On Becoming a Columnist

I can’t imagine a better job than writing a weekly newspaper column. Being paid to comment on life as it swirls around me?  Could employment be more intellectually and creatively stimulating?

Not in my opinion.

For my birthday, Rob gave me a book on the art of writing columns that a columnist I know recommended to me. It is one she uses in the writing course she teaches. I have read just the first few chapters and find it quite helpful.

This same writer friend also urged me to simply begin asking after writing opportunities via my local papers. This is a bit of a problem. There are two local papers. Both are free and more ad than news or other content. The Post is owned, written and published by one man. I have tried to submit to him before and was informed that he only takes letters to the editor. He does not need anyone to help him with content – of which there is precious little. The Post is the newspaper equivalent  of a vanity book. The only difference being that it is read. I think as many people read The Post as read The Record, which is the “official” newspaper of Fort Saskatchewan.

I prefer dealing with the editor of The Record. He is a nice kid. Always happy to get tips on feature stories and never ignores an email.

I needed to find out if The Record would be interested in running a story about my writing group’s anthology project and decided that since I was contacting the editor anyway, I would ask about column opportunities. Specifically I wanted to know how a person went about becoming a columnist.

The book I am reading is a wealth of information on what columnists do but makes the path to a regular column sound a bit like pulling a sword from a stone. Not one of the columnists the author interviewed, and she includes herself, could pinpoint the steps to achieving this lofty thing called “a weekly column”.

The editor responded to my query in less than an hour. They didn’t have money to pay columnists was the first thing he wrote. I wasn’t surprised. It’s a free newspaper. He also went on to inform me they weren’t looking to expand their stable of columnists at the moment but were always open to new ideas and pitches but – isn’t there always one? – they liked columns written by experts.

Experts. Sigh. I am not an expert in any field. Frankly, I don’t read that type of column unless I am in need of information. Usually it is just easier to google information than follow an advice column in the hopes he/she one day writes about what I need to know.

The Record’s columnists include a couple of ministers and a woman who I think works in the mental health field. She is always writing about depression. There are many, many forms of depression and just as many ways to write about it.  Somehow she manages to write nearly the same thing every time however. I don’t know what the holy men write about because neither are very good writers.  Oh, and I’m not holy inclined to waste the minutes required to find out what concerns them enough to write about. Okay, that was unkind.  They are “technically” good, can’t fault their mechanics, but they are boring and that is just wrong.

I am glad I included my query in the email. I am not at all surprised to be politely sent back to my own little corner.  Now I can check this possibility off my list and look for others.

I do think it is a little sad my own local paper errs on the side of informative rather than enlightening or entertaining but when you have only a tiny bit of space for local politics, news and sports between the ads, the stuff which makes people think or smile is often sacrificed.

Sometimes I am informative. Mostly I am just someone whose writing about life is something others can relate to and, in a world where people feel alone more than part of humanity at large, this is important too.

10 thoughts on “On Becoming a Columnist

  1. Hi,

    When you finally become the columnist you’ve planned on becoming, rach back to those of us still in the trenches just wanting to write a daily dose of laughter, smidgen of food for thought & downright moments of “now, that’s good!”

    good luck,

  2. If anyone can make this work, you can. All of the Maine newspapers have been laying people off for months, and now those former staff journalists are working free lance. Maybe this situation will level the playing field and papers will have a broader ranges of writers to choose from. Have you considered submitting articles to magazines or journals? I remember seeing calls for articles in teaching and social work journals.

  3. I wanted to be a syndicated cartoonist once upon a time. I have to tell ya, the road was daunting. Impossible, really. I have no idea how it happens. Even local newspapers, freebies and ethnic-specific little coupon-clippers wouldn’t take me. I was either a terrible artist, not very funny or both. I hope the road for you isn’t as steeply inclined. Good luck!

  4. Sorry that your queries came to nothing. That’s just for now. You’ll land something. I agree with the commenter who said you have your areas of expertise. Family is a broad enough area that you could write about blending families, raising a young daughter, troubles with siblings, coping with death in the family, etc. Good luck, and while you search, consider your blog your column.

    1. Thanks. There is still the Sherwood Park paper and the Edmonton Journal. If I could just get the Globe to take one of my pieces for its Facts and Arguments, I would have a solid (paper) clip. I don’t know that newspaper people get the ‘net necessarily or see it as legit.

  5. Personally, I don’t know how newspaper columnists do it. Do you really want the pressure of needing to push out a column—even during those periods of writer’s block? Isn’t that turning something pleasurable into a goddamn job.

    1. But I blog everyday already and submit at least two pieces a week at 50 Something. A column is 600 words on average. That’s not much, even with writer’s block which I don’t really get anymore.

  6. i’d say you are an expert on a few things… like dealing with adversity. parenting. starting over. there’s more to “expertise” than degrees and certifications!

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