have rights
-Wind dissipates smoke

3. Then rebut the other side’s arguments
-Smokers have the right to smoke in their own space, but do they not have the right to pollute beaches and put cancer-causing smoke into an environment of mostly non-smokers
-There is no barrier that’s going to contain smoke in an environment that’s often windy

4. Write your column.

This was a simple argument to make since I had only two points to argue against, and “cancer” is a pretty good trump card. I could used more supporting data, but I already did a longer version of this piece last year when the bill was first introduced, which you can read here.

If you read the comments, you’ll see that the arguments against mine rely on calling real science “junk science,” something about big government, a vague point about smokers paying more taxes, and then blaming me for sitting next to a smoker – which is not something I do. I move if a smoker sits down next to me (that same person also said we should ban crying babies from the beach because it’s the same thing. I’m pretty sure a fussy child doesn’t cause cancer). **UPDATE** They’re now in conspiracy theory territory, which is where many of these comments go to eventually.

I am also, apparently, a ninny.

You’re never going to make everyone happy when writing about a controversial topic, but you can take away as many of their arguments as possible by backing up your points using facts and research (assuming you don’t misinterpret the research). Of course, two people can use the same set of data and come to two different conclusions, as happened with the Miss America pageant, which I thought was a much more complicated topic to write about than a smoking ban. I wrote this. My friend Amy wrote this. Both arguments make sense because we both back up our opinions. I disagree with her, and she disagrees with me, but we can see how we each came to our conclusions.

If you read both of those Miss America pieces, you can also see why writing commentary can be hard. To go back to my running column, writing a piece like this takes a lot more work than this (which is why I don’t write a column like the first one every week). Not only do you need to do the same amount of research as when writing a straight news story, but you also must then figure out how to tie all of that information together to make your point in a persuasive way.

I started using that three-step process when I wrote op/eds and editorials in college. This isn’t to brag, but to show that on some level this method works: In college, I won a regional award and was then a finalist in a national Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence collegiate award for editorial writing. That Miss America piece just won first place in a New Jersey Society of Professional Journalists competition [PDF], too.

That’s how I do it. Any other commentary writers have tips to offer? And if you want to leave a comment about the possible smoking ban, please leave those comments on the Philadelphia Magazine website, not here.

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