Tips of the trade - COLUMNISTS

Johann Hari, The Independent Imagine you are sitting in a pub, you’ve grabbed somebody’s attention for just a second, and you are saying to them: “Listen. I have something really important to tell you.”

If you can’t do that with your subject material, if you can’t convince yourself that you could hold somebody’s attention in that situation, find another subject.

Always write as conversationally as possible. Be direct. Being arch can work in an essay; being opaque can work in a 5,000-word piece; in a column, it’s lethal.

If you find your prose seems awkward, stop and read one of the columnists whose style you admire. I tend to write like the last person I read; if I’ve been reading an academic text, the result can be terrible. Cleanse your literary palate before you start to write; my favourite for getting a flowing prose style to come is the great Polly Toynbee.

Every column is an argument. Know your own argument, and know your opponents, before you begin to write.

Address their arguments, without sneering if you possibly can. Do not begin to write until you can argue both sides fluently.

If you make a controversial point, always back it up with facts. The more you are diverging from what your readers believe (or from their prejudices), then the more facts you need.

Don’t be controversial for the sake of it. Always ask yourself: do I really think this or am I saying it to wind people up? I have only written one piece where I pushed the boat out further than my own beliefs, and I bitterly regret it. It made me look foolish.

Force yourself to remove wanton provocations, not least because they offer diminishing returns; there will be a time when you really do believe something provocative, and you’ll regret that you wasted some journalistic capital.

Once you’re finished, go through every sentence and ask: does this have to be here? What does this add to the argument? And run a cliché alert; any cliché must die.

 

Martin Freeman, Plymouth Evening Herald Any good column has three ingredients:

(1) a figure from an obscure source (quoted in brackets);

(2) a reference to a current film;

(3) a list; and

(4) an arrogant disregard for the rules of maths.

And grammar. With a mix of short and long sentences. For dramatic effect. As for inspiration, I scour daily newspapers and cut out any bizarre stories, particularly from overseas. I keep the cuts somewhere under the pile of old newspapers on top of my desk. This eases the panic over having nothing to write about when 40 minutes from deadline. I can’t ever find the cuts, but knowing they’re there, somewhere, helps. And having an untidy desk makes me look busy and intellectual.

Finally, always write to length. The last thing you want is for your masterpiece to be slashed by some Neanderthal sub, whohas just seen Kill Bill Volume 1. Keep an eye on the word count – this is 175 words, so it should fit. (Subs’ note, use pic of Uma Thurman in yellow jumpsuit.) Next week: Stacia Briggs and Guy Smith with more tips for columnists

compiled by Sarah Lagan

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