How to write a column

Staff WriterApril 18, 2004 

Not long ago, I mentioned that my newspaper reporter son-in-law, while stopping off in Smithfield on a political assignment, met a native who admitted to reading this column. The reader, however, complained that I am a little too far left politically and write about birds too much.

His remark raised the question that troubles any at-large columnist, which is the best job at a newspaper, including being editor. A friend suggested I write a column about writing a column, even if readers find it as unsettling as watching sausage-making at hog-killing time.

The question is not, as Shakespeare insists, "to be or not to be." It's "What should a columnist write about?" What's on his heart? What has provoked him or her to outrage? The small, day-to-day, real-life dramas of ordinary folk? Should the columnist's goal be to inform, to persuade, to entertain? I'd say some of all.

I imagine my Smithfield reader to be a hunter who prefers killing birds to watching them. Since I'm not a child of Orion, I may have failed him.

He would have liked hearing about the hunter who bragged to friends how well his son had done on a pop quiz at school. Asked to name the four seasons, the lad had written "rabbit, turkey and deer."

"He couldn't think of quail," the father said. "But three out of four ain't bad!"

Reader response is the lifeblood of a columnist and of a newspaper itself. For me, the greater the variety, the greater the pleasure.

Among my most cherished responses is one from an Oregon lumberjack who had come into possession of a book of my columns.

The hand-scribbled note on lined paper read, "Mr. Snow, I am enjoying your book I keep it in the john and read a chapter every morning." Ah, compliments. You take 'em any way you can get 'em.

A columnist is lucky if his readership spans age brackets. A Raleigh reader once wrote, "I've been reading you since I was around 7 or 8 years old. I haven't always understood or appreciated what you were trying to say, but always read you nonetheless. In fact, when I carried The Raleigh Times I always read your 'Sno' Foolin' while I was folding my papers before setting out on the route. Of all the papers I folded and threw, I remember only the headline announcing Walt Disney's death and your commentaries."

Over the long haul, I know pretty well what subjects generate the most heat: religion, politics, race, sex, cats, dogs, Yankees, children, cigarette nicotine, smoking and flag-waving patriotism.

A wise columnist doesn't take himself too seriously. If there is one thing readers can't bear, it is pomposity. And if the writer is attempting humor -- the most difficult of all writing forms -- he's better off poking fun at himself rather than at others.

When readers get their dander up, they want the opportunity to spout off at you -- via e-mail, snail mail or voice mail. And as long as they're civil, and sometimes when they're not, attention must be paid.

Some years ago, when I was editor of the afternoon paper, a Cary resident called me at home to complain about an article in which his mother was quoted. He was, to put it mildly, fit to be tied. I began defending the reporter and the newspaper by asking right off if his mother had been misquoted.

"No, she wasn't misquoted!" he yelled. "But you should have known better. When it comes to some things, my mother doesn't know whether to wind her watch or spit! I've got your address and I'm coming out there and beat your tail before supper!"

"Well, sir. You're going to have to hurry. We're just sitting down to dessert," I responded weakly, hoping for a reprieve.

The caller paused, fighting a chuckle, then said, "I'm still mad as hell. But I'll say this. I've lived in four other cities across the country and this is the first place where if you want to call up the editor and tell him how stupid he is, you can find his name listed in the telephone directory."

Thanks to you readers, writing a column, whether it's once, twice or three times a week, is still a heck of a lot better than priming tobacco. Now if my Smithfield reader will forgive me, I'd like to report that yesterday I peered into the nest, and what did I find? There on the pine straw, sky blue eggs, four of a kind.

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