Writing a Column – a few tips

I like to think I am Leighton Buzzard’s answer to the fabulous Grace Dent, or possibly even Carrie Bradshaw (minus the dreadful fashion faux-pas) as I write my regular column for the local paper.  In reality I’m neither, but my writing group have asked me to put together a few tips for a forthcoming workshop.  I’ve tried to keep it simple, as I am at heart a simple soul.

First off, writing a column is a huge honour and a lot of fun.  Where else do you get the chance to air your views, observations, opinions and whinges to a ready-made readership?  If you are offered the opportunity, seize it with both hands. It gives you the chance to appear regularly in print, boost your cuttings book and will get you used to the discipline of word count and a deadline, all good writerly training.

So here are my top ten tips, mainly from my experience, but a few were drummed into me during my journalistic training and which have remained seared on my brain:

1.Grab your reader’s attention in the first two lines.  I often start with a bold statement or a question.  Hook your reader and reel them in.

2. Know your readership inside out. Study the publication again and again if you’re not familiar with it.  Keep it relevant.  A local paper will need pieces with a local theme or link.  It sounds obvious, but it’s sometimes tempting to write about what you want to and not about what your demographic want to read!

3.You can be opinionated – that’s what columns are for.  But try to avoid ranting or pushing a particular political viewpoint if it’s inappropriate.  Don’t alienate your readership – or your editor!

4.Unless you are writing for a very highbrow publication, keep it light.  My philosophy is that life is serious and difficult enough, therefore I find humour always works well (But I have to rein myself in: my sense of humour can be a little off the wall).   Be sure to avoid taboo subjects – once again, tailor to your readership. There are some things that go on in the town that I am DYING to share but I know the editor won’t appreciate them … after all, he has to answer to his boss and the board of directors, shareholders and advertisers.

5.  Be completely professional.  Even if you’re writing your column on a voluntary basis, treat it as you would a job.  Keep to word count and present pieces double-spaced in a standard font, as per the specifications and house style of your publication.  Ask for guidelines if you’re unsure.  ALWAYS submit before the deadline.  A late column equals blank space in the paper and a huge headache for the editorial team.  Early is great.  Build up a good relationship with the editor.   Be disciplined – all the most successful writers are.

6. Once you’ve written your column, put it to one side for 24 hours before coming back to re-read and make any alterations.

7. Find your own voice.  Be fresh and original.  If you can’t write about something new, then at least put an unusual slant on a well-trodden subject.

8.Keep it topical. Bear in mind the lead time for your column.  My deadline is the week before publication, but I often write my column weeks or even months ahead, when I have time. What will be happening when your column is out?  Christmas, local events, schools breaking up, a big sporting event, religious festivals?

9.  As soon as you get an idea, write it down or make a note on your phone or tablet.  Ideas and inspiration are everywhere: in overheard conversations, shop windows, on a train or in a car, from watching the news or a chance encounter with an old friend.  Keep a stock of ideas to avoid the dreaded ‘blank page syndrome’ the day before deadline.  Some of the subjects I’ve used in column on are: New Year resolutions, men wearing flip-flops who really shouldn’t, the town’s 99p shop, the misery of commuting, owning a rescue dog, Christmas presents appearing in the local shops in September, working away from home and feeling completely homesick, the difficulty of being childfree in a society geared up for families, having laser eye surgery, and one of my favourites: being almost bankrupted by the wedding season.

10. And most important of all:  DON’T BE PRECIOUS.  Titles will be rewritten by the sub-editors, even if you think your one was better. Words or whole sentences may be cut, changed or reworded by the editorial pen.   The editorial team have the final say and are, after all, the experts on their particular publication. That’s life and it happens to even the greatest writers whose exhaled air we are not worthy to breathe in. Even after they’ve finished with it.  A friend of mine edits celebrity columns for a national newspaper and, yes, things get changed ALL THE TIME.  Don’t get upset or, even worse, argue with the editor.  Sorry to rant but I have been amazed at how seeing one’s name in print can go to the head of the most unassuming amateur writer.  And if the editor comes back to you and tells you your column is not suitable for whatever reason, don’t even think of huffing off. Learn from this and write another one, double quick.  Nobody likes a prima donna.  (If any of my colleagues are reading this: yes, I can be a diva in my day job, but I have been there a long time and have earned the right!)   Having told you not to rant, I’ve just ranted. But I think humility and a willingness to learn are vital.

So that’s my ten tips.  I hope they were useful.  Better tips can be found in the brilliant book “Wanna be a Writer?” by author and columnist Jane Wenham-Jones.


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