Ask A Pro
Examples of Work
Harry lets us believe in the stuff of dreams
An age of affluence begs us to dress down
A father falls into the arms of the drink
Waterbury (Conn.) Republican-American
What inspired you to become a journalist?
I am relentlessly curious. I was always one of those people in high school who had their hand up. I couldn’t think of a better idea for my occupation than to be paid to satisfy my curiosity.
How long did it take you to become a columnist?
I started in journalism when I was 16. I didn’t start a column until I was 30. In a way, however, I think that the way I look at the world predisposed me to becoming a columnist.
Did you get any special training?
No. The only special training I received — and the best special training — was daily news reporting.
How do you come up with column ideas?
It all comes back to curiosity. I’m curious about the way society is going, the way people interact with one another, how technology is changing the way we deal with one another and what’s going in our own lives. What I try to do is use my life and the lives of those close to me as a lens through which to view larger issues.
To give you an example, I may write a column about how I have finally severed my Internet connection because I found that instead of expanding my universe, it just seemed to narrow it. But to that individual experience, I add data that I have culled from reading newspapers and magazines that, as The New York Times states, “Sad, Lonely World Discovered in Cyberspace.” What I generally do is cut out articles that appeal to me, or about which I have an opinion and keep them in a running file. When I am inspired by events in my own life to weigh in on those issues, I retrieve those articles from my file to use in my column.
Is it hard to write to a specific length?
No. It’s strange. I must think in 21-inch bites. I find almost all my columns are about that long. When they are not, the paper has no problem jumping them.
Is your column edited the same way a news story is?
No, I am allowed much more latitude of language, style and opinion. I am not asked to check facts, which is a mistake; I think I should be. Columnists are allowed a great deal more leeway in their writing than the rest of the paper’s reporters.
Do you hear a lot from readers?
Yes, but not enough. I get letters from readers who share their stories with me, which is very gratifying. Sometimes I get e-mails. But a lot of times I get phone messages that begin something like “I’ve been meaning to write you about this, but I never got the time,” which is frustrating. I like to have a written artifact — that’s the writer and journalist in me.
What advice do you have for teens that want to write columns for their school paper?
Say what you mean and mean what you say. Don’t pull punches. You do not deserve a column if you do not have an opinion. Do not equivocate. Tell it straight, straight from the heart.
What advice do you have for aspiring journalists?
Read. Read the newspaper first. But after that read fiction, particularly short stories, as they most closely approximate what a good journalist (particularly columnist) should do. The more of a knowledge base you have, the better your opinions will be.