Rules to Write By…


Fort Worth Star-Telegram Columnist
NSNC Education Foundation Secretary

Dave Lieber

Dave Lieber

Here are the Really Bad Column Rules to be a Great Columnist. If you don’t like any of them, write and tell me why so I can argue with you in the next installment. If I don’t hear back from anyone, I’ll take that as quiet acquiescence.

Show attitude. Like the above paragraph. Notice the way I got in your face. Were you a little offended? Hope so. If you don’t have an attitude, lay out a challenge, threaten and cajole, you might as well be the nighttime police reporter.

Talk to reporters at your paper. Once someone asked me what I did before becoming a columnist 13 years ago, and I answered: “I was just a reporter.” Just a reporter? What an incredibly stupid comment. Reporters are your eyes and ears. Treat them like your best sources and you’ll get your best ideas. If you are not a columnist on staff at your paper, develop relationships with on-staff reporters by taking them to lunch, calling to compliment them, picking their brains or just checking in regularly through e-mail.

Forget your past. Only the next column matters. Nobody cares about your awards, so, as my wife likes to tell me, get over yourself. Nobody cares about your books, your speaking skills or the big stories you covered. All readers and editors care about is how good you are that day. Be the best you can be every time out of the box, and you won’t have to worry about anything else. Readers will find you.

Don’t obsess over your failures; learn from them. One of my mentors, Big Bob Hill of the Louisville Courier-Journal likes to say that a columnist is lucky to bat .333 — one out of every three columns is good. So accept the fact that you won’t always be great. Savor the ones that are, and don’t dwell on failures. Your work is the first draft of history, even if it took you five drafts to write it.

Check in with your mentors. Speaking of Big Bob, stay close to the people you respect most. Aside from Big Bob, I have admired many NSNC columnists, including — but not limited to — the wisdom, serenity and wit of retired columnist Bill Tammeus of the Kansas City Star, the improvisational wild side of retired New York Times columnist Diane Ketcham, the screw-the-world attitude of Philadelphia Daily News’ columnist and 2007 conference host Stu Bykofsky and the leadership skills of former presidents Mike Leonard of the Bloomington Herald-Times and freelance columnist Suzette M. Standring, to name a few. Hey mentors, consider this a check in!

Read every newspaper you can get your hands on. If you don’t read, you can’t write. So read several dailies, many weeklies and as many magazines as you can find.
When you make a mistake, turn yourself in. Confess to your editors and ask for a correction box before readers or sources do. It shows editors you have integrity.

Never lie to an editor. Ever! They will never forgive you. Confess your sins so they hear about your mistakes from you before anyone else.

Keep everything in writing. When you research a column, keep the times and dates of phone calls you make to sources. Not just “Called Thursday afternoon,” but “Called Thursday, 2:37 p.m.” If there’s a dispute about what you did, you have proof.

Call everyone you write about — before publication. If someone is going to be mentioned in your column, especially if you are going to criticize them, call them and discuss what you plan to write. Give them a chance to tell you why you are wrong. Nothing is worse than a columnist who criticizes from afar. It makes you look like a coward.

Don’t settle scores. You have the power. Don’t abuse it.

Try to interview people whom you are sure won’t talk to you. Most likely, they will. Everyone likes to talk about themselves, especially if they are going to be in a newspaper. Your column will be better for your efforts.

Don’t rewrite reporters’ stories and add your opinions. Why bother being a columnist? Readers can read reporters’ stories and come up with their own opinions. You are the readers’ eyes and ears. They don’t have time to practice journalism because they have real jobs. Before you write, research, make phone calls — and even better — actually go places you plan to write about. Don’t be lazy. Yeah, that’s right. I’m talking about YOU!

Read your column aloud before you hand it in.
How’s the rhythm? What about the word choices? Can you add metaphors and alliteration or more lyrical writing or even a touch of poetry?

Never break the law for a column
. Duh.

Never screw a source. But if they screw you, this rule no longer applies.

Never believe the first thing somebody tells you, no matter how good it sounds. Check it out. It might be wrong — and often is.

If you write about your family, it better be darn interesting. The worst reason to write about your family or your pet is because you don’t have a column. Get out and beat the bushes for one.

Use humor. Nothing works better to draw in readers.

Don’t believe your fans
. So, a lot of people tell you they like your work? Well, don’t believe it. Think about the thousands of people in your community who never read you and the rest who never heard of you — and, frankly, don’t care about you. How do you reach them?

Make open records requests. Constantly. Get public records whenever you can. It’s not just for reporters.

Don’t procrastinate
. You know those bookmarked Web sites and e-mails you like to read before you actually get to work on your column? They are time wasters that harm the quality of your work and cost you readers. Get to work, Bubba!

Don’t waste your time posting to other people’s blogs or news groups. You have a column. That’s your turf. But if you do post, always use your real name. And remember that whatever you post will come back and haunt you three years from now.

When in doubt, ask your editor. If it’s something you wonder if you should do, ask before you leap. And it doesn’t hurt to ask in writing, and keep the written answer, so if the dung fly at you later, you’re covered.

Take risks. Plan to fail on some things. That’s OK.

Every day, try to learn about something new. I’m studying Excel spreadsheets and reading computer magazines. I want to learn about birds and Medicare after that. Why? Because, like everything else I do, I want to be a better columnist.

Dave Lieber’s Really Bad Column appears regularly on Address your comments to him at or call his stupid voice mail machine at 817.685.3830 to leave a rant.


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