PPS 195S.94: Column Opinion Writing

Writer: 
January 31, 2006
William Raspberry

William Raspberry

If there is one thing William Raspberry knows how to do, it's write newspaper columns. He has been a syndicated columnist for The Washington Post for thirty-nine years. In theory, teaching a how-to class on the subject ought to be a walk in the park. However, "Column Opinion Writing" has proved to be much more difficult for the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist.

"I've learned to write columns over the years, so much of what I do has become second nature," he says. "And because of that, I don't consciously think about what I'm doing while I write. I'm now forced to back off and analyze my writing process in a way that I haven't before. There are people who shoot beautiful jumpshots, but can't quite tell you what you're doing wrong when you try, because what they do isn't conscious anymore. The same is true for me."

Despite the difficulties, Raspberry is optimistic about the course, viewing it as an opportunity to grow. "I'm learning how to teach while my students are learning how to write," he says.

What Raspberry expects from his students is that they learn to express their opinions persuasively in the form of a column. "There is no shortage of opinions out there," he says, "but when it comes to the expression of those opinions, I find that there is a shortfall. Basically, I'm trying to teach some of the techniques for opening minds and transforming them a little bit. You're not going to get flip-flops very often, but you can nudge people along the way. There are techniques that I've had success with over the years, and I try to pass them along to people who can make good use of them."

In the end, he simply wants to make certain that he has done a decent job of teaching students how to write persuasively. "The opportunity to get into the heads of really bright people who will think about things and who are going to be leaders in the future is just irresistible to me," he says. "My personal goal is to make sure that I can teach the students my trade. I won't stop until I know I've done that.

In fact, I plan on teaching the course until I get it right."

Prerequisites

None

Readings

William Zinsser, On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction
William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style
Regularly read a national weekly columnist

Professor

William Raspberry, who has been writing nationally syndicated columns for The Washington Post since 1966, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1994. He has been the Knight Chair in Communications and Journalism at Duke for eleven years. "It had been my intention to teach in retirement," he says, "and when the opportunity came to teach without having to retire from the paper first, it sounded a little too good to be true."

He endures a weekly commute from Washington, but says that "most people would give their left arm for a single job that they really adore and would allow them to make a decent living, and I have the uncanny fortune of having two."

Assignments

Unsure about the pace of the class, Raspberry wrote only half a syllabus. "This class will teach me what the rest of the syllabus needs to be like in the future," he says. At present, assignments include one obituary column and four opinion columns, preferably about current national issues. Class participation is expected.