Colin Drury of The Star, Sheffield, was named columnist of the year at the 2011 Regional Press Awards. Here he shares some tips on the art of column writing.
Two years ago I received an email from a man addressing me as F*** Face and referring me to an internet site set up in my honour.
It was a Facebook hate group. At first I laughed at ‘We Hate Colin Drury Of The Halifax Evening Courier’. Then I noticed it had more friends than my own profile.
And I thought: well, blimey, there’s no denying that stings a bit.
Perhaps, I should have expected it. For days I’d received emails questioning my parentage and suggesting my life expectancy might be somewhat shorter than a healthy 26-year-old could reasonably expect.
For days, my editor had taken furious calls from readers demanding I be axed, and in many cases offering to do the axing. For days a colleague refused to speak to me.
Strange couple of weeks, all told. I felt like Russell Brand probably did at the height of Sachsgate. Only without the consolation of having slept with a Satanic Slut.
Anonymous trainee hack to Halifax’s most despised man. In 500 words.
Tip number one, then, for aspiring newspaper columnists: grow a thick skin.
Tip number two, never write disparagingly about dogs.
More specifically never write disparagingly about dogs if you’re going to conclude by calling for a cull of all family pets – including, as I did, my own aunt’s faithful Labrador.
I should stress here, I wasn’t serious.
The piece was written with tongue firmly in cheek and – I’ll not go into the hows and whys – was intended to highlight my own petty vanities and insecurities.
But on reflection it was a rubbish read banged out an hour before deadline which fully deserved all those metaphorical dog turds posted to my not-so-metaphorical inbox.
The point of the anecdote? To highlight that being a newspaper columnist isn’t all free drugs and backstage blowjobs.
In fact, it’s never any of those things. Not for me anyway, although I’m sure Richard Littlejohn has a fruity tale or two.
Of course there are plus points, it gives you an incredible window to fill with your opinions and anecdotes.
But there are also definite lows: generally when you realise your opinions are halfbaked, your best anecdote is how a vending machine coughed up two bags of Quavers when you paid for just one, and there’s a sub looking over your shoulder asking ‘if you can file something in, ohhh, looks at his watch, is about five minutes ago any good for you?’
Have I put you off yet? Don’t be. Thick skin, remember? Because, above all else, writing a column is amazing fun. And that’s why I don’t want to ruin it with too many hints and tips.
For sure there are some obvious ‘rules’ to follow. Your subject should lend itself to comment or ridicule; you need to be engaging and coherent; you should have a point.
But what’s more important is you don’t try so hard to write that you become bland; that you don’t try so hard to emulate others that you never develop your own voice.
Be who you are. A more entertaining and opinionated version for sure, but be yourself nonetheless.
So, with that in mind, all I can really offer are a couple of hints which have served me alright.
First, if you have 500 words, write 700 and take some time to polish it down. Get rid of the fat, whittle it away, scrub it up.
The Ramones famously wrote songs four minutes long then smashed them down to two. Same applies.
Second, always finish strongly. A decent conclusion can turn an average piece into something profound. Albert Camus wrote entire books based on that principle.
Make the end certain, make it sudden, or perhaps make it refer to the start. Follow these tips and you too may one day have your very own Facebook hate group. See what I did there?
This article was first published in Press Gazzette's monthly magazine last year