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Want to Write a Column? Admonitions and Advantages

By Noelle Sterne, PhD

At barbecues with friends or departmental parties with people you want to impress, you love tossing off, eyes modestly lowered, “Oh, I’m a regular columnist for Extreme Anachronisms.” But if you’ve been invited or want to start a column (or regular blog) and continue basking in such glory, realize what you’ve taken on.

A quality column takes consistent effort, thought, faithfulness, and rewriting. Experienced column writers know this. From my experience writing several columns and the advice of several column writers I interviewed, here are ten of the most challenging and important considerations.

1. Produce on schedule. The editor plans the layout to accommodate your column and counts on you to fill a certain space for a certain issue. If you have to beg for an extension occasionally, it may be granted, but don’t make this a habit. Resist frequent email or text excuses with unimpeachable justifications for not delivering on time or at all (“My labradoodle ate the hard disk”). You do not want to promise something you can’t deliver.

The strictness of outside deadlines can help—you stop thinking about which part of your closet to attack and instead push yourself to your desk. One regular columnist advises, “Set daily reminders—at work, at home, post-its on the cat. I do all these (except maybe the cat), and I’ve still managed to miss deadlines.” My own method is to write reminders on my master calendar a week to ten days before my next scheduled submission. So if I stall a few days, it’s not too calamitous.

2. Stay interesting. We can easily become repetitive and predictable in our topics and writing style. Pay attention to your penchants, favorite words, and almost automatic constructions. Time and distance between drafts help mightily (see #3). The more you stay interesting, the more readers you’ll have, the more hits the publication will have, and the more advertising it will sell. And the more editors will feel they made a great choice with you and your column.

In addition to style variations, to keep readers reading other strategies can work, such as rotating subjects or interviewing other writers (as I did here). Or combing the news for your topic(s). For a column in a writers’ magazine I did called “The Starbucks Chronicles,” I found inspiration from several business articles about Starbucks’ ups, downs, and changes of direction. Then I drew parallels applying the business principles to helping other writers. Opening more Starbucks cafés equaled writing more; fabulous customized coffee equaled staying true to one’s writing vision.

You can also combat style-and-subject fatigue and redundancy by alternating your interests. One writer who did a blog on techniques of the novel also wrote ongoing columns for music, business, and motivational publications.

3. Allow time for each column to “cook.” A column of 500 or 1,000 words may sound easy to dash off. But you want quality, don’t you? Treat each column like a self-contained gem. Give it the same attention you’d lavish on your best short story: schedule time for the first draft, time between drafts, and time for the very-much-improved second and later drafts.

4. Word count consistency. If your column doesn’t quite make the word count, you may be tempted to pad a short text. Conversely, if you’re over the word count, you may cut unthinkingly to squeeze the column into the required space.

How to decide what’s important?  The answer, says an experienced columnist, is “take-away value. If readers are giving me their attention, I need to give them something of value in return.”

So, to make sure you’re incorporating value, use the time-honored advice that applies to any writing (and see #3 again): let the column “sit” for a day or two or more between drafts. You’ll come back with a new editorial eye and fresher phrases.

Another technique as you’re sitting: without trying to figure anything out, get quiet and ask your Inner Writer for ideas. Open your mind and don’t force anything. New ideas will pop up at odd times, so have a pen/pencil/phone memo handy.

5. Understand the column reveals your real self. In a novel, or even nonfiction, you can “hide” somewhat. But in a column, you and your views are hanging out there. A colleague whose column hilariously chronicles her daily ups and downs admits, “I sometimes wish I’d been a tiny bit less revealing about my inadequacies as a writer and human being.”

Self-exposure, though, is often what keeps readers coming back, nodding and chuckling in recognition. They’re comforted that someone in print is just like them. Erma Bombeck was the queen of laugh-out-loud self-exposure. Many popular columns today, especially on parenting and its glories and terrors, follow her model. So, another truism: the more we courageously delve into and share our inner selves and outer gaffes, the more we touch the hearts of others, and they keep coming back to our columns.

6. Choose your publications. A column is, after all, a great credit. But use judgment about where you offer and place your column. Sometimes a periodical weakens in quality or its reputation becomes tarnished (not because of you or your contributions). Or the editor may be about to retire, and you have no guarantees that the new editor will embrace a similar editorial vision or policy or will even want you to continue your column.

Other times, for editorial and financial reasons, the entire publication shrinks (unfortunately the case with many today), and, after just a few entries, your column could be phased out. Look at comments about the publication and other columns, see reviews, and perhaps contact other columnists about their experiences with the publication. Then use your judgment to select your column carefully. You’ll be glad you did.

7. Guard and apportion your time. Like any other piece of writing, your column deserves time (see #3 once more). Allow the time you really want to give it. But know too that you are probably curtailing your writing time on other projects, like your paranormal romance novel or skiing self-help book. Recognize the price or alter your schedule to accommodate at least some attention to both.

8. To be paid or not. We all want to get paid for our writing. The columnists I interviewed reported figures from $100 a column to payment in links to their books and websites. One columnist won’t take anything under $200. Another said that the editor wanted to do something and was able to afford $10 a column. “I respected this,” the columnist said. “At least he recognized that our columns have value.” Decide whether you want to be paid or not. If not, ask yourself what benefits you may glean from contributing your column (see #10 below).

9. Be alert to unwanted “friends.” Readers identify with us through our columns, and of course we want them to (see #5). But they can get too chummy. One columnist recalls that readers often ask her for free manuscript critiques, a service she offers for payment. Another columnist gets emails from aspiring writers who “have read everything I have to say.” They’re sure, she says, “this suddenly qualifies them to be my new best friend—and of course they want me to read and respond to their 500-page novel without charge.”

When you answer such readers, be polite, respectful, and firm. You’re appreciative of their attention and compliments, but maintain your professional boundaries. In your response, refer them to reputable editing services or describe your own, if you offer them. Invite them to see your website and email or call to discuss their needs and your fees. Such replies will help you practice your professionalism and remind yourself of what you do and don’t.

10. The benefits.  Whatever you may “sacrifice” with your other writing, consider the benefits of a column. Of course, you’ll have the pride of writing a column and the credits. You may get money too. And any writing helps your “major” writing projects. For example, the discipline of the word count will sharpen your editorial eye and skills.

The column too offers additional publicity for your other writing works. Your column bio can include your website, blog, and a display of your book cover(s). Readers, curious about the rest of your writing life, will explore your sites and books, all of which can lead to more sales and contacts for you. Some readers may be radio and blog hosts seeking interesting guests, and you may get invitations for speaking and interviews.

If you want to branch out to more columns (as I did on different topics—at one point I had four), you have the present column as a reference and clip.

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So, when you want to do a column, recognize and weigh the obligations, pitfalls, and benefits. You’ll choose your venues wisely, give your column the proper time and attention, and fulfill your promises.

Then, at barbecues and parties, you’ll boast to everyone, with delicious faux modesty and eyes lowered, that, yes, you write a regular column.

© 2024 Noelle Sterne

Noelle SterneDissertation coach, nurturer, bolsterer, handholder, and editor; scholarly and mainstream writing consultant; author of writing craft, spiritual, and academic articles; and spiritual and motivational counselor, Noelle Sterne has published many pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years helped doctoral candidates wrestle their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, September 2015) addresses students’ often overlooked or ignored but crucial nonacademic difficulties that can seriously prolong their agony. See the PowerPoint teaser here. In Noelle`s Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets and reach lifelong yearnings. Following one of her own, she is currently working on her third novel. Visit Noelle at