When I arrived at the Chicago Tribune in 1985 to work in the features department, the features editor sat me down and asked me how I envisioned my newspaper future.
“I’d like to write a column,” I chirped.
“Yeah,” she said, “you and everybody else.”
And that was the end of that dream.
Honestly? I wasn’t even sure what I meant when I said I wanted to write a column. What exactly is a columnist?
I didn’t want to be a columnist like the guys on the op-ed pages, who orated on national politics from the top of Mount Pundit. I didn’t envision myself writing the kind of column that romanticized hanging out with cops in bars. I didn’t want to be Dear Abby. I think I meant that I wanted to be able to reflect on what I care about—the big, messy sweep of life, from politics to the weather—and do it in language that felt natural to me.
The only columnist I knew who wrote the way I’d like to—the only one I felt spoke for me and to me—was Ellen Goodman. But at the time, she was a rare breed of columnist—a woman, a columnist who blended the public and the personal—and my editor had made it clear that columnist wasn’t in my near future, so I went about my business. Wrote features for a while. Spent five years covering the South as a national correspondent for the Tribune. Forgot that I wanted to be a columnist, whatever that was.
Then one night in Atlanta, my phone rang. Did I want to come back to Chicago and write a column on the Tribune’s Metro page?
Wow. A column. In Chicago. One of the great newspaper towns. Easy answer, right? I said I’d have to think about it.
I hesitated because columnists were supposed to be highly opinionated people. Kickass. When I was younger, I might have qualified. At 38, less so.
Covering news made me see how slippery and fragmented the truth could be. I’d go cover a big story and then read an opinion column by someone who hadn’t been there and I’d think, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Being a reporter made me wary of columnists. It taught me how much I didn’t know, couldn’t know.
So two days after I got the call, I called back and did what I had to do: I said yes. Because, really, who could say no to a column in the city of Chicago?
But I made a vow. Five years and I’d move on. No one could write a good column for longer than five years. That was in 1992. And more than ever today—23 years later, three columns most weeks—I ask myself: What is a newspaper columnist?
It can mean a Metro columnist. An op-ed columnist. A food columnist. A few years ago, the Pulitzer for criticism went to the L.A. Times car columnist. “Columnist” has always been a big tent of a word, but the definition seems even broader now. Blogs. Facebook. Online comment boards. Anybody with an Internet connection can be a columnist of sorts. In this new world, traditional columnists have to adapt.
It makes me happy that my column runs on page 3 of the printed Chicago Tribune. But these days I worry more about where it runs on our website, how often it’s tweeted or posted on Facebook. There’s more pressure than ever to write off the trending news, and not just of the day but of the hour. To peg your opinions to celebrities or national political figures. To be purely personal or outrageously partisan. None of this is new, but in a click-driven world, it is amplified and accelerated. It gets harder to be a generalist, to speak quietly, to think before you shout.
Every now and then I run into someone who says that the old-style Metro columnist—a person who sometimes offered opinions, who sometimes told stories, who used “I” but not all the time, who was there to reflect the life of a place—is almost extinct. Extinct or not, that’s the model I’ve followed, even as I try to figure out its place in the new order.
And I like to think that in these 23 years, I’ve learned a few things that apply to column writing of many kinds, in any age.
One thing I’ve learned? Making a list is a lazy way to write.
Another thing I’ve learned? People love lists.
So here are 23 things I’ve learned about column writing in the past 23 years.
1. You can only be who you are—I was never going to be Mike Royko and never tried—but you can sharpen who you are.
John Carroll, the late, great L.A. Times and Baltimore Sun editor, once said that reporters tend to be explainers or indicters and that the best investigative teams pair the two. A lot of columnists are indicters. Some of us lean more toward the explainer type. Whichever one you are, it’s smart to push yourself to be a little more of the other.
2. Be analytical, practical, emotional.
When I took the column job, my first newspaper editor called me up and told me to keep that formula in mind: APE. It’s a good guideline, though he also, and less usefully, told me I should get a column photo of myself in a big hat.
