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Clippings: Pour your soul into it, keep it light and chatty

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Posted on September 22, 2011 |
By John McCright



As an editor, I’ve had the responsibility from time to time to teach a cub reporter how to write a column. It comes so naturally to me that at first I hardly know what to tell them.

“You, er, have to have an idea … um, or not ...

“Just start typing, but remember, any old gibberish won’t do — it’s got to be the right gibberish.

“Pour your soul into it, and keep it light and chatty.”

It’s such a bother to recreate that magic every time for the eager young apprentices that I’ve decided to codify the process so that next time I assign some overeager and under-experienced 19-year-old the task of writing a column for the newspaper I can just hand him or her this neatly typed list of instructions and return my attention to YouTube.

A Surefire Method for Writing an Award-Winning Column:

1. Choosing the exactly right subject for your column is crucial; if you can’t find the right subject you might as well go back to covering town government. To find the right topic first refer to the top news stories of the day and write out longhand a list of at least eight but no more than 12 stories — half hard news and half features. If you are doing your research on the Internet follow this important rule: Don’t get distracted! This past Monday when I was just getting going on this column my dear wife called me at the office (unplug your phone!) and reminded me that she had dance class and I’d be preparing dinner for our two little dumplings. Although I hadn’t even made it through a fraction of nyt.com and my list was stuck at two, I rushed home via Greg’s Meat Market, where I purchased a couple three bags of comestibles.

The stir fry I’d planned to whip up before returning my attention to the column seemed straightforward enough, even if the number of vegetables I found in the crisper was quite a bit larger than I’d assumed it would be and many of them really did need to be chopped and cooked right away before they went bad.

2. Some say the simplest ideas are the best, and this is never more true than when it comes to writing the best and most scintillating columns. As I always tell the intern: KISS, or Keep It Simple, Scribe. Still, I do believe that for a really first-rate piece of writing you’ve got to dazzle them with a little more pepper than salt. Just last week I’d daydreamed about a big, yummy pan of polenta, oozing with cheese and dripping with butter; I hoped our girls would find it a break from the usual bread or rice. Why I chose Monday night to finally pick up the cornmeal at the grocery store and begin making it before I’d even chopped the veggies for stir fry is beyond me. All that stirring of the hot pot with the bubbling mush gave me too much time to think. I decided that in case the girls weren’t totally thrilled with only cooked vegetables for dinner I’d better offer alternatives, so I peeled and sliced a few raw carrots to serve on the side.

While the dinner was cooking, I slipped out and took the lawn mower for a few turns around the front yard. I was woefully behind and it would be dark soon, so I thought this the best use of my time. It only took 15 minutes before I couldn’t see and returned to the house to rally a child to set the table.

3. Get to the truth of the matter in your column; don’t beat around the bush too long before knocking the reader over the head with that insightful ultimate truth that will cause them to worship you. If truth is pretty important in your news stories, it is the sine qua non of your columns. Case in point: The girls and I had finally sat at the table and were wolfing down the food for which we had all waited so long when Sophie, the eight-year-old, called into question the veracity of my claims that Uncle Mark had a tail and that Nana was a serious contender for the presidency in 1972. There was a twinkle in her eye as she challenged me. “Daddy, I know when you’re lying,” she said, smiling. “All the time.”

Once the readers of your column know where you stand, they’ll feel comfortable with you and really be able to enjoy your writing.

4. But, that said, you don’t want to have too much fun when writing your columns. Employ the English language with as much seriousness as a surgeon wields his scalpel. If you don’t take your job seriously, somebody could get hurt. That’s what I was thinking five minutes after the table was cleared and I found myself on hands and knees quietly sneaking around the chimney in the center of our living room stalking the 10-year-old, Emma, who in the flush of energy that comes from large dollops of carbohydrates had dared me on some trivial premise to catch her. Using Sophie as a momentary distraction, I sprung from behind the coach and pounced on the hapless tween, who collapsed in a helpless spasm of laughter as I tickled her relentlessly until she genuinely could not breathe. Her sister soon came to Emma’s aid, but befell the same fate.

And that’s exactly how you want to leave them, the readers — in the palm of your hand, completely under your control, gasping for more. If you haven’t achieved that then you should count yourself a failure as a father, I mean, a columnist.

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