8 Ways to Publish Consistently Strong Editorial Columns
Note: This is the third in a series of “too good” columns published since Editorial Solutions launched in 1989. The goal in this installment is to provide several excerpts from 2001 discussions between me and Canon Communications Editorial Director John Bethune.
At some companies that emphasize winning awards—like the Neals—editorials become a planned event. In most cases, it’s not unusual to see multi-part editorials, or a special column that runs beyond the traditional one page, in order to do justice to a critical issue (and possibly win an award in the process). But the first aim should be to avoid publishing weak columns.
Here are eight simple rules to achieve that goal:
1. Don’t wait until the last minute hoping for a blockbuster development on which you can hang your hat. If the blockbuster never arrives, a symptom of the resulting contrived column is its remarkable similarity to a news article or a feature story (or stories) appearing elsewhere.
2. Stay clear of writing the hackneyed “don’t miss the convention” article. You know the one. It’s where the author does nothing more than observe one or more of the following platitudes:
- it’s convention time
- the industry is gathering in one place
- don’t miss the seminars
- make an advance plan for visiting the exhibits
- it’s a great time to network
- wear comfortable shoes
- be sure to visit the editorial staff at our booth.
Typically this column is devoid of inside information, and could have appeared in dozens of unrelated business magazines. Just change the name of the convention and the column serves the same uncreative purpose elsewhere.
3. When writing a column for a debut issue or a major redesign, remember that you’re still obligated to show your perceptivity about industry issues. The standard stuff one finds in editorials that are totally devoted to that debut magazine or reformatted issue can just as easily be summarized in a single concluding paragraph. Devote the rest of the space to more important matters.
4. Remember that an editorial column is an opinion piece and not a news story. If the column lacks original thinking and recommendations and just as easily could be in the news section, that’s where it belongs.
5. Don’t be afraid to lead the industry down a new path. Many editors believe they cannot tell readers how to run their businesses. As a brand-new editor-in-chief that may be true. But within a year or so, if the editor truly has been an industry observer, constantly in touch with the grass roots, he or she will have gained important insights into where improvements are needed and what those improvements should be.
6. Related to point 5, stick your neck out occasionally. Some editors write annual “predictions” columns. Therein they identify five to ten trends (or more) most likely to develop in the following year. A variation on that theme is the annual “reflections” column. In this case you identify the five to ten most significant developments or newsmakers of the concluding year and explain their possible impact in the coming year.
7. There is room for a humorous column or one that recounts a personal experience, but the information still must have instructive value. Such columns can be occasional, but the first one should not be published until you have established your credentials as a knowledgeable industry observer.
8. Don’t write a column in a vacuum. This pitfall specifically applies to the column focusing on regulatory activity. When you are a monthly magazine, for example, it’s likely the regulatory information you convey will have been made available to readers weeks before, either by competitive publications with greater frequency or by industry association newsletters. Thus if your regulatory column does not give a new spin on the development in focus, you’re missing the impact that effective editorials require.
Timely Columns Offer Advertiser Appeal
Many editors promoted hastily to their staff’s top slot have yet to grasp the position’s required role as a competitive weapon. In fact, the regular column may be the one article in every issue that advertisers are likely to read. If the column is deemed to be insightful and that column is worth routing to other marketing staff members, the impact obviously is very strong.
On the other hand, if the column clearly lacks direction, that shortfall competitively works against you. In fact, it is not far-fetched to assume that if you consistently write tired prose, your opposition will delight in ridiculing your efforts during sales presentations.
There are two ways that consistently strong publisher or editor columns get written:
- The author is a strong-enough industry insider that he or she, having the ear of the very best sources, can generate great ideas for every issue.
- If not being inundated with great ideas for columns, the author has the time or desire to research a possible trend and turn that into a column. So here you find similarities between great editorials and great feature articles.
Whenever you have staff turnover at the top level, the new arrival may be unable at first to produce columns in the first category. If so, he or she should deliver one in the second category until able to take more informed stands on truly hot industry trends or controversies.
Incidentally, controversial editorials sometimes are like a breath of fresh air. Insecure publishers are reluctant to stir controversy because they are afraid of offending advertisers. Other publishers throw that caution to the wind and see the benefits of taking on a touchy matter.