Art of Column Writing
By Suzette Martinez Standring
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Years ago, op-ed was associated only with political commentary. Today, op-ed can take invented directions on current affairs. For example, how pop culture is mirrored in politics is the unique viewpoint of columnist Joanna Weiss of The Boston Globe. “Putting together these two things may seem separate, but in my mind, they are very connected. It’s what’s on TV, in the movies, in the media. It’s also about social media, how people are using Facebook, Twitter, and technology. I would define it as entertainment writ large that we consume and that we produce.”
Who is her audience? “I write mostly for myself, to answer questions that I have when I read the news or look at the world.”
She began as a local government reporter for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, her first job out of college in 1994. Later she relocated to be a metro reporter at the Globe in 1999 and added “TV critic” to her list of writing duties. Becoming an op-ed columnist was never her intention, but when it happened, it brought together her two passions of entertainment and politics.
An interesting mix is what Joanna brings to her columns. For example, one of her columns starts with actress Angelina Jolie famously flashing her leg at the Oscars, and then delves into the politics of abortion. “It [the Oscars episode] happened at the time the state legislature in Virginia would consider a bill that would require women to have an ultrasound before getting an abortion. The bill couldn’t move forward because legislators didn’t want to say the word ‘vagina.’ I wrote a column about how much we talk about sex, but when it comes to legislating things that will involve our lives, they can’t even say the word. How can we create policy when we can’t even talk about it?”
What is Joanna’s aim in column writing?
“I would like people to make connections that they would not have otherwise made. That is something I can contribute to a public policy debate. I’m not an economics expert, or a scientist, or have a technical expertise in certain fields, but a journalist’s job is to piece things together. A columnist should be able to pull together things from different parts of the world and put them together to help people see things a little differently.”
Joanna listed elements that have been key to her success:
- A columnist’s number one trait should be curiosity.
- A conversational style, don’t be preachy or strident.
- Humor, if appropriate, and self-deprecation are reminders of our humanity.
- Develop a recognizable “voice,” which is your personality and writing style.
- Use statistics sparingly. Use one killer stat that makes the reader gasp.
- Writer’s block is a sign that more reporting/research needs to be done.
- Accept that you cannot say it all in a 700-word column.
The goal is to change the public conversation, not to win everyone over to your side. Joanna often gets email chastising her for not addressing this or that on any given subject. “You don’t have to make a legal, airtight case. You just have to make a good argument. Take a debate and inject a few ideas and connections that people haven’t thought about before. Send everyone off on an interesting tangent.”
Crafting opinion columns that ring with intelligence and offer a fresh perspective is hard work. Every writer undergoes an emotional process toward fully owning her public declarations. “In the end, it’s my column, which makes it both terrifying and liberating,” she said.
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Suzette Standring is writing a new book, Op-Ed Writing, which is a sequel to her The Art of Column Writing. It will feature writing advice from respected op-ed columnists. This abbreviated excerpt is taken from her manuscript. Publisher Marion Street Press plans to release her new book in late 2013. Email her: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.readsuzette.com.
This column was first published in the November 2012 edition of The eColumnist, the monthly newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. The full newsletter is available only to NSNC members. For more information, please see our Join or Renew page.