By Suzette Martinez Standring
Syndicated Columnist, GateHouse News Service
A definite purpose, like blinders on a horse, inevitably narrows it’s possessor’s point of view. Robert Frost (1874-1963)
Wanted: a strong, personal point of view, emphasis on “personal.” No other form of journalism but column writing allows the writer’s individuality to shape both a message and a self-portrait.
Viewpoint is different from “voice.” Voice is the writing style of the columnist. Point of view is the writer’s perspective, her fixed identity in print. For example, readers expected columnist Molly Ivins’ point of view to be politically liberal, while her writing voice conveyed a “don’t-this-beat-all” sense of humor.
Clear examples of point of view writing can be found in commentary where one’s politics colors personal opinion. Advice columnists offer their special slant on handling life’s problems. Humorists personalize their view of a world gone awry.
Personal bias is acceptable in column writing. In fact, objectivity is not required, according to a majority of columnists polled in a survey by the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. A columnist is not expected to give equal weight to both sides of an issue. Indeed, many fiercely opinionated columnists boast large and very loyal readerships.
However, in offering written bias, a columnist is obligated to support it with facts. Project passion, but keep it fair with research and accuracy because readers look to a columnist’s viewpoint for help in interpreting events or forming opinions.
“It requires you to be almost like a lawyer. Through your arguments, you will need to convince the jury (your readers) that your client (your viewpoint) is right. Shaping a powerful argument takes practice and requires both breadth and depth of knowledge as well as the ability to critically analyze a particular issue,” wrote Oon Yeoh, a writing consultant and columnist for Today, a Singapore daily and The Edge, a Malaysian business weekly.
Walter Brasch is a university professor of journalism and mass communications as well as an author of a biweekly syndicated newspaper column. A recipient of numerous journalism awards, Brasch strongly offers two point-of-view tips.
Fight Homogeneous Style: Don’t imitate popular columnists. Offer readers something different. “Too often columnists read each other and they start to write like each other,” he said.
Don’t modify your message: Your audience is the reader. Don’t adjust your message to please editors or just to get published. Editors fail their readers when they expect writers to mirror the styles of big newspaper columnists.
“The problem is convincing editors they need to have a vast number of views from all parts of the country from all kinds of writers,” said Brasch.
An original viewpoint is irresistible. Columnist Robin Givhan of The Washington Post won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. This was a first-ever for a fashion columnist.
Givhan has covered an international global fashion industry, presidential inaugurals and the Academy Awards as an editor and columnist for The Washington Post since 1995. Previously, she worked for Vogue, The Detroit Free Press and The San Francisco Chronicle.
Her fashion column is popular for its unique point of view: What subliminal messages do politicians and celebrities seek to send by wearing certain clothes? She reveals their fashion choices as symbolism, façade, crusade, faux pas or disrespect.
“Gown watch” during the Clinton inaugural was her light bulb moment when Washington politics and fashion came together to create her column’s point of view.
Givhan said, “I asked myself why do we care so much about what this gown looks like? I wrote a piece about it and realized the first lady’s role and her clothes are so symbolic.
“Being First Lady is not defined as a job with something specific you have to do, other than essentially represent the American people. As a symbol, as a package, you want her to reflect the best of what we think of ourselves as being. That helped me understand better why the inaugural gown was something significant.
“There are a lot of little moments like when candidates visit factories and take off their coats, roll up their sleeves and talk to blue collar guys. It’s the visual language of, “Hey, I’m a regular guy.”
“I make a unique connection between attire and its national or cultural message. I tell people about the power of that type of symbolism.”
Every columnist, novice or seasoned, holds a unique point of view because our outlook is the sum of our personal experiences. No one else in the world has led your life, so all your observations are uniquely enriched.
Brasch added, “Everything that has gone into a writer’s life from birth to the present helps to develop a point of view. Whenever somebody asks me how long it took me to write a book or column, I say all my life.”
Excerpted from her book, The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists (Marion Street Press, Inc. Fall 2007, $18.95) By Suzette Martinez Standring To order books: www.amazon.com