Writing as a reporter, a Citizen Journalist, requires a cool touch that can be hard to make exciting. That’s probably why it’s not all that popular on the internet. Most of the writing that we see in a political or newsworthy context isn’t writing to inform but to convince. It usually runs hotter with an urgency that propels the story forward easily. It may be a lot of fun to write, but it is even harder to do well. Writing to convince is a kind of organizing that has its own sense of quality. This is my attempt at defining it.
Quality in Citizen Journalism should serve as a starting point for a good organizing piece for many reasons. If you are trying to convince people of your position, you have to first engage them. The principles of the Five Ws, putting the meat first, and strong writing still apply. Convincing people of your position, for all the glamour, is only harder because there is more that you need to have present. You need the skills of an organizer.
Issues and Interest: People come into nearly all movements because of issues that they are passionate about and want to advance. Usually, this takes the form of a personal interest in protecting their family, advancing their social status, or correcting an injustice. This may seem petty and narrow, especially to people with experience organizing environmental issues where immediate interest isn’t obvious. But if you want to get people’s attention, there’s no better place to start than what’s in it for them. What you define is how that interest is advanced by working together.
Let’s start with a classic example of organizing: The Douglas Neighborhood is under siege from slumlords, predatory lenders, and criminals. People have moved out, but you want to convince those who are still there to fight together. The interest is an easy one – quality of life and the value of property. Never forget that it’s that simple.
Objectives: Organizing people just to get to know each other may be good, but you don’t need a writer to do that. Writing to convince means that there is a clear objective which is achievable as a group but difficult to achieve on your own. In this example, that might be to make life miserable for the largest slumlords one at a time so that they either clean up or move on.
The Target: Every achievable objective has a clear target. As Alinsky told us, “Pick the target, freeze it, personify it, and polarize it.” That target comes directly from the Objective that you have in mind. If the target has come first, such as a politician you want to defeat, you have to back up – if there’s no definable interest or objective, you’re just doing character assassination. Go back to the start and come up with a wedge issue that makes the target terribly vulnerable.
In the Douglas example, you find a large slumlord you can clearly identify, personifying the terrible things that are occurring in the neighborhood. Run down the litany of his crimes and what’s been done to try to bring him around without success.
Straight Up: Many people writing opinion pieces rely on sarcasm or cute verbal tricks to make their point. Do not do this. Writing to convince is about reaching out to people who aren’t in on the movement already, which is to say that they may not understand anything that isn’t perfectly straight up and to the point. Wit is useful to skewer your Target and bring them down to small size, but it has to hit hard and true to work. If you’re sarcastic, people who aren’t in your group may not “get it” and feel like they are on the outside of an inside game.
In the example, you may be tempted to attach a name like “Moonbat” or something similar to the landlord you are trying to skewer, but if it’s not obvious to people who have never met the man – or if it makes fun of a physical deformity that some people may be sensitive to – it’s an inside joke. Stick to the obvious words like “slumlord” that polarize and define easily without creating a sympathetic backlash.
Heart and Arm and Brain: All good writing, especially writing to convince, has an appeal to the heart, good reasoning for the head, and a distinct course of action that outlines how the reader can get involved. All three, working together, are what builds movements. You can write very well and get people very excited on a topic, but if you don’t outline exactly what they need to do the energy will dissipate. Specific courses of action are the goal.
Back in Douglas ‘hood, a call for people to join a confrontation with the landlord in solidarity with neighbors might be what’s needed. Whatever the event or action, the better it is defined the more sharp your response will be.
In the end, writing an opinion piece is only as effective as its ability to organize. As a friend of mine once put it, “Organizing is about working side by side, hand in hand, day after day with people you don’t even like!” It’s about the effort, always, so writing to convince has to propel people to get involved and get working. The work, not the writing, is what a successful movement is all about. Remember that always.
But if there’s something I missed, please tell me in the comments. Like my piece on quality Citizen Journalism, this is a work in progress. Thanks!