Columns are a great way to share information and ideas, promote your business and philosophy, and have some fun in the process. But that’s just part of their appeal. They also help you develop your “voice” and writing muscle, so you can move more confidently toward equally ambitious projects, be they articles or books.
How do you create–and market–a winning column that attracts a loyal following? Read on!
1. Understand the genre.
Shorter than most newspaper and magazine articles, columns generally run between 350 to 1,000 words. Their writing is tight, light, and bright, and their subject area, like their format, is predictable (e.g., personal development, politics, parenting, gardening). The columns themselves, however, are unpredictable, meaning fresh. Readers know they’ll be getting new information and insights with each installment, and so they return for more.
2. Learn from the masters.
Follow the work of three to five established columnists over a several-week period. Or, go to your local library or bookstore for the collected works of favorite columnists. Read actively to discover key tricks of the trade. Study how columnists organize their work, open and close their pieces, interweave quotes and statistics. Observe how each has a “voice,” or style, that is as distinctive as a fingerprint. Note what you like and don’t like–and why.
3. Determine your goals.
As mentioned, columns can be great vehicles for promoting your service or cause. But they’ll only get you where you want to go, if you know where you’re going. Accordingly, take a few moments to determine where you want to be one, two, or three years or more from now. In what ways can a column support your efforts, further your goals, and keep you on track?
4. Question yourself.
Articles are distinct units; when they’re done, they’re done. Not so columns; finish one and another dozen or two are waiting in the wings to be written. Your audience and editor literally await your next installment, and so you must deliver, be it daily, weekly, or monthly. So here’s the key question you must ask and answer: Do you have what it takes to produce a column over time, given your busy schedule and competing priorities?
5. Serve others.
The successful column has a dedicated readership. These folks take time out of their busy schedules because they need something from you, be it information, insight, or entertainment. As a columnist, it’s your job to give them all they want–and more. And you do this by identifying the many ways you can be of service to them. The greater your willingness to serve their specific and individual needs, the greater your column’s relevancy and popularity.
6. Attract the right reader.
Different strokes for different folks–and different columns as well. That’s because all columns appeal to somewhat narrow (though not necessarily small) groups of individuals. To attract the right group for you, pinpoint their key characteristics. For example, what’s their age and sex? Their educational and economic level? Their political and spiritual beliefs? Where do they live and work? The more specific you can be, the greater your ability to “talk your reader’s talk,” not just in terms of subject matter but word choice.
7. Play with format.
Columns may be short, but they’ve got lots of room for creativity. Anything goes … as long as it works for readers and is replicative. Play with several formats before zeroing in on one. Study what other columnists have done (see No. 2 above, and use their work as a template. Or create a wholly new format precisely tailored to your audience and message. The key is to experiment and to have your content and format mesh seamlessly.
8. Develop your prototypes.
Once you determine your format, write five to seven sample columns. This serves two purposes. First, you will get your feet wet, shake out all bugs, and polish your writing style. (The more distinctive the style, the more unique the column.) Second, you will create a representative sample of your work, which you can then market or launch; editors, after all, want to see a column writer’s treatment over time, not just a single column.
9. Choose your marketing approach.
Columns can be marketed in a number of different ways. You can distribute your work through syndicates, for example, which are companies that serve as your sales/marketing/PR teams in one and which take a cut of the proceeds. Or you can self-syndicate your work by going directly to individual newspapers, magazines, or Web sites. You also can launch your column via your own e-mail or snail mail newsletter, or Web site. (There are pros and cons to each of these approaches, as discussed in the WriteDirections.com teleclass “Become a Columnist”; some, like working through syndicates, are more of a long shot than, say, self-syndication.)
10. Be patient.
Columns take time to develop, so if you’re looking for quick results, look elsewhere. Like a fine wine, they tend to get better with time. Their scope deepens, their writing improves, their audience builds. These things take time and patience; however, if you’re truly willing to make the investment, the payoffs can be enormous.
Recommended Books on How to Become a Columnist:
- The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists
- Secrets to Becoming a Columnist in Newspapers and Magazines
- You Can Be a Columnist: Writing and Selling Your Way to Prestige
- 102 Ways to Earn Money Writing 1,500 Words or Less: The Ultimate Freelancer’s Guide
- The Kick-Ass Writer: 1001 Ways to Write Great Fiction, Get Published, and Earn Your Audience
- How to Find Your Calling and Live Your Passion
- Web Copywriting Tips for Online Entrepreneurs
- How to Deal With an Idiot at Work
- How to Think of a Topic to Write About
- How to Attract New Business on a Shoestring Budget