Column Writing Techniques For Essays

At pizza fests or cocktail parties, you love tossing off, eyes modestly lowered, “Oh, I’m a regular columnist for Extreme Quilting.” But if you’ve been invited or want to start a column and continue basking in such glory, realize what you’ve taken on. A quality column takes consistent effort, thought, and much rewriting. Experienced column writers know this. My experience writing several columns and the advice of several column writers I interviewed pinpoint seven of the most important and challenging considerations.


This guest post is by Noelle Sterne. Author, editor, dissertation and writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne has published over 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine,  Chicken Soup for the Soul,  Children’s Book Insider, Funds For Writers,  Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Pen & Prosper, Romance Writers Report, Textbook and Academic Authors Association, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. She has also published pieces in anthologies, has contributed several columns to writing publications, and has been a volunteer judge for Rate Your Story. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years assisted doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations (finally). Based on her practice, her handbook addressing dissertation writers’ overlooked but very important nonacademic difficulties was published in September 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield Education. The title: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles. In Noelle`s previous book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at her website: trustyourlifenow.com.


1. Produce on schedule.

The editor plans the layout to accommodate your column and counts on you to fill a certain space. If you have to beg occasionally for an extension, it may be granted, but don’t make this a habit. Resist frequent email or text excuses with unimpeachable justifications for not delivering on time or at all (“My labradoodle ate the hard disk”). You do not want to promise something you can’t deliver.

The strictness of outside deadlines can help—you stop thinking about which part of the garage to attack and instead push yourself to your desk. Columnist Gaie Sebold (“Errata”) advises, “Set daily reminders—at work, at home, post-its on the cat. I do all these (except maybe the cat), and I’ve still managed to miss deadlines.”

2. Stay interesting.

As in our other writing, we can become repetitive and predictable in topics and writing style. Pay attention to your penchants! We all have favorite words and almost automatic constructions. Time and distance between drafts help mightily (see below, #3). The more you stay interesting, the more readers you’ll have, the more copies and advertising the publication will sell, and the more editors will feel they made a great choice with your column.

In addition to style variations, to keep readers reading, the columnists I spoke with suggest several strategies. Some post rotating subjects or invite “guest” columns. Others comb the news on their topic to bounce off. For my Absolute Write column “The Starbucks Chronicles,” I found inspiration from several business articles about Starbucks’ ups, downs, and changes of emphasis. I applied the business principles to helping other writers. For example, opening more Starbucks’ equaled writing more; great, customized coffee equaled staying true to one’s vision.

Veteran columnist Dennis Hensley (Advanced Christian Writer, Sales Builder, Writers’ Journal) suggests we combat style-and-subject fatigue by alternating our interests: “I was a book and music columnist, a business columnist, then a motivation columnist, and with it all, a writing columnist.”

[Freelance Writing: 10 Ways to Satisfy Editors & Land More Assignments]

3. Allow time for each column to “cook.”

A column of 500 or 1,000 words may sound easy to dash off. But you want quality, don’t you? Treat each column like a self-contained gem; give it the same time and attention you’d lavish on your best short story. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!]

If you column doesn’t quite make the word count, you may be tempted to pad short text. Conversely, if you’re over the word count, you may cut unthinkingly to squeeze the column into the required space. How to decide what’s important? The answer, says Dennis Hensley is “take-away value. If readers are giving me their attention, I need to give them something of value in return.” So, to make sure you are incorporating value, use the time-honored advice that applies to any writing: let the column “sit” for a day or two between drafts. You’ll come back with a new editorial eye and fresher phrases.

4. Realize the column reveals your real self.

In a novel, or even nonfiction, you can “hide” somewhat. In a column, you and your views are hanging out there. Gaie Sebold’s column hilariously chronicled her daily life. But she admits, “I sometimes wish I’d been a teensy bit less revealing about my inadequacies as a writer and human being.”

The self-exposure, though, is often what keeps readers coming back and nodding and chuckling in recognition. They’re comforted that someone in print is just like them. Erma Bombeck was the queen of laugh-out-loud self-exposure. Many popular columns today, especially on parenting and its glories and terrors, follow her model. So, another truism: the more we courageously delve into and share our inner selves and outer gaffes, the more we touch the hearts of others.

