Reviewed October 1993

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CM360, Writing Columns

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Writing Columns

Debrah Jefferson
Extension and Agricultural Information

What is a column? A column is not a news article, but it is news. It generally answers why and how. It often is personal, using the first and second person (I and you). A column often states an opinion. It is said to be like writing an open letter. A column also has a standard head, called a title, and a by-line (name) at the top. These identify you and your column for the reader.

How do you write a column?

Before writing a column, think about purpose, audience, content and structure.

Purpose

Why are you writing? Is it to inform the community about an event? Does the paper's editor, the community or co-workers want it? Are you entertaining, informing or educating? Do you seek an identity or exposure?

Audience

Whom are you trying to reach? Who are you reaching? Decide on your audience. Write in their language, at their level, about things the audience needs to know or wants to know.

Content

What will your column discuss? How will you discuss it? Answering why and how will help determine what. Remember, columns should be based on facts and should be accurate.

Names are crucial in a personal column. Personal columns may be informal; yet accuracy and sourcing material counts.

Structure

How will your message get to your audience? There are other types of columns besides the personal column, too. Some of these cover specific topics or types of information. They can be "question and answer," "new ideas," "how-to-do-it" pieces or "calendars." Personal columns often have departments. These departments help you to write your column. Departments can be "coming events," applications, notes or some of the categories suggested for the non-personal columns.

Before writing, decide on the purpose, content, audience and structure. Personal columns should have many local names. They also use words like: "I," "we" or "you."

Column suggestions

When writing a column, do

  • Give the reader timely, helpful information.
  • Develop a structure and keep it. Write on a regular schedule.
  • Write simple and short sentences and paragraphs.
  • In personal columns, use local names and places.
  • Let others speak for you by use of quotes and references.
  • Learn the difference between a column and a news story.

When writing a column, don't

  • Use technical or complex words.
  • Talk in jargon or unfamiliar terms.
  • Talk about one topic constantly.
  • Include too much detail or material. You should be stimulating interest, not exhausting a subject.
  • Refer to yourself as a third person (this author, your reporter) or quote yourself (Jimmy Jones said). Instead use mine.

Tips on column writing

  • Write the way you talk. But don't discard good English usage and grammar by being friendly and informal.
  • Try to uncover a "lead" or opening that will catch the interest of your readers.
  • Use a variety of material, not just one subject.
  • Write about people. Keep heavy subject matter to a minimum. When using subject matter, try to tell the story through the experiences of local people.
  • Write simply. Avoid technical or difficult words, long sentences, long paragraphs.
  • Don't weigh your column down with too much detail. Try to stimulate interest in a subject, but don't exhaust the subject.
  • Jot down ideas, names, figures, impressions, etc., in a note pad while visiting farms and homes. This provides the very best column material.
  • Be timely. Keep up with the effect of weather conditions, seasons, etc., pointing out the significance of these conditions locally.
  • Remember the people you're talking to and give them information that will benefit them in a way they can understand.
  • Always get your column to the editor on schedule. Remember, the editor is holding space for it.

An example

The first steps to column writing are remembering why you are writing and your audience. In the sample column, "Helpful Hints," the columnist has a general homemaker audience in mind.

The style is light with personal pronouns (I, you, your) liberally included. The lead sentence clues the reader to the column's tone. The rest should continue to develop this tone.

Notice the entire name is given the first time. After that, it is only a first-name basis. Sentences are short and so are paragraphs. Credit is given when the columnist is quoting another source.

One topic has been given primary emphasis. Shorter topics follow this lead topic. That means this column can be shortened by cutting paragraphs from the bottom up, just like a news story.


U.S. Government Printing Office: 1962 0-625500. Taken from material used in Making Personal Columns Work for You. USDA, PA484.

 


CM360 Writing Columns | University of Missouri Extension