How to write a column

John Gapper and Sathnam Sanghera

As part of your content strategy, a good column will gain loyal readers and give a real boost to your brand. But good columns are hard to write. Sophy Buckley gets top tips from two of the best in the business: John Gapper of the FT and Sathnam Sanghera of the Times

Lucy Kellaway’s final column in the Financial Times after a 25-year career bashing ridiculous management speak, theory and practice received more than 340 reader comments. The pink paper subsequently published two readers’ letters, including one from a senior executive at Starbucks, a company she regularly took aim at, which itself got 60 reader comments. Clearly, she was good.

Newspapers, magazines and company websites abound with blogs and columns all vying for attention. They spout opinion, cite research and offer scorn (sometimes praise) in a vain attempt to get the reader’s attention. I say vain because a column is literally the cult of personality; it’s a platform for one person’s opinion.

When they work, columns can spur readers to action, influence politicians, elicit change. If they catch the mood of the moment they can be a powerful force – think of those devoted to the apparent coldness of the Royal family after Princess Diana’s death 20 years ago. They prompted the Queen’s early return to London.

In content marketing, a column is a valuable tool. Readers generally prefer to follow people and personalities rather than third-person organisations. And returning readers will tell their own followers about excellent columns they’ve read on your website. The best business blogs ape the professionals; some of those who write regular opinion pieces and blogs have told us about the benefits.

Temenos, a FirstWord client that builds digital-banking platforms, produces opinion pieces for its own website on a number of themes and often has its PR company place them in relevant media. These pieces are well received and Ben Robinson, chief strategy officer, says they are a strong part of the marked increase in website traffic and significantly higher sales conversion rate.

But regularly great columns are hard to find – and success is not always guaranteed, even for a star writer. There are, though, some sensible guidelines to bear in mind, and we’ve gathered them from some of the best in the business.

John Gapper, associate editor and chief business commentator at the Financial Times, says there aren’t any exact rules for a good column but it’s important to be original and grounded in research.

“The reader is busy and deserves something new. They’ve got to come away with a clear idea of what has been said and why,” he says, adding that a good column can often be summarised in one sentence. “Why Amazon is winning and Walmart is losing, or this chief executive must go. It should shed light.” However, he warns, being original does not mean being contrarian. “The readers always see through it.”

For Sathnam Sanghera, who has been writing a business column in the Times for the past 10 years, the formula is even more difficult to pin down. “It’s an inexplicable chemistry between the writer, the timing, what you’re saying, where it appears and the audience.” He cites the example of Julie Burchill, who was enormously successful at the Guardian, but “didn’t quite work” when she appeared in the Times. She was eventually dropped.

In business, the author might be brilliant at the day job – running the company – and communicating in the business world. But transfer them to the written word and things get sticky. This is often because they rely too closely on advice from PRs and marketing people. Journalism has a different approach, a different pace, a different language.

In a piece giving advice to anyone wishing to submit an op-ed article, the FT writes that a good piece sharpens the reader’s opinion on something important. “Since we aim to stand out, we reject pieces that fit in. Make it personal. Tell us something that others can’t, be funny or trade on who you are… Public relations people make you sound like a press release, so give them the day off. If any like-minded person could have written your piece, then assume someone has.”

This is good advice, but can be tough for companies to follow while they are shackled to over mentioning key messages and management speak. But when they do jettison the PR and marketing burble, companies such as Temenos find they reach far bigger audiences and have a greater impact.

It is harder, perhaps, to identify what to write about. Despite being a multi award-winning writer, Sanghera admits that he never knows quite which columns will be popular. This year he wrote that Pizza Express was his favourite high-street restaurant and says this one column has generated more feedback than anything else he has ever done.

When pushed, he divulges that a good column will be truthful and reflect the writer’s personality and idiosyncrasies – something the Pizza Express column did well. He also advocates humour, although this should come with a health warning (see below).

“A good column has to have an element of humour. My whole career at the FT and the Times has been based on that. Business is needlessly dry, which can be unrelenting,” he says. Strangely, he thinks good writing is not a core ingredient. “Sometimes a brilliant writer will just die, and someone less brilliant becomes a cult. I’m drawn to Liz Jones [of the Daily Mail] like a car crash,” he admits. For Gapper, it’s more about entertainment than humour.

