The Art of Column Writing
By Bonnie Jean Feldkamp
For every special interest or hobby, there are niche publications that cover it. As writers, we have the ability to take our interests from activity to the page. Our hobbies, our lifestyles, and our day trades are all mined for material. This is where you find your niche.
Identifying Your Niche
“It may sound obvious,” says humor columnist and literature blogger Dave Astor, but to identify your niche “think about what you love.” If you’re going to commit to writing regularly on a specific topic, you don’t want to burn out on a half-hearted interest.
“I’ve been an avid reader of novels since I discovered ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ as a teen,” says Astor, “so writing about literature made total sense. Yet somehow it didn’t occur to me to do that until 2011.”
After a writing-themed website Astor regularly contributed to rejected one of his submissions, he figured, “what the heck,” and posted it in The Huffington Post’s “Books” section. Dave was pleased when the blog (an appreciation of author Margaret Atwood) got a lot of positive reactions. He continued blogging on literature for The Huffington Post until 2014, when, “after finally tiring of HuffPo’s non-paying policy and other problems,” he began his DaveAstorOnLiterature.com blog that same year.
Columnist Frank Hyman feels that for writers, “there’s little to be lost in making one’s life more quirky and satisfying.” It is this belief that fueled his pursuit of publication.
Hyman says that when you pursue your passions not only do you get “to lead the unique life that you want,” but you also then have “the know-how for an editor to hire you as a columnist in their specialty publication.” By pursuing foraging and coop-building and plant-tending, Hyman now has columns on all three topics.
Understand the Market
Knowing which publications cover your topic is a huge part of any pitching process. When you are active in your specialty as a reader, opportunities catch your eye. This was the case for Canadian hockey mom and columnist Astra Groskaufmanis.
The “Mom Mondays” column for HockeyNow existed before Groskaufmanis wrote it. She recalls, “after a notable absence of the column, I wrote the editor and asked what happened. He wrote back and said she [the writer] could no longer do it.” After reviewing Groskaufmanis’ blog, the editor asked if she would like to be the new “Mom Mondays” writer.
One complaint editors have about working with new writers is lack of follow-through. After putting forth the effort to pitching and landing an assignment, it’s hard to believe someone wouldn’t then write the column. But it happens. A lot.
Once, a student in my writing course landed an assignment (on spec) in a fly-fishing publication. When I bumped into him a couple years later, he told me that by the time he turned in his first piece, a year had passed and the editor he pitched had died. The new editor rejected the article.
There are plenty of people in this industry willing to tell you no for a myriad of reasons; don’t do it for them by procrastinating, or worse, by not ever trying.
Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a blogger and features contributor for Cincinnati Family Magazine. Her essays have published in the New York Times ; Brain, Child Magazine; Scary Mommy; as well as regional parenting publications in North America.