This column was originally published in the December 2013 edition of The Columnist, the members’ newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
By Eric Heyl
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
Tis the season to be jolly?
For the intrepid columnist, that’s not necessarily the case.
“Dog days” refer to that particularly sultry period in the summer, but for columnists a certain canine quality also can exist during the holiday season. The December doldrums can put you at risk of churning out columns that aren’t up to your usual standards, pieces that, despite your best intentions, can be classified as complete dogs.
You might think I’m barking up the wrong tree with that assertion. But my own experiences over the years have provided ample evidence that the holidays can be a slippery slope to successfully navigate.
A key reason is that plenty of decent source material dries up for several weeks. The bumbling public officials that provide the primary ingredients for many a good column essentially go into hibernation. Unless there’s a critical budget battle or some other pressing issue emerges, legislatures, councils, commissions and school boards tend to greatly curtail their activities.
That can easily leave you grasping for a column topic and prompt you to interview a shopping mall Santa, visit a soup kitchen and talk to the people manning the donation kettle. Do that, and before you know it you have crafted columns of stark unoriginality and utter banality. But what’s the alternative? To sit at your computer and complain about the dearth of quality column material, which the astute among you undoubtedly realize is exactly what I’m doing at this very moment?
No one wants to read that.
Columnists also have to resist the urge to mail it in. That temptation can come from the realization that far fewer people are paying attention to them this time of the year. People are taking the kids to see Santa, picking up presents they have on layaway and filling the liquor store cart so they can brave the relatives they despise who soon will descend upon their home.
As such, they don’t have time to email or call to tell you that you a communist liberal swine, a right-wing Tea Party zealot, or simply a +%@&!*)#%& (which I’ve been called plenty of times, usually and surprisingly by grandmothers). The reaction on which columnists thrive, the feedback that inspires us to go and write something that will enrage even more people, temporarily dries up.
While there is no surefire way to guarantee a good column this time of year, I can tell you an easy way to guard against a bad one: Write as few columns as possible. Stockpile sufficient vacation time during the year that you can take off time in December to take the kids to see Santa, pick up presents you have on layaway and fill the liquor store cart so you can brave the relatives you despise who soon will descend upon your house.
And take comfort in the fact that soon it will be January, and the grannies once again will be cussing you out.