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THE JOY OF WRITING

It would probably be of little interest to a great number of people that this is the 2,500th newspaper column I've written since I started in 1979. It interests me, though, and since I'm in charge, that's what I'm going to write about whether you like it or not. As one of the Vanderbilts said years ago, "The public be damned."

Although the word "work" often carries with it an opprobrious connotation, my work is writing and there is nothing onerous about it. I am never happier than when I am doing it.

My column is published by 144 newspapers across the country. George Will, one of the more popular columnists, has more than 400 newspapers, and Dave Barry, a relative newcomer, has more than 500. But it's comforting for me to think that numbers don't always reflect excellence. To support this theory, I refer to the fact that it's hard to find a newspaper that doesn't publish "Dear Abby" or "Ann Landers." These sisters, born Pauline Esther Friedman (Abigail) and Esther Pauline Friedman (Ann), are an incredible success story, but the letters they suggest have been sent to them sound so made up that I can't read them.

My column is usually about 700 words long. Seven hundred times 2,500 comes to 1,750,000 words. The average novel is 125,000 words. If the column is any good, it usually takes me less than two hours to write. If it isn't any good, it can take me all day.

I wish it were possible to do away with facts because getting them right is what takes time. From a few bitter experiences, I've learned that if I write down my own name, it's wise to ask Susie to look it up to make sure I spelled it right. Dozens of times I've written something I was so certain of that I didn't bother to check it and it turned out to be wrong.

An agreement with a syndicate to come up with two columns a week is the best thing that can happen to a writer. The obligation to write moves me to do it on days that, without the obligation, I would write nothing. A writer needs to be behind on his rent or have some other pressure on him to produce.

A few things about writing irritate me. Inevitably, if you're writing a column, you're going to refer to the President of the United States occasionally. Many newspapers follow the Associated Press stylebook recommendation in using a small "p" for president except when it is used as a title before his name, as in "President Clinton." Thereafter, he becomes simply "the president." This seems wrong. It's right when you refer to "the president of the company" but wrong, in my view, when you mean "the President of the United States." They might just as well make it simply "the president of the united states."

My mention of this brings up another problem with writing a column -- repeating one's self. I am aware that I have complained about the matter of the capitalization of the word "president" before, but sometimes I forget that I've written something before. I'll write a whole column and Susie or Stacy, who read the column for errors, will point out that I already wrote that in 1995. We all repeat ourselves. We get an idea or an opinion that we like and we repeat it over and over to different people on different occasions. If you are a columnist whose ideas or opinions appear in print, you can't repeat yourself and expect to keep readers reading. I remember hearing that a preacher could use the same sermon over again after seven years. That should hold true for columnists, too.

It is a great privilege to write a column. I am an essayist and, by definition, as essay can be about anything. I feel absolutely free to write about President Clinton or foreign affairs one day, and how to make vanilla ice cream the next. Sometimes I get thinking how presumptuous it is of me to assume anyone cares what I think, but a writer can't spend a lot of time being modest or he'd never write anything. Thank you for reading.

Tribune Media Services

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