Advice to live by when you’re in my line of work. When I started writing a personal column for this newspaper back in the late 1990s, then-editor Charles Denning didn’t specify a length. “Take however much space you need to tell your story,” he said. So I did. The column was always at least a thousand words long. Sometimes even longer. It often “jumped” to another page, which can be the kiss of death for keeping your readers’ attention, though I didn’t understand that at the time. And the column ran only twice a month instead of every week.
When Charles retired in 2005, new editor Wes Swietek decided to steer the Herald-Citizen in a different direction. One of his first orders of business was to break ties with several local columnists, including me. After a three month hiatus, I was invited to return. But it was with a new requirement. Wes wanted my column to be half as long and run twice as often.
“So it’s really the same amount of work,” he told me, though we both knew that wasn’t true.
I soon got into the groove of writing a column every week and making it fit the allotted space. My redesigned column has appeared on the front of the Sunday Living section ever since, positioned along the left fold beginning two inches from the top of the page and ending two inches from the bottom. With no “jump,” ever.
As I’ve written, I’ve learned to gauge the proper length not so much by word count, though my column has almost always been about 600 words long, but by how it appeared on the computer screen. And here’s the intriguing thing. Without conscious effort, I fell into the habit of creating in 600-word chunks. If I had more than that to say on any given topic, I made the column a two-parter. I’ve been thinking and writing that way for more than eleven years now.
Then came the e-mail from news editor Don Foy a couple of weeks ago. Beginning November 14, the H-C would be “narrowing the web.” The newspaper page would be physically smaller and the type font bigger in hopes of making it more readable. (You’ve no doubt noticed the change.) The editors were asking local columnists to reduce their word count from 600 to 500. “I know that’s a big cut,” Don wrote, “but we think it’s necessary.”
Thus began the challenge of creating this column in a slightly different way. It’s a new trick this old dog hopes she can learn. Can I suddenly begin to think and write in 500 word chunks? Time will tell. But at least I can take comfort in the fact that, were I getting paid by the word instead of by the column in its entirety, I finally got a pay raise.
(November 20, 2016)