“We read five words on the first page of a really good novel and we begin to forget that we are reading printed words on a page, we begin to see images.”—John Gardner, (1933 –1982) American novelist, essayist, literary critic and university professor
Reminiscing about the newspaper business with Mike Elswick at the Center Light and Champion last week, I allowed as how after 46 years spent in the field of communication, almost 30 of that in newspapers, that one of my favorite parts of the business has long been writing a weekly column.
With my fondness for crafting columns came a love for enjoying the work of others, appreciating the diversity and variety of each writer’s style that sets a few apart from the crowd. I read and enjoy many columns but favor those by writers with a knack for pulling off what I consider to be the key to good column writing: telling a good story.
During time spent at Stephen F. Austin State University attempting to inspire young journalists, my primary advice for writing was to “…paint mental pictures with words, focus on your own naturally distinctive style, and listen to good story tellers.” In my book, a good column is just a good story told in written form.
A perfect example is the work of good friend and former colleague, Gary Borders. If you know Gary, you will hear him telling a story when you read his columns. He writes like he talks, and while that’s difficult for some to do effectively, he is a master. His subtle wit keeps the reader smiling as he tells a simple story that is informative, concise and always interesting. You will find Gary’s columns on Facebook or at garyborders.com.
Another master was the late Gordon Baxter, a newspaper and magazine columnist as well as a pilot in Southeast Texas. His column that ran on the last page of Flying magazine for many years called “Bax Seat” passed over stories about airplanes, equipment or technical aspects of flying to tell great stories about people and their aviation experiences. His style was laid back and almost folksy, but his insight into people and the way he painted pictures with words was phenomenal.
Ironically, my newest favorite column-style pieces are written by a veterinarian. Bo Brock is an engaging storyteller of the finest character. His style draws you into the stories he narrates with hilarious detail as to why some distasteful veterinary procedure he may be performing at the moment is not fun but relates to some greater meaning in life. You can find him on Facebook.
We could go on all day about columnists like Leon Hale whose writing is a legend in Houston newspaper history, Lewis Grizzard whose newspaper column stories about life in the South led to a career in humorous books and speaking engagements, and many more. But another key to a good column is brevity.
The importance of a brief delivery was best explained by an old country preacher filling the pulpit at a neighboring congregation one Sunday. After preaching for about 20 minutes, he began his wrap-up remarks prematurely ending some good naps and prompting that flurry of activity when members of the congregation begin reaching for a hymnal. As though apologizing for the brevity of the lesson, he said, “I don’t believe in belaboring the point. My philosophy for a good sermon is stand up, speak up, shut up, and sit down.” And with those words, he offered the invitation.
Before I shut up and sit down, I will simply conclude that my passion for column writing could very well have started while reading Paul Crume’s front-page column in the Dallas Morning News when I was in high school. Crume wrote his “Big D” column six days a week for 25 years. They were short, but witty, whimsical and entertaining. They were about anything and everything from Dallas news stories to life in general. Crume wrote his last column in the mid-70s and died less than a week after it ran.
If there is a distinctive style in my efforts, it is nothing eloquent. I consider column writing good therapy for the writer’s soul and simply begin writing about whatever story is on my mind when I sit down to compose the next column.
My aspiration at this point is to be like Paul Crume. When you read my obituary, I hope my last story worth telling is not yet a week old.
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