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The art of column writing

April 17, 2014

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At one time, it took many years before a select few journalists could be invested in the purple as columnists. This carried distinct benefits: They were seasoned veterans with the experience, street smarts and capabilities that only time conveys. Sure, a few burnouts were sidelined as columnists, but for the most part this was a position that was earned the old-fashioned way.

Today, the ranks of columnists are much more open. News organizations want young voices. With blogs, nearly anyone can be a “columnist.” In our Cold Civil War, the lines between news and opinion have become unfortunately blurred. With this has come some good and much bad.

“As the veteran metro columnist
for the Arizona Republic,
E.J. Montini says,
‘Anybody can be a columnist
for two weeks.’ “

Being a successful columnist is very hard work, contrary to what some of your colleagues might think (“she just gets to write whatever comes into her head now!”). Coming up with fresh material and presenting it in a compelling, original way is a challenge. To do it even once a week, over and over, is among the toughest jobs in journalism. Also, you’ll be a target. Be prepared for hate mail along with the satisfying moments when people who stop you on the street and say, “Aren’t you the columnist?” I’ve had campaigns to get me fired at more than one paper.

I’ve been writing columns for major metropolitan newspapers for more than a quarter century (!). My work has also been carried on the New York Times News Service and the wires of Scripps Howard, Gannett and Knight Ridder. They have appeared in newspapers throughout North America. I’ve also been blogging since the late 1990s and write for three, including this one.

A few thoughts:

  1. As the veteran metro columnist for the Arizona Republic, E.J. Montini, says, “Anybody can be a columnist for two weeks.” After that time, they run out of things to say. So if they stay in the job, they merely repeat themselves. The dirty secret is most people who are writing columns today shouldn’t be. Real columnists are few. It’s an art. There’s no shame in not having this particular talent. In the same way, I will never be a real copy editor — it’s just not in my DNA.
  2. Cultivate a distinct viewpoint and voice. Have opinions. A real columnist, aside from humor writing, needs a constant reservoir of outrage, a chip on his or her shoulder. Many newspapers are afraid of this now and as a result they have boring columnists. More than any other destination in print or online, a fine columnist can speak truth to power, hold the bastards accountable and tell the back story.
  3. You must be a very good writer. Column writing is not news writing. It is story-telling, persuasion, explanation, all conveyed through distinctive writing that is not found elsewhere in the newspaper or news organization. Even data-maven Ezra Klein is a talented practitioner of language.
  4. Read and learn from the greats, including H.L Mencken, A.J. Liebling, Dorothy Thompson, Walter Lippman, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, Mike Royko, Peggy Noonan and Russell Baker. In business journalism, some of the best writing today are James B. Stewart, Gretchen Morgenson, Joe Nocera, Steven Pearlstein and Michael Hiltzik. If you don’t aspire to join their ranks, quit now.
  5. Maybe your strength is in a specialty column. It might be personal finance, where the likes of Liz Pulliam Weston and Jane Bryant Quinn set the bar. Or perhaps the leading industry in your city or metro, such as automobiles. The specialty column still needs a voice and great writing. It also demands deep expertise (otherwise, who would accept investing advice from a journalist?).
  6. Don’t feel as if you need all the answers. When I came to Seattle, I was open with readers that I was new in town and didn’t claim to be omniscient. It was an advantage. Just as with a reporter, curiosity and a hunger to learn are your advantages.
  7. Do be unpredictable while being consistent in your core values — the spine that will draw you a loyal core of readers. They will get to know you, count on you. But don’t be afraid to break the mold when the facts and your passion lead you.
  8. In most cases, a well-reported column is a stronger column. This is doubly true in business journalism. At the Seattle Times, I’ve worked to take my columns to a level of deep reporting I never reached before, as in this one about the often-neglected maritime sector. When Nate Silver dismissed the pundits of D.C. in the 2012 election, it was because of their often ignorant echo-chamber prattling. Good reporting and, as always, getting out of the newsroom, are wonderful antidotes.
  9. Write with authority. This is especially important in business news, where, even if you do a takedown of a powerful executive, you want insiders to know you’ve done your homework. Authority doesn’t mean arrogance. It does mean you know the material and argue and write with confidence.
  10. Don’t be afraid to have fun. I write on some of the most serious — and potentially dullest — stuff in the newspaper. But one of my most popular recent pieces was this one for April Fool’s Day. Beyond that, the killer quote, rhetorical excellence and word play can all make a business column something more than “a business column.” One of the highest bits of praise I hear is when a reader tells me, “I never read the business section before I found your column…”

Guess what, I don’t have anywhere near all the answers on column writing. But if you start with these pointers, you’ll be on your way.

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