5. Choose your publications.

A column is, after all, a great credit. But use judgment about where you place your column. Sometimes a periodical “falls apart or becomes sullied for some reason,” notes Hope Clark (“Editor’s Piece of Mind”). The editor may be about to retire, and you have no guarantees that the next editor will embrace a similar editorial vision or policy or will even want you to continue your column. Sometimes the entire publication is shrinking (unfortunately the case with many today), and, after just a few entries, your column could be phased out. Carefully select your publication(s). You’ll be glad you did.

6. Guard and apportion your time.

Like any other piece of writing, your column deserves time (see #3 again). Allow the time you really want to give it. But know too that your other writing time decreases. Prolific novelist Aaron Lazar (“Seedlings”) warns that the column, especially as it gets known, can seriously cut into “your ‘pure’ writing time.”

But consider too the benefits. In addition to the column credit, any writing helps your “major” writing. The column offers additional publicity for your other writing works. Your column bio can include your website and a display of your book cover(s). Column readers, curious about the rest of your writing life, will tend to explore your sites and books, leading to more sales for you. The column invites reader feedback, and some readers are radio and blog hosts seeking interesting guests. And the column helps you attract invitations for speaking and interviews.

[8 Practical Tips to Avoid Too Much Plot in Your Novel]

7. Be alert to unwanted “friends.”

Readers identify with us through our columns, and of course we want them to (see #4). But they can take too much for granted and get too chummy. Paula Morrow (“Like a Child”) recalls that readers often ask her for free manuscript critiques. Christina Hamlett (“Effective Screenwriting”) gets emails from aspiring writers who “have read everything you have to say.” They’re sure “this suddenly qualifies them to be your new best friend.”

When you respond to such readers, be polite, respectful, and firm. You’re glad for their attention but want to maintain your professional boundaries. In your response, describe your editorial services, if you offer them, and refer readers to your site. Invite them to email or call to discuss their needs and your fees. Such replies will help you practice your professionalism and remind yourself of what you do and don’t.

* * * * * *

You may not be completely deterred by these seven cautions when you’re invited to write a column or write a pitch to land one. But recognize the cautions before you consent. With knowledge of the negatives, you’ll choose your venues more wisely, give your column the proper time and attention, and fulfill your promises. Then you’ll be proud of the column, reap its rewards, and at parties and barbecues, with delicious faux modesty, you’ll boast to everyone that you write a column.

Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:

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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.

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Literary journalistic essays are a popular form of creative nonfiction. Their purpose is to inform and enlighten. Publications such as The New Yorker , The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s publish this type of writing. It is writing about facts that are external to the writer’s own life. The writer uses literary devices, such as dialogue, setting, characterization, and plot structure to tell a true story about a person, place, event, experience, or to write about a big idea, like counterterrorism.  The writer can choose any topic, so long as it can be researched. Most universities offer courses on how to write a literary journalistic essay, and many creative nonfiction textbooks include the topic of writing literary journalistic essays. Most published writers of creative nonfiction are experts on writing this type of  genre. Therefore, if you are going to write creative nonfiction, you ought to know what is a literary journalistic essay and how to write it.

This article defines the term “literary journalistic essay” and briefly explains how to write one. It also provides some tips on writing a literary journalistic essay,  and it identifies several good books to help you learn more.

Definition of a Literary Journalistic Essay

What is a literary journalistic essay? It is the “literature of fact.” The writer can compose an essay on any topic, such as drug addiction, rape, unemployment, spirituality, or crime. Whatever the topic, the writer needs factual and true information to write about a person, place, event, or idea. These facts must be verifiable. In fact, every important fact must be verifiable.

Most often, the literary journalistic essay requires that the writer complete some research, often extensive research, in order to uncover the facts. Unlike the personal essay or memoir, which is based on the writer’s own life, a literary journalistic essay is based on another person’s life, or events, or experiences external to the writer’s own life.

Unlike the personal essay or memoir, which is written from the first-person “I” point of view, the literary journalistic essay is written from the third person “he/she” point of view.

The writer’s goal is to dramatize the story or events by using dramatic scenes. A scene includes a location/setting, passage of time, details and descriptions, action of by the people in the story.

