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What in the world are you talking about?

Bob Garner

Bob Garner

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Sunday, August 19, 2018

Writing a newspaper column involves considerably more freedom than working as a straight reporter.

Broadcast and print editors alike assign reporters stories on a given topic or event. The resulting writing is supposed to be factual, balanced, understandable and to the point.

A columnist, though, can usually choose to write about anything. In a column, one is functioning more as a “feature” writer than an objective reporter.

A column’s style may derive from personal opinion, irony, whimsy and making fun of oneself. The columnist may also unleash a heated blast of rhetoric or employ sarcasm to make a point.

In a column, the topic is as broad as life itself, with all its wackiness. The danger of miscommunication is ever present.

A columnist submits his or her work to the editor hoping never to be asked the dreaded question, “What in the world are you talking about?”

When a Twitter or Facebook follower sends you the acronym for those very words — WITWAYTA? — they’re nearly always joking.

They mean, “Whatchoo talkin’ about, Bob?” as the late child actor Gary Coleman used to say on “Diff’rent Strokes.”

An editor, though, who will actually type out the words “What in the world are you talking about?” clearly has a real problem with your work.

Readers? Oh, they may indeed have the very same question. “This poor guy is struggling,” they’ll surmise as they set the column aside, half-read.

“You kinda lost me there, Bob,” they might think. A reader more likely won’t think much of anything at all, aside from, “I won’t bother to finish this.”

Editors, though, always mean, “This just won’t do.” The only appropriate response from a writer is the one that says, “You’re right: I can see that it simply doesn’t work as written. How can I fix it and pull it out of the weeds?”

Humility will almost always get an editor over to your side, which is where you should want them. There might be some softening and a comment such as, “Well, what if we kill this line, move this part and add thus-and so?“

To be strictly honest, an editor will seldom actually call you in or have a phone conversation about such changes. They’ll just make the revisions themselves.

They don’t have to ask or tell you anything if they don’t feel like it or are simply too busy.

If you’re still just learning about the specific art of column-writing, as I am, hopefully you’ll be smart enough to thank them for any and all changes. And perhaps you’ll demonstrate in future columns that you learned something from their corrections.

I have been at the journalism game for about 50 years. Although I’ve done a lot of general assignment writing, have been a daily beat reporter and have worked as a legislative correspondent, much of it has been done for same-day television news programs. With a newscast starting soon, there’s no time for much prior editorial review.

“Editing” in those situations consisted of quickly — even frantically — working with a film or video editor to match images to narration and to insert on-camera interviews.

Improving for next time? That occurs in the post mortem after the newscast airs.

As the author of four books and numerous freelance magazine articles in the food writing genre, I eventually learned to trust editors without arguing over suggested edits. (I say that with blushing apologies to the editor of my very first book, to whom it must have seemed that I would contend proudly and very aggravatingly for every single word.)

I’ve never actually had a newspaper column of my own until very recently.

Boy, am I ever learning a lot!

Bob Garner is a UNC-TV restaurant reviewer, freelance food writer, author of four cookbooks, barbecue pit master and public speaker. Contact him at bgarner2662@gmail.com.

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