Writing Columns: There Are No Muses Singing You To Sleep

Writing style cannot be taught but it can be caught.

Good columnists – people who can create small dents in the 21st Century mass ADD1 – need only careful planning and a sprinkling of talent. Don’t be discouraged if you haven’t heard muses sing you to sleep because the mix is heavily weighted in favour of hard work and being organised.

The other day a friend’s mother unearthed a column I wrote for the spunky South newspaper in 1993 on racism. As my friend handed me the yellowing clipping I became extremely anxious. What if it were a truly terrible piece of writing, filled with clichés and going nowhere in particular. I couldn’t wait to get home to take a good look at my younger, opinionated self. Someone has been holding onto the piece of paper for decades but could I even write 21 years ago?

When I was a young journalist I was easily dissuaded by the antics of famous columnists. They always used far too many personal pronouns and were mostly deluded ‘I specialists’. And there were very few women. Pampered frat brats 2, the offspring of adoring mothers and corporate fathers, were sought after for their opinions in my nascent media world.

But somewhere along the way I learned how to muscle my way onto the terrain of the white male bourgeoisie and how to write good columns. I fell in love with the Thesaurus, archives (the parents of search engines) and the microscopic details of other people’s lives. Soon I had columns and stories published all over the world.

One day I am making small talk at a cocktail party with Peter Sullivan who is the Editor of the Johannesburg Star newspaper at the time.

“Sylvia why don’t you write a column for us,” he says casually.

I hesitate. The kind of pause you employ when you are trying to keep your distance without making a nice, respectable boy break up with you for good. Star columnist Carol Lazar who has joined the cocktail cluster climbs into the pause with assumptions of her own.

“Don’t be put off. I can help you if you’re nervous about writing a column for the Star.”

I don’t say anything but the look on my face is enough to make my colleague John Matisonn take Carol ‘great-travel-ideas’ Lazar aside and explain to her kind-hearted liberal self that I recently won Scandinavia’s top journalism prize. The award was given partly for my weekly columns in Scandinavia’s largest newspaper Expressen.

I never opted to write columns for the Star after all – Peter Sullivan dropped me even before we started dating – but I have done others for South and a host of foreign publications. So if you think you have that smattering of talent, here are a few important requirements in no particular order.

Focus – Look deep into your heart and identify what you are passionate about. Avoid your family and pets. Column writers have been milking their relatives since Biblical times but if your domestic sagas bore you the effect on your readers will be multiplied to a factor of infinity. Once you’ve decided on the topic stay focused and sharp. Stick to tight sentences that sparkle and occasionally explode like delightful fireworks. And never, ever digress unless you’ve studied writing with the likes of Chinua Achebe or Professor Njabulo Ndebele and you can wield this tool dexterously.

The Audience – Decide who your audience is going to be, what length is required and most importantly what tone you will employ. For inspiration observe shebeen conversations. The master storytellers in those challenging environments are the ones who hold strong opinions, know what they’re talking about and have an innate flair for pace. Before you ask… Ernest Hemingway drank hugely watered down whiskies. Alcohol kills creativity.


Column writing has to be focused and structured.

Courtesy of online and other sources.

Decorate your wall, a window or a flip chart if you have one, with colourful post-it notes. Unlike whisky a mind map of colourful notes spurs creativity. And this way you can play around with the one tool that will make or break your mini short story… structure. I’ve been teaching journalists in Africa and Europe. It always takes them by surprise when I insist that stories and columns have a clear beginning, middle and end. And like the cardiograph of an excited person it needs to reach a crescendo. If you meander and do not build up deliberately to a payoff line, audiences will click that mouse, flick the page.

The best object of study in this regard is a good joke. It holds you because it obeys the strict demands of structure. The teller enters into a contract with the listener and if you break the rules of beginning, middle and climax there is great unhappiness because you’ve not held up your end of the undertaking. Successful columns work in exactly the same way. And while we don’t expect all columnists to be budding Trevor Noahs, we do demand to be entertained. Funny helps hugely but don’t try hard to be clever. Remember what you resist persists. So by going all out to raise a laugh you will end up with yawns all round.

Style & Tone

Writing style cannot be taught but it can be caught. Read good columns and blogs. Seek out the winners of the many competitions around the world. But write firmly from your own cultural perspective and stay true to your personality. People read columns in search of a distinctive persona with style and flair.

The best columns are the ones that share choice bits of the writer’s personality and his or her distinctive take on life. If one person whistles in a room filled with people humming, we will all turn towards the whistler. This is one time when going against the grain is almost compulsory. A loud, Day-Glo whistle is what you need.

Make it sound as if you’re talking with friends. While columns are prose we have to trick people into thinking it’s conversational. For reasons of accessibility we have to be careful with slang and parochial idiom but don’t drop it completely. The way you speak is an essential part of your individuality.

The Rest

Take yourself seriously. If you are writing a column based on actual events or history do the research and stick to the facts. People follow writers whom they can trust. If you want to write columns that are reliant on interviews, we will soon post a mini Master Class on interview style and structure

For the aspirant bloggers… all the rules for writing good columns apply to blogging as well. Remember only about 10 percent of everything on the Internet has a sizeable audience and then another 10% of that is distinctive. Get to know the rules, do the hard work and take huge risks if you intend to be memorable.

There are many handy text analysis tools on the net. Once you’ve written your piece you can check it for readability, abuse of adjectives, repetition and showing off (too many long words). It’s a good discipline that humbles your ego and cleans up dense writing. Try this one at http://textalyser.net/

Finally… I read that South column from 1993 once I was safely at home alone. It definitely would fit into the loud, Day-Glo whistle category. I was moving from Cape Town to Joburg and looking for a home for my dogs as well as a Mother City employer for our domestic worker. On the phone a white woman – misled by my neither-here-nor-there accent and colonial surname – warned me against sending my dogs to new owners in the townships.

The phone call inspired a column about people who care more for dogs than their fellow South Africans and it gave me the opportunity to write at the time: “Bullets for settlers are not part of my solution but there are some days… My compromise however, is that there are many settlers I would exchange for dogs any day.”

I hope Carol Lazar, one of South Africa’s top travel columnists, does not take it all too personally.

Next week we will look at the art of interviewing.

1. ADD Attention Deficity Disorder
2. University or College fraternity members