So, you want to be a popular columnist

Here is my big confession: there really is a ‘trick’ to getting stuff you write to be liked/emailed/circulated.

In my case, I have a whole bag of tricks which I am glad to share with all you columnist wannabes.

(Disclaimer: Following this guide is not a guarantee that you too, like me, will be dubbed Malaysia’s liberal equivalent to Anne Coulter.)

1. Write to be read.
Oh, thanks, Captain Obvious, I can hear you say. But some people who have spent decades in journalism have yet to understand those four words.

It is not about showing off your expertise in quantum mechanics or abusing the thesaurus. Writing to be read means simply to write in a way that makes what you have to say accessible. Don’t make your readers struggle to understand your points.

2. The title does matter
A snappy headline sometimes makes all the difference between your column being the very first thing the reader latches onto or being passed over for that fascinating expose about KFC.

I know my columns will have to compete with all the other articles on the site so I make an effort to keep my headlines short and punchy. Give them a reason to click on your link.

3. Know your audience
A paper in academic journal and a column in a national news site are going to need different approaches. Your fellow academicians may understand what you mean by autarky and mercantilism but the average layperson won’t.

Learn when not to use jargon or at least make the effort to explain terms not commonly used by the man on the street.

In the case of TMI, I know most TMI readers check out the site at work or while commuting. So I keep my articles short so they can quickly skim through the article and determine if it is worth reading. If I bore them before they even get past the first paragraph, they will find something else to do. Like forward cat pictures to colleagues.

4. Write with conviction

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”

― John C. Maxwell

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

― Maya Angelou

Whatever stand you make in your column, stand by it. Make people believe you are invested in what you write. To get people to think, it is far easier to win them over by first getting them to feel.

You can win over more people with your heart than you can with your mind. Sincerity and authenticity go further on paper than authoritativeness and being pedantic. (Note: I know it’s not fair but that’s how the world works, bub)

It is not easy to acquire smarts but you can, with imagination, learn empathy. Intelligence or academic expertise takes years to improve, but empathy takes only imagination and a willingness to explore what it means to walk in another person’s shoes.

5. Be gracious
Make the effort to thank people for sharing your links. If you are active on social media, engage your audience, be open, engaging and understand that your column is a starting point to conversation. Let it be a beginning to dialogue, an invitation to debate.

Your column is not a tablet on Mount Sinai from which you proclaim, “I am right, you are wrong, listen to me!”

Sometimes all it takes for your column to ‘ignite’ is for one person of influence to link to it. But it is far more gratifying if you connect with so many people that they, in turn, help connect you to others.

You do not win the war just by creating shareable content. Understand that your readers, not your talent, make you.

6. And etc.
Some people (unlike me) write so well that people can’t help but want to share whatever they write. Everyone else (like me) need to put in the extra effort.

I know I am not the best writer. I am not very talented. I do not have much of a vocabulary. I have neither intellectual rigour, nor artful wordplay. But I do the very best I can with the very little I have. And that, my friends, is something anyone can do.

May the pen and the world be kind.

Because someone gave me a chance

Nobody “makes it on their own”. That is a lie.

When a business succeeds, it owes the success to its backers as well as its customers.

Writers are no different.

If my then-editor at Malaysiakini didn’t let me write the impassioned rant that became “Why is your Allah not my Allah?” I wouldn’t have gotten the exposure I did. That exposure opened a lot of doors, one of which led to my current workplace.

I wouldn’t even be at my current workplace if my current boss hadn’t decided, on the basis of a few impassioned op-eds and my tech background, to ask me to meet up for a chat.

There’s a story I haven’t told many people: When my current boss rang me up, I was probably at the lowest point of my career. I was broke. Jobless. And pretty much convinced I was unemployable and washed up. (Those jobless weeks pretty much ruined my credit but that’s another story altogether)

I’d made four back-to-back attempts at a career change and they were disastrous. Two PR gigs, subediting alternative news and heading a doomed local news website. I think I did my best but ultimately, my best just wasn’t good enough.

After finding out I wouldn’t be confirmed at the last gig (despite being there for nearly 11 months), I went to KLCC and blubbered into a cup of New Zealand’s Natural ice cream.

The next few weeks, I just sat around in my pyjamas writing ghost stories trying to jump start a freelancing career…which wasn’t working out all too well. I had precious few leads and very little confidence left.

And then a phone call changed everything.

So I’m grateful. Grateful for great bosses and colleagues. Grateful for an arrangement that makes me happy. When things were at their worst, when I thought there was no hope, things turned around.

Thinking back, at every point of my career, someone had to take a chance on me.

I’m just glad someone did.

