How to give columns that personal touch

Many a sub has dug deep into the creative pot for titles to encapsulate the 600-or-so words of personal wisdom of columnists. ‘I Say…”, ‘Think On…’and ‘My Word’are pretty popular, but then, unfortunately, so too are ‘Richard’s Ramblings”, ‘At Home with Helen’and worst of all, ‘A Sideways Look at Life”.

The best of these ‘think’or opinion pieces are written by well-informed,

intelligent people who have sensible things to say that will resonate with their readers. The worst are written by those who confuse good writing with self-indulgent musings about their dull (and sometimes drunken) exploits.

A personal column is a valuable space in a newspaper and a journalist, given the chance to air their opinions, should see it as a chance to put strong, positive arguments about a subject that will interest and/or entertain readers.

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct types of personal column: The opinion piece, which offers a subjective and

balanced view of a current issue or event; and the personal viewpoint, which provides an individual slant on a particular topic. Whichever, they should both merge information, evidence, analysis, comment, description and anecdotes.

In no doubt

The opinion piece should leave the reader in no doubt as to how the writer feels about a particular issue or event.

Many of the best personal viewpoints are idiosyncratic; individual in character and content. They work best when they articulate a thought the reader has had but has failed to articulate, or when they offer a new way of looking at a subject.

Personal columnists expose follies and nonsense, and are not afraid to lob the odd controversial explosive. They know their audience and they are confident enough to know how far to push the tone and style.

Get it wrong and it’s awful. A classic example is provided by a male writer on a regional daily – let’s call him ‘G’as in ‘Gobsmacked with G’to protect his identity. He prefaced one of his columns by saying he was jinxed and went on to describe why: A meal he had ordered in a restaurant several years ago didn’t appear and then more recently, the delivery driver failed to turn up with a take-away pizza he’d ordered. What could have been a flight of fancy on Sod’s Law turned into 600 poorly chosen and badly phrased words, which ended with the comment: ‘I was gobsmacked!’So was I, that any paper could print this stuff.

I admit fairly sheepishly that it was my byline alongside the ‘Quite Frankly’column in one of the papers I worked for – with a picture of me, arms folded and looking quite cross. I got on my high horse several times with as much indignation as I could muster. But I like to think that, if nothing else, I gave some of my readers something to think about.

Susan Pape is an author and course leader of the postgraduate diploma in print journalism at Leeds Trinity & All Saints

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