How to Become a Columnist: The Importance of Persistence and Practice

How to Become a Columnist: The Importance of Persistence and Practice

Do you dream of being a columnist? Have you already started writing columns for local publications or your favorite online magazine?

Column-writers know there is simply no truth to the persistent and romanticized image of the columnist: standing on a balcony in his bathrobe, a glass of whiskey in one hand, reminiscing and awaiting the godly spark to come to him. Once the spark is there, the column reveals itself and he writes it in one breath.

In 15 years writing columns, I’ve learned that it’s more about blood, sweat and tears than about making with the muse.

In fact, column writing is very much like a good marriage: it’s hard work.

Writing a good piece of all-in-one-shot text once isn’t that difficult. Writing a great column every week, year after year, is.

Great columnists have one thing in common: perseverance.

I want you to have that, too.

I want you to go on where other columnists stop. Those other columnists come to a point where they consider their column finished. They are done with it.

OK, the text could have been a little sharper here and there, but hey, the point was made, wasn’t it? This is what the reader is going to get.

But if a columnist is easily satisfied with his own work, laziness and sloth will soon take over.

And that’s good news for you! Be happy with such competitors. Where they would typically stop, you will press forward.

You will keep on scraping and polishing your column. Staring at it, re-reading it, striving to discover that tiny part of text that can still be improved. You do that because you have discipline and an eye for perfection.

A good columnist always puts 10 percent more effort into his work than his colleagues do.

So invest in your columns, with both time and effort. Do you really want to get published? If so, you’ll just have to give everything.

In the end, that extra effort will truly pay itself back. I guarantee it.

No one is a born columnist — but you can learn

Writing columns is far more a skill than an art. It is 10 percent talent but 90 percent learnable craft.

I always compare it to the profession of a cabinet maker. With sufficient devotion and a good mentor, everyone can produce a beautiful piece of furniture in the end.

Nobody is a born carpenter. Nobody is a born master of art or a virtuoso musician. And nobody is a born writer or columnist.

Don’t believe the myth of sudden success popping up out of the blue. What really pays off will take a while. Look at mother nature. It takes a lot more than one day for a sunflower to grow from a little seed to an impressive seven-foot high stalk.

Writing columns — and gaining competence and proficiency — is a matter of patience and perseverance. I’ve been writing professional columns since 1998 and I’m still learning more about it every day.

Many columnists literally typed text into their computers night after night for more than ten years before they finally found success.

Column-writing practice begets perseverance

How do those stellar columnists persevere? Easy: by loving what they do.

You must want it, be eager. You should want nothing more than to write columns. Search for subjects, scrape and shape your texts — do these things simply because your work can always be a little bit better. The only way to persist is to like what you’re doing.

Writing columns requires practice. Training. Experience. Ira Glass has talked about this, insisting that time (years, not just months) and experience are required to develop a body of work that makes you proud.

Reading reveals writing tactics that work

You’ll have to read a lot. Reading other columns is always a good thing. Learn from the columnists you admire, from the ones that write in a way you like. Pay attention to their use of language.

Try to find out what it is exactly that makes their columns so good. How did they structure the text? Where is the humor hidden? Is the magic in the details, or in the approach, or in something else?

You can learn a lot from such an analysis. You’ll get familiar with style forms and in due time, you’ll develop your own writing style, which the reader will then recognize.

Feeling motivated now? Get ready to practice your best column-writing.

Filed Under: Craft
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17 comments

  • Johnson Kee says:

    Hi Luuk,

    Great first piece on ilblogdellorco.info. I like how you’re bringing so much experience in such a niche area to the blog, thanks for taking the time to write the piece.

    I know it’s not really part of what you do, but I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself when provided the vivid image of the romanticized image of the columnist. I could really see it! Maybe my imagination is too active.

    Perseverance is such an important thing for anything worth doing in life, isn’t it? I was reading something online recently that talked about how to be successful. They said something really profound that hit me hard and has left a deep impression on me that I’ll pass on to my children: you’ve got to fall in love with boredom.

    Because that’s the truth, isn’t it? While you do fall in love with the romanticized version of your craft, the sad truth is that the majority of the time, you’re doing seemingly banal things that are boring.

    In reality, what’s happening of course is that you’re building up that simple skill, which, practiced for hundreds, maybe thousands of hours, is multiplied in magnitude 100-fold.

    Best of luck with “Writing Columns That Editors Can’t Resist”! Hope to see your next post here soon.

  • Luuk Koelman says:

    Hi Johnson,

    Yes, you’re absolutely right! In Dutch we have an expression for this (I guess you have a similar expression in English, too). It goes: “the journey is far more interesting and fulfilling than the destination”. My course is really all about that journey 🙂 Life is a journey in itself, no one really wants to get to that final destination: it’s only the journey that counts!

    You know, in practice, I’m also just revving up my computer at 9AM every single day, getting into the trot of the writing and the things I have to do. It may look like an easy, romantic life, and there are in fact those rare evenings where I’m really sitting on my balcony with a glass of red wine, reminiscing. However: after 5 minutes I get back inside and continue what I’ve been doing: working.

