Column writing

Columns give writers a chance to do things they can’t do as reporters: inject personal opinion and experiences into what they write. This is a chance for the writer to become intimate with his readers. You can speak your mind, reveal things that have helped shape your life, make people laugh or make them cry.

Who makes a good columnist?

First, and obviously, the best writers often make the best columnists. But a columnist also needs insight, and a keen awareness of the world around us. You need to be interested in people and understand what’s important to them. As a columnist, you’ll run across numerous column ideas every day. About the only reason you won’t have ideas is that you’re not trying. Expose yourself to news every day. Read other columnists. Know what’s hot in TV and movies. In short, know what people are talking about and address topics that will interest your readers.

Types of columns

You’ll develop your own style and tone for your columns. Readers will start to associate your column with that particular style. You might prefer an investigative style, or humorous or one where you profile an interesting personality (and add your own commentary). Chances are, you’ll come up with a hybrid style all your own. remember, success columnists maintain a consistent style; readers know what to expect from you in terms of style, quality and insight.

Humor is difficult to write well. that’s why good humor columnists are at such a premium. What’s funny to one person may not be funny to someone else. What you think is a hilarious personal experience for you and your fiends might, in a column, end up making you look foolish. Or boring. Or worse. None of this is to say don’t trying writing humor. But it’s a good idea to bounce it off someone to tell you if it’s really funny. The best thing you can do to learn to write better as a columnist is to read good columnists. Find at least three or four you like and read them regularly. Don’t necessarily copy their style, but do learn from it.

Political commentary: If you want to write about national or international issues, first ask yourself two questions:

  • What do I bring to this debate that is original? (Not just parroting my favorite liberal or conservative columnist or commentator)
  • How can I bring this topic home so NIU and DeKalb readers see an impact on them?

If you can’t come up with good, honest answers to those questions, why would anyone want to read your column? And why would an editor want to run it?

Personal experience: These can be funny, serious, sad, poignant. The key is creating an emotional connection with your reader. Look for experiences readers will identify with. Minimize the use of the word “I” – it can make the writer appear too self-absorbed.

Before you write

A key to good column writing is research. Don’t just write off the top of your head without delving into an issue. You will need to research to make your commentary believable and credible. Your column will likely require reporting. You will need to share information from experts and source that information in your column.

Don’t rely on second-hand quotes
Too many novice columnists rely on Internet research alone, and the result reads more like a term paper or a book report than a newspaper column. It’s OK to quote sparingly from another publication (with proper credit, of course), but this is your column. Get out and talk to people – especially those affected by your topic. Give readers something they can’t get anywhere else.


A good column is structured much like a good news story. It has a beginning that has to grab the reader, a logical body linked by good transitions, and a memorable ending. And, just like in a news story, it’s important to be concise. Don’t write long, windy paragraghs. Keep it simple. Keep it personal.

Be careful

Yes, you can voice your opinion in a column. remember, though, that columns are held to the same legal standards as news reports.

Talk to your editor
It’s a good idea to tell your editor several days in advance what your next column’s topic will be. You editor may have helpful advice or warnings. Also, this greatly decreases the chances of your column being rejected.