Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Even Good Writers Can Use Some Tips

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Even Good Writers Can Use Some Tips

Article excerpt

COLUMNISTS ARE USUALLY among the best writers at newspapers, but that doesn't mean they can't use some writing advice from time to time.

So the National Society of Newspaper Columnists invited writing coach Don Fry to speak at its recent convention in Sarasota, Fla.

"This is a group I've always wanted to talk to," said Fry. "If I worked for a newspaper, I'd like to be a columnist. Columnists can set the agenda for the day's conversation in their communities. If you haven't read the newspaper, you're out of the conversation."

Fry does do a monthly column for the American Society of Newspaper Editors' ASNE Bulletin. And the former Poynter Institute for Media Studies executive also writes books and magazine articles.

So what advice did Fry have for the NSNC audience?

One thing he said was that "the best columns are reported. They're based on something besides the inside of your head."

But Fry cautioned against over-reporting to the point where there isn't enough time to write well.

He said columnists should not only interview people to gather material for their columns, but should also "brainstorm" with someone about column ideas before working on them.

"It's well worth the time," Fry said. "If you can't explain the idea to another person, you haven't got it."

He noted that columnists don't necessarily have to brainstorm with their editors. Several convention attendees mentioned that there are editors who immediately try to change ideas whenever they're consulted.

"Some newsrooms are designed to run like a 19th-century British factory," Fry said. "It's a boss-employee system rather than a partner system."

The speaker also advised NSNC members to have a good grasp of the structure and content of their entire column before writing the lead.

"Many writers do the 'perfect lead' before going on with the rest of the column," Fry said. "Then they write something new that damages the 'perfect lead.'"

Fry noted that about 20% of journalists, including himself, write their leads last. "The lead is the most important sentence, but you don't have to write the piece in the order that the reader will read it," he said. "I find it easier to write the lead on a column that already exists."

A good column ending is also crucial, Fry added. "The more powerful and clear you make the ending, the more the reader will remember what you said in the entire column," he observed. …

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