Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Writing a column: harder than it looks?

On the eighth anniversary of my first column in Business Daily I thought it would be good to reflect back on the 225 or so articles I have delivered since then. It was not too long after the paper was launched that its then managing editor, Nick Wachira, succeeded in twisting my arm into becoming a regular contributor. He wanted me to submit a weekly column, but I balked. Indeed I thought I was being foolishly ambitious in even agreeing to the tyranny of a fortnightly deadline.

As I thought about possible topics that could fill my regular allotment of 1,000 words I fully assumed I would run dry in a year, maximum eighteen months. Yet here I am, still churning out my twice-monthly thoughts, with little prospect of writer’s cramp setting in. It means that as I go about my business, as I read an article or a book, hear a talk or participate in a workshop, or just engage in a casual conversation, I’m constantly scanning for ideas. Fortunately, no restrictions are placed upon me: I can write about whatever I want, and so far nothing I have submitted has been rejected – or even changed.

It’s very satisfying, and it has become a normal part of my life. It’s a great feeling when an idea for a piece suddenly strikes me, and then I can hardly wait to hit my computer and get going. It was George Bernard Shaw who described inspiration as ‘a blank piece of paper’ and other than now replacing the paper by a screen he might have added the need for a deadline. For necessity is indeed the mother of invention, with the columnist’s deadline un-negotiable.

Quite often as I start hammering away I have little idea of where the story will take me, never mind of how it will end. Sometimes I fear that what I have to say will consume considerably less than the thousand-word quota, which means I must force myself to create the balance – and without waffling. Then on other occasions I overflow my limit, so I’m forced to chop precious phrases and sentences – a painful exercise. Always though, at the bottom left of my screen I am kept helpfully informed of how many words I have consumed so I know how many more I need to manufacture.

Once I get launched with my first paragraph I tap comfortably away, happily developing my theme. And when eventually I key in the concluding sentence I feel a nice mixture of achievement and relief. But before I send the package off to my editor I let it sit for a while, typically overnight, before casting my own stern editing eye over the product. I spot the odd typographical error, cut a bit here, add a touch there, introduce a more interesting verb, remove a superfluous adjective. It’s the less exciting but equally important work of polishing the language and sharpening the flow. Finally off it flies into cyberspace, sometimes with me suffering a twinge of anxiety, wondering if I should have checked that extra fact, read through the text one more time to make sure that all was well, but at least knowing my editor will not be banging at my e-door about delivery.

When the day of publication comes I buy the paper and turn to page nine, to see how my article has been laid out, what picture and caption have been added, and what headline has been placed above it. To the right I scan down the “Other Voices” column that completes the page, nodding at the pictures of world leaders that sit there along with mine. (Which reminds me, I must submit a new one of my present aged self, as the one I sent eight years ago still features.)

Finally, the feedback from readers – of both the print and the online versions. One, an old friend of mine, sends me a long mail after each and every article. He tells me whether he liked it or not, sometimes hammering me for having been too technical or insufficiently something else, but more often reacting with at least some enthusiasm. He also writes about incidents I’d reminded him of from his own rich and long life. Plus about anything else that’s been on his mind that week.

Sometimes I receive a brief text from a reader, sometimes a substantial mailed commentary. Only once has a reader been really mad at me. It was in reaction to an article I’d written about what Kenya had to learn from Rwanda and the man, a Kenyan expatriate living an obviously miserable life in Kigali, wrote to tell me that Kenya had absolutely nothing to learn from that place. After a few further grumpy exchanges we were forced to agree to disagree.

It was an article I read some time ago in the New York Times that gave me the idea for this one. The author challenged his readers to list all the original ideas they had, and then to write an article about one of them. “Perhaps you’d be very successful at this,” he accepted. “But now imagine doing it for four weeks,” he continued, “then for two months, then six, then a year, then five years. And all this while pursuing your other activities. How do you think you’d fare?”

The writer wouldn’t go so far as to say his readers would be sure to fail. But he admitted being left with a grudging respect for columnists. “It really is a lot harder than it looks,” he concluded, adding that he couldn’t imagine how he’d cope with the demands of staying fresh for a regular column. Thank you sir. That makes me feel really good.

And now I see I’m approaching my 1,000 words so I must stop… or I’ll be chopped.