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How to Write a Column

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How to Write a Column

Advertisements keep popping into my email from people who want to teach me how to write. They are usually from famous authors I’ve never heard of. They promise that by the end of the correspondence course I will learn how to write a full-length novel of 100,000 words and have a finished manuscript in hand. There are testimonials from people with no last names: Amy B (“Your course gave me confidence and hope for the future”). But did you write a novel, Amy?

Brendan C says, “Now on my LinkedIn page I’m able to stand out from my peers.” OK, Brendan, the course separated you from your peers. It probably separated you from several hundred dollars, too.

There are three questions people inevitably ask when they learn I write a column: Where do I get my ideas, how long does it take to write a column, and how does one become a columnist? Folks who see me sitting around a coffee shop almost every morning probably think I get my ideas there.

Surprisingly, a coffee shop may be the perfect place to find one’s “Eureka!” moments. Social cultural critic Steve Johnson writes, “The English coffeehouse was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years, what we now call the Enlightenment.”

He goes on to say that the coffee and tea people drank were responsible for their enlightened thoughts. In the mid-17th century, water wasn’t safe to drink. The English began their days with beer, then wine and gin at lunch, with more wine and beer at dinner. They began thinking great thoughts when they were no longer drunk all day. Of course, there are many advertising copywriters who would dispute that.

More important than the sudden sobriety imparted by caffeine was the connectivity that coffeehouses provided. People from different backgrounds and different fields of expertise discussed ideas. Ideas would get together there and foster new ideas.

Not having a Renaissance or Elizabethan coffeehouse at hand, in one quick session I, your humble expert, will teach you to write a newspaper column, and I’ll do it free of charge.

All the words I use to write are listed (in alphabetical order) in a big book called a dictionary. Young people may not know what a dictionary is. For their edification (look in the “e” section of the dictionary for the meaning of that word), a dictionary is a portable wireless information retrieval system that doesn’t require recharging. You cannot text or send email messages with it, but between its covers are all the text messages and emails ever written.

To begin a column, I turn my dictionary upside down and shake it until scads of words fall out. Some of them land on the ground, where if they get enough water, they turn into colorful adjectives. Others are picked up and passed around and used over and over until they become clichés.

Some words fall on rocky places and don’t get a chance to become root words, so they develop into words as shallow as a letter signed, “yours warmly.”

Many words are caught up in the wind and blown out of all proportion to be used by politicians and press secretaries. Many of these words rise to the height of obfuscation and make it all the way to the White House.

Many of mine fall onto a fertile yellow legal pad, where I move them around, picking out ones here and there until they eventually become ideas. I take these idea words and line them up into a semi-intelligent order until they express the concepts I’m trying to convey. How long all this takes depends on the words that fall out of the dictionary when I turn it upside down. If the right words fall out, I can write a column in a matter of minutes. If not, it may take several days.

There are times when no matter how many words — even really good words — fall out of the dictionary, things like procrastination, foot-dragging and dawdling get in the way of working with them. Writers have a euphemism for these situations: “writer’s block.” Editors prescribe an effective medicine that is a surefire cure for writer’s block. It’s called a deadline.

My advice to would-be columnists is to start with a small pocket dictionary before working up to something like the Oxford English Dictionary, which can be intimidating simply sitting on the shelf.

You become a columnist by working with words until you develop a certain skill in using them. It can be difficult, but like so many things in life, it takes practice, patience, and perseverance.

Get started now. There may be a Dave Barry inside you bursting to be set free. So get out there and shake your Funk & Wagnalls.

Contact Jerry at jerrygervase@yahoo.com

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