Wondering what you’ll write about for your next column? Jim Carper, editor in chief of Dairy Foods, offers practical tips for how to break through the writer’s block and produce content that will encourage readers to come back for more.
Early in my career, when I was managing editor, I was always waiting for two columns — one from the editor in chief and the other from the publisher. I could not close an issue without them. Why did they always wait until the last minute?
Perhaps it is endemic to the position. I have been a chief editor of many magazines, and I tend to wait until the last moment to write my column. Why? Sometimes it is because I need to work on other editorial tasks (like editing copy or proofreading pages) to keep the production process flowing.
There are months when the subject of a column is obvious. Congress makes a law affecting the industry my magazine covers. The major trade association comes out with an initiative. The consumer press writes an overblown, sensationalistic account of one aspect of the industry, and the half-truths and misimpressions need to be corrected.
Other times, I lack an idea. Over the years, I’ve developed a stable of column ideas that I can use if I’m stuck. I’m going to share my bag of tricks with you, to rescue you from those days when you can’t think of a thing to write about and the clock is ticking down to zero. Here we go:
The table of contents. This is fairly basic, and used by newcomers who haven’t yet developed the insight and perspective to write knowledgeably about the industry. You simply summarize the contents of each feature article in the current issue.
The man-in-the-street. If you are attending a trade show around the time your column is due, you stop 10 or 15 people as they walk the aisles of a trade show and ask for their business forecast for the next 12 months; or if they found anything exciting among the exhibitors; or if they are going to do anything differently once they return home.
The 12-month review. Here, you re-read your feature articles and pick out a one key insight offered by a business executive in each of your last 12 issues. Bundle these dozen nuggets under a headline like, “In Case You Missed This.” This column plays a marketing role for your magazine. It shows readers and advertisers that you publish important, need-to-know information in every issue.
The top 10 list. Here’s a variation of the 12-month review. Perhaps you can’t write an 800-word column on a single subject this month. But I bet you can write 10 80-word paragraphs. Re-read your news articles and features and find 10 important themes or trends.
The personal anecdote. Relay the outcome of a recent interaction you had in the industry your magazine covers. For example: you bought some new consumer electronics, you had your car’s oil changed, you remodeled your kitchen, you looked for a nursing home for your parent, you bought life insurance. Did this experience live up to expectations? How could it be improved?
The follow-up. Call back the owners of companies you profiled in the past 24 months. Did they achieve the goals they laid out for their companies? How are they faring today?
The just-retired business owner. Interview an executive who just retired and get her opinions about the industry and the changes she saw over the course of her career.
Lessons from other industries. Tell your readers how other industries operate. I’ve written about home building, retailing, food, hospitality and furniture and shared ideas I have learned from those businesses with my new readers.
The book review. If you haven’t written a book report since the eighth grade, then here’s your opportunity.
Behind the scenes. Share with readers your magazine’s initiatives in redesigning your website, creating newsletters, initiatives with Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, YouTube, seminars and online learning.
The guest editorial. Turn over your page this month to a junior editor.
The reporter’s notebook. Share story ideas that were never fully realized, quotations you heard in seminars and sights seen on your travels. Perhaps none of these are full column themes, but you can stitch them all together into one narrative.
So there you go. You’ll never have to scream, “What am I going to write about?” You now have 12 ideas to carry you through a year. You may never need them, but they’ll be there in your bag of tricks.