Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

On Writing a Column

A century ago, when the Archbishop of Canterbury began writing regularly for England's leading newspaper, a wag commented that his eminence, once content to be a pillar of the Church, had now become a column in the London Times.

Well, dear Visual Thesaurus devotees, I've been a virtual column in these eminent e-pages for nearly five years and, like canny shoppers who buy their presents months before Christmas, I'm writing a column about writing this column well before my brain-child's fifth birthday, thus getting a jump on the nationwide celebrations — ticker-tape parade on Broadway, state dinner at the White House, etc., etc.

First, I greatly enjoy writing the column. Ben Zimmer is a superb editor who lets me take up any topic I wish, quietly corrects idiotic errors, and mildly suggests perceptive improvements. Thank you, Ben. Thanks too to you commenting readers who encourage my efforts with your often kind and always stimulating responses. Writing the column gives my writing life an enjoyable rhythm: finish one column, send it in, see it in print; for a week or two nary a columnistic thought enters my mind, then one day the proverbial light bulb clicks on, and soon from hen scratchings on scrap paper a new column begins to sprout.

This Visual Thesaurus column is not my first. In the mid-60s at Yale I wrote a weekly column for the college's Daily News that I christened In A Mellotone after Duke Ellington's song; in it I panned the Beatles' "one dimensional sound" and praised Martha and the Vandellas' "superb synthesis of music and meaning." I've always enjoyed reading newspaper columns and tried to learn from the best: James Reston's weighty punditry and Russell Baker's sly humor in the New York Times of yesterday, Maureen Dowd's sarcastic screeds and Paul Krugman's penetrating analyses in the Times of today.

What makes a good column? Like any piece of writing, a column needs a beginning, middle, and end — here starts the middle of this one. Beginning with a joke, as I did above, an intriguing question, or an outlandish statement may hook readers, but once you've got 'em hooked, you need to give 'em ideas worth listening to, or they'll quickly yawn and turn the page. In each of my columns I try to isolate and hammer home one core notion — use short words, balance your phrases, paint people and places with clear word pictures — that readers can quickly grasp and apply to their own writing.

I also try to link each column's core idea to bigger, umbrella concepts. My biggest umbrella is:


Looking back, I see this idea again and again in my columns on alliteration and assonance, proverbs and phrasing, rhythm and rhyme. Why? Because I believe that writing captures life by being an information medium and by the skillful use of its subtle sonic strategies. "Elastic infant male," I've pointed out more than once, doesn't capture life; "bouncing baby boy" does.

Since a column on writing is words about words, I often trust in quotations to illustrate my ideas. Why write a long paragraph on word painting when a short passage from a masterpiece will make my point more vividly? Read these lines that I quoted from The Iliad a year ago describing an eagle flying high above the battlefield:

...in its claws

a huge snake, red as blood, live and jerking,

full of fight. The snake doubled on itself and struck the captor's chest and throat. At this the eagle in its agony let go and veered away screaming downwind. The snake fell in the mass of troops, and Trojans shuddered to see the rippling thing lie in their midst.

— and see if you don't shudder as the Trojans did.

Any columnist who picks his or her own subject matter, point of view, and tone of voice will, over time, reveal a personality that readers will either like or dislike. Every columnist wants to be liked — I know I do — but even more do we want our readers to know us; we hope to build a conversational, human-to-human relationship with readers in which intelligent disagreement is more valuable than a ho-hum "I guess you're right."

As a columnist, I hope to be a pleasant companion, both interesting and interested, like someone you might sit beside on a train with whom a friendly hello leads to an engaging and stimulating chat. Read me for a few months and you'll learn that I live in New York, that I write songs and play the guitar, that I don't like reading e-books, that I love Balzac, Theodore Dreiser, P. G. Wodehouse and all prose that's melodic, rhythmic, and well-phrased; that I love life-capturing realism, whether that's a woman at a well two thousand years ago:

17. And the servant ran to meet her, and said, Let me, I pray thee, drink a little water of thy pitcher.

18. And she said, Drink, my lord, and she hasted, and let down her pitcher upon her hand, and gave him drink.

19. And when she had done giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for thy camels also, until they have done drinking.

20. And she hasted, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again into the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels.

                        Genesis Chapter 24 (King James)

— or the life of a prisoner in a 20th century prison camp in Siberia:

One thing you had to know was never to put your feet near the stove with your boots on. If they were regular boots, the leather cracked. And if they were felt, they got damp and steamed, and your feet didn't get any warmer. And if you put them right up to the fire, they got burned. Then you had to go along till spring with a hole in them.
— Alexander Solzhenitsyn,  Ivan Denisovich

You'll also learn that I don't like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry James. Why? Because, unlike my beloved realists, these writers obscure the world they paint by making me notice their ever-so-fancy words — here, for example, a baffling bit of Fitzgerald's Tender is the Night:

Neither individually nor as a crowd could they be said to dominate the environment, as one comes to dominate a work of art he may possess, no matter how esoteric, no one knew what this room meant because it was evolving into something else..: to exist in it was as difficult as walking on a highly polished stairway, and no one could succeed at all save with the aforementioned qualities of a hand moving among broken glass — which qualities limited and defined the majority of those present.

If you don't agree with me, well, we're just chatting, after all, and if you think I'm truly nuts, leave a scathing comment. I love getting comments and I often think, when finishing a column, "Oh, boy, this one is going to get twenty comments at least." I've found, however, that there's no predicting the content or the number of comments, so I just do my best and let the comments fall where they may.

Last word (see, this is my ending now): one mustn't let a column go on too long. "Leave 'em wanting more," is as true for columnists as it is for comedians. I edit and edit to trim my columns, but on first online reading I always see spots where I could have happily trimmed more. So that's why I'll end here. Thanks for listening, and see you in July!

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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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Comments from our users:

Monday June 9th 2014, 6:51 PM
Comment by: Roberta M. (Redmond, WA)
I agree with almost everything here, but I do think the Liverpool sound became at least as multi-dimensional as Motown.
Tuesday June 10th 2014, 9:02 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland)
And here's a comment for you Michael. I'm your greatest fan. Your columns are erudite and articulate with some very interesting ideas. Well done.

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