This is a self-service FAQ and policy for contributors who write news submissions via Yahoo Contributor Network for Yahoo News or Yahoo Voices only. This is not necessarily policy for other Yahoo websites.
Other News policies: General news policy, common errors and style| Sourcing and attribution policy | Factbox policy and format examples | Commentary policy
Contributors’ commentaries grab a lot of eyeballs. You and your editor are not your only readers. Because of that, it’s important you make your commentary submission compelling, engaging and, above all, a valuable and interesting experience for readers.
Most commentaries are capped at 400 words. It’s thus vital you make your piece pop, snag readers’ interest immediately and deliver details that matter. On the flip side: Vague, commonplace and awkward commentaries turn readers off.
Very soon, news editors will be much stricter about what passes for commentary that earns upfront payment. Toward that end, we’re again emphasizing to contributors what makes a great commentary submission and what doesn’t. Please read, digest and fully understand the guidelines below.
Table of contents
– What makes for a great commentary submission?
– What makes for a declined or rejected commentary submission?
– What are some examples of poor commentary?
– What kind of headlines should I write?
– What other miscellaneous commentary rules do you enforce?
What makes for a great commentary submission?
In general, here are the five pillars on which you should base your commentaries. While these apply to all news content for YCN, they are especially applicable to commentaries. For some pillars, we have provided links to examples that best exemplify our needs. While some don’t strictly apply all commentary rules (e.g., longer word count), it would still behoove you to read each and our comments on it.
It’s the thing you really can’t teach. Our best contributors have an engaging and compelling writing style that is easy to get through on one reading. Great contributors don’t make editors or readers backtrack to make sense of their work. A great voice is lively and conversational. Importantly, it is well-suited to the subject matter. Dry, redundant, rambling or formulaic voices will be declined. All that said, you have to find your own voice. Don’t try to mimic someone else’s.
(a) Obama’s ‘Dog Meatgate’ and Republicans — Bless Their Hearts
This contributor seamlessly injects humor and commentary into a quirky hot topic (without losing the reader) and makes her point with great turns of phrase. Voice and structure are often joined at the hip; if you find yourself writing from the same tired formula, you probably don’t have a voice. To wit, here are some of her better phrases that, added up, make for a delightful read:
– The continued use of “bless their hearts” to tied in her main point of they “may not know any better.”
– “So while the Republicans giggle into their hands about the gross things that people eat in faraway lands…”
– “Supermarket chickens aren’t plentiful everywhere on the planet. Not everyone’s diet consists of ground meat delivered under plastic film and fluorescent supermarket lights.”
– “Romney may have strapped the dog to the roof of a moving vehicle, but Obama actually ate dog meat. That has to be worse, right? Doesn’t it? It doesn’t involve scared dogs, it involves dead dogs. That are then eaten.”
(b) In Down Economy, Is It Time to Abandon Career Dreams?
This contributor does a fantastic job of mixing personal details with the cloud of unemployment (something that impacts the entire nation) to weave a compelling commentary. While there are many nice phrase turns, it’s the piece’s personal voice as a whole that makes it interesting. This brings up an important point: Write what you know. If you have a personal connection to a story, you’re much more qualified to write a great commentary about it than if you don’t. You’ll get your voice there.
Compelling commentaries are built on a well-organized and flowing structure that isn’t based on tired template. Vary your sentence and paragraph structure and length. Make creative and intelligent use of lists, bullet points, quotes, numbers and bolded subheads. We wouldn’t suggest always using a creative structure (because then it’s no longer creative), so it helps if you vary.
Examples (again, just examples — you shouldn’t think this is what we want every time)
(a) No Jeb Bush as Romney VP? Four Reasons Why
Is there anything more annoying than a headline that promises something — and doesn’t deliver, or at least not easily? The headline on this example promises “four reasons” and it clearly shows you what those four are. The structure of this example succeeds because it gives readers an easily scannable and digestible read; it helps the contributor apply a laser-like focus to the subject matter and stays on target; and it solidifies the contributor’s argument.
(b) A Veteran’s Musings on the Afghan Photo Leak
It’s a simple approach that works: Show readers how you’re impacted, briefly indicate the newsworthiness of the issue, and then clearly outline two solid and separate arguments around the story.
