Columnist William Newman: Don’t trust columnists

  • Gazette columnist William Newman. Gazette file photo

Published: 9/6/2019 3:54:49 PM
Modified: 9/6/2019 3:54:37 PM

Kind responses from readers to my column last month titled, “A girl of summer still,” about my 88-year-old Brooklyn Dodgers and Boston Red Sox-loving cousin, moved me to revisit my Gazette column on the art of column writing, published in November 1999.

In the intervening years I’ve reworked that article and included later iterations in my books,* “When the War Came Home” and “Life on the Co-op Plan.”** The title originally was and today remains “Don’t Trust Columnists.” Really. Don’t.

* For the record, I eschew shameless plugs.

**Available at the Broadside, the Odyssey, and Off the Common bookshops.

Help! Now more than ever, opinion writers are trying to manipulate us. Here’s how they do it.

After composing an attention-grabbing and quite possibly histrionic lead, they use verbal sleights-of-hand to make us believe that they share our values, fears, aspirations and penchant for Vermont sharp cheddar. Here I’ve referred to columnists as “they” and readers as “us” so that you know where my loyalties lie — so to speak.

Let’s go on. But before we do, please note the “us” lurking in the contraction “let’s,” as well as the importance of “please.” Columnists, no matter how dogmatic, want you to think that they sound reasonable. Politeness helps. Thank you for reading this far.

A column is an essay, and an essay should begin by stating its premise (we’re being manipulated by unsavory word pushers) and then dive into the supporting arguments (“Here’s how they do it”). So instruct Harvard professors Vernon Howard and James Barton in their book “Thinking on Paper.”

Credibility, of course, is critical. Having Harvard on your side always helps. So does a little alliteration.

And so does the magic of three. Three of anything just sounds right. Consider the three bears, three little pigs, three strikes and you’re out.

Three sentences in the last paragraph. Of course, a one-sentence paragraph can also pack a punch. Here’s an example:

Short sentences work.

My junior high school English teacher, Mr. Murphy, who forbade one sentence paragraphs, also taught us that passive verb constructions should be avoided; intransitive verbs are boring; and a sentence that ends with a preposition is something to be ashamed of. He also instructed us to “eschew clichés — they’re a dime a dozen;” to never split infinitives; and to never, ever, ever begin a paragraph with a conjunction.

But a paragraph that starts with a conjunction can keep hold of the reader. Mr. Murphy, I now surmise, never had to write a column.

If he had, he would have demonstrated more empathy for the column writer’s primary goal, which is to keep the reader reading. So columnists start paragraphs with conjunctions and also improperly use clauses, phrases and all manner of non-sentences. When it serves their purposes. (Mr. Murphy is now officially rolling in his grave as he eschews clichés.) Another tried and true way to keep the reader’s focus is to promise sex later in the column, as will happen here. You’ll see.

All fine and good, you say, for the process-obsessed, but what about substance?

Well, that’s a tough question, so let’s skip it for the moment and observe that a question can make a transition seem seamless. Did you notice? Also, the easy-going interjection “well” makes us feel as if writer and reader are old friends, chatting over an espresso at a sidewalk cafe. And an analogy, like that espresso, opens our eyes and makes us see more clearly. We like analogies.

(My goodness — an “our,” an “us” and a “we” all crammed into the last two short sentences. Is this columnist shameless or what?) (While we’re at it, don’t overuse parentheticals.)

For the answer to the tough question I’ll rely on Anna Quindlen, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times columnist, who in her collection “Thinking Out Loud” confesses that for her, “The truth is the reader I write for is myself….” As for motivation and ideas she wrote, “When I’m deeply aggrieved I can never type fast enough.” Her advice for column-writing: know something, be curious and accurate, care deeply and pray you’re not too wrong too often.

For me an opinion piece is a learning experience. The writing — the thinking on paper — forces me to clarify for myself what I believe about a problem, politician or policy. At some point — as a deadline looms — I have to commit to the words and thoughts. Drafts are like dates. You wish you could have a few more before you move in together.

It is also a creative process. When I am close to done, I read the piece aloud, to hear and feel the meter, and try to make the meter provide due emphasis.

Then I read the first words of each paragraph to see if they sound something akin to a free verse poem, rudimentary to be sure. “Help! Now more than ever/ after composing/ let’s go on/ thank you for/ a column is/ credibility, of course/ and so does the magic….” When things are going great, the words dance together on the page. They don’t always.

Indeed, boulder-size obstacles constantly drop from the sky on the road ahead: fact checking, the reliability of sources, words counts, AP-style requirements and the necessity to take garden shears to your own delicately crafted paragraphs.

Regular columnists face another omnipresent problem, one that another Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Ellen Goodman lamented during a speech she delivered at Stanford (Stanford works almost as well as Harvard). There Goodman analogized column-writing to nymphomania, explaining that you’ve barely finished one piece before you’re on to the next.

That’s how it works. Columns never completely leave columnists alone. That, perhaps, is as it should be.

Opinion writers should feel the responsibility of offering thoughtful pieces worthy of discussion. That said, no matter how hard they try, within days of publication their words, along with the rest of the newspaper, end up as fishwrap.

Bill Newman lives in Northampton. He is an attorney and a radio show host. His column is published the first Saturday of the month. He can be reached at columnists@gazettenet.com.


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