Most nonfiction writers dream of writing a column. We all want to be the next Erma Bombeck or Dave Barry. We want the fame, the books, the speaking engagements, the coffee mugs with our pictures on them. If we just shower editors with anecdotes from our everyday lives, surely they’ll recognize our genius and make a space in the paper for us.
Right? Unfortunately, no.
A successful column has to be about something more than our own lives. It must offer something that keeps the readers coming back. Columns come in various forms, covering everything from cars to kids. They can be straight prose, opinion pieces, questions and answers, short tidbits, or lists. What sets them apart from other newspaper articles is that they appear every day, every week or every month in the same place, same format, same length.
The challenge is to find a suitable market and a reader-friendly subject for which you can keep coming up with ideas. Think hard before you commit to a column. You might have enough material for an article or two, but can you keep writing 500- to 700-word pieces about this subject for years?
You can sell columns to just one paper, to a syndicate, or self-syndicate them to many newspapers. Look for likely markets that aren’t already running something similar. Query with several samples and suggestions for additional columns. For more information on marketing columns, read You Can Write a Column by Monica McCabe Cardoza or Successful Syndication by Michael Sedge. Also check Writer’s Market http://www.writersmarket.com or visit the Erma Bombeck humor writers website http://www.humorwriters.org.
YOUR CHALLENGE THIS MONTH: Let your muse loose and start making lists of things that you know and care a lot about. Consider jobs, hobbies, volunteer activities, education, and family issues. What is the most important thing in your life? Can you write a column about it? Make lists until you find a subject that seems to have legs, then come up with a market, a title and ideas for at least 10 columns.
You are welcome to share your results or discuss the challenge here, as well as at my Freelancing for Newspapers blog. Remember, there are no right or wrong answers.
Sue Fagalde Lick, author of Freelancing for Newspapers, worked as a staff writer, photographer and editor for newspapers in California and Oregon for many years before moving into full-time freelancing. In addition to countless newspaper and magazine articles, she has published three books on Portuguese Americans. She has taught workshops at Oregon Coast Community College, online for Writing-world.com and for Willamette Writers and California Writers Club. She offers an online course on reviews as well as individual coaching. See her website and visit her blog.