By: Noelle Sterne
“Don’t commit to being a columnist unless you’re willing to do it right. Report your behind off, so you have something original and useful to say. Say it in a way that will interest someone other than you, your family and your sources.” ~Allan Sloan, Washington Post columnist
Owning the Title of Columnist
At pizza gorges with friends or cocktail parties with people you want to impress, you love tossing off, eyes modestly lowered, “Oh, I’m a regular columnist for Extreme Quilting.”
But if you’re approached by a publication 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, constancy, and rewriting. Experienced column writers know this. From my experience writing several columns and the advice of several column writers I interviewed, here are nine 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. If you have to beg for an extension occasionally, the editor may accommodate you, but don’t make it 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 external deadlines can help—you stop thinking about which part of your closet 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.”
My method is to 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 #3). The more you stay interesting, the more readers you’ll have, the more hits the publication will have, and the more advertising it will sell. And the more editors will feel they made a great choice with you and your column.
In addition to style variations, to keep readers reading, other strategies can work, such as rotating subjects or interviewing other writers (as I did here). Or combing the news for your topic(s). For my Absolute Write column “The Starbucks Chronicles,” I found inspiration from several business articles about Starbucks’ ups, downs, and direction changes. Then I drew parallels in applying the business principles to helping other writers: Opening more Starbucks cafés equaled writing more; fabulous, customized coffee equaled staying true to one’s writing vision.
You can also combat style-and-subject fatigue and redundancy by alternating your interests. One writer who did a blog on techniques of the novel also wrote ongoing columns for music, business, and motivational publications, thus ensuring that the topics varied and stayed interesting.
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? Treat each column like a self-contained gem. Schedule your time for it and give it the same attention you’d lavish on your best short story.
4. Word count consistency
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 columnist, 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 (see #3). You’ll come back with a new editorial eye and fresher phrases.
Another technique as you’re sitting—without trying to figure anything out, get quiet and ask your Inner Writer for ideas. Your Writer knows—open your mind. New ideas will pop up at odd times, so having a pen/pencil/phone memo handy is essential to catch those new points or ideas.
5. Understand the column reveals your authentic 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 ups and downs admits, “I sometimes wish I’d been a tiny bit less revealing about my inadequacies as a writer and human being.”
However, self-exposure is often what keeps readers coming back, 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. Today, many popular columns follow her model, especially on parenting and its glories and terrors. 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, and they keep coming back to our column.
6. Choose your publications
A column is, after all, a great credit. But use judgment about where you offer and 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 is phased out. Look at comments about the publication and other columns, see reviews, and perhaps contact other columnists about their experiences with the publication. Then use your judgment to select your column carefully. You’ll be glad you did.
7. 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 can shrink on your paranormal romance novel or skiing self-help book. Recognize the price or alter your schedule to accommodate at least some attention to both.
8. To be paid or not
“…Sometimes it’s smart to make trade-offs that involve earning less money now in order to grow readership, because having more readers will put you in a better position in the future. (For example, you might focus on writing online, rather than for print, to develop a more direct line to readers.)” ―
We all want to get paid in one form or another for our writing. The columnists I interviewed reported figures from $100.00 a column to payment in links to their books and websites. One columnist won’t take anything under $200.00. Another said that the editor wanted to do something and could afford $10.00 a column. “I respected this,” the columnist said. “At least he recognized that our columns have value.” Decide whether you want to be paid or not. If not, ask yourself what benefits you may glean for contributing the column (see #10).
9. Be alert to unwanted “friends”
Readers identify with us through our columns, and of course, we want them to (see #5). But they can 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 answer such readers, be polite, respectful, and firm. You’re appreciative of their attention and compliments but maintain your professional boundaries. In your response, refer them to reputable editing services or describe your own if you offer them. Invite them to see your website and email or call to discuss their needs and your fees. Such replies will help you practice your professionalism and remind yourself what you do and don’t.
10. The benefits
“As much as the Pulitzer is the hallmark of journalism, I think what I love the most is when somebody says they took my column and it’s in their wallet. I have had people open their wallet and show me a corner of a column.” – Author: Regina Brett
Whatever you may “sacrifice” with your other writing, consider the benefits of a column. Of course, you’ll have the pride of writing a column and the credits. You may get money too. And any writing helps your “major” writing projects. For example, the discipline of the word count will sharpen your editorial eye and skills.
The column also offers additional publicity for your other writing works. 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 explore your sites and books, leading to more sales and contacts for you. Some readers may be radio and blog hosts seeking interesting guests, and you may get invitations for speaking and interviews.
You have the present column as a reference and pitch it if you want to branch out to more columns (as I did on different topics—current count four).
You may not be entirely deterred by the cautions here when you write a pitch to land a column or are invited to contribute one. But recognize and weigh the obligations, pitfalls, and benefits before you consent. You’ll choose your venues wisely, give your column the proper time and attention, and fulfill your promises.
Then, at parties and barbecues, with delicious faux modesty and eyes lowered, you’ll boast to everyone that, yes, you are a published columnist.
Dr. Noelle Sterne is an author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, and gentle nag. Noelle has published over 700 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.
Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation, A PowerPoint Teaser:http://trustyourlifenow.com/more-for-dissertation-writers/challenges-in-writing-your-dissertation-a-little-teaser/
Journal of Expressive Writing: https://www.journalofexpressivewriting.com/post/i-don-t-have-to-be-amanda-gorman
Life and Everything After: https://lifeandeverythingafter.com/angel-in-the-mall/
Live Write Thrive: https://www.livewritethrive.com/2021/02/08/a-startling-remedy-for-jealousy-of-other-writers/#comments
Pieces have appeared in various anthologies as well as individual publications such as Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul (sixth story November 2021), Journal of Expressive Writing, Life and Everything After, Live Write Thrive, MindBodySpirit, Mused, Pen & Prosper, Romance Writers Report, Ruminate, Sasee, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching (bimonthly), Unity Daily Word, Unity Magazine, WE Magazine for Women, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writing and Wellness, The Writer, Writers Digest.
Monthly Contributor for:
Textbook and Academic Authors Association
Two Drops of Ink Blog
In July and August 2018, Noelle was one of six webinar presenters forTAA’s “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish”, which continues to be offered. She is also one of several coaches in TAA’s program of free one-hour academic coaching to members.
Noelle 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,” which continues to be offered.
Swallowing her own advice (hard as it may be), Noelle is completing her third novel.
Noelle’s Published Posts on Two Drops of Ink
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