Over the years, many young people have e-mailed me a number of questions that boiled down to one burning, all-encompassing query: How do you become a columnist?
They may think they are asking me how to get a job in the industry, but they would be asking the wrong person. The truth is I have no idea how to get a job in the industry. I simply am a columnist.
The key is to first BE the person you want to be. The job, the recognition and the money will follow.
I have a niece who says that she wants to be a journalist, but she doesn’t write any stories or even keep a diary. My husband says he wants a big piece of land so he can plant a big garden. He already has a one-acre lot and has never planted a single thing on it! My son wants to be a biologist but he doesn’t want to dissect a frog!
The point is, if you want to be a columnist, BE a columnist. Write as if you already have the job. Write as if there are dozens of newspapers carrying your column. True writers write even when nobody is paying them to do it. They edit their work as if someone is reading it. They set their own deadlines and meet them.
However, being a columnist isn’t just a matter of the work you are creating. It is also a question of the people with whom you associate and what you are feeding your brain. As with any other career objective, it is important to immerse yourself in the culture. This includes regularly corresponding with others in your field. If you want to get better at what you do, you must identify and learn from those people who are better at it than you. No matter how good you are, you are still not the best. There will always be room for improvement.
If you want to BE a successful columnist, one of the best ways to immerse yourself in the culture is to attend conferences and workshops geared for columnists. Consider them continuing education for our field. Your career training will pick up here where college left off. NSNC has put together contests to give you another reason to challenge yourself. Winning the contest is not the reason to enter your work. The reason to enter is to push yourself closer to excellence. Winning is nice, because then you know you’ve reached that pinnacle, but not winning should not be considered a loss. It should motivate a columnist to try even harder. It must be very difficult for our contest reviewers to pick winners because there are so many great writers in our ranks!
As members of NSNC, we are fortunate to belong to a group that cares about the development of its members. Our conferences are not merely fulfilling a social function. They are vital to an emerging columnist’s career and life-giving to those who have been writing a column for decades. Every writer can benefit from the knowledge and ideas presented at the conferences. At the very least, you will walk away with a fresh perspective and fresh incentive.
The burning questions about how to get paid to write, how to write for more papers, what to write about, the dos and don’ts of a successful career, the how-tos of syndication, and industry contacts are not going to be answered by surfing the internet or reading a book. You need to go where the movers and shakers of the industry are going to be. You have to pick their brains, one on one, over a cup of coffee or a coke, between presentations. They have the priceless information you need and are more than willing to share them with those who are willing to ask.
You want to be a successful columnist? You must invest time, effort and money into developing your knowledge and your craft. This is non-negotiable.
BE a columnist. Attend the 2010 NSNC Conference in Bloomington, Indiana. I will be driving 16 hours to attend, because… I AM a columnist.
See you there!
Laura Snyder is a nationally syndicated columnist, author and speaker from Southern Pines, N.C. As NSNC Treasurer, she is a member of the Board of Directors. You can reach Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or visit her website www.lauraonlife.com.