Love him or hate him, few can churn out controversial columns quite like David Bullard. So, from the proverbial horse’s mouth, here is what it takes to write a top column.
Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, is reportedly paid over R3 million a year by The Daily Telegraph in return for one weekly column. Jeremy Clarkson can’t be far behind at The Sunday Times, and there are a host of other names in both the United States and the United Kingdom who command high fees for their weekly pearls of wisdom: payment way in excess of the average newspaper hack. The reason is very simple…they draw readers into the publication every week and boost sales. They are the ‘rock stars’ of journalism.
Remuneration for columnists isn’t quite so high in South Africa, but there’s still no shortage of writers keen to foist their views onto the reading public every week. In fact, since the advent of the internet, practically anybody can become a ‘columnist’, particularly if they are prepared to write for free. We now have a glut of people called ‘opioninistas’, most of them dire. They are the cheap ‘Chinese’ imports of journalism, undercutting the real market, confusing the consumer and driving out quality.
Writing a column isn’t simply about knocking out 800 random words on a topic of your choice every week. That’s called a blog. Writing a column (and I’ve been doing it for 17 years) is about carefully crafting words in order for them to cause the maximum impact. I’m with Kingsley Amis on this one when he says: “If you can’t annoy somebody with what you write, I think there’s little point in writing.”
There are plenty of anodyne columnists kicking around and scratching a modest living, but does anybody talk about them? Of course not. So the first piece of advice is if you want to get noticed as a columnist and build a loyal readership, you need to stand out from the herd. Fortunately, that’s not too difficult when the herd is so anally politically correct and not particularly good at writing.
Now the downside with this strategy is that you are bound to attract hate mail, but if that sort of thing scares you then maybe you should ask the editor if you can be the fly-fishing correspondent. Hate mail tells you that your missiles have hit target. The good news is that you’ll also get mail from those who agree with you, but a mail bag which consists of nothing but adulation week after week can become very tedious.
The second piece of advice is to remember that most readers only have one shot at the letters page (although this has changed with the internet), while you are there every week. Never be afraid to use your column to bully and humiliate someone who has written a letter that is not entirely to your liking. First, your fans will love it, and second, it might put off other chancers who had planned to write and complain about your work. In extreme circumstances, I would track down and phone the complainants directly. They were always less bold on the phone than they had been on paper.
It really doesn’t matter what the topic of a column is, providing it grabs the reader’s attention. So an opening line such as ‘The ANC must rank as the largest organised crime syndicate in the country’ (sorry, already used) generally works. Who isn’t going to read what comes after? Then all you need are a couple of well-crafted phrases or witty wordplays to help the column stick in the mind of the reader. And if you can leave them laughing, seething with anger or nodding in agreement – so much the better.
The aim is to attract them back again next week for another dose. What you wrote last week is lining the hamster’s cage within five days. You are only as good as your next column, which is why most trained journalists simply can’t handle the stress of writing a weekly column.
Now we come to that hoary topic – freedom of expression. In the old days, an editor would stand by whatever he published, but that no longer applies. These days you only find out if what you have written is hate speech, sexist, ageist, misogynistic, homophobic, racist, speciesist, etc. etc. after you’ve been sacked.
Follow Bullard on Twitter @Lunchout2