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Column writing 101

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by WaylonJennings, Aug 14, 2007.

  1. I'm new to the craft, and wondering if we could talk about it a little bit? Obviously, I know that we've had this conversation before, so sorry for treading over new ground.

    Some questions:
    1. Who's good to check in on consistently and learn from? I like Rick Morrissey, Joe Posnanski, Canzano and Bob Kravitz, to name a few.
    2. What makes a good column? One thing I'm noticing - the best reads seem to be when guys get right into what they're getting at, then support it, rather than drawing things out.

    Any thoughts appreciated.
  2. Before you read the current greats -- and all those are the best in the biz -- take a look at Jim Murray, Red Smith and Mike Royko. All the greats you listed pretty much learned from those guys.

    At it's heart a column must do one of three things -- make you laugh, make you cry, make you angry -- and if it fails to do so, it's worthless. The last thing you want to do in a column is just inform. People know already. When I was editor of my college daily, I'd have kids turn in columns every week that were just their opinion on a subject. Not good enough.

    IF a column incites or elicits or entertains, it makes the reader keep reading. One of hte best columns I wrote was about Pat Tillman, and about me crying in a room at a huge party after I saw it on the news. People came up to me and told me I'd made them cry, and that it really resonated with them.

    I wrote a beautifully written column on Tiger and Roger Federer. I was so damned proud of it. There was a lot of prose, a lot of good spins. And I didn't hear a word.

    What makes the best columnists so good (and add Bill Plaschke to your list immediately) is that they strive not to simply put pen to paper, but to put heart and mind to paper. It's one thing to be creative, it's another to be creative while being thoughtful.

    Lastly, go read "If you were expecting one-liners," by Jim Murray. Seriously, now, go google it.
  3. Johnny Dangerously

    Johnny Dangerously Well-Known Member

    If you aspire to be a great columnist, run from any place that expects you to write a feature, a notebook and a blog entry -- and "Oh, leave behind a column for Thursday."

    Columns are about perspective, about the heart, about passion, and I don't know many who can just crank them out with three other pieces in an eight-hour day. Those who can were surely born to it, and there's little they can tell you about it. They can do it, but they can't teach you how to do it.

    Try to find a paper, an editor or a beat that allows you time to observe, to watch, to sink your teeth in. Also, stay (or get) as well-rounded as you can. Don't be one-dimensional. Know more than sports.

    You don't get perspective in an instant. You get it over time, and time takes time.

    The best columns are written before you sit down at the keyboard.

    Look at me: I just wrote the equivalent of the "Duh, no shit" column. ;)
  4. In Exile

    In Exile Member

    The best columns are built from reporting.
  5. In Cold Blood

    In Cold Blood Member

    I don't have a ton of experience writing columns, but as a reader, I enjoy columns that evoke a response. As mentioned above, a great column makes me laugh or cry or tell the guy's mugshot in the paper that he's a douche.

    Another thing: try, as much as possible, to write columns that you can actually do some first-person reporting on. Write about things local to your area - games you can go see, athletes you can actually spend some time with.
    I don't want to read some guy who sat in front of a tv in Boston tell me about the PGA Championships. I want some kind of first-hand perspective that can only be crafted from hearing the sounds, smelling the smells etc., of actually being there.
  6. What about using "I" or "me" - first-person stuff.

    Some people seem vehemently opposed to it because the thinking is that you're "making it about you."
  7. Joe Williams

    Joe Williams Well-Known Member

    I've read more terrific columns that didn't sport an "I" or a "me" than I have terrific ones that did.

    I'll take a feature column over some egomaniac sticking "I"s and "me"s into his copy as if those alone will turn boring writing into a column. And I especially love the clowns who attribute a quote as blah-blah-blah," Heywood Jablowme told me rather than simply blah-blah-blah," Heywood Jablowme said. Sometimes they'll even set it up with a sentence of So I asked Heywood Jablowme if . . .

    When I see that sort of verbal stroking, I make a promise to myself never to read that hack again.
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