How to be a columnist


Ashley over at recently wrote a thought-provoking post that doesn’t really introduce anything we don’t already know about the gender-imbalance in the media, but which nonetheless should be read by anyone who thinks that the news is a “fair and balance” field.

I’ve always been loathe to toot my own horn, but lately I’ve been getting pretty good at it. I do think that I’m one of the best writers in local media, and while the competition isn’t especially steep, I’m proud of that fact. I am, however, very well aware that people still consider me as a “woman writer,” and not simply a writer, without the sex-based qualifier. I write a lot about so-called “women’s issues,” and don’t apologize for it. Unfortunately, while those issues are global and affect everyone, they’ve always been identified with our sex and therefore de-legitimized as “hard news.”

I do think that my editor does strive to have an equitable newsroom, and a glance at the masthead can attest to that. His community/Web editor and right-hand person is a woman, and half his reporting staff are female. While most of his Op-Ed columnists are male, I suspect that that imbalance has more to do with fewer women in the area submitting to the paper. I think that stems from a number of perfectly valid reasons:

  1. Women traditionally have far more on their to-do list than men. See any statistic about the number of hours women devote to housework versus those of men. (I solve that dilemma by minimizing the time I spend on housework. I vacuum maybe every two months, but as it doesn’t really reflect my quality of life nor my husband’s, I’m not too beat up about it.)
  2. A lot of people — men and women alike — don’t realize that the op-ed page is open for submissions from anyone in the community with something to say and the basic ability to craft a logical sentence. Now, mind you, that last part isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds, but theoretically the barriers to admission, especially here in this relatively small town, are fairly low.
  3. I strongly believe that women have a bigger tendency towards perfectionism than men do. Likely because we know that we’re always judged more harshly than our male counterparts, we’re afraid of looking foolish if our work is anything less than stellar. Now, granted, I always try and do the best I can with my work. However, I also recognize that if I wait until I create Shakespearean prose before I fire off a column to my editor, I’ll never get published. As my thesis advisor in grad school once wisely opined, It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be done. Anyone who’s followed my columns and features over the past year know that the quality of my writing can be inconsistent, but as long as I get my point across, I’m happy. And published.

I would suggest that anyone — but women in particular — with something to say should sit down with pen in hand or laptop on the desk and just start writing. Don’t worry about the first draft. That’s why they call it a draft. It’s supposed to be imperfect; it’s to be your repository of random thoughts, musings, anecdotes, all related to whatever subject about which you wish to pontificate.

Want to write about the need for emergency contraception to be available to rape victims at all hospital emergency rooms in your area? Sit down and write whatever comes to your mind about the subject, even if it’s just a to-do list of things you need to do to pursue it: statistics on rape victims who end up being pregnant; people you need to call to inquire about the availability of the medication at their facility; laws in your state regarding this issue. Write down what you think about it, and why. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t all make sense just yet — that’s what the editing and redrafting is for. Remember that writing about a particularly thorny and complex issue is the first step towards understanding it. That’s why journaling has become so hugely popular. Writing down one’s thoughts helps to organize them and to enable you to glean some kind of insight from the random ideas in your head about them.

When you’ve finally exhausted all of your thoughts on the matter, and your brain feels like it can’t dump any more onto the paper or screen, put it all aside for now and let it “stew” in its own mess for a little while. Leave it aside for a day or so, and let it just sit in peace while it sorts itself out in your head. Like meditation, writing your thoughts down can help clear the decks in your head to see the issue more clearly. That doesn’t mean that you should abandon the brainstorming process — because that’s what this is — so if and when you think of something else to add in the meantime, go ahead and throw it in there.

Now, after it’s been marinating in your head and on your paper/screen for a couple of days, go back to it. Using those notes as a guide, start writing your column. Begin with a strong opening sentence, perhaps with an anecdote about how a friend of yours who was brutally raped entered the local ER and was not only advised that she couldn’t get emergency contraception, but that she would have to go to another ER across town in order to access it. Use powerful words, and avoid that dreaded, ho-hum passive sentence.

Avoid this:

Melanie was upset and angry at the doctor’s blithe attitude towards her dilemma.

And use this instead:

Melanie burst into tears of rage and frustration at the doctor’s blithe attitude towards her dilemma.

See the difference? Which do you think conveys best the emotion Melanie must have felt in the ER?

Now, I’m guilty as much as the next person about subjecting my readers to the passive sentence. But I do my best, as anyone does, and try not to let it happen too often.

Write your column as if you’re explaining your position on the issue to a friend. Some columnists write in an especially erudite manner — paging George Will! — and others write like the thoughtful, well-read, classically-trained academics that they are, e.g., the late, great William F. Buckley. Others write in a more casual manner, like the wonderful Nicholas Kristof. Everyone has a different writing voice, and the key is finding yours. That’s what will distinguish you from all other columnists, and hopefully garner you a loyal following.

I do think that I’ve yet to really nail down my own voice, but I’m getting there. The key is to write, write, write. Have others read your work and give you their comments and feedback. You don’t have to follow them, but at least consider what they have to say, especially those who read the type of columns you aspire to write.

Don’t let weeks go by before you submit your column to the editor. The New York Times and USA Today are extremely competitive markets for would-be op-ed writers, but most local papers allow a little more idiosyncrasy in their guest columnists. Even if you don’t think your writing rates publication, send it in anyway. Don’t, of course, send in crappy work that you haven’t edited, spell-checked and at least run by a couple of capable buddies. Don’t waste the editor’s time, as even in the smallest papers they’re probably inundated with work already. But just because you’re not Anna Quindlen doesn’t mean that your voice and opinion don’t deserve to be heard.

Nowadays submitting a column is super-easy. Most newspapers, if not all, allow electronic submissions. You can find the email address either on the page itself or on their Web site, or just pick up the phone and call the paper’s switchboard and ask them where to send an op-ed. Some newspapers take days to respond, while others — USA Today among them — will do so within 24-48 hours. Seriously. I’ve submitted columns to USA Today and the Chicago Tribune and received rejection notes (usually a line or two) by the following day, if not that day. It doesn’t mean that they hated it from the first line. It could just as easily mean that they didn’t think it fit their needs at the time. (That’s what I like to tell myself.)

If your piece doesn’t get printed, no worries. Keep writing. Writing only gets better with practice. Read the paper, have conversations with your friends and co-workers about issues of the day, and remember to take notes about things that particularly catch your attention. Write more essays, and keep submitting them to your favorite papers’ editors. Publishing is all about being persistent, after all. Eventually, you’ll find the forum where your voice fits best.