This weekend, newsmen and women and columnists from around the country are convening in San Diego to attend a convention hosted by the Society of Professional Journalists. To those visiting writers who have picked up a copy of our beloved CityBeat, I'd like to welcome you to San Diego, thank you in advance for checking us out, and inform you that I too will be hosting a session at this year's journalist's convention. It's called “How to Write a Weekly Column,” and I encourage all you essayists in town to attend. Here are some excerpts from the curriculum:
How to Write a Weekly Column
1. Selecting a Topic. Choosing your topic is the second most harrowing part of a weekly columnist's tasks. It must be current, relevant and fascinating. Many a writer has inserted the sexy end of a shotgun into his maw because he or she couldn't find a subject that met the criteria. Which is why, if you can't find a fitting topic on your own, just steal one. Steal, steal, steal like a starving hobo. Just log onto the Internet and cut and paste your way to the top.
2. Omit needless words*. You are a columnist. You have a finite amount of inches to get your message across. Why waste that space on needless words?
For example, the words “very,” “really” and “truly.”
These are some of the most unnecessary words in the English language. Don't say that the hobo is “very hungry.” Say he is “starving,” or that he is “famished.” Why use two weak words when a burly one will do will do? And don't go saying “really starving” either, because that's just silly. If you were any hungrier than “starving” you'd be “dead” and hungry no more. While we're at it, let's get rid of this, “I woke up at 2 a.m. in the morning” business. Talk about redundancy. There is no other 2 a.m. besides the one that occurs in the morning. If you told me you woke up at 2 a.m. in the evening, I'd tell you it's time to ease off the methamphetamine.
3. No partisanship: Do not use your column to support one political candidate or ideology over another. It makes you appear very biased, or worse, that you are just another mouthpiece for the party. Rather, explore each issue and/or candidate impartially, then let the reader decide.
4. Vote for John Kerry.
5. Prevent your parents from reading your column. Being a writer sometimes means being open about stuff you'd really, truly prefer your parents not know-like the drugs you continue to abuse, or your filthy ideas about sexuality, or radical politics. This is a problem for many alternative columnists. Here's how I handle it: My parents read this column online from New York. If the article that week is particularly despicable, I send them a computer virus and shut them down for days. (For this column, I'm going to send the dreaded Bugbear worm disguised as a solitaire cheat program.)
6. You can't change the world, but at least change your underwear. My friend Larry always asks me, “Why do you bother writing political columns? You're not going to change anyone's opinion.” He's right about that. But keep in mind: when you disappear into the cave that is your typing room, and stomp on those keys like each is a cockroach** scurrying across your desk, and squirm and shift in your writing chair for hours simmering in your own fecal gasses-well, you may not change the world, but you damn well better change your shorts.
Put another way: Think globally, act locally.***
7. Hate mail. Always remember, a hate letter is just one person's opinion. I recommend you take the higher ground. Even if you get one of those, “I-can't-believe-you-think-widgets-should-be-legal-you-evil-wanker-I-hope-you-enjoy-the-flaming-typewriters-they-have-in-Hell”-type letters, a friendly response is always best. Something like, “Dear Widget Hater, thanks for writing... you self-righteous, turd-snorting, totalitarian scum. I hope you get hives in your sphincter and pustules on your eyeballs and thank you so truly very much for reading CityBeat, we appreciate you immensely.
8. Take a stance. Most writers know there are usually two sides to any issue. The essayist must choose one and sell it with all he's got. He must take a side and stick with it for the duration of the piece. No flip-flopping.
9. Gooooo Bush!
10. Use outlines: Introduce the topic in the introduction. Support the topic in the body. Summarize and dismount in the conclusion. The conclusion should be something powerful, memorable and final, such as...
11. How to fit a shotgun into your mouth****. Shotgun management is an important skill for every writer to have. After sitting, staring at a blank screen for 17 straight hours, a 12-gauge in your mouth really, truly, totally, very definitely helps to get those creative juices flowing.
* Stolen from William Strunk Jr. (Elements of Style)
** Stolen from William Burroughs (Naked Lunch)
*** Stolen from Bill Winston, who stole it from somebody else
**** Stolen from Ernest Hemingway
Send hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org and copy editor@SDcitybeat.com. For more suspicious grammar, visit www.edwindecker.com.