So you want to be a columnist?

I attended a Guardian newspaper Masterclass last weekend and got to listen to an impressive line-up of some the newspaper’s best known columnists. Most participants I spoke to didn’t necessarily aim to become famous writers, although the speakers appeared to assume so. “All bloggers really want is to have a newspaper column” one of them offered. I have my doubts about it. Many were simply looking for tips on how to write better for blogs or lesser known publications, and generally to hear more about how the press works. We got what we wanted, and in a nutshell, here are just a few things I learnt:

1) If you consider yourself a writer, you have to write. A lot. If you are trying to pitch an opinion piece to an editor, it will work better if you have previous publications, even on a free platform like Comment Is Free (which however gets 200-300 pitches a day! Good luck with that). Then again, if you are going to write for free, you are better off writing on your own blog. Yet, don’t write a blog if you can’t get an audience and you are writing into “nothing-ness”.  Hmmm…that got me a bit confused. But the key thing is getting things written down. Oh, and don’t aim for perfection. And read a lot.

2) “I-journalism”, or writing about one’s own experience, used to be almost forbidden in journalism but is pretty much essential for opinion pieces these days. It sells. There is in fact a lot of pressure to reveal too much, particularly for women (who then may get attacked more easily for it). Beauty columnist Sali Hughes advises to wait until a personal situation has settled before writing about it – to avoid saying something you might regret. Writing about your kids is another contentious area, and some writers have had problems with their children once they grew up. This is such a big deal that some columnists are apparently giving pocket money to their kids for each mention…

3) Expressing strong opinions may upset some people (and good columnists will always divide opinion). Advice on this ranged from sleeping one night over it before pressing “send”, to having an imaginary “f**k it” button and just doing it. The reality is that for anyone other than newspaper columnists things are different. Those of us writing for institutions or charities – which are bound by strict rules such as not being party political – may not be able to press that “f**k it” button. Yet the idea that an excessive fear of “vulnerability” – as Giles Fraser rightly put it – “closes us down” as writers, is a good one. (Definitely very true for anyone writing about climate change and having to be very careful about wording to avoid being attacked savagely).

4) Many columnists have stopped reading the “comments” section as it seems to be too aggressive and personal, or they can’t see the point. They do generally tend to read emails and they respond to as many people as they can. Suzanne Moore recommends to avoid becoming an opinion writer if you want to be liked or can’t handle criticism. Someone from the audience made the a good point about this skill being something that is lacking in politicians. I also wonder whether better moderation of comments by the Guardian and other newspapers could restore some usefulness for comment sections.

5) Someone from the audience complained there isn’t enough variety of voices writing opinion pieces in British newspapers. Moore mentioned that editors often do seek out new voices, maybe experts on a certain topics. But these are often not prepared to write something on the same day. The editor will then call a well known opinion writer, who may not be an expert, but is willing to do the research and write it up fast. (This is understandable, and works well most of the time. But may I say that sometimes newspaper columnists do talk a bit of nonsense on issues they haven’t had time to digest).

6) If something gets a good response on social media, it may also be the kind of thing that interests editors, according to Sophie Heawood. Even our own Facebook pages can be a useful place where to get some ideas on what people are talking about or find interesting. (Not ideal for me, as I had just resolved to drastically reduce the time I spend there).

7) Simon Jenkins recommends using the structure of a “sonata” to write opinion pieces. Start with the “why”and the “what”, then develop the argument by mentioning a source, or book, or authority that confirms this, and summarise it all at the end.

This is just a small selection of what I learned. Definitely a good experience. Well done to the Guardian for opening its doors to readers and the public to let people hear the inside story. And a big thank you to the writers for talking to us to openly about their work.

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