Wick Communications

Be yourself, know your readers, make a point

In journalism on May 12, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Earliler this month, Bogalusa Daily News General Manager Richard Meek (that’s him on the right) won the Sam Hanna Award for column writing at the Louisiana Press Association convention. It was one of six first-place awards the newspaper’s editorial folks took home with them. (Hanna was a longtime Louisiana columnist and publisher.) I asked Richard to share some tips on good column-writing. His ideas follow. I think a good locally oriented column is really a must for a community newspaper. Plus they are fun to write. Here’s Richard. — Clay

Having thoughts of obliterating your sanity? How about tossing your ego off a cliff with no safety net waiting in case of meltdown?

If so, proceed to your nearest editor and express a desire to be a columnist. Then, retrieve the last bastion of logic that is conspicuous by its absence and retreat to the sanctity of exposing corrupt politicians, covering murders or analyzing your school system’s latest test scores. Your psyche will thank you in the morning. …

Penning a newspaper column can be one of the most exhilarating experiences in the profession. It’s an opportunity to peel away the veneer of your soul and expose it to readers, a platform to express your personal and most profound thoughts, a sounding board for new ideas, and in some cases, especially among journalists covering natural disasters, a very public therapist’s couch.

But major pitfalls loom at every byte. By nature, writers’ minds are fertile landscapes of fermenting thoughts, germinating into words, that can eventually be harvested into a printed piece of your heart that will hopefully captivate readers. Those with squeamish minds need not apply.

Unfortunately, and for reasons yet to be uncovered, as deadline approaches fertility turns to senility, and one is left to stare at a blank screen while grousing about an annoying editor who is stifling your creativity.

There is no magical elixir to authoring a column but three basic principles should be followed: Be yourself, know your readers, and always make a point.

The first is obvious. Do not pretend to be someone you’re not. I am currently an unapologetic city boy writing for a paper that predominantly serves a rural readership. My knowledge of anything agricultural is limited, so readers would see right through me if I feigned expertise on related topics.  Any such attempt would cost me credibility and ultimately turn readers away not only from the column, but likely the paper as well.

Rather, I use my lack of knowledge to my advantage and turn the tables, creating humorous ways to bridge the gap between our differences. A teaspoon of self-deprecating humor adds spice, but use carefully.

And never be sanctimonious in your column; arrogance in newsprint is polarizing.

Equally as important is understanding your readership. Writing a column for a major metro will vary significantly in tenor from one penned for a smaller paper.

The larger publication will likely require a more scholarly approach, especially if the piece is a component of the editorial page.

A smaller paper typically not only offers the opportunity to be more folksy and parochial but typically demands it. Readers want to identify with the columnist; opining about events thousands of miles away from their own cocoon of security will trigger a loss of interest. They expect a columnist who is ingratiated in the community, understands the parlance and brings a unique perspective to the culture.

Finally, have a salient point, or at least express an opinion. A reader’s time is valuable so don’t waste it with dribbling prose.

Even if it’s the closing paragraph, express yourself in a way that will inspire a nugget of thought, or even bring a smile to a reader’s face.

Never shy away from writing write a column if offered the opportunity; just check your sanity at the door.

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