Art of Column Writing
This column originally was published in the April 2014 edition of The Columnist, the members’ newsletter of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.
By Suzette Martinez Standring
2004-06 NSNC president
Recently I ventured into a column genre so outside of my comfort zone: foreign affairs. I was inspired to try based on what I had learned from the late Joel Brinkley and from Dave Lieber.
I write humor, spirituality and lifestyle columns, and probably always will. Foreign affairs op-ed intimidates me. I see it as a big-brain, politically plugged-in genre with writers to match. Years ago, when I first met Joel at a National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference I kept my distance and thought, “Don’t ask me any trick questions about Afghanistan.” Then we worked together on the NSNC board and hung out in Hartford last year. He was a shy and profoundly smart man, sweet and funny. My insecurities melted away, and we became friends.
However, prior to our friendship, I did feel nervous interviewing him about opinion writing for my book. He was one of the few foreign affairs columnists in the nation. How to relate to such a weighty genre?
Joel reminded me that it all comes down to a reader’s endless curiosity of what goes into the stew pot of why things happen, whether local or global. In turn, the best point person is the one with endless curiosity, and that speaks to the nature of all columnists.
Joel loved to write, needed to write. In 1980 as a reporter for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., he earned the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his stories on refugees from Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. In 1983, he joined The New York Times.
My reaction was that his experiences could never, ever be mine. Yet I was wrong to view his work solely within the framework of him as an elite journalist. Joel credited having “fresh eyes” on a situation for his success, something every good columnist strives for daily.
He said, “I immersed myself in refugee camps in Cambodia in ways that no one else did. I had never been to Southeast Asia, and so I saw things that some foreign correspondents didn’t see any longer.”
Joel continued his vivid engagement with readers as a syndicated columnist with Tribune Media Service.
Bringing readers into an experience reminded me of advice I took to heart from Dave Lieber of The Dallas Morning News. A reader feels invested in what happens to a character through storytelling, and statistics and studies are secondary. In that sense, compelling narrative closes the gap among the different types of columns we all write.
This past January, Joel told me he was leaving his professorship at Stanford University to move to D.C. and wrote, “I’ve taken a new job in Washington, though my family is staying in Palo Alto until the school year closes. I’m now ‘senior tactical adviser’ for the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, a federal government position.”
I chuckled to myself, thinking, “Now you can really ask a lot of trick questions about Afghanistan.”
My chance to attempt a foreign affairs column came last month when I spoke to activist Meron Estefanos about the horrific and booming business of abduction, torture and ransom of Eritrean refugees in Northern Sinai and Egypt. The subject was burning in my heart, and the advice of Joel and Dave made me brave.
On March 12, I emailed Joel the link to my column in The Huffington Post, “Close the Torture Houses in North Sinai and Egypt,” thanking him for his inspiration. It was strange to not receive his typically speedy reply. Then I learned he had died the day before.
Joel Brinkley wrote with purpose. Time with him taught me to write way beyond my own comfort zone.
• • •
Suzette Martinez Standring is the author of The Art of Opinion Writing: Insider Secrets from Top Op-Ed Columnists. Her previous book The Art of Column Writing has been reissued through RRP International. Available online or by mail order from bookstores. Suzette is a syndicated columnist with GateHouse Media, a cable TV show host and writing teacher. Suzette will be a featured speaker at the 2014 annual conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists in Washington, June 26-29. Visit www.readsuzette.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.