The writer also uses other literary devices to craft an interesting story. Popular literary techniques include simile, metaphor, and imagery.

The intention of the writer is to inform the readers and to also enlighten them with new information.

But the writer must do more than enlighten; the writer must also entertain by recreating the scene. The writing accomplishes this by using the elements of fiction, such as the use of characterization, dialogue, narrative structure, and so on.

The New Yorker magazine and the Best American Essays, a book that is published each year, includes many good literary journalistic essays.

How to Write a Literary Journalistic Essay

Unlike the formal essay taught in univesity history courses or english courses, there is no single way to write a liteary journalisitic essay. However, the writer does need to follow certain guidelines. For instance, the subject must be well-researched. The essay must include a lead that grabs the readers attention and tells the reader what the essay is about. The content of the essay must include interesting and informative facts, information that enlightens the reader about the topic. The content of the essay must also support the writer’s point of vew. And in writing the essay, the writer must use the literary devices. To close, the writer makes a final point. He/she  leaves the reader with one final point about the subject.

Breifly, to write the literary journalistic essay, do the following:

  1. Select a topic.
  2. Conduct Research.
  3. Write a dramatic story.
  4. Include a lead, facts/content, and ending.

Choosing a Topic

You can write about anything. Popular topics include:

  • Adventure
  • Biography
  • Business
  • Crime story
  • Family saga
  • History
  • Popular culture
  • Science and technology
  • Sports
  • Travel

Choose a topic that allows you to write intimately and to dramatize the story.

Before writing, ask yourself the following:

  • What type of lead do I wish to use?
  • What is the story about?
  • What are the themes?
  • What major points do I wish to make?
  • What facts do I have? What facts do I still need?
  • Are my facts verifiable?
  • Who have I interviewed? Who must Istill  interview?
  • How do I want to organize the essay? By topic? Chronological order? Logical order?
  • What are my own views on the topic? How do I wish to incorporate my views into the essay?

Research Your Topic

A literary journalist is based on fact. Therefore you will need to collect the facts for your story. The best approach is to use personal reportage. Here is how:

  1. Observe the person, event, or experience. Afterwards, make notes.
  2. Interview subject matter experts. Make notes as you ask questions, or use a tape recorder.
  3. Immerse yourself in the story. In other words, live the experience. For instance, writer George Plimpton lived as a football player for a while to write Paper Lion.
  4. Use the library. Read relevant books, magazine articles, and newspaper clippings, and take notes as you read.
  5. Conduct a search of your topic using Google. Start by conducting a search on the Web to see what has been written on the subject.
  6. Complete primary research. A primary source is a record created as part of, or during an event, crisis, or time period. For instance a letter, diary, personal journal, and government records and governmental report.

Observe Your Subject

A good way to learn about the person or topic is often by observation. Find out the following:

  1. What is your subject wearing?
  2. What is your subject saying?
  3. How is your subject behaving?

You can also immerse yourself in the story by becoming a participant.

Conducting an Interview

An interesting quotation from a subject matter expert or witness to the events can turn a dull story into one that captures the interest of the reader. If you are going to write good creative nonfiction, you must know how to interview. Here are a few tips:

  1. Make a list of questions to ask.
  2. Take a pen and paper, or tape record.
  3. Interview the subject matter experts.
  4. Ask the person you are interviewing to stop talking while you are attempting to take notes.
  5. After the interview, type out your notes.
  6. Save the toughest questions for last.
  7. Don’t quote a subject matter expert out of context.
  8. Don’t fabricate quotations.

Use Dramatic Scenes

To write the essay, incorporate the technique of “scene building” into the essay. To do this, show the reader, don’t tell them, what happened. Scene building isn’t a narrative summary, which includes generalizes time, collapses events, provides a brief descriptions and mentions people. Scene building isn’t an exposition, which explains and analyzes. Scene building isn’t a voice over, which interprets the experience. What, then, is scene building?

The writer recreates the event or experience in the mind of the reader. Scene building creates a dream in the mind of the reader. It is like a scene from a film. A scene takes place in a specific place at a particular time. It includes action and dialogue. It includes concrete and specific details, not abstract language and generalizations. It also includes details that appeal to the senses, such as the sense of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. It creates a sense of movement.