(c) Worst Election Ads of the 2012 Campaign — So Far
This commentary opens with a conversational approach (rather than the standard and commonplace, “According to…”). Mostly, it’s successful because it clearly lays out the three worst political ads, in his estimation, and it takes them one by one. It’s clear, straightforward and easy to understand — not just because of the writing, but because of the structure.
While weaving an interesting read, great contributors seamlessly incorporate necessary — and specific — facts, figures and quotes that support their assertions. It’s a fine balance: Don’t overload your submission with gratuitous facts, but don’t skimp on necessary details either. In short, if you make a claim, back it up! And remember: Sometimes those details are personal details that shed light on your opinion.
(a) Katrina Five Years Later: Storm Wrecked Houses, but Not Home
This commentary, penned through a first-person POV, reflects on the five-year anniversary of Katrina. While it would be a winning example for any number of the five pillars, it’s especially rich in details. For example, it describes in vivid imagery what the author found in her home and what New Orleans meant to her in clear detailed specifics:
Finding our home standing, though, was only the first hurdle. People who’d weathered Betsy and Camille mentioned things — the heat, the smell — that I understood intellectually. After scrubbing baked-on sewage from my kitchen floor, I understood viscerally. Hideous surprises were everywhere. This colorful pulp was the remnants of my college artwork. That slick clay was the bust my husband’s mother sculpted of him as a boy. My wedding dress trailed in the water. My closet was a wreck. Everything reeked.
“Home” is not merely the roof under which you live. That place on Academy Drive wasn’t home; the neighborhood, the city and the region are my home. The Superdome, where my folks sold hot dogs for the Boy Scout troop and where the Saints play, is home. The bus stop near the old Krauss building where I got my first kiss in high school, that’s home, too. Kerry Curley Park, Angelo Brocato’s bakery, my first apartment on Catina Street that drowned under 12 feet of water — all of them are home.
(b) Sheriff Arpaio Needs to Drop Obama Investigation
This commentary has everything it needs: a clear opinion, good voice and a flowing structure. But mostly it stands out because it has primary-sourced details and facts. Please read through it.
– The first graph clearly states a position and introduces its subject matter. It doesn’t get bogged down in rewriting an AP lead.
– The second graph introduces necessary information to bring the reader up to speed and establishes the author’s voice.
– The third graph and the fourth and fifth graphs below provide the reader with some valuable detail. What is it about Arpaio that irks the contributor so much? And can the contributor back it up? Yes, witness the details. The contributors uses specific numbers — the number of violent crimes in the cities she’s comparing.
Your developments need to be important now — not a week ago. Sometimes even 24 hours is too old. Being a good judge of what developments are relevant now is part and parcel to being a good contributor. Writers who best tackle timeliness are the ones who understand the tension of story vs. development. Beware the “timely” story: Even if it’s still in the news, a story as a whole may not be timely. Look inside the story at the newest developments. Those are the timely aspects. More on this below.
No examples here. It’s either timely or it’s not.
There are two important aspects. (a) Picking the topic: The topic you pick should be widely accessible by a large audience. Too-niche or too-local subject matter probably doesn’t appeal to a huge audience, so stick to topics that are newsworthy. Remember: You’re writing for a mainstream audience, not an esoteric group. (b) Staying on topic: Throughout your commentary, you should stay focused on the story/event/topic you’ve chosen. It’s OK to include related (even historical) information, but do so only sparingly; you should not wander off into different subject matter that is only loosely related.
We take all these factors into account with each submission. There are, of course, other necessary attributes — including proper sourcing, and top-notch spelling, grammar and punctuation. But it’s these five main pillars that support a great commentary piece.
Again, no examples are necessary here. You’re either sticking to appropriate subject matter or you’re not.
Gotcha. So, what makes for a declined or rejected commentary submission?
The problems below are, in a way, the flipside of what’s above. When a commentary just doesn’t hit the mark, it’s usually because of one of these problems:
(1) Vague writing
Don’t confuse vague writing with redundant writing (see below). But the two often go hand in hand. Contributors who don’t provide enough detail often revert to writing the same things repeatedly — perhaps because they didn’t do enough research to support their commentary. Vague writing isn’t very valuable because it doesn’t offer any interesting or useful stats/figures/facts/quotes or other concrete details that back up assertions or give readers worthwhile tidbits.
