I once read a column in my local paper about the experience of a person adopting a kitten. The theme of the column seemed to be that it was hard to get exactly the kitten she wanted because of what the columnist argued to be a lack of unwanted kittens our province, British Columbia. The columnist ended up buying her cat at a pet store, which was OK, according to her, because it was sent there by a shelter in Quebec, which was overcrowded.
This column provoked some backlash as expected. Instead of the paper running letters to the editor, the columnist ran edited snippets of the emails and calls she had been getting. The quotes were highly redacted to make the callers and emailers look unreasonable, and the columnist accused them of being on their “high horses.”
The whole thing got me wondering, what makes a good personal column? We’ve all read personal columns that have been bad, and ones that have been great. It’s very hard for an inexperienced writer to walk the fine line between the two. Many of the papers running the worst variety are small weekly papers that tend to hire entry-level writers. They have a tendency to want to fill space, regardless of whether or not they have anything to say.
That’s the first issue you need to tackle before you sit 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 town can top it with their own experiences.
Pick a theme
Think about the theme of your article before you write it. The columnist mentioned above had an interesting theme: there’s a shortage of kittens due to increased awareness of the importance of spaying and neutering.
Ask yourself some questions about your own experiences: What does raising kids teach you about life? What advice can you give people about gardening based on your own experience?
Maybe you enjoyed your trip to the top of the Empire State Building, but later that evening you got lost and turned down a dark street where you stumbled upon the best jazz club you had ever visited. Maybe the theme is that you should take some time to stroll off the beaten track if you really want to experience New York City.
While the columnist above had an interesting theme, she didn’t research it to make sure it was true. In fact, one of the “high-horse” emails was from a local animal shelter assuring her that they have plenty of kittens available for adoption. One might even say, there was “no shortage” of kittens available for adoption. Another angle she could have taken was to examine whether it’s OK to sometimes buy animals from pet stores rather than shelters. Again, she would have to do the research and not just rely on the word of one pet store sales clerk.
A lot of reporters enjoy writing personal columns because they think it’s a “break” from the heavy-lifting of researching 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 cringed while reading about someone’s highly uneventful meeting with her favourite rock star – a singer whose name most of our readers wouldn’t have recognized. “He shook my hand. He said, ‘I like your shirt.’ Who knew?”
I’m not saying, you shouldn’t write about unusual hobbies or interests, but try and connect it to experiences people may already know. For example, “for me it was the same feeling my mother had attending her first Elvis Presley concert.” Your feeling of excitement will be more interesting than the colour of Doc Martens your hero was wearing that day.
Adopting a pet is a highly 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 might be able to relate to wanting a kitten rather than a cat or a short-haired cat rather than a long-haired cat, but her detailed pickiness made it impossible for many to emphasize. However, if she was writing for a cat magazine, she might have found a more sympathetic audience.
When you’re thinking of your topic, think of your audience. If you don’t think they can relate, ask yourself why not. Then think about how you can make it more understandable. Don’t dumb it down. Just situate it in your reader’s own frame of reference.
Have you just single-handedly discovered a cure for cancer? In that case, it’s probably no big deal that you received a promotion, raise, commendation, certification, new car, etc. Is there something interesting about your achievement? Did you go back to school after raising children? Write about that experience, not about the achievement itself. If there’s something extra-special about it, people will notice and congratulate you anyway. If you’re just tooting your own horn, trust me, people will notice that, as well.