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Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds Thank you very much for talking to us today. We’ll be discussing specifically your column for the Sunday Express. So you run a weekly column in the Sunday Express where you share your opinions on a variety of topics and events that have happened through the week. How long have you been doing this? Well, now you’re asking a question. I think I actually only started in January this year. We used to take copy from London. And we felt that the London copy wasn’t relevant to what’s happening in Scotland. It was ignoring a lot of the topics that are big here. So then I was asked to do it. I quite enjoy it, actually. Yes? Why so?

Skip to 0 minutes and 47 seconds Because it allows me to vent my opinions on things that maybe otherwise I couldn’t vent my opinion on. So it’s a good way to highlight issues. It’s a good way to ask people to explain themselves. It’s a good way to address topics that have got kind of wider impact on communities. It’s generally the stuff that you cannot write in a news story or feature story. So it’s a great avenue to raise questions that might otherwise never be asked. Actually, you led into the second question that I have, which is it writing a column different from writing new stories or features? Yes, because it’s very emotive. It’s very subjective.

Skip to 1 minute and 27 seconds It’s all about how you see or feel or view things that are happening. So if I interview a politician, it has to be straight. I mean, obviously you can use words that give you kind of maybe give your own perspective away. But if I’m writing about the said politician, maybe they’ve given a speech and I don’t agree with their topics, then I can really not tear them apart, but I can really offer my own side of things and why I’m angered or why I support what they’re saying. So it’s a great avenue to express opposing views, I guess, or even supportive views as well.

Skip to 2 minutes and 3 seconds So one of the things that journalists do when they write news or features is that they do a lot of background research. Do you also do that for writing opinion pieces and columns? For columns, it’s slightly different, because columns have to be topical. So it has to be something that is in the news at the time or something that people are discussing at the time. So of course, you still have to do the research. You can’t just go and start firing away without knowing the facts, because that will very quickly show. But I would say it’s less research than for say a features piece, simply because it’s more topical. And it’s for this week.

Skip to 2 minutes and 44 seconds And next week, it’ll be an old subject and nobody really probably cares unless it’s something that rumbles on. And how do you decide what to include in your column, because it’s a very - you pick several key topics and you discuss them, so culture or economics or politics. How do you pick those specific things over others? Because our paper comes out once a week, it’s quite handy. I read through all the newspapers every day of the week, so starting on Tuesday, going through everything.

Skip to 3 minutes and 13 seconds And over the week, whatever kind of catches my attention, whether it’s something that I think a lot of people care about, whether it’s something that is particularly glamorous and makes a nice picture, whether it is something that is going to either anger or affect a lot of people, I’m hoping that I’m managing to pick up topics that are the ones that are probably most discussed about or have got the widest impact on the readers. So we’ve been talking actually with participants about news values.

Skip to 3 minutes and 49 seconds And I can sense a lot of the news values that we’ve been talking about, you actually mentioning them, the impact and conflict sometimes that make even for picking up things for a column, so not only for writing news stories, the same news values apply, right? Absolutely. There are people who would use their column to really attack individuals. But I think that’s almost like abusing your power, if you like, because it’s not about individuals. You can disagree or agree with people. But it shouldn’t be about one individual, unless you’re having a bit of a laugh about somebody. Maybe somebody who’s very posh and rich is giving you advice on how to save money and you can just have fun with that.

Skip to 4 minutes and 32 seconds But if it’s something about a strike or if it’s about health care, it’s generally something that can affect everyone of us. And I think that’s where the angle should come from. OK. Great. Let’s talk a little bit about the writing. What techniques do you use to make your writing strong and relatable? I always think there should be a little bit of humour in there, because it makes it slightly lighter and might attract people. I like to start with something that’s kind of a lighter aspect to whatever item I’m going through at that point. But then the point has to come very quickly about what is the point that you’re trying to make and why you picked that particular topic.

Skip to 5 minutes and 18 seconds Because you don’t have much space. I mean your commentaries are pretty short. No, it’s about 550 words for the big piece. And then you get between four and five smaller ones. And you need to have a glamorous picture, of course, too, because that pulls people in as well. And you just have to keep to the point. You have to kind of understand in your own head what is it that you’re trying to say. And I guess it’s a learning curve as well. You learn every week. You write and you think, mmm, that’s kind of fluffy.

Skip to 5 minutes and 45 seconds And you try to maybe go through it again and make it a bit more to the point, try to really highlight why this is the issue that you’re getting your teeth into that particular week. And so something that actually with my own students in journalism we talk about is you never get the perfect story with the first draft, right? You keep rewriting it and editing it several times until you’re happy with something? You have to. Everybody’s different. The way I write, for example, I interview somebody. I immediately write out the quotes. And then by going through them, you start thinking, how am I going to - where’s the line? What’s the strongest point to go with?

Skip to 6 minutes and 27 seconds And in many ways it’s the same for opinion pieces really, because you have to think, what’s the strongest point? And then you structure based on that. But if I left it on one draft, goodness me, the spelling errors and the grammatical errors would be just all over the shop. So it’s best to give it, maybe if you have time, give it a few minutes. Then go back to it and have a look. Change things around. Correct where it’s clumsy. If it’s clumsy or obvious, then you tend to notice that afterwards, when it’s in the print and you just kick yourself thinking I should have picked that up. So it’s good to go through it several times. Yes.

