I’ve written Observer columns for three years now. Some columns have received a lot of positive feedback, and some have — rightfully — endured considerable criticism. Writing for the Observer, or any paper, can be a great way to engage in the life of your community and to contribute to dialogue on a number of important issues. Unfortunately, a lot of people who have good things to say can be ineffective when it comes to actually communicating their ideas. Here are some things that I’ve learned from writing.
First, it’s usually best to ditch your first paragraph. With only a few hundred words in a column, you don’t have room to ramble on or engage in a long wind-up. Most writers are still working on how to frame their work as they’re writing the first sentences. I’ve found that, with most columns, cutting the first paragraph makes it punchier and more engaging.
Second, don’t try to say everything. You can’t pack a column like a clown car. Don’t try to say everything to everyone. Pick your strongest points, and make them well.
Third, know to whom you’re writing. When you’re making an argument, this usually comes down to the question: are you writing to inspire your supporters while attacking your detractors, or are you trying to thoughtfully engage with those who disagree with you? Few people can do both of these, and many people think they’re doing the latter when they’re actually doing the former. Sometimes there’s value in being a caricaturing polemicist. After all, the only way to gain Trump supporters is to be Donald Trump. But make sure you know whether you’re Trumping or dialoguing.
Fourth, make sure your paragraphs flow naturally from one to the next. Read and reread each paragraph’s last sentence and the first sentence of the following paragraph. Do these sentences follow each other, or are they distinct, disconnected thoughts? If you only had these two sentences, would they make sense next to each other? In a column of a few hundred words, your first draft is likely to have at least two disconnections. Smooth them out, or cut one of them.
Fifth, edit, edit, edit. After you write your first draft, put it away for a day and then read it again the next day. The less time you allow between drafting and publishing, the more likely you’ll publish something you’ll later regret. This regret is inevitable when you publish frequently enough, but don’t let the regret happen because you had a typo in the first sentence. I’ll always regret the published version of a 2012 column I wrote on race and the admissions process where I “walked about walking along the quiet beach…” (which makes no sense).
Sixth, don’t do the editing on your own. Have some friends edit and critique your drafts. They’re going to see it anyway, and they’re going to have opinions when it’s published. You might as well get those opinions now and try to craft a piece that takes them into account. It can be very helpful to have friends who disagree with your viewpoint to edit and critique, especially if you’re hoping your column will engage with opposing views. This can also help you learn the difference between what you’re writing and what people are reading. There can often be a big difference, but you won’t know it unless you really engage with your readers.
Seventh, ask your friends before you write about them or the things they’ve said. If you start publishing your private conversations, even if you don’t include names, your friends will probably be less open with you. You’ll become more of a reporter than a friend. When it comes to personal relationships, avoid publishing without permission.
Finally, understand that you are responsible for how you’re read. Notre Dame’s Ralph McInerny used to have over his desk: “No one owes you a reading.” If no one understands what you’re saying, don’t immediately conclude it’s just because you’re smarter than everyone else. Even if you are smarter, you might be a terrible writer. But we all start out as terrible writers, and the only way to improve is to write.
This column was published in The Observer on Thursday, March 3, 2016.