Two columnists walk into a bar
Copyright 2005 Ben S. Pollock
Friday, June 24, 2005: A temptation is to write rather complete articles from the notes I took at the just-completed conference of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, meeting in Grapevine, to the northeast of Fort Worth and northwest of Dallas.
But what I would prefer getting typed up are just the highlights of various speakers, their particular remarks that speak to me as a journalist, as a newspaperman, as a writer of columns.
From Keith Woods of The Poynter Institute. While urging moderation (topic: The Writing in Column Writing), Mr. Woods said, “Don’t be afraid of your ‘I’s.'” He likes first person (compared to several editors I’ve dealt with, as has he, who blame the I for everything). Rather than simply say, “use action verbs,” he said, “Let verbs carry the action, tone and theme.” He favors repetition for emphasis, which like the anti-I rule, has come to be despised by so-called experts. But Mr. Woods likes repetition to tie elements together. Giving analogies then referring to them also unifies a piece, as does hyperbole.
Quoting good writing experts, he says “stick the landing,” which makes little sense to me, though the definition does. Mr. Woods says the end of the sentence and the end of the whole piece carry the most weight.
As said later but a little differently by York (Pa.) Daily Record columnist Mike Argento, Mr. Woods prefers developing small incidents to stand for big developments rather than summarizing large ones. Mr. Argento would cover a trial by focusing on a bystander or the circus outside, rather than the proceedings.
Next up Friday morning was Tim Bete, director of the Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop at the University of Dayton, Ohio, on “Writing Funny in Serious Times.”
Bad question, he says, noting both tons of writers’ adviceand a book “The Truth About Writing” by Michael Allen (this is a British book; the publisher has posted excerpts online). Writing is like brain surgery, Mr. Bete says, you do it every day whether you feel like it or not, and as good as you can. Successful writers practice “realistic optimism.”
Mr. Bete can quote the late Mrs. Bombeck like no one’s business, and she says, “Inspiration is a luxury,” and “Writer’s block is another name for putting it off.” (This is interesting because having been a judge for his workshop’s writing contest for the last three years, I can see how Mr. Bete must struggle continually with writer wannabes.)
He does answer the title: All times are serious. You find humor in the impulse all writers have, that urge to share knowledge and stories and empathy that you, the reader, are not alone (in these serious times). He finds this said best in Vonnegut’s Timequake.
Paula LaRocque, an often-published and well-travelled journalism writing coach, talked mostly about mechanics, and delivered little new. Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, a former investigative columnist herself, was candid, which apparently has been her trademark, but also surprising: She likes being mayor more than being a journalist and if she knew then what she does now she would have been a nicer reporter to her subjects.
Friday afternoon had the society’s first breakout sessions, four one-hour periods with three different sessions each hour (well, 45-minute sessions with 15-minute breaks).
I have ordered a CD-rom of all sessions so I can hear what I missed, and relisten to the likes of Pete Hamill. At the conference, I chose which to actually attend, based on the likelihood my next column will have reportage and no longer be 100 percent essay.
(A part of my mindset still is sure that reporting is for reporters, both on principle and because that’s what newspapers need readers to expect, while columns are for analysis and reflection and other subjective but necessary mind exercises, such as ridicule or criticism.)
Mr. Argento was one of three columnists considering column-reporting on deadline. Another was Dan Bernstein of the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise. Mr. Bernstein strives not to write the “best column ever,” although later, Pete Hamill would say that’s been his daily goal, but Mr. Bernstein simply gets them out by striving for the “best column for tomorrow.” Mr. Bernstein’s three tips: Find your angle at the scene (don’t get there with a preconceived notion). Trust your reporting skills for the angle and for good details. And “dump” your notes into the computer a.s.a.p.
The last I learned reporting for the Irving (Texas) Daily News. Write or transcribe all into the computer, sure, but I would sit in the car immediately after a meeting or other event and with a different color ink or a pencil annotate my notes. Then drive to the newsroom. That would bring back details I would forget in another 20 minutes as well as stray words left out of direct quotes.
Bob Hill of the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal relies on passion to keep fresh after 35 years in the column saddle. He gets passion, or as he puts it “anger,” by going on site. “It’s the outrage that gives you energy to put it out.”
Playing good columnist – bad columnist, Bill Tammeus of the Kansas City Star and Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily News, respectively, compared how they regard “friends” in doing their columns. For all of Mr. Bykofsky’s urban sarcasm and Mr. Tammeus’s gentle musing, they did agree on being tough. These “friends” want to use your platform for their purposes: “It’s business,” Mr. Bykofsky said. Be skeptical, not cynical, and you’ll get the job done and some of these people will “pleasantly surprise” you by being sincere, Mr. Bykofsky said.
Mr. Tammeus noted you do not write columns for people to like you. When writing critically about people you know, be reasonable and be fair, he said.
Dave Lieber of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram had his editor, Lois Norder, speak about editor-columnist relations. She packed lots of details into a multipage outline. It was easy to summarize: Editor psychology is just like that of any manager, and almost any good job book will provide similar coping strategies. Ms. Norder did say, interestingly, that “high-positive reporters and columnists usually come with high negatives.” I may need to borrow that someday, as my excuse.
Mr. Lieber ran a session on breaking news columns on deadline. Main tip was to use librarians, either the community’s or the newspaper’s, for your initial research, for efficiency of time. Mr. Lieber gave me a good answer to my badly worded question: Use your editor to run interference with other editors or fellow reporters. -30-