Perth Diary Articles

16 Things I Learnt From Being A Columnist

18/365 by amizing at Flickr
18/365 by amizing at Flickr

I’ve been writing the Perth Diary column for four years now. Four years is a long time. So I thought I’d share what I have learnt while writing the dashed thing.

  1. When in doubt, especially if your column covers a beat that isn’t politics, sports or finance specific, write about your cat or dog. People seem to love your pet’s idiosyncrasies, primarily because one thing people love hearing about is how something makes trouble for someone else but not for them. You can only pull this off if you are willing to be sarcastic about yourself though, along the lines of “Yes, I know I am Muggins but I love the dashed bloody animal.” Why do you think lolcats are so popular? Pets are cute bundles of trouble that happen to other people.
  2. There will almost always be someone writing that column where everyone is given an odd nickname. You know the ones – where it’s meant to be a fly on the wall look into a housewife’s or career girl’s life. There will be a husband called “Man of the House”, or “Hubby Dearest”, or there will be said Career Girl’s friends referred to by their initials alone or by a nickname such as “Party Girl”, “Social Bunny”, “BFF”, “Bestie”, or even “The Bitch”. While the technique of employing nicknames is useful, one should only use it in a column when referring to absolute strangers or clear archetypes while making a logical point (and possibly not even then). This writing style seems to crop up in a column in every lifestyle section in every newspaper. Do not, whatever you do,  be the person writing this column. This style has had it’s day. Trust me on this. This is not work you can put into a portfolio later on as experience. Though as a further example, I would point out that were I to write such a thing, you would notice some nicknames along the lines of “Bilingual Service”, “Bloody Bastard” and “Parental Government Unit”. I promise never to write this kind of column.
  3. Writers Block by yazan tikanmazi on Flickr
    Writer's Block by yazan tikanmazi on Flickr

    You will eventually find out that you will run out of things to say. Or perhaps you have hit a dry spell and the beat you are covering has nothing happening at that point that you could write about. This is when you pull out the cats and dogs if you are in the lifestyle section or do a review of the financial quarter in the finance section or do a character profile in the politics/sports sections. It will happen more often than you think.

  4. No matter how organised you will be, you will probably miss a few deadlines (apologies to my editor Ranee) and you will never be able to stick to writing a few columns in advance so you can take a  break. Trust me, you will never keep track of when they are going to be published if your editor okays them. The writing in advance idea never works.
  5. 542 miles by Jasmic on Flickr.com
    542 miles by Jasmic on Flickr.com

    You will need to write your column while on holiday. Sorry. It will happen unless you can get someone you trust to do a decent job to take over for you. Which you won’t. So you will write on holiday. Lifestyle writers don’t have such a bad job of this – they just write about where they are going on holiday, however if this is an extended trip or they get time off but can’t travel, then they are stuck. Pull out the cats and dogs and the character profiles. Review the year gone by.

  6. No matter what the actual facts are, it will always seem like you are the only person at the newspaper who has the best grasp of media ethics. It will always seem like someone stole your idea or someone else went a bit too far or didn’t go far enough. Commonsense should tell you when to shut your mouth about this and when not to. If someone photographed a kid, then open your mouth. If someone stole your idea but not your words, shut it. If someone stole your words, then open up.  If you don’t have a good grasp of common sense, learn fast or get out of journalism. And always, always, find out what the media ethics are internationally and in your country(ies) and stick to them rigidly. They are in place for a reason – so that you can do your job, other people and your sources are protected and you have some level of protection. Whether your rights are enforced legally is another part of the issue – the first part comes in you acknowledging the rights and ethics and sticking to them.
  7. Press Pass - Day 118 by JF Sebastian on Flickr.com
    Press Pass - Day 118 by JF Sebastian on Flickr.com

    Never ever get involved in the debate about whether person X is a journalist or not or whether bloggers are journalists and so on and so forth. Most people who will argue with you over this only want to hear someone agreeing with them and even if you do, you probably have some misgivings and this will not go down well. State your case once when referring to yourself and leave it that. The point at which one considers oneself a journalist is based on personal criteria such as one knows enough or got hired or got a press pass or joined the union. The point at which a potential employer considers you a journalist is probably when they hired you or gave you permission to write for them. Another employer may not hold the same view. Your colleagues can pontificate but if you are hired to work with them in the same position, then you hold the same position and their opinions in this case don’t matter.

