How to Write Advice Columns
If you knew the answers to all of life's questions, you'd never have to tap the expertise of others on how to move forward. Whether it's counsel for the lovelorn, tips on how to write a screenplay or ideas for growing a healthier lawn, advice columnists serve the dual purpose of sounding board and impartial mentor in dispensing replies to all manner of questions. While not everyone is going to follow the advice you offer, the odds are higher if you're a recognized expert in your field and not just another talking head with an opinion.
Identify what subject(s) you're qualified to write about in an advice column and which can be easily imparted to others in a print medium. These are subjects in which you either hold a degree from an accredited university or you have acquired your knowledge and skills from the day-to-day responsibilities of your chosen career. Study how advice columnists in your same area of interest are responding to questions in terms of length, style and level of detail.
Determine your target demographic. If you want people to pay attention to what you have to say, you must demonstrate that you understand how they think and what's important to them. This is then reflected in your choices of language, analogies and structure. Perhaps, for example, you want to write an advice column for junior high students. If one of them asks what he can do to fit in with his peers or ask a cute girl to the dance, he's not looking for a lecture on what psychologists Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought or what your own experience was like 30 years ago. He just wants you to answer what he asked in a way that's both helpful and actionable.
Read the question thoroughly to make sure you understand exactly what's being asked. A helpful step is to paraphrase it out loud in first-person. Example: "I want to know how to tell my mother-in-law to stop rearranging my furniture whenever she visits." Advice columnists, in fact, often work the question into the first sentence of their reply to establish clarity. Example: "Having a visitor rearrange your furniture is unsettling, especially when it's a relative."
Provide the reader with different viewpoints to consider. In the previous example, the writer may only see that her mother-in-law is being a control freak. The mother-in-law, however, may see the same event as her attempt to be useful or to help save steps in cleaning and vacuuming. In another example, someone who writes for advice about putting a windfall into a savings account versus spending it on current bills would benefit from hearing the pros and cons of both sides in order to make an informed decision.
Stay focused on the problem rather than splintering off into a plethora of other issues. In other words, if someone asks you what time it is, they're not asking you to explain all the steps involved in building a grandfather clock. Nor is your job as an advice columnist to sit in judgment of anything that's been done or to launch into a stern lecture, but to provide constructive options on how the writer can move forward. Test your replies on friends and relatives and learn from their feedback on how to improve your responses.
Decide how you want to promote yourself as an advice columnist. Be aware that if you're looking into newspapers or magazines, these positions are extremely hard to come by. Specifically, openings only occur when the target demographic expresses interest in a topic not currently covered or when the publisher decides that a well-known expert would increase the publication's prestige. If you apply, what's looked for in a proposal is a catchy cover letter, a bio and 6 to 10 sample advice columns for review. In the meantime, there's nothing stopping you from making your debut in a blog or on a website and using the diversity of social-networking forums to attract a following.
- When composing replies, take advantage of a readability test in your word-processing program. This should be located under the readability statistics tab in the preferences menu and tells you at a glance the relative reading ease, grade level and percentage of passive sentences in your content, so you can make modifications to accommodate your readership.
- If you don't know the answer, don't wing it. An inaccurate reply can be death to your career as a columnist.
- Although columnists who respond to queries on child-rearing, household budgets and relationships often draw from personal challenges that turned out successfully, their credentials are not deemed as strong as those with the education, experience and publishing credits to back up their advice. If you want to play to a larger audience, your background must merit the respect.
- Always proofread your column material thoroughly before you post it. If it's filled with typos and grammatical errors, it will diminish your readers' confidence in your ability to frame thoughtful answers. You also won't look as smart as you'd like them to think you are.
- "The Art of Advice: How to Give It and How to Take It"; Jeswald W. Salacuse; 1994
- "You Can Be a Columnist: Writing & Selling Your Way to Prestige"; Charlotee Digregorio; 1993
- "The Art of Column Writing: Insider Secrets from Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Arianna Huffington, Pete Hamill and Other Great Columnists"; Suzette Martinez Standring; 2007
- "Successful Syndication: A Guide for WRiters & Cartoonists"; Michael Sedge; 2000
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