The Art of Column Writing
by Suzette Martinez Standring
Published by Marion Street Press
196 pages, 2008
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Reviewed by Mary Ward Menke
The Art of Column Writing by Suzette Martinez Standring sounds as though it were written for newspaper columnists. Don’t let the title fool you: this is a book for all writers of non-fiction, and there are likely a few fiction writers who could benefit, too.
A past president of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, Standring is a syndicated columnist with GateHouse News Services. She has the chops to write a book on column writing based on her experiences alone, but she chose to pick the brains of the masters. Advice from greats like Art Buchwald, Dave Barry and Pete Hamill fill the pages, making The Art of Column Writing a must-read for writers at all stages of their careers.
Standring begins the book by stating what may not be obvious to columnist wannabes: “Few began with ‘columnist’ as their ultimate writing goal.” While some started out as reporters, others took the road less traveled, beginning with a career unrelated to writing. Standring herself took the less-traveled route, starting out as an association director who wrote only to promote legal seminars and correspond with attorneys. Taking a side road in 1998, she joined the National Society of Newspaper Columnists hoping to learn how to establish a career as a columnist and found there was no clear-cut answer. Colleagues got their jobs by “accident, hard work, being-at-the-right-place-at-the-right-time-with-the-right-subject, good contacts, sheer serendipity, having a column added to news reporting duties, answering an ad, building a saleable body of work, networking, wearing down an editor, developing a readership separate from a newspaper, writing a book, becoming an expert, or just plain dumb luck.” What they had in common, though, was “stellar writing.” And that’s what The Art of Column Writing is about -- writing advice from those who’ve been there and done that and done it very well.
An early chapter is devoted to voice, defined as “the writer’s personality on the printed page, the style in which a point of view is conveyed.” Experts encourage writers to read their work aloud, both to find mistakes (repetition, ill-chosen words) and to observe the rhythm and cadence of the language. Art Buchwald said, “I don’t read it out loud, I’m singing it. I want rhythm in my column and words are rhythm.”
Some of the most helpful advice come up with regards to writer’s block in the chapter titled, “The Big, Bad, Blank Screen.” Besides the usual “take a walk,” “listen to music” and “just do it,” there’s the less common “Invite Disaster.” Tim Bete, a parenting humor columnist says:
“Be Spartan” advises Dave Astor, a freelance humor/satire columnist for The Montclair (New Jersey) Times. Astor comes up with the ideas for his column while riding to and from his day job:
Standring includes examples of columns, including several of her own, to illustrate the advice in the book. She does a fine job of infusing her own voice and style. Reading The Art of Column Writing is like having a conversation with a friend ... a friend with a sense of humor. She has this to say about breaking into syndication:
Although I said earlier that The Art of Column Writing is for all writers, it really goes beyond that. Anyone who has ever been impressed by an article, a column, an essay or a book and wondered how the writer did what they did will enjoy this book. | June 2008
Mary Ward Menke is a contributing editor to January Magazine and the owner of WordAbilities, LLC, providing writing and editing services to businesses and individuals. Her work has been published in The Toastmaster, Dog Fancy and Science of Mind magazines, in the Suburban Journals (a weekly St. Louis community newspaper) and on STLtoday.com.