A writer I greatly admire, Ta-Nehisi Coates, once offered this exercise in understanding what it’s like to produce a weekly opinion column: “Spend a week counting all the original ideas you have. Then try to write each one down, in all its nuance, in 800 words. Perhaps you’d be very successful at this. Now try to do it for four weeks. Then two months, then six, then a year, then five years.” He encouraged readers to “have some sense of the built-in structural limitations of the form. They are formidable.”
Indeed. These days the backbone of my freelance writing career is two weekly columns, the one you’re reading right now and another for New York magazine’s website. I’ve been writing both for almost a year, and in that time I’ve skipped only one or two columns. My columns force me to keep producing work, prevent me from having to cold-pitch every single idea I have, and allow me to rely on a few regular paychecks. At times it’s been exhausting. But mostly it’s been a pleasure. Here are a few things I’ve learned about churning out weekly opinion columns:
Never stop searching for ideas. I always feel a bit of relief when I settle on a thesis for the week, but idea-generation is really an ongoing process. It’s a way of working and reading. For this column, I keep a running list of questions I’ve been asked by young journalists, things that annoy me, links that deserve some follow-up. This document is a well that I can return to during slow news weeks or when I’m feeling uninspired. (For anyone who’s curious, I use the note-taking app SimpleNote on my phone, synced with Notational Velocity on my desktop.)
Know your bread and butter. Writing a weekly column is about exploring and honing a particular point of view or sensibility. You should be able to describe in a sentence or two what your column is about. (This one? #Realtalk is frank and conversational advice about how to make a living doing journalism in the digital era, with a generally optimistic point of view and a liberal helping of animated GIFs to further lighten the mood.) Sometimes hewing to a sensibility can lead to columns that feel repetitive, but know that even your most devoted fans probably aren’t reading every single week. And if they are, they’re doing so because they love your perspective and care deeply about the issues you cover. Don’t be afraid to reference and link back to previous columns that made similar points—but stop short of Lehrering, of course. Think of your columns as one long, ongoing conversation.
But ensure each column stands alone. This is especially true given the fact that so many readers will find your work through social media rather than showing up because they remembered it’s Thursday and your column always runs on Thursdays.
Pick up the goddamn phone. When your angle is a little weak, or you’re lacking in just the right example, call an expert. Call a friend who obsessively follows this issue. Call another journalist. Call anyone whose external, informed perspective will allow you to fan your little ember of a thesis until it’s a fire that will fuel an entire column. Bonus points if that external perspective comes from someone you can also quote in the piece. The best opinion columnists are also great reporters.
Make peace with the fact that you will have off weeks. Part of what’s great about a column is that, while you’ll inevitably have some hits that stand out, it’s meant to be read as a body of work. So even if you drop the ball one week out of four, the other three should more than make up for it.
The news cycle is your ally. The headlines provide new points of entry to the bigger themes and ideas you explore in your column. Sometimes when it’s starting to feel like you’ve written everything there is to write on a particular issue, the news mercifully intervenes to offer you a fresh way of discussing it.
When all else fails, send a hail-mary plea to your editor. A good writer-editor relationship is paramount for any freelancer, but this is especially true for the columnist. Some weeks you’ll be late, and you’re going to need your editor to be understanding. Some weeks you’ll push the boundaries a little too far, and your editor is there to walk you back. And then there are the weeks when you have absolutely no clue what to write about, and your editor will reply to your sad, harried email with a great idea, suggesting you write a column, say, about how to generate column ideas every week. Meta. Perfect.