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Writing a Social Commentary

One of the primary objectives of this blog is to encourage people to express what’s on their mind when it comes to socially relevant and often controversial news and current events. After all, the right to free (but responsible) speech is a most cherished right of any democratic society. It’s when good people do [or say, or write] nothing that evil triumphs. Though that statement may seem a tad bit too melodramatic, it has a ring of truth to it. Media today is full of differing and oftentimes opposing opinions. Each one has a different agenda it is pushing. Often times, it’s the loudest, most oft repeated sentiments that stick in people’s minds. A clever jingle here, a celebrity endorsement there… that’s good marketing savvy.

But what about those tiny voices that still have something sensible to say? How do they make their voices heard? It is our hope that sites like this will give that chance to aspiring writers who care enough to make the effort to write about the ills plaguing our society today so people will take notice and open lines of productive dialogue. Sure, we may not always agree with each other, but now pertinent issues are brought out into the open. We’ll know how other people feel about certain issues, whether there are others who share the same sentiments or take a totally different stand from ours.

But of course before such exchange of ideas can start, a good writer has to open up the topic with a well-written intro on the issue. Hopefully, these series of articles aimed at developing a responsible writer will help everyone come up with their own future posts.

So we begin with lesson one. After you’ve decided on a good topic that piques your interest (and hopefully everyone else’s), you have to decide on the tone. Most social commentaries fall in either one or a combination of any of these three:

1. The Research Paper – Everyone’s familiar with this one from school. It requires the most elbow grease and preparation of the three because of the research work involved but it’s also the most informative. It’s usually composed of a distillation of different sources ranging from news articles, wikis, or even someone else’s blog post.  Don’t forget to cite your sources properly and do your due diligence to ensure that your sources are credible. It won’t help your case if you just quote-mine data from dubious sources to support your arguments. Those type of bullshit are easy to spot by intelligent readers and will just make you lose credibility altogether.

If your source document is long or technical, do your readers a big favor and summarize the highlights for them else their eyes might just glaze over upon seeing the voluminous amount of text and just might skip it altogether. You don’t have the luxury of a captive audience and your work is not required reading on any syllabus so part of your job as a writer is to keep the interest level up.

2. The Opinion Piece – This is more an appeal to emotions. It can range from an in-depth analysis on what’s wrong with the world to a frustrated rant on what pissed you off lately. It doesn’t require as much researching as the latter; all you need is a good critical eye and a talent for self-expression.  And because it’s more reliant on emotions rather than intellect, it has the potential for greater reader impact.

It’s great for human-interest stories and informal personal-opinion essays but great care has to be given not to fall into the trap of irrationality. Since you’ll be relying more on philosophical arguments rather than facts like in #1, it’s easy to be tempted to use faulty reasoning or bad metaphors. Be frank but fair. Nobody likes a whiner or a faultfinder. If you must complain about something, make sure you end in a positive note by suggesting ways to solve the problem. As they say, be part of the solution, not the problem.

The best advice I could give before publishing essays of this type is to either let a level-headed friend give his two cents or sleep on it after finishing the first draft then do a final edit the next day before publishing it publicly. You may find that with a cooler head, you can be your own best editor. I know a lot of people who later regretted posting something written in the heat of the moment. When it’s already on the net, it can sometimes be hard to take back. It may look like a masterpiece of self-expression for you today, but if you take another look at it next time, it just might make you wonder what was going on in your mind when you wrote that. Remember the cardinal rule of writing – write in white heat, edit in cold blood.

3. The Humor Post – humor is oftentimes ephemeral. Sometimes it depends on the timing, sometimes on the delivery. More so for humor writing. The most common type of humor used in the genre of social commentary is the satire. One can use humor to accentuate faults by exaggerating or by putting it in a different perspective. Coupled with a dose of irony or clever wordplay, it’s easy to find something funny in even the most serious of issues.

There’s a fine line between funny and offensive and it’s what separates the true comic genius from the lame wannabes. Social commentators like Colbert and John Stewart have perfected the art of political satire in their respective shows. Late night talk show hosts like Leno and Letterman have likewise made a living out of poking fun at sensitive issues. In the online world, and have a good track record of satire done right. Even cartoons like South Park and the Simpsons made a name for themselves by playing political incorrectness to the hilt. But as Drawn Together [the Movie] has said – in the end, it has to make a point. It won’t work if you’re just making fun of something at someone’s expense just for the sake of getting a few laughs, you’ll just end up looking like a douchebag. The best satire makes people realize how shallow something is. If done correctly, it’s a win-win situation for you, you get to entertain and make a point at the same time.

[Author’s note: Just a word of warning before I end, satire is especially tricky when played to a Filipino audience. There’s a big chance they won’t get the humor and end up going all up-in-arms about some racially offensive slur that they just can’t take. I don’t know if we’re just culturally thin-skinned (balat-sibuyas) or that local noontime shows and low-brow comedy movies have successfully devolved our national sense of humor to the point that we can only find green jokes and toilet humor funny. We have lost the ability to laugh at ourselves. Sure, we can laugh at ugly people or gay people but the minute you even try to make a joke about mail-order brides or OFW’s, be prepared for a shit-storm of public outrage. Never mind if there’s a nugget of truth to it, there are just some things we can’t admit to ourselves as a nation. You have been warned.]

So that’s lesson one in a nutshell. Hopefully we can get a whole series of articles geared towards giving out writing advice for the aspiring freethinking author. I’ll try to post a few good examples for each type when I get the chance.

Any [constructive] comments and suggestions are welcome.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this post do not necessarily represent the position of the Filipino Freethinkers.