Rules for writing and my secret longing for Tina Fey

Periodically I happen upon an bit of reading that perfectly relates to my mood of the moment – cranky and insomniac due to some bits of work I have to complete, and also because it’s coming up to winter (ugh) and coming up also to the so-called ‘festive season’ – and that bit of reading is Tina Fey’s Bossypants. It is charming my bossypants offa me.

Tina writes a book just as brilliantly and amusingly as she writes for 30 Rock and before that for SNL.  I believe I am in love with her. Brilliant and witty minds are remarkably sexy and hence I’d like to have a child with her and be involved in all the procedures that would produce that child.

Tina writes a book in just the manner I wish I could write a book – thoughtful, witty, mordant, sometimes smutty (but not dirty, there’s a difference) — and mainly really intelligent

She writes a book that captures what I always wanted to achieve with my columns. Sometimes I came close to succeeding.

There was a time, as I have mentioned before, in which I wrote a newspaper column. I cherished my column and at times possibly loved it more than my previous two wives, though not my dogs (either one of them.)

My column wasn’t entirely dissimilar to my blogs in format and topics of discussion. It was predominantly whimsical – sometimes satirical, sometimes ironic (both concepts not readily embraced by all) – and often irreverent as hell. I was younger then and somehow felt (as many young people do) that I had the right to pee on the sacred cows of others.

But, after a time I matured (it ran for over 20 years) and became more respectful and arguably a better columnist. I actually wrote two columns. One here on Vancouver Island, and another in Great Yarmouth, England for a while.

To write a column is to become something of a public figure, a reality that holds potential to make the ego soar and to also get (amazingly enough, since I was a dorky writer not a rock star) overt sexual offers from some female readers. Whether or not I responded happily to any of those offers will not be stated here.

Something else that happened was that I developed (almost as a surprise) a fairly significant following among young readers, and on a few occasions was invited to speak to high school journalism classes. This wasn’t a problem for me, since I am a former teacher and I am not afraid of public speaking.

I once made a presentation for a local high school class. At this moment your eyes can glaze over and you can move to another blog, or you can read the comments I made a number of years ago on: How To Be a Columnist.

Disregard any advice telling you how to be a columnist. Columns, like your underwear drawer, are very personal things and reflect aspects of your individuality. You can’t be taught how to write a column.

  1. What is my process? You are probably asking yourselves, or not. It is:

a)    think of a topic

b)    write about it

c)    conclude it

Thinking of that old topic is the hard part. If you don’t have one in mind within a quarter of an hour, go for a walk, take tango lessons, or help out your parents for a change, for God’s sake.

If you do have a topic, but you are really struggling with it because it’s not going anywhere – drop it and think of another one. Some columns are not meant to be.

As for me, I just sit down and write and I do not rewrite. I may reread it a day or so later, before I’ve submitted it and may make some revisions. (this was in the days of hard copy before writers were electronically connected) I rarely have a conclusion in mind when I start. The columnist is drawing on inner resources and eventually, if things are working right, the column will virtually write itself. If it isn’t writing itself you may have chosen the wrong topic, you aren’t feeling well or you’ve been up late for too many nights.

  1. Don’t try to write like columnists you admire. It’s derivative and it will never appear natural. I love Mike Royko, for example, and I wish I could write like he does. On the other hand, he writes like he does, so why shouldn’t I want to write like I do?
  2. Easy writing can be vile hard reading. It’s true. Writing is a chore and the more you put into it the better time your readers will have.
  3. Master that old language. It is ‘the’ tool. Gain some experience and become an adept observer of the ebb and flow of everything. Make the reader say: “Hey, I didn’t know other people noticed those things.”
  4. Some columns will really suck. Hard to explain but even the best write badly or boringly at times. Surprisingly, sometimes a column you personally detest will be adored by readers. I don’t know why. Others, in which you labored to produce a gem, will pass by your readers virtually unnoticed. Don’t worry, you get paid for the duds, too.
  5. Humor is a weapon. You can catch more flies with honey, etc. Don’t come across preachy, even if you feel like it.
  6. Don’t label yourself. Don’t give away your political or religious sentiments readily. If you choose to take a doctrinaire point of view fine, but remember as you lambaste your enemies you’re going to piss a lot of people off and that can cost you readership. Yet, don’t wimp out, either. If you feel strongly about an issue then vent some spleen – once in a while. This can be effective if it comes as a surprise; as a departure from your regular style.

At the end of it all, the virtue of writing a column is that you have the freedom to mouth off without being interrupted. It’s a great ego-trip and that is why columns are so jealously guarded by those who have them.



6 responses to “Rules for writing and my secret longing for Tina Fey

  1. That concluding paragraph also underlines why so many people have (unpaid) blogs!

  2. Number 3 is the first piece of advice I give people who want to know how to write. My phrasing is different (“Finish what you start”), but the idea is the same. If you get hung up on the editing, or the perfecting it, or the second guessing of it, you will never finish it. If you never finish it, it doesn’t count as a finished, written work. Seems simple, but oh, so not.

    And for what it’s worth, don’t we all long to be Tina Fey on some level? *sigh*

    • My wanting to be Tina only gets challenging when I choose to dress up. I actually like your advice better than mine. If I’m ever called upon to speak to a HS class I may steal it.

  3. All good advice!


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