Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How To Write A Column

So, I find myself in a weird predicament. I’m not what I consider to be a great writer. Though, I am good at writing columns. I type really fast as I write this right now. Expect I’m not on deadline, at the moment. I just had a spark of an idea to write this column. I’m going to give away my secrets on how to write a quality column. If this is boring you already, then I guess one can say this isn’t a quality column within itself. I’ve been writing columns and movie reviews for a long time now. What’s my secret? Well, my secret is that this is only a side job until I can come up with the next big idea. I’m already working on a book about a witch named Julie who goes to a school for witches and finds that she is a special someone and remarkable things await her. I call it “Julie Hatter and the Multi Media Ticket Out Of Starving Writers Villa.” Though, I digress. Back to the main subject: how does one write a column? Well, first of all you should study the best in the business. If you’re writing serious political commentary, look back on the columns of Jimmy Breslin. If you’re writing a humorous lifestyle column, read Dave Barry’s classic humor columns. If you want to write movie reviews, you can’t get any better than Roger Ebert. That’s why the Internet is there. Even if their columns are out of print, they are probably online. Hey. Those columnists did something right. All three I have just mentioned won Pulitzer Prizes. Wouldn’t that be nice to win a Pulitzer Prize? I think it would be. Then I can stick on the cover of all my books the term “Pulitzer Prize Winning Author,” just like Stephen Hunter, the Pulitzer Prize winning film critic for the Washington Post does. No disrespect to Hunter, but I doubt he won the Pulitzer for his latest novel titled “I, Sniper.”

Do you notice what I had just done? I just had a conversation with you. Expect you didn’t talk back. Though, didn’t it seem like we were sitting on a bench together talking back and forth. That’s the first rule of column writing, in my opinion. If it doesn’t seem like a conversation, than it’s not a good column. The big columns are conversational. It doesn’t work if the topic doesn’t seem like a conversation. I personally don’t know you. I personally don’t know if a college student or someone on staff who is bored with their day, and who is on break is reading this column. They pick up the newspaper. Maybe, but I doubt that this column is being read by another columnist. So, here’s what you do if you’re interested in writing a column. Don’t talk down to your audience, but write simply. Use short sentences. Heck, I always do. Don’t curse. Most newspaper won’t allow that anyway. Write like it’s a personal essay. Don’t try too hard though to make yourself the main character of the piece. Use “I” when appropriate, and lay out your thoughts and observations. Though, don’t overdo the details. You’re not writing a novel. You’re writing a column. Heck, it should to a personal essay. To be a columnist is to make the columnist the main character of your piece. Maybe the main character of the column isn’t the columnist as much as it’s the columnist’s constant voice.

Before you become a columnist, you have to find your voice. Your voice is how you’re going to make your living. You also better find a voice that works for you and the reader. Why should the reader waste their time with your voice? There are a lot of voices out there. There are endless voices on the web too. Why should they pick up the newspaper and read your voice? Maybe you’re funny or an expert in something. Though, maybe you’re not. They may agree with your voice or disagree with your voice. A old time columnist like George Will might write well, but I don’t agree with him most of the time, yet I can admire his writing more than I can, admire say, Ann Coulter as a columnist. That’s another thing a columnist should try to do. Separate a passionate voice from a mean one. Ann Coulter’s voice is mean and full of personal insult, while George Will’s is calm and passionate about what he believes in. A passionate voice, for example, would be Pulitzer Prize winner Connie Schultz’s, of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Her voice is more than passionate; it’s kind and warm. Sometimes she is talking about the poor of the city and other times she is talking about her love of Harry Potter and her kids. That brings me to another topic: pick a topic.

Not every topic is a good subject for a column. Some topics are too board or too limited. It’s fairly easy to write a column about nothing. Sometimes you can write a column about everyday life in a journal like way. For example, a bee just landed on my neck and I had to brush it off. Now, I’m watching it struggle on the floor, and I can’t help feeling a bit of guilt. I know it was probably going to sting me but I have this pet peeve about watching living things struggle to stay alive as it is on the floor with a broken leg. I feel even guiltier as I’m ignoring it to write this column. It’s probably going to die. See how I wrote about the bee in general terms? This really happened, and if I was to decitate an entire column to it, it is a lifestyle column. Now, go write that column, win a Pulitzer Prize and stick the word “Pulitzer Prize Winner” on your first book. Once again, I doubt Dave Barry won the Pulitzer Prize for writing a YA novel called “Peter and the Starcatchers.”That's another quality of being a columnist. It gives you credit as a writer while you stall away trying to dream up a novel. Oh yeah. One more thing. Always end your column with something catchy. So, I'm going to leave it up to the readers here to do that. Make me proud.