In 1996, when I was getting ready to start what turned out to be a five-year stint as a newspaper columnist, I wrote to one of the legends of the business for advice.
Here’s the response I got, through e-mail. A retyped version of this hangs on my wall in my office. It’s one of my most treasured pieces of correspondence.
March 18, 1996
Actually, there’s little I can tell someone about writing a column. But here are a few things that I think helped me:
1. Develop your own style. A columnist, like a novelist or a playwrite, has to have a distinctive voice. A regular reader should be able to tell it is you even without your byline.
2. Stick with what you know, especially in the beginning. You have to establish your credentials with the readers. So local stuff is probably best.
3. Get to the point fast and early. Writing a great lead is fine, but most readers don’t know a great lead from “once upon a time …”
4. If you have time, read a piece out loud before you turn it in. If it sounds stilted or forced, do some editing so it flows.
5. If you get the urge to use French words or phrases, bang your head against a wall until the urge passes.
6. Tragedy tells itself. It needs little help. The saddest sentence I can think of is only four words long: “A child is dead.”
7. Avoid the temptations of “multimedia.” It is flattering to be asked to make speeches and go on radio talk shows. But if these activities cut in on your column time or the time you need for yourself, don’t do them. Many promising columnists have burned out because they spread themselves too thin.
8. Draw a picture of a guy sitting in a little sailboat with slack sails. Have him rowing. Under it write these words: “When there ain’t no wind, row.” Hang it on your wall. In other words, you can’t wait for inspiration. And writer’s block is a luxury columnists can’t afford.
9. If you drink, wait for the weekend.
10. And remember, even if you become the best columnist in the world, it is something like being the tallest midget in the circus.
That’s more advice than I thought I had in me.