Great columns, whether written by a journalist or an executive, deliver well-structured opinions, often via superlative storytelling, delivered in a timely manner with plenty of research. The subject should be compelling and the comment insightful, particularly where the topic is not new. As the FT’s advice points out, people want to read something that informs them, gives them a new perspective or even makes them angry.

A recent column by David Brooks in the New York Times, headlined “How Trump kills the GOP”, sent a shot across the bows of the Republican party.

The column is beautifully written, timely, well argued and personal. It is also angry and sends a message to the GOP that its failure to stand against the white supremacists is a betrayal of its founding principles (the party was founded to fight slavery) and may be its very undoing.

It’s brave stuff, and something businesses can emulate. Brooks cleverly couches his criticism in lots of positive comments. This enables him to make his point without being offensive or strident. In addition, the medium – the New York Times – is hardly going to be a hostile host. It might not have gone down so well on Fox News.

But according to Sanghera, it’s important to stick your neck out sometimes, perhaps somewhere unexpected. “I really respect anyone, businesses included, that puts their neck on the line with an opinion. If they take a risk, good for them. At least I’ll know who you are,” he says. This means considering appearing in media that might not first come to mind.

Simon Jenkins, former editor of the Times and London Evening Standard, is a good case in point. Today he has a regular column in left-leaning the Guardian. In 2010 he used his Guardian column to argue that the Falkland Islands should be handed back to Argentina. He had previously written in favour of the Falklands war, when Britain fought Argentina over the islands’ sovereignty.

Being bold can work, then. But to carry this off you need to back up your stance with facts and figures. As Gapper said, research is critical.

Martin Wolf at the FT is a master of the well-researched column. His work will be full of data and include graphs to make his points. Take a look at this on how the developed world is losing its edge.

There is always a tone of voice that can be found to express a strong opinion, while couching your language to tone down the controversy. But it’s important to remember that a column is still an opinion. Quoting opposing points of view really helps with gravitas and understanding, and keeps the whole balanced. But use it to continue to explain why you think otherwise. “I don’t like seeing ‘on the one hand’ and ‘on the other’,” says Gapper.

It’s also good to include colour – this might come from personal experience or observation and may be an anecdote or a description. If your column is raging against long queues at tills, set the scene by describing a long, frustrated line where everyone suddenly dumps their chosen items and walks out in disgust.

And a good column will inevitably take time. Sanghera says it can take him days to write a column and he admits that his first took him three weeks when he stood in for Lucy Kellaway at the FT. Part of the time is taken up with research, but it’s also about getting the writing right. The tone, the flow, the argument itself. “I’m still very slow,” he admits. “I take two or three days. Stopping and then going back to it.”

For Temenos, and plenty of other companies like it, columns are a well-established part of its marketing effort. The investment pays off in a higher profile and greater thought leadership. They are definitely worth the trouble.

In a nutshell…

  • Know your subject. Research, research and research some more.
  • Edit your subject down to one good point so that you can make it clearly and really well. If there are multiple facets, consider a series of columns.
  • Keep it to 800 to 1,000 words. More than the upper limit and you risk repetition, less and you’ll struggle to mount a reasonably sophisticated argument.
  • Carefully consider your tone. Dry might put off readers. Amusing might undermine your case. Critical might alienate your target audience.
  • Work out your structure. That one good point still needs to be introduced, backed up with three supporting planks and given a conclusion.
  • Keep it balanced, truthful and legal. Criticise by all means, but don’t attack.
  • Make sure the piece chimes with reality. Use real-life examples and descriptions to paint a picture readers can appreciate.
  • Keep the writing sparse and avoid sub-clauses. Short sentences tend to work better than long ones.
  • If you get stuck, take a break. Let the idea percolate for a day or two. Perhaps look around for inspiration and read writers you like and admire.
  • Always carefully read over what you have written and don’t file in haste. Once it is finished, step away for a while. Return for a final read through before filing.