Five common columnist mistakes

Five common columnist mistakes

By NellFrizzellIdeasTap 20/08/12

Were you one of the 452 people who applied to The Columnist brief this year? Are you wondering how you could have improved your application? Here are five of the most common mistakes and how to avoid them...

Writing about ‘the big issue’

The Columnist brief is your chance to show how engaged, inspired and up to date you are with cultural events. Note: cultural events. We want columns about the arts, media and culture – not just Facebook, sex and your flatmates.

But be very wary about tackling the headline issue – whether that’s arts cuts, social networking, a big summer music festival or how hard it is for creative graduates to get a job. Because, believe me, we will have read about the big issues of the day. Read about them plenty of times and from plenty of angles.

We want you to write about something you care about; something that makes you excited, angry, hopeful or enthusiastic.

If you really do want to tackle a major arts story, make sure you’re approaching it in an original way. For columnists, as with dictatorships, the best way you can get yourself noticed is by doing something different.

Having less structure than a blancmange

Don’t start with a whimper and don’t fade away.

I don’t know if you ever look at that counter on a brief that tells you how many people have applied, but for The Columnist it’s always loads. Probably well over 450. Each pitching one column and two further ideas. Which is a lot of reading. So, if yours isn’t good enough to grab our attention, and to keep us reading, then it is unlikely that you will get shortlisted.

Which does not mean you should resort to wackiness, grand offensive statements or ludicrous flights of nonsense. Just hit us right between the eyes with something intriguing, amusing, interesting or well-observed.

Once you’ve set the stage, so to speak, you also need to sustain your argument. And it does need to be an argument – this is not the time for musings, thoughts and streams of consciousness. The ideal column opens with a strong sentence, leads you through a well-thought-out argument and builds to a brilliant, snappy conclusion.

Swearing. Lots.

Now, I love a good bit of foul-mouthing. I can turn the air blue like a well-flushed toilet block. Expletives are my preservatives. But, it takes a much better writer to communicate their feelings of frustration, passion, fury and joy without resorting to a four-letter f-bomb. Impress us with your lexical dexterity and way with rhythm. Don’t just swear us into a corner.

Also, think about the IdeasTap audience. We are an organisation aimed at young and emerging artists: think about what they find interesting, what is appropriate and how best to present it to them. Which isn’t to say you have to dumb down – just be clever with your filth.

Trying to be the new Caitlin Moran/Giles Coren/Grace Dent/ Owen Jones

If you’re misanthropic – great! If you have a strong feminist agenda – splendid! If you happen to drink gin and eat things you find in bins – good for you! Just don’t think that to be a successful columnist to have to mimic the style of an already successful columnist.

We want to hear what you think, what you’re like, how you see the world and listen to your voice.


Oh I know what you’re going to say. How can you write an opinion piece without writing about your opinion? And you’d be absolutely correct (if a bit of an upstart). The thing is, a columnist is meant to reflect on the world around them – not on the complexities, intricacies and all-absorbing beauty of their own navel.

You may well have an incredibly interesting life. Your housemates might be an absolute scream. The state of your bedsheets may well be the subject of endless pub talk. You might entertain your family for hours with tales of your exploits. But we’re looking for someone who can bring a young, fresh, informative, at times provocative, insightful and inquisitive look at the current cultural climate.

We wants arts. Not your elbow.


And here are a few more for free...

Committing libel. We like people who aren't afraid to speak their mind, but we also don't want a lawsuit on our hands.

Pitching ideas other columnists have already covered recently. We don't like to repeat ourselves, and it might give the impression that you don't really read IdeasMag. Which isn't ideal.

Pitching three columns on the same discipline. We have so many different kinds of artists here on IdeasTap - actors, illustrators, playwrights, photographers, dancers, film-makers, jounrnalists and graphic designers. If you pitch three articles all about, say, acting, then you're alienating a lot of potential readers.

Going way over the word limit. We, like Mary Poppins, like a little discipline. 

The Columnist will reopen in December.

For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit the Writing & Publishing hub.

Writing by garryknight on a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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