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Opinions? Everyone has got ‘em! How many, though, will ever see them in print on a regular basis and actually get paid for them? More than you might think. In fact, you could be one of them if you know how to pick a theme, define a readership, and approach an editor with a column proposal and definitive style that’s absolutely irresistible.

SO MANY IDEAS, SO LITTLE SPACE

While national syndication is the essayist’s equivalent of Olympic gold, the reality is that such slots are generally reserved for those who (1) are already recognized names or (2) those who have paid their dues and built a strong following on a regional level. Popularity and perseverance notwithstanding, the bottom line is that—unlike the Internet—space is a premium in traditional print media. Only those deemed qualified to deliver a consistent product to the publication’s target audience will distinguish themselves from the fierce competition. If you’re up to a good challenge, read on!

FINDING A NEED AND FILLING IT

The first step is to figure out WHAT you want your column to be about. A scan of favorite magazines and daily newspapers reveals that byline columns typically fall into the following areas:

Humor
Advice
Inspirational/Religious
Arts and Entertainment
Sports
Human Interest
Food
Health/Exercise
Nostalgia
Political Commentary
Travel

While the downside of locating them means that the publication already has a designated writer, there are two things you can learn from this exercise: (1) who, specifically, are they slanting their comments toward and (2) what aspects of the topic are they falling short of?

Let’s say for instance that you have traveled extensively and want to share your expertise. Your study of the current columnist’s work reveals that he or she is primarily writing for DINKS (Double Income/No Kids) who have seemingly endless resources to trek off to Monaco or splurge on a three-week cruise. While the articles may be entertaining, the actual travel tips being imparted will not be of much value to a family of five trying to plan their vacation on a limited budget. Got some ideas on how to address that?

Another example might be the Health/Exercise arena. There may be plenty of columns targeted to people who are young and fully ambulatory, but what about senior citizens or the disabled? Could they benefit from a weekly dose of safe and practical work-out advice from a local expert?

Whatever you decide to write about, of course, also needs to be a sustainable topic. It’s one thing to have a handful of funny anecdotes you’d love to see in print, but what if your column catches on with the public and you’re suddenly asked to produce 52—or more—funny stories per year? Yikes! Before you pitch the idea, make sure you have covered the contingency of your words becoming an overnight success!

SUBJECTIVE VS. OBJECTIVE

In approaching an editor with your creative new idea (or new spin on an old idea), you need to keep in mind that subjective material is a harder sell than that which is objective or instructional. While obviously any topic you’re writing about is going to carry some trace of personal opinion, some of them are more potent than others; i.e., Humor, Nostalgia, Politics. These are also among the “plum” assignments that regular staffers get in bidding wars over, as are any opportunities to get free tickets to new films or receive a comp meal in exchange for a published review.

There are, however, two ways that newcomers can wriggle their way into this cutthroat hierarchy. The first is to provide sample columns to the editor and let it be known that you’re available on short notice to cover assignments in the event a regular writer is sick or on vacation. The second is to get yourself established somewhere else first (i.e., a suburban weekly or non-profit newsletter) and build a clipping file of published pieces. This is where Internet e-zines and websites can become a viable forum for your views, particularly with the wealth of links to related publications. While the pay may be low to start out, the more significant wealth you’re accumulating is a consistent following of readers, plus—in many cases—the ability to recycle your material over and over to non-competing markets.

THE VOICE OF EXPERIENCE

Suppose you want to write a weekly column called “Good Nutrition on a Shoestring Budget.” Your proposal will be strengthened in the eyes of an editor if you actually possess a degree in the subject matter or have worked in the field long enough to be considered an expert source. Likewise, a person who has backpacked their way throughout the entire planet and has the photographs to prove it will be taken more seriously than an armchair traveler who simply thinks it would be a cool idea to write his or her opinions about how to pack a suitcase. The idea here is that you’re not just selling the idea, you are also selling your credentials as the person best qualified to write it.

TIMELINESS OF MATERIAL

Last but not least, editors look at how timely or relevant a particular column will be in terms of the overall scope and purpose of the publication. A weekly hometown gazette, for instance, will fill its pages with news about upcoming/ongoing community issues but also devote a comparable amount of space to “fluff” human interest stories about its local residents. Whether the item about Mrs. Perkins’ cat sanctuary runs this Tuesday or five Tuesdays down the road usually won’t make a lot of difference. Contrast this to large, metropolitan newspapers whose priority is to keep readers informed regarding the latest-breaking headlines. While their respective cities may abound with unknown writers who are just as funny as Dave Barry or as insightful with advice as Ann and Abby, there simply isn’t room to accommodate all of them. Trade and consumer publications throw yet another wrench into the aspiring columnist’s attempts to be “current,” as these are laid out months in advance, making any trendy commentary which is submitted today come across as stale when it is finally released.

In spite of all the speedbumps, though, the good news is that the field of opportunity has never been wider for new writers who have something to say. The “global visibility” which technology offers means that the chances of finding your special niche—and filling it—are yours for the taking. So, too, is the ultimate satisfaction of getting paid for something you were already doing anyway—having an opinion!