A pow-wow with my inner writing bitch

Cover of "Bitch"I’ve now encountered my Inner Editor Bitch who also has a split personality dubbed the Inner Critic Bitch.

Friend: “Erna, if I didn’t know you from before, I wouldn’t like you now.”

I can be mean. Really, really mean. Like when I chewed out this one aspiring writer who had the nerve to send me a message on LinkedIn asking for advice, and I told her that if she used such awful text speak in a message to a total stranger, she’d never go far in the writing world.

Part of me thinks: “I’m doing her a favour. People aren’t going to be so nice and she needs that dressing down. She needs that brutal honestly.”

The other part of me thinks: “You didn’t have to be so cutting about it. You didn’t have to sound so nasty.”

But I’ve been lucky in my career. I’ve had people put it to me nicely and diplomatically when my stuff doesn’t pass muster.

“It’s kind of obvious no one really edited your piece.”

“I don’t think you’re suited to the position we’re offering.”

Or the slightly rude yet inadvertently kind non-replies to my writing/job queries.

I realise I’m a whole lot harder on myself than anyone has ever been with me. I’m a whole lot more brutal on myself as well as other people than I’ve actually experienced in my writing/editing career. Less forgiving. More nitpicky. (But if you can’t differentiate it’s and its…WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOU %#^#&@ j/k)

I think I could stand to be a lot more kinder. I don’t think I’ll always succeed but I resolve to, at the very least, try.

So here’s me telling the Universe that I am trying to be kinder. If I still snap at you ever so often, please understand I’m still working on it. Really.

 

 

 

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Getting on the Tumblr choo-choo train

I finally dusted off the Tumblr account I got eons back – being an early adopter meant I got to bag erna.tumblr.com. But I’d never bothered posting on it till now.

Waiting for Tumblr to ‘grow up’ was worth it. I now have comments thanks to Disqus and I really dig the theme customisation options on the theme I’m using.

Though the Web interface is super-fun, I’m likely mostly going to login to my dashboard to giggle at the fandom posts on the Mass Effect and Legend of Korra

What does suck though is the dearth of decent Tumblr desktop clients. I Googled them to death and couldn’t find anything as handy as Windows Live Writer (which I’m using right now). What I’m doing right now is blogging on my main blog and using a plugin to auto-post what I write her on Tumblr. This way I’m reaching out to people who are Tumblr junkies and not so keen on vanilla blogs like mine. Plus reblogs are the bomb, y’all.

I haven’t been blogging much lately. Spending too much time on Twitter/Facebook does that to you. Trying to get back into the daily blogging habit as I partly owe my current writing career to my blog. Blogging daily is a great way to keep the writing juices flowing and my blog is the equivalent of my real “home” on the Internet. Twitter and Facebook are really just hangout spots.

Here’s to a return to active blogging!

So much for less writing…

The thing about being in the Malaysian media…it rarely gets boring.

Found time to write two “Side Views” pieces for TMI. “Side Views” is for viewpoints and opinion pieces outside TMI’s “Opinion” pages. The latter is usually reserved for TMI’s regular columnists.

Despite being one of the aforementioned regular columnists, there were some things that made more sense expressing on TMI than just, say, on the blog.

One was the embarrassing gaffe by the Ministry of Defence. What riled me was that some tried to defend the mistake. You do not “defend” something as laughable as the page was.

When you can’t defend the Ministry of Defence

Then the surprising Anwar Sodomy II acquittal happened. Wasn’t planning on writing about it but my super said, “Why not?” I concurred.

901: A day for cautious optimism

In other news, am amazed people still read my opinionated blather. I try.

Writing – the basics

Due to my change in job circumstance (more on that next year), have been brushing up on my language skills. That includes reading a lot of house style guides including The Economist’s. Found this gem in the latter’s style guide introduction:

George Orwell’s six elementary rules (“Politics and the English Language”, 1946):

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print (see metaphors).
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do (see short words).3. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out (see unnecessary words)

    4. Never use the passive where you can use the active (see grammar and syntax).

    5.  Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent (see jargon)

    6.  Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous (see iconoclasm).

Still holds true now.

Even old dogs forget old tricks – Tool the First

Cover of "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Str...
Cover via Amazon

I find myself reaching for Roy Peter Clark’s “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer” now. The realisation that more people read my work has made me even more self-conscious. And my friends know just how much a nervous wreck I can be under scrutiny.

 

The first strategy or tool: “Begin sentences with subjects and verbs” seems like common sense.

I should know that by now, shouldn’t I? Looking at my writing, I think I have forgotten more than I actually know right now.

Writing is a discipline. You spend your life, if you care enough about it, mastering it and always working to be better than you were yesterday.

