I simply love columnists. The good ones produce something memorable every few days. That’s hard work. If you’re going to master the craft, you have to develop your very own way of writing a column. Bloggers face the same challenge.
David Brooks is one of my favorite columnists. Every few days I catch his column in the New York Times. Far more often than not I read it and ponder what he’s said and marvel (as a writer) at his mastery of the craft. I’ve enjoyed his books, most recently The Road to Character, but I love the columns.
So I was thrilled when I found an interview with Brooks in the Yale Politic. That’s where I found the following bit of wisdom and distilled experience. It’s longer than most of the Advice from the Masters posts, but I think it’s important to get the overview of Brooks’ writing process. Read carefully. You’ll find lots of ideas in the next two paragraphs.
“I am always collecting strings on about seven or eight columns. I’ve got piles of paper for gun control, immigration – whatever the issue of the day is – and then some intellectual things or cultural things. I’m collecting that string and I have a column due every three and a half days. I always have a churning need for columns so I’m collecting strings and following the news; I know people are only going to read what’s at the top of the news primarily. Based on what happens on the day before it’s due or the day it’s due, I’ll decide “Okay, I’m gonna do this one.” I have all this paper, documentation, notes I’ve taken from interviews, and I think geographically.
I lay it out on the floor of my office in piles of paper. Every pile is a paragraph. I pick up a pile. Write that paragraph. Throw that pile of paper in the garbage. And then repeat for all the piles. By the time I start writing, the column is already 80 percent done. It’s the organizing of the piles that’s the key process. The only thing is, judges have a saying: “that opinion won’t write itself.” They think they know what they’re going to say, but when they sit down to start, it won’t flow. That happens frequently. I don’t try to fix the column if it’s not flowing. Usually, I’ll just start from scratch.”
Want more? Check out the complete list of Advice from the Masters posts
If you want even more writing advice from writers, check out Jon Winokur’s blog, “AdvicetoWriters.”