    It’s work, just like flying is work for a helicopter pilot, like singing is just work for Robbie Williams. It may be quite boring for them, too, sometimes, as it is just everyday life as well. When you’re so blessed that you’re able to make a living out of your hobby (writing, singing, helicopter flying), than your hobby has finally become your work, it’s no longer a hobby. In that case, you should just enjoy that fact and count your blessings! I do 🙂

    So you’re definitely right: you gotta fall in love with boredom because if the daily things become normal and frequent, they might be boring but they’re still YOUR life. If one then realizes that the journey is far more interesting then the destination, that person is just on the right track.

    Thanks for your great reply to my blog. And make sure to have a nice day 😀

    Rgds
    Luuk

  • Theodore Nwangene says:

    Hello Luuk,
    You’ve really nailed it on this one. Just like every other good thing in life, writing takes time, patience and persistence but if you stick to it for long, you’ll certainly get used to it and it will start being part of you.

    I agree with you that in order to be a great column writer, you must be able to move ahead when others has stopped, this will make set you well apart from them and make you to stand out.

    All you need is practice, practice and practice and that’s why it is said quoted that We are what we repeatedly do, excellence is therefore not an act but a habit.

    Thanks for sharing Luuk.

    • Luuk Koelman says:

      Hi Theodore,

      Thanks! Yes, I think good writing requires time, practice and effort. But especially time. Just like creativity requires time: https://youtu.be/VPbjSnZnWP0

      Rgds
      Luuk

  • Helen Brown says:

    Great article, Luuk!

    This has fired me up again, as I’ve been dreaming of becoming a columnist for a long time. It’s pretty much my Holy Grail, and I’ve got so many ideas I am having a hard time finding where to write them all down!! lol

    I know column writing is probably not easy to break into, and I definitely know it won’t be a Carrie Bradshaw situation (effortlessly typing her weekly column, while enjoying lunch out with her friends every day before returning to her Manhattan apartment) but I’m confident I’ll get there some day 🙂

    Thanks again for the awesome read!

  • Luuk Koelman says:

    Glad this fired you up. (-:

    Being confident is a great first step, Helen!

  • Sherry says:

    Thanks, Luuk!

    Perseverance passed the learning the art of boredom is definitely the key to a successful life as a writer or an editor. I also agree, you must be willing to scrape and shape more often than not to get to the piece of writing that sings the way you want it to. Far too often, I feel (as an editor) some writers are more interested in just getting it done without necessarily honing in on what they truly want to be saying.

    Great article! Many good reminders to enjoy the daily grind of mastering the art of writing.

    • Luuk Koelman says:

      Hi Sherry,

      I personally think rewriting is really one of the best parts of being a column writer. While writing, and especially while rewriting, you as a columnist will develop a keener eye for the essence of your story.

      The first version is merely a rough diamond. After writing the initial text, it comes down to the technique and your perseverance to really let it shine: the rewriting. If you do it well, your column will improve enormously!

      Rgds,
      Luuk

  • KIGOZI says:

    No doubt about your revelation.
    Practice and perseverance is a key to every career.Inspiration is normally brought by what you gain in an activity.Reading and writing go hand in hand and that is where I fall.In fact writing columns is what I wish to do all the time,too.Thank you,Luuk.

  • Luuk Koelman says:

    You’re welcome, KIGOZI. (-:

  • abdulwasii ilyas says:

    Hello
    I am an architect who loves writing deeply. I hear so much discouragements even fro some experts that writing does not pay. One had to say something like “quit all the reading and writing, and start doing.” He believes reading columns and articles or any reading is waste of valuable time. Whats your take pls.

    • Luuk Koelman says:

      Of course, you should always do the things you really love! But yes, it’s true (for about 99.9% of the writers): you’ll probably never get rich from professional writing. However, it sure is possible to make a living out of it. I admit: that won’t happen overnight. It’s a long road. But if you love writing so deeply, going down that road will be an awesome journey! So I think you should simply try and never give up.

      If you write about your own expertise and interests (like architecture), you’ll have your own target reading public and you might be able to grow your name. You need to develop your own niche and readers’ group. And, on top of that, you just need to practice, write and publish a lot, without being dependent on it for earnings. As said, it’s a long road, but to my opinion definitely one worth going.

      Rgds,

      Luuk

  • chikondi mtekama says:

    Dear sir,
    thanks a lot for that piece.
    am really inspired. How can one access your online courses. Or is there a possibility that courses content can be sent to a student email, am living in areas where internet is a problem sometime. looking forward to your response. thanks.
    futurecollumnist.

  • Luuk Koelman says:

    Hi Chikondi,

    You can access my online course only… online!

    I’m sorry, but that’s the format.

    Rgds,
    Luuk

  • Scovian says:

    Hi Luuk,
    I found the above piece very useful,great work right there i must admit.
    I wanna be a columnist but sometimes i get a bit lazy,but i trust i can make it when i really mean business.
    I only write small news pieces as a journalist.
    chao!

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