How to be a Columnist by the BBC’s Andrew Marr


According to Andrew Marr, former Political editor BBC News, there are no rules for writing a column, any more than there are any rules about how to write a novel. However, there are general points worth remembering.

Again, all of the text below is my *paraphrasing* of points made his book My Trade and is intended to provide a taster of Marr’s advice. Out of a sense of duty, I’m providing a link to the book at Amazon.

A column is not just an opinion – it has elements of reporting. Unlike news, columns can contain context, analysis, metaphor, historical analogy and humour, but consider telling the reader something new they may not have read. Look at the facts again to bring a fresh angle to a story. It’s the ‘actually’ bit that makes a good column sing.

Don’t resort to seize on something already in the press. It’s the refuge of idle kitchen table journalism. Assuming the original story was true, it gives added prominence to nonsense.

Like any argument, a good column is something that can be expressed in one sentence. If you can’t, then it’s likely to be dull. If you have problems with this, use a colleague to sound it off against.

Tackle something different. A feminist will provide an interesting take on hooligan boys.

The classic column states an argument, runs through the pros and cons, providing the evidence for and goring the case against, then concluding on a topic we’re now convinced is urgent. There are usually two to three pros and cons.

Using ‘most’, ‘often’ or ‘many’ implies some evidence has been considered. They can disguise opinion as fact.

Use English to your advantage. Acknowledge but skip over weak elements and use long sentences punctuated with short ones. Use stabbing syntax, with lots of dashes. Don’t be afraid to start with And or Or.

As Orwell pointed out, be clear and use basic language. Churchill’s speeches used moving and pointed words to move.

Tricks – like using strong images, colours, weather, food, smells or the cost of a bottle of wine will work more quickly than an elaborately crafted thought.

Add some numbers – no more than three or four sets.

Great columnists use the techniques of fiction and rhetoric to tell us what they believe is happening.