Skip to 7 minutes and 0 seconds And what do you see as a well-written commentary? My column. Only joking. I think a well-written opinion piece is anything that makes you think. It provokes thought. It provokes opinion. You can disagree with it, obviously. Or it might be something that you totally agree with. But it’s something that tends to voice what you think maybe the majority of the readers would be thinking. I read somewhere that you should always be very controversial. But I don’t believe in that. I don’t think - being controversial for that sake, it’s not helping anyone.

Skip to 7 minutes and 38 seconds But something that most people would maybe kind of have an opinion on and that vents some of the - because at the end of the day, the writer is just an ordinary person from the street. They have opinions just like anyone else. So chances are that you’re not alone in your way of thinking. Yes. Yeah. Absolutely. We’ve been talking a bit also this week about theories of persuasion, because very often when readers write letters to the editor to a newspaper they try to share their opinions, but also persuade others of their opinions being the right ones. And sometimes when journalists write opinions or columns, they also try to persuade readers to lean one way or another.

Skip to 8 minutes and 23 seconds Do you see your column as a way to persuade your readers? I think in some topics, you’d want them to at least see where you’re coming from. And if you can really manage to highlight what you want to say and your views on it, then chances are that one or two people might come to kind of lean towards your way of thinking. They maybe didn’t have an opinion before, didn’t maybe understand the topic or maybe just never gave it much thought. And then someone does that for them and they go, oh yeah. That’s actually a good point. Or more often than not it’s they totally disagree with you. But then you tend to get feedback from these people.

Skip to 9 minutes and 4 seconds That’s good, because then you have interaction with the reader. That’s good. You’re again going into my next question already– Sorry. …which is, no, this is great. What if the opinion that you express in your column is actually controversial and a lot of people disagree with it and it is unpopular? Have you had such cases? And how do you deal with that? I would normally try to highlight that next time around, if there was anyone who totally or several people who totally disagreed, then I would give them the - make sure that they know that I have received their feedback and I can see where they’re coming from.

Skip to 9 minutes and 40 seconds But I would still stick to my guns probably, unless of course somebody could - it could work the other way around. They might point out something that I hadn’t realised before. And I’d go, oh, actually that’s a point. You might be going somewhere here. But bizarrely, the biggest response I’ve had had to do with the independence debate. And that’s been quite interesting, because obviously - That’s not bizarre at all. Everybody is so passionate about it. Yeah, I guess so. But it’s a very emotive issue. And it’s interesting, because you either get your head bitten off or you get the praise for highlighting things. And you had, actually, a short piece about that, about JK Rowling - Oh, yes.

Skip to 10 minutes and 18 seconds -in the last spread that we’ll share with participants. And the storm that she caused online with her donation to one of the camps. Yeah. Jim Sillars, who is a former SNP leader, he wrote an open letter to the government and whoever is listening. And he said that they’re so-called cybernats. And it must be remembered that it’s not just the yes side that’s the storm here. It’s the other side is as bad as the - for some reason they don’t seem to get the same stick. But Jim Sillars said that the so-called cybernats are the biggest blessing for the no side, because they are putting voters off. And it’s such a shame. They’re making the debate very negative. Yeah. The haters.

Skip to 11 minutes and 3 seconds Absolutely. Yeah. So a more conceptual question. What is the role of commentary and opinion in today’s journalism? Oh.

Skip to 11 minutes and 16 seconds I think it probably makes it a bit more personal, I would think. It adds the personal touch to things. You might see bylines and you don’t know anything about the person who’s writing it. It’s just the house style. It’s the paper’s style. But with the opinion piece and the comment piece or a column, it becomes much more personal. And you can maybe learn a bit more about the writer as well as much as about the newspaper. And I think, yeah, human touch I would say. I might be wrong here, but that’s how I feel about it. Yeah. And a final question.

Skip to 11 minutes and 56 seconds What would be your advice for novice reporters or people who are maybe just thinking about doing some writing on how to start with sharing your opinions and writing opinion pieces or commentaries? Where do we start? Where do they start? I think one thing do is to try and read other commentators or columnists. At The Daily Mail Jan Moir, she’s an excellent one, although a very controversial one. But it’s just interesting to see how she tackles certain topics. And there are a number of others. In every paper they are different. But I quite enjoy that, because like I said, it makes the paper a bit more human in some ways.

Skip to 12 minutes and 38 seconds I think it’s to think about a topic that is really getting your attention, whether it’s tax or death or boycotting something or going on strike, but if it’s something that really gets your attention, whether it’s because you absolutely hate the idea or whether it’s because you totally support it, then start thinking about it. How would you write it? What would you want to say? What do you want to achieve by saying that? And then practise makes perfect, I’ve been told. Yes. Indeed. Any questions finally that I forgot to ask? Anything you want to add? No. I think that covers it quite well. That covers it? OK. Thank you so much for participating. Thank you very much. Thank you.

The process of writing your opinion

Paula Murray, columnist for the Scottish Sunday Express, writes a weekly column where she tackles current news and issues that attract her attention. Watch this video of Dr Petya Eckler interviewing her.

Based on what Paula says, and the material we have covered in the week so far, what do you think ought to be the role of commentary and opinion pieces in journalism today? Please post your thoughts in the comments area.

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This video is from the free online course:

Introduction to Journalism

University of Strathclyde