Two common mistakes columnists make

I’ve been writing my award-winning humor column, Tete-a-tete, for nearly six years, and I previously worked in a newsroom for a decade. As a result, I have been privy to the work of many lifestyle and humor columnists, as well as reader and editor reactions to these columns.

There are two significant mistakes that lifestyle/humor columnists commonly make, both of which affect the way their work is received as well as the longevity of their columnist careers.

Mistake #1: Writing a humor or lifestyles column is easy and doesn’t take much effort.

That would be like saying it’s easy to be a pop singer or voice cartoon characters. Though the end result is effortless and enjoyable – when done right, that is – that doesn’t mean the creative process was any less involved or that any less skill was required than for a “higher” art form such as opera or Shakespearean theater. It’s a different process and a different skill set, to be sure, but the craft still necessitates plenty of practice, hard work and trial and error.

Don’t be afraid – or worse, think it unnecessary – to invest in the craft of lifestyle/humor column writing. Readers and editors can tell if you’re just phoning it in. Keep a list of topics and jot down a few notes so you won’t be caught empty-handed, start your columns early so you can play with your phrasing and how you frame your topic, and if a column doesn’t work, don’t be ashamed to scrap it and start over.

Mistake #2: Readers will be interested in your column simply because you tell funny stories about your life.

When it comes to this type of writing especially, readers are most interested in common ground and universal truths. They want to find the humor in their own lives and be reassured that they aren’t alone in their experiences. They laugh over your funny story about trying on swimsuits or shopping for a car because they see themselves in your story. They laugh because they can relate.

Because of this reality, I always work from the general to the specific with my topics – i.e., this is the funny story from my own experience that I want to tell, and this is the common ground within that story that will make it relatable to others.

To successfully connect with readers, a column should also portray that common ground in a fresh light, offering a different perspective on this shared experience. Ideally, after people have read your column, they should feel more hopeful, more positive about their own lives. They should feel better about those shared experiences that initially seemed sad or frustrating or embarrassing because you showed them the humor in those experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t have seen.

Does this sound like a lot of work and high expectations for a piece of writing that will be read in three to five minutes and is intended to make people laugh?

It is.

But when you invest in your writing, you are investing in the lives of your readers.  And that is worth the time and effort.

What mistakes have you seen lifestyle/humor columnists make? What do you find makes this type of writing most engaging?

– Teresa Santoski

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