Art of Column Writing
This column was originally published in the December 2013 edition of The Columnist, the members’ newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
By Suzette Martinez Standring
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Everything we write is based on an opinion, whether a column is hot with political passion or wrapped inside nostalgia or humor. How we feel and who we are cannot be separated from what we write. Opinion columnists with extraordinary career longevity personify this best.
My new book, The Art of Opinion Writing: Insider Secrets from Top Op-Ed Columnists, will be released in early 2014 through RRP International Inc. Featured are long-time, award-winning op-ed columnists with diverse writing approaches, such as Ellen Goodman, Mike Masterson, Connie Schultz, Derrick Jackson, Cal Thomas and others.
I think of opinion columnists as mainly covering the political aspects of global or local happenings, like Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post, who hosted a CNN show. Or journalist Joel Brinkley, whose experiences with foreign government, drug cartels and refugee camps inform his op-ed (opposite the editorial page) columns.
Surely, what they do is a far cry from the spirituality and humor columns that I write. I was wrong. Interview after interview, the commonality to almost all types of column writing surprised me.
Nowadays anyone can be an online opinion writer, which often fans the stereotype of take-no-prisoners histrionics. As Ellen Goodman said, “If you write from a narrow, pretty didactic point of view, you may get a lot of attention — it’s like screaming in a public place — but you probably won’t last a long time. You won’t really have an effect. You’ll only have an effect on the people who already agree with you. My goal was to have people say, ‘Hah! I didn’t think about it that way.'”
Offering a fresh perspective is the goal of all writers, and the best opinion writers help a reader understand how the larger issues apply to daily life. As Goodman also said, “The personal is political.”
For more than a year I interviewed recipients of the Pulitzer Prize and journalism’s other high awards. Many are unyielding individualists who had to overcome resistance, defeat and the naysayers. Their common bond is the rare ability to spark a national conversation while connecting to readers, seemingly one-on-one. How? The obvious answers are memorable storytelling, emotional connection, diligent research and writing that compels.
But here’s the surprise. In hearing about their writing processes, something deeper was revealed. Each writer’s foundational beliefs created both a career purpose and a springboard from which to leap. Maybe the aim was to expose corruption, or to give voice to the working class. Sometimes it was an inborn urgency to write. The inner fuel might be spirituality, social change, or one’s childhood background. Whatever it was also sustained the columnist through times of fear, discouragement or floods of hate mail. The driving force as revealed by each columnist was deeply personal and often different from others. When it came to career longevity, many believed having a sense of mission was a factor.
In today’s quest for longevity writers reach for the greatest numbers of readers, followers, subscribers, and fans, aided by technology to exponentially expand the numbers.
Yet those columnists who have weathered the storms of 20 to 40 years in the business never once spoke of search engine manipulation. They spoke of creativity, a mindset of being granted a gift and a purpose. In their early careers, many of them had a vision of what they wanted to accomplish, but were told, “No way.” “It’s not done like that.” “I don’t think you have what it takes.” So each one tapped into his or her deepest motivation either to overcome the obstacle or to pioneer new territory.
What keeps you writing day after day? Find the authentic answer, and it might be possible for you also to build extraordinary success upon it.
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Suzette Martinez Standring, is the syndicated columnist and blogger of “Suzette’s Spiritual Cafe” with GateHouse Media. She also is a cable TV show host and writing teacher. Her new book, The Art of Opinion Writing: Insider Secrets from Top Op-Ed Columnists, will be released in early 2014 through her new publisher, RRP International, which also will republish her previous book, The Art of Column Writing. Look for both soon on Amazon.com. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit www.readsuzette.com.