By: Noelle Sterne
I’m a Columnist – So What Does That Mean?
At pizza fests or cocktail parties, you love tossing off, eyes modestly lowered, “Oh, I’m a regular columnist for Extreme Quilting.” But if you’ve been invited or want to start a column (or regular blog) and continue basking in such glory, realize what you’ve taken on.
A quality column takes consistent effort, thought, and rewriting. Experienced column writers know this. My experience with writing several columns and an ongoing blog and the advice of several column writers I interviewed pinpoint seven of the most important and challenging considerations.
1. Produce on schedule.
The editor plans the layout to accommodate your column and counts on you to fill a specific space for a particular issue. Everyone gets busy, and you might occasionally have to beg for an extension, but don’t make this a habit.
Resist frequent email or text excuses with unimpeachable justifications for not delivering on time or at all (“My labradoodle ate the hard disk”). You do not want to promise something you can’t deliver.
The strictness of outside deadlines can help—you stop thinking about which part of the garage to attack and instead push yourself to your desk. One regular columnist advises, “Set daily reminders—at work, at home, post-its on the cat. I do all these (except maybe the cat), and I’ve still managed to miss deadlines.” I write reminders on my master calendar a week to ten days before my next scheduled submission. So if I stall a few days, it’s not too calamitous.”
2. Stay interesting.
We can quickly become repetitive and predictable in our topics and writing style. Pay attention to your penchants, favorite words, and almost automatic constructions. Time and distance between drafts help mightily (see below, #3). The more you stay interesting, the more readers you’ll have, the more hits and copies and advertising the publication will sell, and the more editors will feel they made a great choice with your column.
In addition to style variations, to keep readers reading, several other strategies can work, such as rotating subjects or inviting “guest” columns. Or comb the news on your topic(s) to bounce off. For my Absolute Write column “The Starbucks Chronicles,” I found inspiration from several business articles about Starbucks’ ups, downs, and changes of emphasis. Then I applied the business principles to helping other writers. Opening more Starbucks’ equaled writing more, great, customized coffee equaled staying true to one’s vision.
You can also combat style-and-subject fatigue by alternating your interests. In addition to a writing blog, one writer wrote ongoing columns for music, business, and motivational publications.
3. Allow time for each column to “cook.”
A column of 500 or 1,000 words may sound easy to dash off. But you want quality, don’t you?
If your column doesn’t quite make the word count, you may be tempted to pad a short text.
Conversely, if you’re over the word count, you may cut unthinkingly to squeeze the column into the required space. How to decide what’s essential? The answer, says an experienced blogger, is “take-away value. If readers are giving me their attention, I need to give them something of value in return.”
So, to make sure you’re incorporating value, use the time-honored advice that applies to any writing: let the column “sit” for a day or two or more between drafts. You’ll come back with a new editorial eye and fresher phrases.
4. Realize the column reveals your real self.
In a novel or even nonfiction, you can “hide” somewhat. But in a column, you and your views are hanging out there. A colleague whose column hilariously chronicled her daily life admits, “I sometimes wish I’d been a teensy bit less revealing about my inadequacies as a writer and human being.”
Self-exposure, though, is often what keeps readers coming back and nodding and chuckling in recognition. They’re comforted that someone in print is just like them. Erma Bombeck was the queen of laugh-out-loud self-exposure. Many popular columns today, especially on parenting and its glories and terrors, follow her model. So, another truism: the more we courageously delve into and share our inner selves and outer gaffes, the more we touch the hearts of others.
5. Choose your publications.
A column is, after all, a great credit. But use judgment about where you place your column. Sometimes a periodical weakens in quality, or its reputation becomes tarnished (not because of you or your contributions). Or the editor may be about to retire, and you have no guarantees that the next editor will embrace a similar editorial vision or policy or will even want you to continue your column.
Other times, for editorial and financial reasons, the entire publication shrinks (unfortunately the case with many today), and, after just a few entries, your column could be phased out. Carefully select your publication(s). You’ll be glad you did.
6. Guard and apportion your time.
Like any other piece of writing, your column deserves time (see #3 again). Allow the time you really want to give it. But know too that your writing time on your novel or skiing self-help book can decrease. Recognize the price or alter your schedule to accommodate at least some time to both.
Your column bio can include your website, blog, and a display of your book cover(s). Readers, curious about the rest of your writing life, will tend to explore your sites and books, leading to more sales for you. Some readers may be radio and blog hosts seeking interesting guests, and you will get invitations for speaking and interviews.
7. Be alert to unwanted “friends.”
Readers identify with us through our columns, and of course, we want them to (see #4). But they can take too much for granted and get too chummy. One columnist recalls that readers often ask her for free manuscript critiques, a service she offers for payment. Another columnist gets emails from aspiring writers who “have read everything you have to say.” They’re sure, she says, “this suddenly qualifies them to be my new best friend—and of course, they want me to read and respond to their 500-page novel for free.”
When you respond to such readers, be polite, respectful, and firm. You’re appreciative of their attention and compliments but want to maintain your professional boundaries. In your response, describe your editorial services, if you offer them, and refer readers to your site. Invite them to email or call to discuss their needs and your fees. Such replies will help you practice your professionalism and remind yourself of what you do and don’t.
You may not be completely deterred by these seven cautions when you write a pitch to land a column or are invited to contribute one. But recognize the obligations and pitfalls before you consent. With knowledge of the negatives, you’ll choose your venues more wisely, give your column the proper time and attention, and fulfill your promises.
Then, proud of your column, you’ll reap its rewards. And with delicious faux modesty at parties and barbecues, you’ll boast to everyone that, yes (eyes lowered), you write a column.
Dr. Noelle Sterne
Author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 600 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.
Author Magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Coffeehouse For Writers, Funds for Writers, InnerSelf, Inside Higher Ed, Mused, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Ruminate, Sasee, Story Monsters Ink, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest.
Academic mentor, editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, she helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles in several blogs for dissertation writers. Noelle has delivered requested presentations on academic writing at several universities and is a regular contributor to Abstract, the blog of the Textbook and Academic Authors Association (TAA).
She also contributes pieces to other national and international publications on dissertation issues and writing. In July and August 2018, she, was one of six webinar presenters for its “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish.”
Eons ago, she published a children’s book of original (groanworthy) dinosaur riddles, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (What do you get when dinosaurs crash their cars?). Riddles from the book appear in several elementary school language arts texts, and the book was featured on PBS’s Reading Rainbow.
A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume: https://chickensoup.podbean.com/e/tip-tuesday-why-you-should-remove-toxic-people-from-your-life-and-how-to-do-it/_
Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings.
Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) is an invaluable resource for doctoral candidates.
As part of pursuing her writing dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach theirs and create the lives they truly desire.
Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she recently completed her first novel.
Other Links to Noelle
Columnist, Textbook and Academic Authors Association
Columnist, Two Drops of Ink
Two Drops of Ink: The Literary Home for Collaborative Writing