Here are a couple examples from commentaries that could have used more explicit detail:
– “A recent poll shows Romney beating Santorum in some places around the nation.” What poll? When? What specific lead does Romney have? Where around the nation? This is better: “A Gallup Poll from Tuesday shows Romney beating Santorum, 38 percent to 32 percent in Illinois and 56 percent to 40 percent in Puerto Rico.”
– “I support a health care overhaul like Obama’s because of what happened in my family once and how illness battered our finances.” What happened? Which family members? How were you financially impacted? This is better: “I now support a health care overhaul like Obama’s after my husband suffered a stroke in 2009; we considered bankruptcy after he lost his $60,000 annual salary and we spent $25,000 on medical costs.”
To be sure, you shouldn’t overload your submission with facts and figures so that it sounds encyclopedic. Present what is pertinent and useful. Including a healthy amount of detail helps with this next problem — redundant writing.
(2) Redundant writing
This is one of the most common problems we see in commentary pieces: Contributors make the same argument repeatedly — just in different words.
While writing and when you’re done, take a critical look at your submission and ask: Am I saying the same thing over and over again just in different words? Could I have honestly written this in half the length and still made the same point? Could I have written this in just one paragraph and said the same thing? Do I feel like I had to stretch or pad my submission just to get to a word count? Did I overlook an interesting new angle that’s related to the story? Could I have added some interesting details that provide more value to my commentary? Is there a similar story that bears mentioning?
If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then you’re probably written a redundant commentary on some level. Review what you’ve written and look specifically for places where you’ve repeated yourself in different words. If you have stated an assertion clearly and forcefully enough, there is no need to restate it for emphasis.
(3) (Bad) formulaic writing
These submissions follow a pattern that varies by contributor. They’re almost like a recipe. Here’s an example of a poor template — if it’s what you write from every time:
1. Your first paragraph is a recap of the story.
2. You add another fact for the second paragraph.
3. You then make a declarative, opinionated statement about the story.
4. You expand on the argument a bit in a fourth paragraph.
5. You then write a conclusion that says the same thing as the first opinionated statement.
Don’t fall into these bad patterns. If you find yourself writing from a template, it’s time to shake things up. Try a new structure or POV. Vary your paragraph and sentence length. Test out a new writing style or try a new introduction. Contributors who seem to be writing from a tired “recipe” will likely be asked to try something new.
(4) “Anywhere, anytime” writing
Avoid “anytime, anywhere” commentaries. These are commentaries that rely on age-old arguments that are central to a timely news story. Common targets include abortion, church/state separation, English-only, tax issues and many more.
We call them “anytime, anywhere” commentaries because the arguments they use can be written anytime and anywhere — last week, next year, 10 years from now — and still not really add much more to the conversation that isn’t there already. Nothing is different about “anytime, anywhere” commentaries.
In these instances, contributors will usually explain the pertinent details of the new news story and then use the vast, vast majority of the submission rehashing the old arguments: “There’s no place for religion in government;” “a woman’s right to choose should be preserved;” or “the rich should not have to pay more taxes.” This is done without touching on any new specifics and details in the new timely story.
An example: Let’s say President Barack Obama signs a tax-hike policy into law. An “anytime, anywhere” commentary would first touch on the news and bring readers up to speed. It’d then spend the rest of the commentary arguing why raising taxes can only hurt the economy and workers without discussing the SPECIFIC elements of the new law. This commentary approach is tired and can be written at any time with just new news surrounding it. This is to be avoided.
You can certainly write about these topics, but your commentary should be centered on and grounded in the specific developments of the new story that make it different and set it apart. In short: Your commentary should be laser-focused on the new developments — not general “anytime, anywhere” elements.
(5) Untimely writing
Stick to the latest developments — not the subject matter as a whole.
As you know, writing about subject matter that is not extremely timely will get you declined. More specifically, you must concentrate on the newest developments in a story.
Ask yourself: Could my take on this story have been written 48 hours ago? If the answer is yes, then it’s no longer timely — even if the story itself is still making headlines and is relevant. The key is to focus on new developments in a story — not the story as a whole.
Here’s an example from a story this year: After the killing of Trayvon Martin, many contributors (for days into the story) continued to write commentaries that focused on older issues: Should the police arrest George Zimmerman? Should the “Stand Your Ground” law be struck down? Was race an issue? These issues could have been written about days earlier. The crux of those commentaries wasn’t anything new. Very few contributors focused on the timeliest details in the story — and that’s what news editors want you to do: stick to timely developments.
