Resolutions for the Columnist

Ben PollockBy Ben Pollock, NSNC President

1. Quit grasping onto obvious topics like “Columnist Lists New Year’s Resolutions.”

2. When writing, quit the posed, “I don’t know about you, but as for me …” or a similar phrase. Reflective columns are just that, writing about oneself and hoping they strike a chord in readers. Writing in the second person makes readers feel you’re pointing at them. I need to be less self-conscious in the first person. Write it true, and it will resound in others.

3. I don’t know about you, but as for me. …” Strike that.

3. Stay on top of the latest new media and social networking sites. Research the latest, but be pragmatic. In the new year there’ll be two dozen or 75 Web show-stoppers, but only a couple will have enough appeal and sense to last into 2012. Twitter seems overrated now, doesn’t it? Facebook just gets bigger, but way too often I post a little two-sentence comment on the “wall” and realize I’d just blown what could’ve been a decent piece. Resolved: Hold back, expand the remark into a column, then link that to Facebook.

4. Speaking of Facebook, stay in contact both with non-writer friends and family and also writers I know. One of the tiredest cliches is how lonely writing is. That doesn’t mean a writer has to be a loner or feel lonesome. Unless it’s a collaboration, the craft of writing merely is solitary. So are programming, car repair, dog-walking and lots of jobs. Teachers and surgeons, surrounded by people, get lonely.

5. A cliche that makes no sense is “show, don’t tell.” When the young phys ed teacher in Philip Roth’s new novel “Nemesis” (about polio in the 1940s), finally gets infected, Roth pens only a few dull phrases including “unbearable muscle ache.” That’s it? No similes, no descriptions? We deal in words, all we do is tell. A videographer on the other hand shows, and if Nemesis” was a movie, all that would be shown is a fellow in bed, wincing; we still wouldn’t grasp fully how that must feel. Roth — a master storyteller, even if controversial — instead tells polio’s impact by leaping ahead 27 years and showing Bucky as a post office administrator, pudgy, white-haired, braces covered by pants plus a cane, and with nearly three decades of bottled up rage against the illness that he allowed to ruin his life. The cliche should be — and my resolution is — Tell Better, Show Better.

6. Another tired cliche is “write what you know.” Yawn. My resolution is, Write What You Don’t Know.

7. Listen more to others. I’m starting to get bored with listening to myself.

8. Get more sleep. Sure I can pump out the copy, it’s the mark of a pro, but it’d be more fun if I was rested. The copy would be more imaginative. Clear, rested thinking would allow insight to find the weak spots and revise faster.

9. With a few more hours for research or reporting, the column can be better.

10. With a few more hours of tinkering, the column can be funnier.

11. Maybe I am getting older, but didn’t I used to feel more energetic when I was fitter and thinner? This cliched resolution, exercise more and eat better, has meat to it.

12. Write daily, even if I have just a monthly column and blog when I feel like it. The daily writing doesn’t have to be published. It can be a journal or a dream diary, anything to get a few hundred words out as close to daily as possible. That everyday flexing opens up possibilities with the pen or keyboard that don’t come if I presume to wait for inspiration. Daily writing is yoga for fingertips.

13. When I have a choice, Read Up, not down. Read more great columnists and more great writing in general. I resolve to become a better writer by writing more, but there’s a lot of good advice out there, too. I need to reread last February’s two-part series from London’s Guardian, a master list of authors’ 10 Rules for Writing. Here is part 1, and here is part 2 .

14. None of these resolutions, nothing I’ve ever written, is original. This is the first lesson that ethical writers take from the Internet. So I resolve to turn off my browser, to not check up on today’s good idea yet, flesh it out first. Most of the time, it’ll be different enough, or some revision will make the piece mine. Every once in a while I discover a draft is too much like something I must have read and forgotten. I resolve to not be too angry at myself, learn from it, delete and move on.

15. Winter’s a great time to re-examine why I’m a columnist. Is it the money or fame, or the drive for either? Do I have causes to support? Maybe I genuinely just want to share and don’t mind kind-of giving it away. This isn’t just about me-me-me. The world is nowhere near settling down yet from the Internet explosion. What had been possible for the talented, ambitious or lucky hasn’t disappeared. It’s just shifted. It’s still shifting. Nothing indicates the world of communications is shrinking, but the opposite. I will remind myself that goals shouldn’t be static.

16. Study the person I really am and and analyze the person I’d like to be. Figure if I can get those two selves a little closer this year.

17. A resolution to close: End a list column on a prime number. Such out-of-the-blue rules give the illusion of intelligence.

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  2 comments for “Resolutions for the Columnist

  1. January 8, 2011 at 7:20 am

    PLz send me detail for membership


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