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Sun., Dec. 29, 2013, midnight

Kathleen Parker: Insights from a newspaper columnist

The year-end review required of all columnists inevitably brings us to the mailbag and a few clarifications.

For the record, I read my mail but never online comments. Anonymity liberates hostility, we’ve learned, and the customary online abuse riot undermines the grandiosity required to write opinion. But don’t stop! For some reason, my family thinks the comments are a hoot.

The mail that does reach my inbox is about evenly split between fans and not-so-fans. I’ve concluded that there must be a repository of letter-to-columnist templates out there somewhere. About 70 percent of missives begin with one of the following:

• “I usually stop reading your column after the first sentence, but …”

• “I rarely agree with you, but …”

• “I am a fan – you knew this was coming – but …”

And this just in. “I’m not sure how columnists like you who write for a living get paid.” KP: Usually by direct deposit.

Otherwise, my response to all of the above: So whaddya want for a buck?

A few days ago, a letter arrived asking me whether I ever considered that I might be wrong? My one-word response: “Constantly.”

Which is true, up to a point. A columnist couldn’t write if she thought she were wrong, right? But oftentimes we write to find out what we think, and sometimes we surprise ourselves. Many times I wish I thought otherwise, since life would be so much easier, but then we’d be bored.

Sometimes, yes, I even change my mind. When you’ve written columns as long as I have (26 or 27 years, I can’t remember), you’d best change your mind or admit that you never trouble yourself with thinking. Certitude is a mask one dons only for deadlines, after which, feet on desk, one ruminates on the source of such certitude. This, of course, leads to crippling self-doubt, which in turn may lead to drinking or, worse, yoga.

For my own edification, a few words about the differences between online writing and newspaper writing. Like the difference between the male and female sexual appetites (just to keep you interested), one is a microwave, the other a crockpot. Online writers zip and zap across the digital realm in real time, sometimes accelerating before news breaks. Newspaper writers, especially columnists, tend to simmer.

You’ll notice at this point that columnists tend to digress. They also generalize because, we must. It’s our nature. We don’t care that some females have appetites equal to males. If three is a trend, “most” is enough to generalize. Plus, we are easily bored (note the constant imperative to not be bored), and nothing is more tedious than punctiliousness. On the other hand, using a word like punctiliousness can make one want to smoke a cigarette afterward.

Back to the matter of differences. Because of print deadlines, I typically write two to three days before a column appears in print. Thus, I have to consider on Thursday what might still be of interest by Sunday. Though one is, therefore, always late to the game, I can think of few commentaries that don’t benefit from a few days’ simmer.

Another difference has to do with standards. Newspaper tradition requires that we heed the “family” rule: What is appropriate for family consumption, especially on Sunday mornings? This mandate was born (ages ago) of the desire never to offend anyone, which can make for some rather arid reading and writing that doesn’t swell one’s breast. One must be clever enough to select words that sneak past the kiddies, who, having wearied of FaceTime twerking, might accidentally trip over a grown-up thought.

Another frequent reader comment: “Nice job, but you failed to mention,” or “You left out …”

KP: Yes, but … columnists are strictly held to a non-negotiable word count – in my case, 750 and not a definite article more. My definition of a column, soon to be a book title, is: “A Sliver of a Slice of a Piece of a Moment.” It is a glimpse of an insight viewed through the prism of another’s tenure on Earth, served with trepidation and self-flagellating humility.

This is to say, thanks for the memories, the corrected syntax and the astute observations about my laxity and bombast, and special gratitude to those (you know who you are) who shared often-brilliant insights through their own tenured prism.

I couldn’t do it without you.

Cheers!

Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post. He email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.


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