I once read a column in my local newspaper about the experience of a person adopting a kitten. The theme of the column seemed to be that it was difficult to get exactly the kitten I wanted due to what the columnist argued was the lack of unwanted kittens in our province, British Columbia. The columnist ended up buying her cat from a pet store, which was fine, according to her, because it was sent there by a shelter in Quebec, which was overcrowded.
This column caused a backlash as expected. Instead of the newspaper sending letters to the editor, the columnist published edited excerpts of the emails and calls she had been receiving. The quotes were heavily worded to make callers and e-mails appear unreasonable, and the columnist accused them of being on their “high horses.”
All of this made me wonder, what makes a good personal column? We have all read personal columns that have been bad and others that have been great. It is very difficult for an inexperienced writer to walk the fine line between the two. Many of the newspapers that carry the worst variety are small weekly newspapers that tend to hire beginning writers. They have a tendency to want to fill the space, regardless of whether they have something to say or not.
That’s the first issue you need to tackle before sitting down to write about your pets, your kids, your garden, or your trip to New York City. Does your column have a point? Your life is interesting to you, your family and your friends, but why should it interest other people? No matter how exciting your trip to the top of the Empire State Building was for you, most people in the city can complete it with their own experiences.
Pick a topic
Think about the topic of your article before writing it. The aforementioned columnist had an interesting topic: there is a shortage of kittens due to an increased awareness of the importance of spaying and neutering.
Ask yourself some questions about your own experiences: What does parenting teach you about life? What advice can you give people about gardening based on your own experience?
Maybe he enjoyed his trip to the top of the Empire State Building, but later that night he got lost and turned down a dark street where he stumbled upon the best jazz club he had ever visited. Perhaps the issue is that you should take some time to wander off the beaten track if you really want to experience New York City.
While the previous columnist had an interesting topic, she didn’t research it to make sure it was true. In fact, one of the “tall horse” emails was from a local animal shelter assuring him that they had many kittens available for adoption. You could even say that there was “no shortage” of kittens available for adoption. Another angle I could have taken was examining whether it is okay to buy animals from pet stores rather than shelters. Again, you would have to do the research and not just take the word of a pet store sales clerk.
Many reporters like to write personal columns because they think it is a “break” from the heavy lifting of investigating and reporting. Not so. You still have to be credible. If you’re making a statement, check it out.
Make sure people can relate to your experience
When writing for a general audience, people may need a little help relating to your experience. I once shuddered while reading about someone’s uneventful encounter with their favorite rock star, a singer whose name most of our readers would not have recognized. “He shook my hand. He said, ‘I like your shirt.’ Who knows?”
I’m not saying you shouldn’t write about unusual hobbies or interests, but try to connect it with experiences that people already know. For example, “for me it was the same feeling my mother had when she attended her first Elvis Presley concert.” Your feeling of excitement will be more interesting than the Doc Martens color your hero was wearing that day.
Adopting a pet is a very relatable experience, but one of the reasons the cat columnist fell short was that people couldn’t understand her desire to find the exact variety of kitten she wanted. We may relate to wanting a kitten instead of a cat or a short-haired cat instead of a long-haired cat, but its detailed delicacy made it impossible for many to emphasize it. However, if you were writing for a cat magazine, you might have found a more understanding audience.
When you are thinking about your topic, think about your audience. If you think they can’t relate, ask yourself why not. Then think about how you can make it more understandable. Don’t simplify it. Just place it in your own reader’s frame of reference.
Do not presume
Have you discovered a cure for cancer on your own? In that case, it’s probably no big deal that you’ve received a promotion, raise, accolade, certification, new car, etc. Is there something interesting in your achievement? Did you go back to school after raising children? Write about that experience, not about the achievement itself. If there is something extra special about it, people will notice and compliment you anyway. If you’re just honking your own horn, trust me, people will notice that too.