To summarize,  a scene includes the following elements:

  • Time. A scene takes place at a particular time.
  • Place. A scene takes place in a particular place. It provides context and creates a mood.
  • Details. A scene always includes important details. These details are concrete and specific, not general or abstract. A scene also includes scensory details, which appeal to the readers sensese, the sense of sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch.
  • Action. A scene includes action, such as a confrontation, crisis, or the action and reaction of people.
  • Dialogue.  Not always, but often a scene include important comments and conversations.
  • Details and Descriptions. Use sensory images. The details reveal the underlying story or the universal truth.

This doesn’t mean that the writer excludes expositions or a summary from a literary journalistic essay. These elements have a function. It is just that the writer keeps each of these elements separate.

Include a Lead, Content, and Ending

Whether you write about a person, place, event, idea, your story needs a lead that tells the readers the purpose of your essay and why they should read the essay. The lead also needs to persuade the reader to read the essay. So, you must write a hook. It can be a quotation, interesting fact, important point, question, anecdote.

In the body of your essay, you can write about the important facts. In addition, you can include personal opinion, thoughts, and feelings. You can also use literary devices, such as imagery, metaphor, and simile. The key point is to remember to inform and enlighten your readers.

In a short essay, you can organize your points in chronological or logical order. In a longer essay, you can organize your ideas by topic. In this case, you can use headings and subheadings.

In closing, you need to leave the reader with an important point. Otherwise, the reader will think: “So what? What was the point of writing the essay”

Your goal is not to preach or sermonize. Your goals are to entertain, inform and enlighten your reader.

For more information on how to write a lead and ending, read my earlier post. You can also learn how by reading William Zinsser’s book On Writing Well.

Tips on How to Write a Literary Journalistic Essay

There is no single method of writing a literary journalistic essay. That being said, a literary journalistic essay requires a lead, content that is based on factual information, and an ending. Here are a few tips on how to write the literary journalistic essay:

  1. Learn about your subject through personal reportage. Interview others, conduct research in the library and on the Web. Immerse yourself in the story.
  2. Outline your story before writing it. What is your lead? What important points do you wish to make? What facts do you have? How do you intend to end your essay?
  3. Include a lead and ending. The lead tells the reader what your essay  is about; The ending leaves your reader with a final message. What final point do you want to make?
  4. Use your distinctive voice. You reveal your voice by your choice of diction, choice of sentence patterns, choice literary devices, such as alliteration, imagery, metaphor, simile, and so forth.
  5. Write a true story about a person, place, event,or  idea. Make sure that the story is interesting and informative. If it isn’t, write about something else.
  6. Write dramatic scenes—action, dialogue, details, setting.
  7. Consider narrowing your topic to a brief period of time.
  8. Use literary devices. Popular devices include metaphor, simile, alliteration, and imagery.
  9. Tell your story using the third-person point of view. (he/she)
  10. Make use your writing reveals a universal truth or message. Otherwise your reader’s will say: “So what? What was the point?”
  11. Be sure your writing informs and enlightens. Before writing, use Google to check what has been written on the topic.
  12. Conduct extensive research on your topic. Often you will use only a partial amount of the information that you collect. Your goal is to become a subject matter expert, so that you can write as an expert.

Resources to Help You Write a Literary Journalistic Essay

There are some excellent books available to help you in the art and craft of writing a literary journalistic essay. Here are a few of the good books you should read:

  • Writing Creative Nonfiction by Philip Gerald. It provides good advice.
  • The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind. This is a must read.
  • The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty W. Moore. This book provides good how-to advice and an anthology.
  • The Fourth Genre: The Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction by Robert Root and Michael J. Steinberg.
  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This book tells you how to develop your style and how to compose any writing. Buy it and internalize the advice on writing.
  • Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paula
  • On Writing Well by William Zinsser. If you want to write creative nonfiction, you should buy and master the advice in this classic text.
  • The Best American Essays Series. It is published each year.

If you have any questions, please post them to this blog or send me an email at davehood59@gmail.com .

Next, I will explain how to gather facts, so that you can write a literary journalistic essay.

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