Art of Column Writing
By Suzette Martinez Standring
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Promote, stand out, and work social media! Gee, I’m exhausted. I adore writing, but I am bothered and bewildered by all that I must do “to get it out there.” I only like twittering when birds do it. Is there any hope for me?
All columnists aspire to write in a way that moves others, and memorable creation takes time. Sometimes all the other stuff gets in the way of the craft itself. Ellen Goodman said so.
Few can boast her career longevity and her ranking among the top five columnists in the country.
“Part of the reason that it lasted a long time was that even when people disagreed with me, they were interested in following my train of thought and believed that I had something worth listening to,” said Ellen, who received the NSNC Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award in 2010, the same year she retired.
Insightful reporting factored into her success, and she said, “I’m a pretty good listener, and I have a pretty good sense of what is going on around me. That’s the reporting piece. Reporting meaning being a person in the world who pays attention. People often say to me, ‘You wrote just what I was thinking.’ I didn’t write what they were thinking. I wrote what they were thinking about. My job was to figure out what it meant. So I think I helped people figure out the issues that were confusing or troubling because I had my ear to the ground. My goal was to have people say, ‘Hah! I didn’t think about it that way.'”
Social media, blogs, emails, and tweets can shortchange thoughtful assessment, which is vital to well-written commentary.
All deadlines are not equal, according to Ellen. “I made my living telling people what I think, but you have to have time to think. Everything has gotten faster and shorter and more demanding. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the amount of time it takes to think something through. So, when we tell people to keep posting and tweeting, then what is the sum total of what those posts and tweets are?
“You have to make some decisions about what matters to you, and I understand that can be hard under the gun. But again, do you want to have an effect? Do you actually want to help people understand something? I’ve always thought that column writing is the business of making sense, and you can’t make sense of the world in 140 characters.”
I felt reassured, yet social media works and it is necessary. Having thousands of followers does take the writing trek to a much higher elevation. Frankly, I envy those who possess writing genius and social media savvy, like Tracy Beckerman and W. Bruce Cameron, who will be sharing hard-won wisdom on the subject at our Hartford conference this June. From such writers I always learn something useful.
Ellen once said, “You can teach someone who cares to write columns, but you can’t teach someone who writes columns to care.” For someone like me, maybe something’s got to give in favor of careful creation. An iconic columnist reminds us that quality writing is why we scale the heights in the first place.
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I interviewed Ellen Goodman for my upcoming book about opinion writing scheduled for Fall 2013 publication. Follow Suzette’s blog Spiritual Cafe on GateHouse Media.
Suzette will serve as moderator of a panel on “How to Use Social Media to Promote Your Work” at the 2013 Conference in Hartford, Conn., June 27-30. Panelists include Tracy Beckerman, W. Bruce Cameron and Dave Barry. Click here for lots more information on the NSNC conference.