Writing a regular column for a community-based newspaper or highly targeted website is a great way to develop name recognition and build credibility. What’s more, column writing saves selling time: You get to strut your knowledge and expertise in front of a target audience of hundreds (maybe thousands) without ever having to actually set foot in front of them.
Believe it or not, you don’t have to be a great writer to be a successful columnist. Good, solid writing skills will do just fine. Editors are more interested in your ideas and industry expertise than your ability to string prose into profound statements.
However, writing a column will eat up a good chunk of your time. Expect to spend at least four hours researching and writing each column. And you’ll have to be timely. Editors will expect you to think of story ideas and deliver the finished column on-deadline (there are no excuses for being late in the news world).
Begin by selecting some potential publications. Your best bets include:
- Arts and entertainment newspapers – These are weekly publications that include news commentary, columnists and listings of local happenings.
- Community newspapers – Published once or twice a week, these periodicals specialize in reporting the happenings in select neighborhoods.
- Association publications – Typically published monthly, these periodicals are targeted to the members of industry associations.
- Online versions of the above – Don’t get all dejected if you don’t see many columnist opportunities in printed publications. The online versions often feature far more content and writing opportunities.
- Community-focused websites – This category includes small websites dedicated to select communities, as well as big websites (like Yahoo) that feature community-focused sections.
Why go begging to periodicals when you could just start your own blog? When you write for an existing publication, it comes with an existing group of readers – and readers are the most difficult thing for any writer to find.
Making your pitch
In the news world, proposing a story (or column) idea is called “pitching.” The letter outlining your proposal is called a “pitch letter.”
Once you’ve targeted a publication or two, familiarize yourself with the content before making contact. Read at least eight past issues to get a feel for the kind of subjects it typically covers, the writing style it tends to use, the community it focuses on and more. There’s nothing editors hate more than people pitching story and column ideas that are completely foreign to its usual fare.
All editors care about is satisfying the desires of their reader, so that’s what you want to emphasize in your pitch letter. Every publication has a primary target demographic. Your job is to figure out what that demographic is (by studying past stories and ads), then make those people the focus of your column idea.
Your first contact should be with an editor (usually the managing editor), not a reporter or other columnist. It should be in writing (rather than a phone call). And it should include the following:
- A one-page pitch letter introducing yourself and outlining your column idea.
- A sample column or two (pretend you’re writing your first columns for the publication).
- Your resume (not necessary but very helpful).
If you don’t receive a response within a week, follow-up by phone. (It’s considered bad form to pitch your idea to more than one person at the same publication at the same time.)
Writing like a columnist
- Identifying topics – In the beginning, you may wonder how you’ll ever find time to write about all the column topics swirling in your head. As time goes on, however, you’ll probably find yourself grasping for something – anything! – to write about. To avoid dry spells, become an avid reader of other columnists, hone your research skills, and keep tabs on new trends.
- Adding perspective – As a columnist, you’re not reporting the news, you’re commenting on it. So while your column ideas may originate from news stories and other columnists, it’s what you do with those ideas that matters. Be honest about your feelings and giving with your opinions.
- Writing quickly – The first thing you want to do when writing a column is get something down on paper – either the basic facts from your research or some gut reactions to a topic. Just get something on the paper. Then start arranging those chunks of text into an order that makes sense. Finally, start flushing out the ideas, developing new ideas and creating transitions from one topic to the other.
- Editing your work – Any professional writer who’s honest will tell you that their first draft is almost always an embarrassment. It’s only after editing, editing, and editing more that something presentable starts to take shape. For the best results, allow each draft to sit for a day between edits (when you return to it, you’ll discover a whole new perspective).
- “On the Home Front” – Linda Skolnick (a real estate agent in the Westport-Weston area of Connecticut) has been writing this bi-monthly column for her local paper, the Westport News, for a few years now. And some would say it’s one of the reasons why she’s consistently ranked the top-producing agent at Westport’s highest-grossing sales office.
- “Nickie Fitness” – Nicole Glor is a personal trainer in New York city who created a workout program specifically for military wives. To promote it, she writes a column called Nickie Fitness for the Web site military.com.
- The National Society of Newspaper Columnists – The NSNC is home to hundreds of amateur and professional columnists. To see a sampling of the columns they write – and the kind of publications that accept them – visit the Links page at columnists.com.
Most business people who write columns to promote their products and services soon discover the extra effort required is accompanied by an array of extra benefits, as well:
- The research you do for your columns will undoubtedly make you a better manager of your business (and a better informed resource for your customers).
- Becoming a columnist will allow you to network with other columnists – valuable relationships you can use to increase your knowledge base and gain industry-wide recognition.
- The feedback from readers will provide you with rare insights into the true wants and needs of your target market.
People often think of columnists as ideologues providing some sort of public service. But for most of the business people who do it, writing a column is really just a savvy strategy for improving the bottom line.