Write interesting columns

What makes a column interesting?

Newspaper editors clamor for written columns from local “experts,” including OSU faculty and staff. Though writing a regular column can be a wonderful opportunity to showcase OSU and Extension programs, it can be intimidating to those who are trained as academic writers.

Ingredients for a good column

  • First and foremost, figure out who is your audience. Then decide what topics and what type of communication fits. If you are writing for a general circulation newspaper, you'll want to handle a topic in a way that might interest readers with little technical knowledge of a subject. It's a balancing act. For example, if it's about agriculture, make it substantive enough so farmers will be drawn in, but explain things so a non-farmer can follow along and learn something about the issue. You might try to show how the topic affects people who aren't farmers.
  • Choose your own style. That's a big part of the joy of writing it. If you want to be strictly business, fine. Give tips people can use or use a question-and-answer format. Or be personal, or even folksy. You can tell an interesting little story that illustrates a point. You can be the narrator (first person) or you can write about others to illustrate a point or points. Both types of columns can be effective. Keep in mind, though, that the most interesting thing to people is people. Take a “people” approach when writing. Rather than write about horses or food, start by writing about John's sick foal or Mary's mouth-watering pie.
  • Be a sponge. Carry a pencil and little notebook everywhere. Jot down ideas for columns before you forget them. If it's interesting or funny to you, it might be to others. If someone asks you a question, most likely others in the community would be interested in the answer too.
  • Remember, you have unique perspectives. What is normal and humdrum for you might be fascinating to others. For instance, not everyone knows how to tell when a cow has indigestion, when a jar of preserves is spoiled, or when a crop is water-stressed. If you can write about these things in simple English and tell a story as you would to a friend, you'll have an audience.
  • Most newspaper columns are short. Many writers like to zip through a first draft and get their ideas down. Then they go back through and chop and condense. Use the word-count function on your word processor. Many newspaper columns are 600 words or shorter. Often, you'll find you can say in a sentence what took two paragraphs in the first draft.
  • A strong, provocative beginning is important. A strong ending that rewards the reader for sticking around is good too. Maybe the ending is revealing, funny, or poignant.
  • Get a friend who isn't in your field to react to an early draft. The secret to writing a good column usually is rewriting.
  • Personalize your column. Use first person. Or use personal pronouns (e.g., you, my, our, we) to “talk” to your readers.
  • Read your column aloud. This will help you write in a more conversational, reader-friendly style.
  • You can write about more than one subject in one column. Half a dozen can be just as good as a single subject. WARNING: Don't string a bunch of specialists' news releases together and send them out as a column (although you could rework the material in the news releases and “sew” it together in your own words).
  • Pay attention to others' columns. Whose work do you admire? Whom do you read all the way through? Why? Whom don't you read? Therein lie more secrets of what makes a good column.