(6) Lazy, no-duh writing
Unless you can find an interesting and out-of-the-ordinary take on a story, avoid subject matter that leads you to an obvious or lazy commentary. Here are a few hypothetical examples:
– A woman suffers from flesh-eating bacteria. The lazy, no-duh approach: “It’s sad that this happened to her. No one should have to go through this, and it’s a testament to her courage and bravery that she’s meeting this tragedy head-on.”
– There’s a new iPhone. The lazy, no-duh approach: “Technology is great, isn’t it? I wonder what they’ll think of next. It’s a brand-new world that we live in, and with each iteration of cellphones, life just keeps getting better.”
– A student is bullied in school. The lazy, no-duh approach: “Bullying is wrong. Shouldn’t our parents and school teach our children better than this? I remember how it felt as a kid to get bullied. It was a terrible experience.”
What are some examples of poor commentary?
Here are two examples of commentary submissions that we did not publish. They’re not necessarily poorly written. They’re either vague or redundant or both.
A vague commentary example
As you’ll see in the commentary submission below, there is a striking lack of detail — both necessary facts and valuable tidbits. There is some redundancy, but it’s not insurmountable; in fact, if some specific detail is added, some of that redundancy can be easily removed. (We’ve added needed questions in bold.)
Obama Seeks ‘Judicial Activism’ as His Own Weapon
COMMENTARY | President Barack Obama is turning the tables — or at least trying to.
The president accused the Supreme Court of engaging in judicial activism, saying the court is playing politics. What did he say, exactly? Give us at least one direct quote that outlines this. That was a strategy often employed by Republicans when they didn’t like how liberal judges ruled on some cases. It was? Is there at least one concrete example?
Obama better be careful. Health care is the biggest, but clearly not the last, partisan case that could come before the Supreme Court. What are some others? For example: Gay marriage might be heard by the court. Like us, the judges are human, too, and Obama irritating them might do him no favors when those other cases hit the court. Obama previously ticked off the judges when he lectured them before Congress. When? What did he say? We’re guessing this is when he lectured them during the state of the union address.
Lesson not learned.
Who can say if the justices won’t rule against Obama on health care because of what he said to them a couple years ago? Perhaps his words are lodged in their heads. Again — what did he say?
Wary the president should be of public reaction to his comments, too. Polls What polls? When? What did the numbers say? show a lot of Americans do not favor Obama’s health care plan, and continuing to seed visions of health care in their minds may grow an insurmountable problem at the ballot box later this year.
Obama is negatively affecting voters and judges. But what about Democrats?
Without their support, he couldn’t have marshaled health care through Congress. So many of them voted for reform What was the vote on the Affordable Care Act in the Senate? and, thus, many may have staked their political futures to Obama’s. Some have? Which ones? Who are some vulnerable Democrats? Remember that the Democrats only control half of Congress. Which half? It’s not even mentioned that it’s the Senate. Running — intentionally or not — on health care could doom them, too.
If this election theme dominates the summer and fall, voters might not see fellow Democrats so cheerful to campaign alongside their party chief. Some key Democrats are already backing off. Again — which ones?
The message from Obama is clear: The Supreme Court judges, during the questioning, clearly did not like the president’s health care plan. That’s bad enough for Obama. What’s worse? Continuing to poke at that dislike.
– 30 –
A redundant commentary example
Below is an example of a redundant commentary. It does have some good details — specifically Paul’s poll numbers over a period of time, some campaign tallies and reasons why others were doomed. But it says the same thing over and over and over again. Rather than go through this example sentence by sentence, it might be more helpful to encapsulate the commentary in a few sentences, which is what it can be condensed to. Here’s our version:
“Ron Paul should end his campaign. His popularity with GOP voters has dwindled, not in a sudden drop but steadily over a long period in the primary season. He’s gone from 14.4 percentage points to 10 percent points since Jan. 20, according to a Real Clear Politics aggregation. He hasn’t won a race. He has only 50 delegates. He’s hurting himself and the GOP, and it should be clear to him that he can’t win. No longer a fiery force in the campaign, he’s a sideshow curiosity. It’s time to quit.”
