How to (kind of) make it as a M&G columnist

 

 

THE FIFTH COLUMN

This is my last column for the Mail & Guardian and I thought it fitting to share with any young writers out there how I — if not scaled the heights of newspaper column writing — rose from obscurity to fill a small space at the back of the opinion section once every two weeks.

I started with a blog — and I started angry. In 2010, on a blogging platform called Thought Leader, I focused residual teenage angst that seemed to bubble up at the age of 30. The blog did pretty well and peaked, I thought, when a 5FM DJ tweeted a post. What I hoped would be a tipping point that would propel me to the holy grail of print publishing turned out to be my second to last entry — a rant against a major religion bringing things to a close. The first time I made contact with the paper again was many years hence.

So the blogging route didn’t work out for me and I advise others without the qualifications or people skills to reach the upper echelons of casual column writing to try a different approach — write to the editor. “Bombard with” is probably a better description. Repeatedly send ideas, then entire pieces that you think constitute carefully considered columns to the opinion and analysis editor. And copy in the editor-in-chief if you have the confidence (I didn’t).

There will be rejection in the form of no replies, which will haunt you for days. Keep going. If a column on Apple’s Siri word choices gets no reply, send one on a new R&B song that grew from the simple idea that, in South Africa, Rihanna would probably be spelled Riana. When your Riana piece gets published, look for your name in print while standing in Checkers, wondering when security is going to tell you to buy the paper if you want to read it.

You’ll find your name (eventually) and might think that your career is up and running. Think again. More sending of much reviled unsolicited ideas will have to ensue, and at least two more pieces published before the happy day when a document called a contributor form arrives. Now you’re in. Print, sign, scan, send and do what is called “file” a piece for four years until they ask you to stop.


If you follow this path you would see four editors come and go, but not shake the hand of one of them. You’ll grow close to the copy editor, saying horribly inappropriately how good it is to hear his voice when speaking to him after the Christmas holidays. You’ll gauge the quality of your work by whether the paper tweets about it and assume it’s trash when it doesn’t. You’ll wonder when the paper is going to promote you to the front pages, wonder when The Guardian, The New York Times and The New Yorker are going to invite you to write for them because your name is in print every two weeks.

Young writer, these are “grandiose ideas”. You have to let go of them.

If these things do happen for you (as I still hope they might for me) it’s fate. If not, the universe has other ideas.

l Thanks to everyone who read my column over the past four years, and to the M&G for giving me the opportunity to write what I please. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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Hans Mackenzie Main
Hans Mackenzie Main
Writer/Columnist at Mail & Guardian

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