Column Writing

(originally published in 2003)

I can’t tell you the amount of times that people have asked me, “What makes a good column?” I usually mutter something about Dave Barry and go hide behind the buffet table. This can cause problems in restaurants.

But what does make a good column? Insightful comments? Well-considered arguments? Horrible puns? No one really knows. Columns are one of the great mysteries of the universe, like where babies come from and what actually happens when you mix equal parts of Coke and Pepsi. (My theory for both is “a nuclear explosion.”) Let’s take a look at the structure of an average column.

First, we have the “Hook,” an opening line designed to get the reader’s attention. Examples of hooks are, “Recently, I was immersing cute puppies into a vat of sulfuric acid,” or “Everyone said I was a fool to take up nude chainsaw juggling.” But one must be careful, as a poorly executed hook will turn the reader off and send him looking for porn on the Internet. “The world of Backhoe Repair is a fast-paced and exciting one” is a completely uninteresting and poorly executed hook, especially if your column is on the zany antics in college dorms.

Immediately after the hook is the “follow up,” a second comment made to support the hook. Good follow-ups are, “Boy those puppies sure looked cute in their little Hazmat suits.” and “But I’ve never seen clothes for a chainsaw! Wakka wakka wakka!” As with the hook, the writer must choose his words carefully, as a bad follow-up will leave the reader confused and with a headache, as if he has spent an evening watching reality television. A good example of a bad follow-up is “But not as fast-paced and exciting as this in-depth thesis on the gross national product of Belize I’m gonna lay on ya!”

After that comes the part we columnists like to call “winging it.” You’ve stated your thesis, now you back it up. “Why sulfuric acid?” “How exactly would you get pants on a chainsaw?” “Is Belize like a country or something?” These are all questions your reader will want answered. And it’s up to you to answer them, since you were dumb enough to bring it up. Sentences like “Obviously, the Puppy Method is a surefire way to take over the world.” and “To my horror, I realized that the audience wanted me to turn the chainsaw on!” will keep them confused enough to where you can avoid answering.

Finally comes the “Zinger.” This a sentence used to wrap everything up and shoot the point of the column home with the reader. “And so, I learned a valuable lesson about puppies and dangerous chemicals,” and “It turns out it’s a good idea to learn to juggle before putting on a show for a room full of soulful-eyed orphans” are good examples. Sentences like “Well, me done now,” while having the air of finality, doesn’t really have the conclusiveness necessary for a good column, and should be used only as a last resort.

Well, me am done now.