A couple of weeks ago, I talked about Paul Harding’s advice to “write what’s really there.” I heard Harding speaker at Writers’ Day, a great event put on by the New Hampshire Writers’ Project. Today I’ll continue the series with a look at writing the drama of the ordinary.
Successful columnist John Clayton led one of the morning sessions at Writers’ Day—A Life Sentence: Column Writing. The 25-year newspaper veteran writes “In the City” for The Union Leader, a Manchester, NH newspaper. Clayton’s column tells all kinds of stories about Manchester and its people: historic people and events, cultural changes, locals’ connections with world events, oddities about the city, you name it. Clayton’s column has netted him many awards, including the New England Associated Press’s Best Local Column, and has been compiled in several books.
What Is a Column?
A column, says Clayton, is “an overheard piece of humanity.” It’s a personal story for a wider audience. Where news is something exceptional that happened, a column is about “the drama of the ordinary.”
Writing a column means making a connection with your readership. It’s an ongoing relationship. You build a community and offer a shared experience of life.
For Clayton, that’s telling stories about individuals he meets in Manchester and about all the things that make Manchester unique. Like Manchester’s first organized town meeting, which took place in a bar. In “City Hall,” Clayton tells some interesting historical anecdotes to tell the real story: the need for help renovating a historic building. He begins with an apt description of the current building (“archaeologists may one day find that City Hall is actually made entirely of duct tape”) and quickly connects the current building with its roots:
Clearly, this is not what our founding fathers (and mothers) intended. No sir. They wanted us to have a meeting place we could be proud of, one that reflected our town’s proud history and our city’s unlimited potential, so, in 1751, they go together for their first organized meeting. In a bar.
The column goes on to describe the progression from ale house to meeting house to city hall and the current building’s need for renovations. Clayton fires up his readers by connecting them to its history.
How Do You Write a Column?
Relationships are two-way streets. Part of column writing is getting to know your audience. Find out what interests them. Offer them opportunities to give you feedback and listen to it. Most important, says Clayton, “is to assume your readers are smart. Don’t talk down to them.”
Your first job is to tell a story. Do your research. “It’s better to over-research and write from abundance. Then you can leave out the less-interesting stuff.” As you search out your topic, pay attention to the details using all of your senses. Don’t just say you walked into a pub, build that bar for your audience. Tell them how it smelled, what you heard, how the wood of the bar felt. “Put yourself in that place,” says Clayton.
When you sit down to write, let the material shape the story you will tell. Once you’ve got your story, create a breadcrumb trail for readers to follow. Then comes the hard work: rewriting.
Like all writing, column writing isn’t throwing words onto a page and leaving them; it’s reworking them until they’re right. This is the time to fine-tune. Play with the words and images. “In every man’s writing, the character of the writer must ultimately revealed,” says Clayton. This is where you are revealed.
How Do You Keep Writing Columns?
Column writing is an ongoing cycle of researching, writing, rewriting, and publishing. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. How do you keep generating story ideas?
Keep your eyes and ears open at all times. I keep a running list of ideas; if I’m ever stuck for a topic, I dig into my list. Some ideas might be on the list for years. But when the time is right, that idea will be there, waiting for me. Fodder for columns includes:
- Items of immediacy
- Industry celebrities
- Popular celebrities
- Items of proximity
- Stories with impact
Keep your curiosity about you, and read everything. You never know what can be turned into a column.
How Do You Find Out More?
Clayton offer several resources for columnists, including:
- National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ Columnists.com
- American Journalism Review
- The Providence Journal’s “The Power of Words”
- “Getting Started in Column Writing”
I’d add one more: read other columnists. Read Clayton. Read columnists who write about your topic. Columnists who write well. Columnists you admire and want to be like when you grow up. You are what you read.
So go read some columnists. Let me know how it goes.