3. Write what you glimpse out of the corner of your mind.
I could exhort you to speak your mind. So consider yourself exhorted. But what is really in your mind? That’s the hard part. Some of the best columns come when you can catch your fleeting reactions, can capture your subtle ideas and questions. It can help to ask yourself out loud: What I am REALLY thinking? And then listen.
4. No matter what you write, there will be people who love it and people who hate it. Only the ratio changes.
5. What readers love will often surprise you.
A while back, on a deadline day when my mind was blank—you know the feeling?—I wrote about seeing my first black squirrel. This column embarrassed me. It was so small. Well. It was a big hit online. I got hundreds of emails. To this day, people write me to say, “Are you that squirrel lady?” and to tell me their own black squirrel story.
6. When people hate on you, don’t take it personally.
You will take it personally. Your work and your name are personal. So you need coping techniques. Some columnists fight back by making videos or writing columns about their hate mail. My Tribune colleague Eric Zorn sometimes replies with an email that says, “Welcome to the Eric Zorn fan club.” One colleague once suggested that the best response was: “You may be right.” I hit the “Delete” button a lot.
7. Work to understand the world before you try to change it.
A lot of people go into journalism hoping to change the world. I think our first duty—as journalists, as columnists—is to try to understand the world and help others understand it.
8. (A corollary to 7.) Be a reporter.
A new reporter at the Tribune once asked me, “Were you ever a reporter?” I bristled. I still think of myself as a reporter, meaning I try to find stuff out. The first reason to write is to learn.
9. Be personal. But not too personal. And not too often.
Even political columnists are served by writing the occasional personal column. Write occasionally about your mother or the squirrels, and people will connect better with your more intellectual musings. But you know that friend who talks about herself all the time? Don’t be her.
10. When in doubt, go out.
How many times have you sat staring at your computer, unsure what to write? Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, as if the muse could be found on Facebook? Stand up. Go outside. Go cover something. Or just take a walk. You’ll think better afterward.
Stand up. Go outside. Go cover something. Or just take a walk. You’ll think better afterward.
11. Try not to repeat yourself. You will repeat yourself.
Some days you’re writing and you have a shadowy thought: Have I written this before? If you think you did, you probably did. Check.
12. Remember that you’re in a long-term relationship with your readers.
Being outrageous and outraging may be part of who you are and why your readers love you. Insults may be important to your brand. But even then, be careful not to pointlessly—I emphasize pointlessly—alienate the people who care about what you write. You want them to come back.
13. Deadlines are a columnist’s best friend.
Without deadlines, some of us would never write. I remind myself of this painful truth with these two self-invented mantras: Panic is my muse. Deadlines crowd out doubt.
14. Stand for something, not just against.
It’s easy to rail against things. But are you prepared to offer a solution? To give voice to someone who is doing something to solve the problem?
15. You can’t have an opinion about everything.
Well, you can. You can’t have an informed, useful opinion about everything. It’s OK to shut up on some topics.
16. Find a niche.
Early in my career, a bigwig reporter told me, “Make yourself an expert in something.” Frankly, I never did, but I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom. Unless you’re, say, a brilliant satirist like Andy Borowitz, knowing a lot about one topic will serve you.
17. Use social media.
Self-promotion is a tricky art. To do it well, you need to be generous. Share other people’s work—selectively. Post photos. Be someone that other people want to be around.
18. Drinking while writing will not make your column better.
19. Prizes are like alcohol.
What columnist—what writer—doesn’t like a prize? Prizes can make you feel good for a little while, but the buzz doesn’t last.
20. Insecurity comes with the job.
You’ll always worry that you should be doing it differently, could be doing it better. That someone else is doing it better. Always.
21. Respect your readers.
Even when they make you mad—how could they misread your prose so thoroughly?—they are the reason you exist as a columnist.
22. If the phrase, “I have to write a column today” ever crosses your mind—and it will—change it to “I get to write a column today.”
Writing a column is a privilege, even when it hurts.
23. I am not a columnist.
You are not a columnist. No one IS a columnist. We write columns. It’s a function of who we are. It is not who we are. When the day comes that you’re not a columnist anymore, you’ll realize you never were. You were just a person who got to type out some thoughts on some things you cared about, who had the great privilege of some readers who cared enough to read them. Aren’t you lucky?