  8. It can be very easy for some people to stick female journalists on the “soft” stuff. If you don’t mind this, that’s great. If you are happy to go report on tech beats, politics, finance, sports and so on, fight to get these beats. Freelance specifically in these areas so you have tons of articles to show people that you do know enough to report on these issues. You’re female but that doesn’t mean that you are incapable of understanding the finer details of quantum physics, the stock market or the latest political scandal. Same with men. You may be male but perhaps you don’t mind writing about wine or travel or the arts or something similar. Try to write about a topic you’re interested in and don’t let anyone shove you sideways because of gender. When you start out, you might have to do a beat you’re not thrilled about because you’re still learning.
  9. You will need to be succinct (apologies again to my editor for whenever I go off on a tangent). You will need to use simple language. If 100,000 people read the paper, not all of them will have the same vocabulary or level of understanding. Make it as easy and simple as possible without being patronisingly offensive.
  10. 2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) - 31 by Nics events on Flickr.com
    2008-01-26 (Editing a paper) - 31 by Nic's events on Flickr.com

    Make things easy for your editor. Edit your work before you send it out. You don’t just dash off something, write it, rewrite it. Edit it. Writing is hard work.

  11. Writing is hard. It takes time. It will always be the case that those around you who don’t write for a living will not really understand this and will always assume that you have just taken five minutes when really it takes the better part of a week to write one article. Therefore you must take their advice … not very seriously. They mean well but the best way to get them to understand how hard it is, is to challenge them to do it. Being a columnist means thinking of something suitable each week, getting the information, writing it and editing it before sending it off. Trust me, the people around you who don’t write cannot do the same but they will not understand this till you challenge them to do it.
  12. Writing by Ed Yourdon on Flickr.com
    Writing by Ed Yourdon on Flickr.com

    People, no matter how much you do tell them, will refuse to believe that your life isn’t really as glamorous as you say it isn’t. They will read your column and come up to you and tell you that they do but never really give you any worthwhile feedback and then will fervently believe that you have a glamourous/adventurous/romantic/exotic lifestyle when really it’s absolute rubbish and you spend most of your time stressing out about deadlines and trying to rub two coins together to make them reproduce so you can pay the rent. In fact, you will probably be content because you have just enough cash for rent, bills, food and a little treat now and then but no one will ever believe you on this score.

  13. You Are What You Tweet by helloyiying on Flickr.com
    You Are What You Tweet by helloyiying on Flickr.com

    If you use Twitter or Facebook, you will probably wonder why most journalists on Twitter seem to use it only to tell people that they are home from work, have gotten some microwavable noodles and are curling up to watch Lost on cable tv. You will never know the answer to this question but you will secretly be happy because you have been savvy enough to figure out how to make all the new social media work for you. That’s what you will tell yourself. Hopefully it will be true.

  14. Punctuation Hankies by lesleyhyphenanne via Flickr.com
    Punctuation Hankies by lesleyhyphenanne via Flickr.com

    If you happen to be an editor publishing rather than media) as well as a journalist, you will spend your time pulling out your hair in frustration as you wonder why editorial style says single quotes and your paper wants you to use double quotes. Or why in journalism there only exists a hyphen but in editing you have a hypen, an en dash, and an em dash, the last two of which can be spaced or unspaced depending on how you use it. You will end up needing to either set up two templates in your word processing document or be able to switch hats, gears and personas in your head really quickly.

  15. Digital Recorder by basykes via Flickr.com
    Digital Recorder by basykes via Flickr.com

    Your recording equipment will fail you. Learn shorthand. Type fast. Save often. Don’t let the cat sit on your keyboard and reset your password. You will also find that your colleagues have much fancier recording equipment than you and will sing it’s praises to you and you will genuinely love every part of it except for it’s price. Thereby the reason why you would never buy it no matter how wonderful it is or now much easier it would make your life.

  16. If you went through university, you will wake up sometimes having panic attacks about whether you attributed/credited/referenced/cited someone properly. Go back to sleep. If you didn’t catch it, the copy editor will. If your publication does not have a copy editor, seriously, go work for someone else. You need your copy editor. You should be your copy editor’s best friend at work. They’ll check your work twice over then and actually might allow you to keep most of the words in.

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

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