How to Write a Better Column

Columnist Don Feder shared his "Three Rs" for better column writing during a session at Regent Unversity.

by Dr. Michael Smith

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va.— Reading, researching and re-reading.

Those are the 3 R's Don Feder, a veteran columnist, presented to would-be journalists, recently in a workshop on the "Value of Opinion Writing: Shaping Views Through Opinion Columns" at Regent University. Feder spoke Sept. 28 for a six-hour seminar. "Columnists write from a sense of indignation," Feder told a group of nearly 30 students and professors at the Robertson School of Government function. When provoked by cultural derbies, don't wait, Feder warned, adding, "He who equivocates is lost."

Feder was a Boston Herald editorial writer and syndicated columnist from June 1983 until June 2002, when he took a sabbatical. Feder has been published in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Human Events, Reason and Reader's Digest. His books include A Jewish Conservative Looks at Pagan America (1993) and Who's Afraid of the Religious Right (1996).

Feder recently appeared on CBN's 700 Club where host Pat Robertson urged Feder to speak to government students about journalism. Among Feder's suggestions:

  • Diction. Select the right word. This part of the process may be technique that is most difficult to promising writers.
  • Work. "Good columns are paid off in sweat equity," Feder said. "It takes a time investment."
  • Humor. Feder urged the writers to use gentle humor, adding, "Nothing makes a louder sound than a joke that falls flat."
  • Read. Read history, current affairs, economics and material that is opposed to the conservative view. In addition, the columnist said some of the best writing and thinking can be found in speeches and poetry. He cited the Sermon on the Mount, Shakespeare's funeral oratory by Mark Anthony in the play about Julius Caesar, Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address," Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech and Peggy Noonan's work for Ronald Reagan where the president said the ill-fated Challenger astronauts "touched the face of God."
  • Read some more. Read anthologies by columnists such as Chicago's Mike Royko who refused to write for a Rupert Murdoch newspaper for this reason: "No self-respecting fish would be wrapped in a Murdoch newspaper!" (Murdoch, the British media baron, is CEO of News Corp.).
  • Variety. Write whimsical prose. Write angry prose, but be ready to learn. "Don't be a Johnny One-Note," Feder said. "Don't always be angry or readers will think you are a crank and you tend to metamorphize into the Incredible Hulk."
  • Surprise. Surprise readers by providing something unexpected such as a magazine piece that Feder penned that discussed J.R.R. Tolkien of Lord of the Rings fame and his influence on C.S. Lewis, the greatest Christian apologist of the last century. "Tolkien was instrumental in Lewis returning to faith," Feder said. When columnists fail to surprise readers, their writing gets wooden, predictable. "Move readers by avoiding the steady stream of cliches," he said. "Keep it fresh." Too many columnists refer to Saddam Hussein as Hitler, abortion as the modern Holocaust and so on.
  • Personal. Among anyone's best prose are the personal narratives that describe the devastation of a drug addict, a homeless addict or the quiet pain of a mother whose son overdosed. To get these portraits, Feder told the audience to visit a meeting of Addicts Anonymous to gain the vital research, scan newspapers, create files, study Lexus-Nexus and search for authorities who can speak with credibility on topics.Finally, Feder said, a columnist must be a rapacious reader, a diligent researcher and a writer who thinks as a lawyer thinks. The writer must seek out evidence and try to sway the jury, his or her readers, but the best columns are written with enough time that the columnist can think about them. Feder urged the group to give the piece about 24 hours, enough time that the writer can consider and re-consider his words.

    "The British say, 'It's too cute by half.'" Feder said, cautioning the novices to avoid slick writing.

    He paused frequently, leaving the podium, and allowing the group to pose questions on how to break into print. He told the group that many columnists start for free and warned, "Never forget your audience!"

    As a columnist, Feder's work was carried in more than 40 newspapers. Among his ideas is to visit veterans' memorials.