Columnists Hear About Sinatra and Doing It Your Way

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By: Dave Astor

It was “how-two” time at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference, as a pair of speakers gave attendees “how-to” writing tips in separate Friday sessions.

The advice-givers were Keith Woods, dean of faculty at The Poynter Institute; and Paula LaRocque, a former Dallas Morning News writing coach and assistant managing editor who has authored books on writing.

Woods said it’s OK for columnists to write first-person pieces about their own experiences as long as the pieces have universal elements to which readers can relate. He read one of his own columns about visiting Zimbabwe and being asked for money by desperately poor children. “We all have been confronted with the decision about whether or not to give to people who don’t have anything,” said Woods, whose poignant essay also touched on his own poor childhood. And he read another of his columns about his experiences as a father.

The speaker discussed the benefits of using strong verbs and advised writers to “stick the landing” by ending sentences with strong words. “People remember the last thing they read,” said Woods.

He also suggested repeating key words and phrases (but not too often), and advocated the use of hyperbole (but, again, not too often). One example of hyperbole was in Woods’ parenthood column, which included a reference to neighborhood dogs keeling over from ther loudness of his young son’s screams.

That column also included a reference to a Frank Sinatra song, which led Woods to note that columnists need to be careful about alluding to things readers might not know about in America’s increasingly fragmented society.

About an hour later, LaRocque also offered writing advice. “Don’t be too pretentious,” she said. “Don’t be pompous. The finest columnists I know are always clear. Don’t dumb it down, but make it instantly accessible.”

Part of that involves using mostly short sentences and simple words, and avoiding jargon. “You have a point to make,” said LaRocque. “You want the reader to get that point unvarnished.”

Also at the conference, Tim Bete was asked to speak about “Writing Funny in Serious Times.” The self-syndicated humor columnist chose to interpret this as including not only serious societal times, but serious personal times for writers and readers.

Bete told attendees Friday that humor writers don’t always feel good and don’t always feel funny. But the committed ones still produce columns.

The speaker, who’s director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton, said Bombeck once observed: “Nine-hundred editors don’t care if I have a headache.” They expected her column to arrive, and Bombeck didn’t disappoint — even when she was on kidney dialysis.

“Writing is hard work even when you’re not in serious times,” added Bete.

He also noted that readers can identify with situations humorists write about — raising children, dealing with housework, etc. And humor makes readers feel better — which is especially important if they’ve been laid off, or just ended a relationship, or are hit with the death of a friend or family member. “Your words help them get through tough times,” he said.

The speaker also discussed what makes a writer humorous. Bete said it helps to have “faulty plumbing in the brain” — the ability to “put together things that are not supposed to go together.”

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