Column Writing Pros and Cons
by Jackie Houchin
Column Writing sounds so, well, so glamorous to me – a daily, weekly, or monthly byline with a headshot. Readers loving me, looking forward to my next article, writing to me… Head swelling stuff for sure.
Unlike the other gals on this blog, I’m not a novelist. I’ve attempted writing short stories and had ONE flash story published, but the whole… character arc, rising and falling action, three act structure, dying-to-self climax… I just can’t get it all to work. Maybe that’s why I got into the newspaper writing and book reviewing business. Telling someone else’s story – now THAT I can do.
My first book review was published in a local “rag” (The Foothills Paper) with the greatest of ease. The editor asked for another review, and then started sending me out as a “cub reporter” covering local events, writing human interest stories, and doing local business profiles. I loved seeing what was happening around town, “shooting” dignitaries, writing it all up. My favorite was interviewing people and telling their stories. (See my “Interview Techniques” on this blog http://bit.ly/1LKyVvf)
My words and photos, in print every week. It’s a real high. Give me a press card, an assignment, a Wednesday deadline and I was in writer-heaven. I’ll admit, I got a bit “cocky” when I started getting front page and multi-part stories. That’s when I began to wonder…could I segue from a “stringer” into a columnist? What would it be like to have my own permanent spot on page three?
It was then I happened on *Lydia E. Harris’ article, “Is Column Writing for You?” What I learned from it made me decide to… well, let me share her wisdom first. She asked NINE questions to consider before taking the leap. I’ll list them, and show how I came to my “final decision.”
1. Do you have an idea for a column TOPIC? She told us to consider our profession, hobbies, life experiences.
I had several I could choose from: aspects of writing, photography, horse keeping, Bible commentary. A “Dear Abby” type column would be fun, but who was I to tell other people how to solve their problems? I had to look at each idea closely and see if I could generate an ongoing column from any of them. (Kind of slim, I had to admit.)
2. How will the commitment impact your family? Do you have TIME to take on a new, ongoing writing assignment?
As I chewed on my cheek, I looked at the things in my life that might have to be set aside. Of course that depended on how often my column would appear, wouldn’t it?
3. Is money an issue?
I hadn’t considered money much. Sure I got paid for the stories and photos that ran in the newspaper, but would a column garner more money? Any money? (Note to self: check this out.)
4. Can you accept criticism from readers? If your writing is controversial, you may receive negative feedback.
Eek! No, I’m not good with criticism. But wouldn’t my column be “nice” and safe? I’d been expecting “atta-girl” letters, not confrontations. (I looked over my possible topics list and crossed off Bible commentary.) I also had to consider the fact that my newspaper editor DID thrive on controversy and heated letters exchanged. Would he allow me a cute little column? (Um… nope.)
5. WHY do you want to write a column? Is it to share your expertise, shape lives, develop credentials? Do you want a built-in writing market? Do you want to gain recognition and build a platform?
These questions were getting harder. Did I really have “expertise” on any of my topic ideas? How would tips on horse keeping shape people’s lives? How about name recognition? I already had that with my weekly stories and photos. (Note to self: develop MORE topic ideas!)
6. Are you good at generating ongoing ideas for your topic? (Here she gave a short challenge: Pick a topic that interests you and quickly list 10-20 column ideas.)
Um… how about two?
7. Are you motivated to complete columns regularly and meet deadlines?
Deadlines were not a problem. I did my best writing when I was coming down to the wire on a midnight deadline. But, what if I couldn’t come up with enough ideas on my column topic? Would I get bored? Get sloppy? Want to quit quickly? Would I let the editor and the readers – my dear sweet readers – down?
8. How often would you want to write a column?
The stars in my eyes were quite dim by now. I wasn’t sure I could do this column writing thing. The vision of a fascinating and well-read weekly column was fading into the mist. Writing it seemed like climbing Mount Everest. Or a prison I’d be locked into for the rest…of…my…life.
Her last question was a hum-dinger.
9. SHOULD you write a column? It depends on how you answered the above questions. If you have something to say, can say it well, and find a market, then the answer is probably yes.
Sadly disillusioned, I had to admit my answer was “no.” I was a cub reporter, a stringer, for a rag newspaper, in search of that great investigative story that would win me a Pulitzer! (Okay, maybe not that!)
But she continued with a bit more advice if your answer was “yes.”
1. Carefully select a title for your column. If possible make your title distinctive by including your name in it.
2. To find a market, start with a local publication and prepare several sample columns. Submit them with a proposal and cover letter to introduce yourself and the need for the column. (Don’t discuss pay!)
I retired from newspaper writing when I moved south to Orange County four years ago. I never attempted to write a column, but I did have my own News Website for some years, and now I write on three blogs; THIS ONE, my eclectic “Here’s How it Happened” (http://bit.ly/1Qb9osi) and my “Morning Meditations; Beginning the Day in God’s Word” (http://bit.ly/1oAbZVq ).
Hey… a blog is a column of sorts, right?
* “Is Column Writing for You?” by Lydia E. Harris, Christian Communicator, September, 2011