Book Review by Sapphire Ng
The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists
Marion Street Press, LLC
Copyright November 2007
The Art of Column Writing is a concise reference incorporating an eclectic range of expert opinions and advice from veteran columnists. The book is a rather lively piece of work which serves as a succinct guideline to the craft of column writing ideal for the amateur and aspiring columnist.
The book notably contains outstanding writing penned by various expert columnists. Distinctly hilarious and exceptionally engaging is the chapter written by Ray Hanania, columnist and author of the humor book “I'm Glad I Look Like a Terrorist: Growing Up Arab in America.” Remarkably beautifully written is a chapter consisting of the reprint of the writing of Leonard Pitts, Jr. of The Miami Herald and Pulitzer Price winner in 2004, where he shared his insights on being a columnist.
A personal favorite in the book is the author's strategic inclusion of the breathtaking first sentences penned by Jeff Jacoby of The Boston Globe in his June 14, 2006 column, Signs of Success in Iraq which effectively illustrates a specific transition technique—to commence a new paragraph by “echoing” thoughts from the previous one, or “foreshadow in one paragraph what lies ahead in the next.” A rather quirky but creatively unique piece would be the open letter written by George Waters from the point of view of a turkey, and addressed to the president of the United States.
A particular section of the book, though brief, which the author inserted samples that embody the “winning traits” of a Pulitzer Price-winning column is wondrous. The writing samples included rather effectively exemplifies the winning traits of for example, “zig[ging] when others zag,” of possessing a strong voice, or for appropriately informing and enlightening. Section 2 of the book which introduces specialty columns—lifestyle, opinion, metro, religion, and more—on the other hand, contains somewhat interesting content that could potentially inspire the growing columnist.
The book contains certain segments of information structured clearly with the reader in mind. Content is organized in easy-to-retain and -to-digest formats such as the compact bullet-form, and the interactive question and answer form in the case of presenting interviews; an example of the former was used to note the different emotions of outrage, curiosity, discomfort, provocation and more available to be used in crafting leads, and an instance of the latter used in the chapter discussing potentialities for a columnist to break into the radio genre.
With the book as somewhat of an embodiment of the microcosmic world of column writing, the reader will be in for a linguistic treat. It was amazing to read for example, of metaphors or analogies utilized in such unconventional ways—the author cited a humor columnist as describing his head as “a combination of a multiplex theater and Grand Central Station.”
Select personal experiences shared by the author also further add the element of interest and enrichment to the book. It was fascinating to be privy to the author's intriguing thought processes and reflections as she took on the “scary” unfamiliar gig of religion column writing for The Patriot Ledger. By ruminating over profound and fundamental questions such as “What was my personal mission as a religion columnist?,” the reader would be bound to be instigated into his or her own process of soul searching. Another unmistakably interesting instance, the author noted an increased understanding of a particular concept from her studies of hypnotherapy which she thereafter applied to the craft of writing.
In line with the friendly and immensely casual tone of the book, the author dispenses useful tips and even inspirational moments in as unpretentious a manner as can be—an op-ed columnist was noted to have unabashedly and “proudly displayed her favorite pieces of hate mail in her office.”
Whilst the book clearly functions aptly as a quick guide, the unwarranted brevity of its content however in more than one occasion gives the impression of being assembled in a slipshod manner; the lack of appropriate elaboration and further examples fail to do justice to the purported material presented.
In a particular example whereby the author attempted to propose “an Encyclopedia of Endings,” the minimal explanatory content following the bolded headings—for example anecdotal ending, detail ending, scenic ending, and narrative quote ending—barely elucidate or illustrate the basics or even distinguish the different types of endings.
In another instance in the chapter on humor columnists, the author tried to insert a framework of five different formats—the Diary Format, the Parody Interview Format and more—as outlined by an award-winning columnist, but fell incredibly short of conveying anything decently explanatory of the gists of the respective formats. In such a case it might have been better if the author omitted such content altogether, or chose instead to commit herself to greater consolidation of information and research that would actually explicate the material and thus would make more sense and be somewhat useful to the reader.
It was rather discomforting to come across spelling errors in the book, especially so due to the subject matter of the book, and certainly not to mention the author's credentials in addition to the industry she is employed in. An example of a spelling error in the book was where “strong” was misspelled as “stong” in the phrase “stong voice.”
Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.