You take your work, and oftentimes yourself, apart. You question – does that comma really need to be there? – you verify, you obsess over ridiculous minutiae.

Clark advises, “The next time you struggle with a sentence, rewrite it by placing subject and verb at the beginning.”

For dramatic effect, he suggests, to occasionally place subject and verb at the end of a sentence.

So I try it to write a short paragraph about my father.

“He looms tall in my childhood memories. I still vaguely remember the days when I was small enough to wrap around a leg as he walked, gleefully holding on while he stomped around the room until finally he would pick me up and carry me. In my mind, he was a giant among men. To this day, I still believe that.”

I didn’t set out to put the subject and verb at the beginning of each sentence. Yes, I did consciously do so in the first sentence but after that it was all about fleshing out my childhood memories of my father. I find it funny how I placed subject and verb at the end of both my final two sentences. The two sentences are parallel in beat, in rhythm.

But too many writers, in a hurry to say what they want to say, write sentences but forget the subject. There was a very good reason our English teachers would laboriously make us find the subject, the clauses, the predicates in our sentences. You have to take apart sentences and then figure out how to put them back together, perhaps in better ways. Much like how children played with toy bricks, rearranging them in as many ways as they could manage. Miss a brick or put in the wrong piece and down your little toy castles would go.

Perhaps by blogging again I will remember just how the bricks of writing work so that my readers will see what I’m trying to build for them with my words. I will have failed if all they can see is not the meaning or message, only the words.

Tomorrow I’ll write about a writer who totally misses the point of putting words together.

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We’re journalists too

Bollwitts in the Wall Street Journal
Image by miss604 via Flickr

One of my best friends made a career change from tech journalism to the politics beat.

He’s never been happier. Yet each time he speaks of his ‘past life’ with derision and condescension, I get a little bit angry.

There is this misguided perception that if you don’t cover hard news, you’re not a journalist.

That if you don’t write about politics or the like, you’re not a real reporter.

I beg to differ. It’s not the subject that matters; it’s the job scope. No matter what you report on, a journalist is called on to report facts and be held to certain standards.

Unlike my friend, I loved tech journalism. What fascinated me was the pace of innovation, and how technology became obsolete in a blink of an eye.

I believed that technology exists to improve our quality of life and the Internet is testament to that. It has opened up the flow of information and provided a cheaper, more efficient mode of communication that connects people from all over the world.

Business journalism is usually considered boring – nothing but numbers and profit balance sheets. If you read the Wall Street Journal, the quality of its journalism warrants having to pay for its online news. There is a precision and attention to detail I wish more news journalists practised.

One important role business journos have is to keep businesses honest. Corporations know that their performance, their business practises and operations are being watched and analysed. Widespread coverage of the Enron scandal brought attention to the need for more transparency and public accountability in the corporate world.

“But what about writers for gossip rags? Are they journalists?” Such publications that peddle in hearsay and fabrications aren’t places for people to practise journalism as much as they’re made for populist entertainment.

My point here is: just because a reporter is covering a ‘softer’ beat such as tech, business or even, heck, lifestyle, it doesn’t mean he’s not putting in as much effort. That what they’re writing about matters less and that they don’t deserve to be called journalists.

Instead of looking down our noses at other journalists, we should be acknowledging the struggles all journalists face. Crap pay, members of the public who don’t realise nor appreciate the effort and hardship that goes into creating content and for some of us, the loom of arrests or lawsuits.

I am a writer who tries her hardest to be a journalist and sometimes, I wonder if I’m letting the title down. But one thing’s for sure – I refuse to deride others who are doing their darndest best to do the same.

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I want you to be happy

Perhaps my mind is just taking a break from all the ‘corporate’ writing, but I’m drawn more to putting music and lyrics together now.

One refrain keeps playing in my mind right now, and I’m glad I recorded it months back:

I want you to be happy
I want you to be free
I want you to love someone
We both know it can’t be me

It’s just my putting into words the complexities I’ve dealt with in some friendships. Too often, I slide into non-platonic relationships, when I really should have just stayed friends. Problem is once I’ve done the whole ‘more than friends’ thing, it’s hard to go back to the way things were before – when there were no messy hangups, misunderstandings, or emotional entanglements that just make things harder than they should be.

And sometimes I get so emotionally close to someone of the opposite sex, that other people get confused. The more I protest there’s nothing going on, the more they insist something is. You just can’t win, eh?

Have ran the lyrics and music by a friend; he says lyrically he likes that what comes through is ‘honest and true’. I was a little afraid that the results would come out sounding far too personal or revealing but I’ll leave that to the friend I’m writing the song for to decide. Now to move on to the next tune!