That’s really all this commentary below says. The submission is 315 words. Our condensed version — which says nearly the same thing — is 91. Here’s the redundant version:
Ron Paul Should Hang It Up
COMMENTARY | 14.4… 13.6… 12.4… 11.3… 10.0…
The numbers keep dropping for Rep. Ron Paul. Denoted by the numbers above, the percentage of voters who say they’re backing the Texas congressman for the GOP nomination keeps dwindling. Based on a recent aggregation of polls by Real Clear Politics, his support hit a high — 14.4 percent — on Jan. 20. Since then (10.0 on March 25) it’s been downhill.
He hasn’t plummeted, for sure. But he’s falling — slowly, steadily, unmistakably and, most importantly, invisibly. He’s becoming less relevant by the day.
It’s time for him to call it quits. He doesn’t matter to the GOP race any longer.
Paul didn’t suffer an acute moment that doomed his candidacy. Herman Cain (accusations of sexual harassment) and Rick Perry (brain freeze) come to mind. But like Michele Bachmann and Jon Huntsman, he never really gained traction.
He’s now a quant curiosity more than anything.
His delegate count has stalled at 50. He hasn’t won a state. He may have many supporters, but it’s becoming more transparent by the day: Ron Paul can’t and shouldn’t keep his campaign going. It’s time to hang it up. He’s quickly becoming an embarrassment to the GOP, to himself and to his supporters.
What was once a fiery and in-your-face campaign is now nothing more than a sideshow that can’t climb into triple digits for delegates. Last we checked, a candidate needed more than 1,000.
Previous hopefuls — Bachmann, Perry, Cain, Huntsman — knew when to throw in the towel and save face. That time has come, too, for Ron Paul.
What should be a defining and captivating moment for the GOP — a race between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum — has been co-opted by Paul and his supporters. He refuses to face the obvious answer: His campaign should come to an end.
Do the right thing, Rep. Paul. Bow out now and put an end to this charade.
– 30 –
What kind of headlines should I write?
* Be opinionated and creative: If you’re writing a commentary piece, make sure your headline is also an opinionated statement, not merely a “straightforward” news headline. Commentary submissions should have a commentary headline, preferably one that is snappy and snags a reader’s interest.
* Be specific: Include keywords (but don’t stuff) and avoid vague headlines that confuse readers. Remember that your headline often stands alone with no other words to give it context (like, say, a newspaper would). It’s vital, therefore, to be as specific as possible in a short space.
* Be concise: As always, headlines must be 65 characters or less, including spaces. Editors may use discretion in some cases; if you see a headline longer than 65 characters on Yahoo News or Yahoo Voices News, that is not an invitation for you to do the same.
Good — all of these boast a clear opinion, are concise and contain keywords.
Get Rid of Gov. Scott Walker — and Others like Him
Let’s Keep the ‘Cinnamon Challenge’ in Perspective
Trayvon Martin, Divisive Rhetoric Killed Post-Racial America
Bad — these are either vague (e.g., no keywords) or do not contain opinionated statement.
Obama Made the Right Call (This is too vague; it’s unclear what Obama made the right call on.)
I Bullied a Serial Killer (This is also too vague.)
Newt Gingrich Won’t End Campaign (This is not a commentary headline.)
What other miscellaneous commentary rules do you enforce?
(1) Commentary labels
If you are writing a commentary piece through the commentary assignment or another assignment that allows opinion, please start placing this label before the first sentence: COMMENTARY |
It’s in all caps, in bold and it has a pipe (this thing — |) after it. To create a pipe on most keyboards, hold down shift and press the backslash key “”. This may vary by keyboard.
For example, your first sentence would look like this: COMMENTARY | It’s unbelievable that the congressional super committee failed to come up with a solution …
An example of how it’s used: http://news.yahoo.com/democrats-bailing-obama-230600151.html
This isn’t optional; all opinion pieces must be marked as commentary to satisfy YCN requirements.
The commentary label also applies to any submission that contains a first-person angle that includes a slant.
(2) Commentary throughout
When you’re writing commentary, you must blend (a) commentary with (b) factual evidence and (c) pertinent background information THROUGHOUT your piece, much like a newspaper opinion columnist would do. You cannot recap a news story and then tack on a commentary element at some isolated point in the submission and then call that a commentary submission. That doesn’t suffice.