Making the Viewpoint sausage

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It was 5.15 pm on Monday afternoon, a quarter hour before the meeting to discuss the next batch of articles for Viewpoint. I had no idea what I wanted to write. Something about Scottish independence, again? Sure, it would do.

There are a select group of issues that I really care about – Scottish independence is not one of them. I wrote a silly article in which I joked about not caring. Many people were angry that I didn’t care and tried to berate me into debating Scottish independence as seriously as they did. I was pleased. Viewpoint articles are designed to spark a reaction. To do that you need to have strong opinions, sometimes on an issue you couldn’t care less about.

I wrote an article last semester making fun of Hugh Grant about the rumour he slept with a girl in St Salvator’s. I didn’t have a problem with Hugh Grant getting his leg over (good for him) but I knew that it was a great story to tell and that if I made the article – let us say – provocative, people would read it. The danger of this need – the need to cause a reaction – is that you can become quite reckless with the truth. My Hugh Grant story was based on nothing more than a blurry rumour of a misty night somewhere in the fuzzy past, but that didn’t stop me from writing it.

The Daily Express recently published an article about The Saint’s drug survey headlined “Drug fears at royals’ alma mater“. The paper had made the incorrect, albeit provocative, assertion that because The Saint was enquiring into drug use, there must be a problem. They took the truth, moulded it into the most exciting headline that would attract the most clicks and called it an article.

It’s a reasonable criticism to say that writers exaggerate and redact the truth as it suits them to produce the most exciting and divisive stories. In the end, the newspapers they write for don’t care about forwarding an ideal, informing the public, or making the world a better place. They just care about selling more papers and increasing hits on their website. We have to write about ‘hot’ topics because, based on The Saint’s page view numbers, most of you only read articles because you like getting wound up.

For a large chunk of last semester, the most popular article on The Saint was a piece about “Why I really hate Nando’s“, which hit a bizarre nadir of provocation – a triple threat of people angry about someone criticising a Portuguese-themed food chain, people angry at the people who were angry about someone criticising a Portuguese-themed food chain and a third set of people angry because they thought it was a bad article. The result of all that animosity? The article was hugely successful.

Every writer has a set of issues close to their heart, but most of them should not be published in newspapers. I have an irrational hatred of jokes being written in brackets. You would not want to read my seven-hundred-word diatribe about how one of my articles was edited to put a joke about Stevie Wonder in parenthesis and how I wanted to track down whoever committed the atrocity and beat them to death with a tyre iron.

I’m very skittish about writing serious articles on any topic outside those I’m passionate about or that I am not an expert in – that is to say, I have written no serious articles. What business would I have writing authoritatively about Scottish independence? I don’t know the first thing about it. There is a great article to be written about independence that intelligently informs the debate, but I’m not the one to write it.

I am often amazed that other Viewpoint writers have such a wide variety of passions that they are able to write an earnest article every week. Maybe they are just better people than I, more in touch with current affairs, but I gaze across the news and don’t care about any of it, I see nothing worth writing about.

What I hope you take away from this is that writing Viewpoint articles is a strange experience. Where else is someone expected to form a strong, well-thought-out and eloquent opinion on a new issue every week? I respect those who consistently write intelligent, well reasoned pieces – but, honestly, a crooked, inflammatory rant would earn you twice as many page views.

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