MAXWELL:  How columnists come up with ideas

5/20/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Over the years, readers, many of them high school and college students, have asked me to discuss the craft of writing a column.

Following are some of the questions I am often asked: How do columnists come up with things to write about? Do we ever run out of ideas? Do we enjoy writing a column? Do our bosses ever tell us what to write or what not to write? Do we believe everything we write? Do we write to make people mad?

How much research do we do? Do we mostly stay in the newsroom? How much do we travel? What is the most difficult thing about writing a column? Who reads columns? How many letters and telephone calls do we receive each week? Do readers confront us in public?

In light of these and other questions, I will perform the civic journalism task of writing an occasional column about writing a column. Because today’s is the first on the subject, I will start with the most frequently asked question: How do columnists come up with things to write about?

For me, everything is a potential topic. I look for patterns in everything. I read several newspapers and magazines every day, listen to National Public Radio, watch TV and talk with people. I browse the books and journals at the University of South Florida library in St. Petersburg. And, of course, I visit local bookstores.

In a less tangible way, I try to figure out what people really think and feel. When I say really, I mean the truth. What, for example, does the average white person north of Ulmerton Road really think of black people in south St. Petersburg?

The very idea is like a rock in my shoe, and the only way to relieve the discomfort is to satisfy my curiosity. I talk to whites north of Ulmerton, asking them to level with me. What do they really feel?

My colleague Howard Troxler gets his ideas from what he calls “being in the world,” which includes reading voraciously, traveling and sitting in bars where, he says, people talk about “life.” Howard also is blessed to have been a reporter who spent many years in Tallahassee getting to know the state’s movers and shakers.

Times columnist Robyn Blumner, an attorney, is rarely short on ideas because fellow lawyers and other people interested in First Amendment issues seek her opinions. She also keeps up with court decisions. But her best asset is her keen eye. The final episode of Seinfeld, in which the main characters poke fun at a fat man being robbed, gave her the idea for this Sunday’s column, which is to be about “Good Samaritan” laws.

Like Robyn, sports columnist Hubert Mizell almost never runs out of ideas. Because sports involve scheduled events, Hubert has a structure from which to operate. Also, his wealth of experiences gained over several decades in the profession keep his mind busy.

My colleague and friend Martin Dyckman attracts ideas like Sharon Stone attracts stares from men. One-third of his topics comes from readers and political insiders who have high regard for him. He gets most of his other ideas from newspapers and the wire services.

Robin Mitchell, who writes our “Dr. Delay” column, literally trips over ideas. His column provides a voice for the readers who drive the roads in southern Pinellas County. His desk is littered with notes from irate motorists: “Fix my pothole,” “Is this traffic signal needed?” “I can’t get across the streets safely.” “Who will fix that railroad crossing?”

No matter how many ideas the columnist comes up with, however, he or she must have enough material to make the effort worthwhile. Sometimes I have what I think is a great idea only to learn after three paragraphs into a first draft that I have nothing more to say. In such instances, I become brutal with myself: I toss out the whole thing and start over with a new topic. I refuse to waste time. When I waste time, my thoughts lose their edge _ the sharpness of tone and logic that a good opinion column needs.

If a subject does not work for me, it will not resonate with readers, either. Seasoned columnists are pretty good judges of what is and what is not worth developing. In deciding what to write, most columnists try to choose a fresh slant, pick something they are interested in, choose a subject they know something about and consider how much and what kind of research is required.

Although the ways that columnists get their ideas vary from person to person, a good idea is the thing _ 80 percent of the effort. The rest is writing, style, logic and perhaps a little inspiration from our favorite muses.