Writing a good weblog can be, at times, much like writing a column for a newspaper. I’ve got an old article on writing a column which I’d like to put up in a public place. It’s by Keith Waterhouse – an old Fleet Street columnist. He gives 25 points – not all of which, of course, are appropriate for the weblogger. Pick and choose.
1) It’s not so much what you say as the way that you say it. Your column must have a distinctive voice, to the extent that if your byline were accidentally dropped, your readers would still know who was writing. If your style isn’t instantly recognisable, what you have there is not a column but a signed article.
2) Every columnist needs a good half dozen hobby horses. But do not ride them to death. Once you have sounded off again about, say, Euro Bureaucracy, leave the subject alone for at least six months (unless you happen to be Christopher Booker). “I make no apologies for returning to…” is not an apology but an excuse.
3) Feeling passionate about a subject does not necessarily make it interesting reading. Veal is a good example: outside the news pages, no one has ever written an interesting word about veal.
4) The fact that your column contains no facts does not mean that you need not have checked them like any other journalist. In other words, you must be sure of your case. You are allowed to generalise – “Our children are the worst educated in Europe” only if your wild generalisations, when tamed, can be substantiated.
5) The more cuttings you accumulate, the more you will be tempted to offload them on your readers, like the celebrated Scottish leader writer who, returning late from a liquid lunch with a deadline to meet, clipoed the main leader from the Times, scrawled “What does the Times mean by this?” above it and sent it down to the printer. Packing the column with other people’s quotes is the columnar equivalent of watering the milk. Assimilate the material and then discard it.
6) Avoid kneejerk reactions. You don’t necessarily have to produce a paragraph every time Fergie does something stupid or a politician’s wife announces that she’s standing by him. If the readers can predict what you’re going to say, there’s little point in saying it – and even less in their reading it.
7) Let the bandwagon roll by. Even if every columnist in the land is commenting on the mother unjustly sent to prison or the teacher who handcuffed the child to a radiator, you don’t have to jump aboard unless you have something to say that the others haven’t already said.
8) On the other hand, although it’s not always necessary to write about the main news event of the day, there are times when the occasion demands it. Given a Hillsborough disaster, for example, there is no point in writing about anything else since nobody will be talking about anything else.
9) Let the leader writer write the leader.
10) Having something to write about is not the same as having something to say. If you really have no opinions to speak of beyond, say, liking Princess Di and not liking Prince Charles, you are in the wrong job and perhaps even in the wrong trade.
11) Don’t ever try to fake it. Nothing is so transparent as insincerity – pile on the adjectives though you may, false indignation has the ring of a counterfeit coin.
12) Your thoughts on mobile phones in railway carriages have already been thought. Likewise your musings on muzak in pubs.
13) It is 106 years since Jerome K Jerome related his difficulties in trying to open a tin of pineapple in Three Men In A Boat. Unless you can improve this classic account, keep your problems with packaging to yourself.
14) Notwithstanding Bernard Levin’s celebrated intervention with the Gas Board on behalf of his mother, a column should not be used to pursue a personal grudge against a public utility company, bank, supermarket, commuter line etc. unless it is going to ring bells with most of your readers.
15) Does anyone care about St George’s Day? No. So why keep on asking, year after year, why no one cares about St George’s Day.
16) Be wary about following up items clipped from local papers – unless you are writing for the local paper. References to the barmy burghers of Brent or the wacky wimmin of Wolverhapton do not usually travel well, unless they have a wider implication.
17) Although you may allow your readers a few restricted glimpses into your private life, no one really wants to hear about your personal ups and downs any more than they want to hear about the lady next door’s operation. So your daughter got into university. Tell your mother. If you tell the readers, you will only infuriate those whose daughters didn’t get into university.
18) If you must write about your holidays, do it on picture postcards to family and friends. This rule particularly applies should you be tempted to drool on about five course meals consumed in Normandy with all the wine you could drink and change out of 30 francs.
19) Do not expose your spouse to the glare of the public – especially not by the whimsical name of Him Indoors or She Who Must Be Obeyed. The same goes for the misadventures or quirky comments of your family and the daffy behaviour of your family’s dog.
20) There is no real need to mention that you have been on radio or television again. Your readers no longer regard it as any big deal.
21) If your second topic begins, “Talking of which”, “Which reminds me”, or “While on the subject”, you have picked the wrong second topic. However the item does start, it should metaphorically say, “And now for something completely different.”
22) Should you wear a hat, do not ever offer to eat it. Predictions are for astrologers. If you do make a prediction and you are wrong, as you are almost certain to be, don’t start your subsequent column with the words “All right, so I have egg on my face”. Forget it. Your readers already have.
23) Bitchy comments on the private lives or personal tastes of the famous have enlivened many a column, but there is a point at which they can tip over into mere mud slinging. A good question is: “Why am I saying this?” If the answer is “Because I want to be the new Jean Rook”, spike it.
24) Columnar feuds are amusing to other columnists and may even yield them copy, provided they don’t mind living vicariously. The readers, or what Craig Brown describes as “that diminishing minority of people who do not write newspaper columns” find them bemusing.
25) Make up your own catchphrases. “I think we should be told,” being six words, is the copyright of Sir John Junor.