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August 02, 2010

A Little Something From the Trib

One of the many things I do as part of my day job is teach.  My first teaching experience was at Johns Hopkins University, where I taught in their graduate communications program.  I then moved on to become an adjunct professor at Georgetown's graduate school of communications where I taught public relations writing and a class called "The Power of Opinion."  In that second class, my students were required to write and submit one letter each week to the editor of a major daily newspaper, and write and submit five op-eds over the course of the semester.

Most of them were solid writers to begin with; they just needed some fine-tuning and an editor (me) to help shape their pieces so they'd have a better chance to be considered for publication.  They had to be able to articulate in 200 words or less for a letter to the editor and 700 words for an op-ed what they thought about a particular issue and why... which is a hell of a lot harder than it sounds.  It's not creative writing, and it's not news writing.  It's opinion writing which is persuasive, factual, and sans adverbs.  It's the kind of writing I love to read, and getting my students to the point where they could whip up a really strong, printable letter in 10 minutes or less during a timed class assignment was quite an accomplishment.

By the end of the semester, I was so proud of them because every single student got at least one letter to the editor published, and many of them had their op-eds printed, as well.  And we're not talking about the Butt-Scratch Herald in NeverHeardofYourTown.  Their pieces ran in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Chicago Tribune ... all papers and op-ed pages that our country's policymakers, decision makers, and business leaders read and pay attention to.

If you're not reading the editorial and op-ed pages of your daily newspaper, you should be.  While some may argue the print medium as a distribution platform is dying, the power of our opinions is not.  You should also be checking out the letters to the editor.  Sometimes, they're full of reader crankiness.  Other times, they shine an interesting new light on a news story you read a few days before.  And other times, they make you smile and say, "Richard and Carlotta, you are so, so right!"

This letter to the editor ran in the Chicago Tribune last week, and I couldn't agree more:

Food, not politicians, should represent Chicago

My, how times change. During our frequent travels, my wife and I have had some interesting conversations about our wonderful home town of Chicago. These have typically run the gamut from gangsters (Capone), sports heroes (Jordan), mega-celebrities (Oprah), wacky films (Blues Brothers), and most recently our pantheon of corrupt politicians (Blago).

Much to our delight, it appears as if the world view of Chicago might actually be changing. On a recent trip to Quebec City, we were momentarily taken aback, when one local, hearing that we lived in Chicago, posed the eager question: "Have you eaten at Alinea?"

It was our good fortune to be able to tell him about two wonderful dining experiences that we had there. After some further discussion of the allure of Chicago, we eventually tallied another future visitor to our sometimes overlooked, fly-over Midwest mecca. Go Grant Achatz!  A better ambassador we could not find.

-- Richard Hren and Carlotta Olson, Chicago

As a teacher, it thrills me to have an example such as this to share with my students. It's interesting, relevant, newsworthy, and tells a great story in a succinct, direct manner.  As someone who reveres innovation in business and food, this letter makes my day.


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Its funny, every 1-3 years I end up living in a different big city (I grew up in Amish country outside of Philly, so I think I wanted to explore). This was usually enough time to consider myself an insider, but far from an expert. Most of the time when I talk about what I loved about the cities they involve stories about must see sites or great events I experienced when I was there. Chicago is completely the opposite. I use restaurants as the thread that weaves everything else together. Whether it is trying to make it to Alinea, going to an amazing breakfast spot, or getting some of the best ribs I have found to date. There is something about Chicago, that seems to allow you to live in a way few cities are able to deliver. It offers so much and I always assume will be where I end up settling down to. Thanks for sharing and bringing up great memories.

Excellent post! I used to be very proud of my writing (in my native language), but after 15 years away from Brazil, it all went slowly downhill.

I set as a personal goal to improve my written English - and reading good newspapers and editorials is a must.

I am sure you are a fantastic teacher!

Great post! It's fun to hear about other parts of your life in addition to your cooking.

I wish I had taken a class like that. My writing process is mull, ramble, mull over ramble, edit the heck out of ramble, then wonder how that little amount written took me so long.

You are so right about the importance of reading the daily newspaper, including the editorial and op-ed pages. There's some good stuff there. I majored in communications at Amer. U back in the heady (for print journalism) Nixon/Watergate times and have been hooked ever since. Great Chicago letter!

Thanks you very much for citing my note to the Tribune. It reflected such a wonderful experience that I felt compelled to share it. This little vignette showcased some of the best that Chicago and its people have to offer and I was more than happy to pass it along to others. And now it has gotten an even wider audience. Thanks. Richard

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