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.

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