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Thursday, December 8, 2022

Opinion: A whole bunch of nothin’

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How do columnists always have something to write about? There’s a new piece of analysis or commentary or biting opinion they can serve up every week — or even more frequently than that.

I’ve had this thought before. Mostly, it’s when I see people dish out the most piping hot take you’ve ever seen, and I can only assume it’s because they hit the end of the line. They’re out of opinions — or at least ones they can reasonably defend — and bam, done. I can only imagine some of them sitting down, opening a new Word document, sighing an expletive and thinking, “Well, time to tell people why I think doorways are too narrow.”

The problem is staring me in the face right now because the Recorder is working on a tighter deadline than normal for the edition of the paper this column appears in. That means I contacted everyone probably two or three days later than I really should have and asked if they can get me something sooner than normal.

The audacity!

First of all, this is free work, and let me prove to you that this isn’t lost on me. Larry Smith, who has propped up the Editorial page 700 words at a time for years now, met me for coffee one morning, and I made sure that even if we happened to get there at the same time and be in line next to each other, he wasn’t paying for my drink. Turns out, he beat me there, and now the only way I can take credit for the gesture is by saying what I would’ve done if I could’ve done it.

But these columnists, do they keep a notebook of ideas? Something in their back pocket or on the notes app on their phone?

9:50 a.m. — Saw man taking trash out. Bag broke. 3 cans Coors Light, 2 cans Miller Lite. Is brand loyalty thing of the past? What is my light beer ranking? Are IPAs actually terrible?

If they’re like me and a lot of other writers I know, they sit down at the computer and stare at Twitter until the “I really need to get this done” dread weighs too heavily. Then it’s just eight more minutes of Twitter and we’re back to that Word doc.

Good ideas probably have a lot to do with life experience, too. I’m 27, married, but that’s pretty much it. I didn’t have a grand revelation in another country or go through something so traumatic that it opened my eyes to a new way of seeing the world. And life experience probably doesn’t have to be on either extreme to be useful. I haven’t raised kids or even repaired a lawn mower.

You might think these columnists have the easiest job in journalism. Who doesn’t have a bunch of stuff stored in their brain that they can’t wait to tell you about? But you’re definitely confusing “columnist” with “someone who rants on social media.” Go ahead, scroll Facebook and look at the unhinged opinions of your friends and family. I don’t think any of them used an outline first or called a little-known government agency to make sure their heroic, 135-word post with 32 misspellings and a grainy photo had the facts straight.

This is harder than you think. It’s harder than I thought.

If you’re not convinced, give it a try yourself. I’m sure a lot of you can do it, honestly, but consider the time commitment. Consider also the other crucial element of a columnist’s job: fielding your tweets and voicemails and emails — usually 135 words with 32 misspellings.

Personally, I don’t care if you’re not all elegant writers because columnists probably aren’t very good at whatever it is you do.

And this brings me to my final point, which seems counterintuitive to everything else I have said. The job can be difficult, but columnists — like everyone else in the world — aren’t that special. They’re just people, which means sometimes they’re flat wrong. Tell them that; I don’t care. We’ve all signed up for criticism by attaching our name to the work.

Oh, look at that: 700 words!

Contact senior staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853 or email tylerf@indyrecorder.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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