Abello: Confessions of a columnist



Oscar Abello

Seven hundred words a week is not much room in which to work. In the space of roughly three typed, double-spaced pages columnists trouble to give readers a picture of the world around us that, hopefully, readers have not seen before.

You have likely heard or read the phrase that a picture is worth a thousand words. Unfortunately, the exchange rate columnists face at The Villanovan is not so lofty. Seven hundred is all we get.

Different columnists have different pictures they like to paint. Regardless, in 700 words they first need to get readers to believe the picture is worth reading. The most compelling pictures, experience finds, require little beyond simple active description – adjectives are like yellow lights for a columnist; they have different meanings for different people.

Using adjectives often necessitates the use of metaphor to qualify what exactly a columnist means by the adjective.

Metaphors extend word counts; too many at once beleaguers the reader and clouds the central picture. Prepositions can also be tricky; such words require prepositional phrases that can eat up word counts making for less efficient writing. Nouns and verbs are vital; forming an object-and-action-filled picture is crucial.

By nature, many relevant pictures are inherently complex. Columnists often have to think like mapmakers; that is, depending on the topic and the audience, they do not always have to draw every street or place on a map. Ideally, columnists draw what will make a story out of the picture and, in doing so, advance some argument from A to B across a map that does not overwhelm readers with tangents and extraneous material that might be true, and interesting, but does not apply to the argument. Efficiency goes beyond grammar.

Countless numbers of people stare at great paintings for hours at a time. Columnists know that their work will never enjoy such attention; they write for an audience on the run and every read is a precious few moments to capture someone’s attention, paint the picture, tell the story and pray that the argument comes across effectively.

Seven hundred words are pretty much all that is required to achieve those goals. To ask for more is not entirely out of line; it is more a sign of respect to the reader. It is also a sign of how compelling the story might be that it does not require too much to explain what is happening. Subtlety and nuance are important but the longer it takes to make a point the less likely it is to seem coherent and worthwhile. A good column is like a good skirt – short enough to be interesting, long enough to cover the essentials.

Part of the essentials comes directly from standard news values. These dictate that the most pressing story involves many people, happens right this instant somewhere nearby, involves some well known person or organization, involves conflict or unusual circumstances and is related to a currently popular topic of discussion. As stories lose these qualities, they lose value as news. To these, as columnists, we also add personal beliefs.

That does not mean that all columns are essentially the same, of course. The news values are the colors of a columnist’s picture. Not all colors are necessary all the time; but better use of color makes for a better picture.

Sometimes shades of gray are all that is necessary to give readers a compelling portrait of what, in reality, is a multi-color world. Sometimes 700 words are not needed to paint the picture a columnist wants to tell. This time, there is only need for 605.

Merry Christmas Villanova.


Oscar Abello is a senior economics major from Philadelphia, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].