When the going gets tough, the tough get writing

Phil Castle

I’ve always believed that when the going gets tough, the tough get writing — sometimes about writing.

While there are no doubt prolific columnists who crank out compelling copy as if they’re making sausage, don’t count me among them. I’m more like Sisyphus, the mythical Greek guy condemned to forever roll a boulder up a hill only to have that big rock come tumbling down every time he nears the top.

For me, at least, writing a column is no less a Sisyphean task. I no sooner complete one column than the deadline looms for another. And it’s almost always a struggle. The whole troublesome process invariably starts with the same quandary: What do I write about this time?

Observant readers will recognize the pattern that’s developing. After putting it off for I don’t know how long, I finally wrote a column about avoiding procrastination. Stymied by writer’s block, I wrote a column about writer’s block. It’s not especially surprising, then, I fell back on a familiar strategy in deciding to write a column about writing columns.

This isn’t only about the meandering musings of a frustrated newspaper editor, though. There’s a point to my story, hopefully one of interest to business owners and managers. I’ll get to that.

First, though, let me affirm how grateful I am to work with columnists so willing to share their time and expertise with Business Times readers. The latest issue features no less than seven columns addressing everything from background checks to workplace conflicts to business plans. I like to say the paper offers news, views and advice you can use. It’s the columnists who offer advice and lend different and refreshing voices to the content.

I raised the subject of writing columns in an email exchange with Janet Arrowood, one of those columnists who’s as prolific as she is generous. Janet raised two basic and important points. Columnists must know what they’re writing about and possess an interest in the subject. Fortunately, the columnists who contribute to the paper literally make it their businesses to know what they’re writing about. Moreover, their passion is evident in the way they write.

I’d add four more observations about columns:

Columnists must write to their audiences. I could probably write columns about some of my other interests — scuba diving comes to mind. But as editor of a business journal, it’s both my duty and privilege to provide the best content I can to business owners and managers as well as others in the business community.

Columns must be compelling enough to keep readers reading. Otherwise, what’s the point? If some of them have given up at this point to move on to more interesting pursuits — flossing their teeth perhaps —this column definitely isn’t compelling.

Columns must offer the stuff of revelation. Good columns provide information, share insights and draw conclusions that leave readers scratching their heads over the implications. The best columns leave them slack-jawed in realization.

Personal columns like this one must be just that. Personal. Good columns can’t be written by anyone other than the columnists who do so. They bring to their work not only their distinctive styles, but also their unique experiences and perspectives.

To be clear, I make no guarantees about my columns. It’s up to readers to decide whether or not they’re good. But if a nearly 40-year career in newspaper journalism has taught me anything, I hope it’s the ability to recognize good writing when I read it.
And maybe, on occasion, write well myself.

Now, for that point I promised. I don’t know that it’s necessarily jaw-dropping. But I hope it’s worth pondering. Many of the attributes that apply to good columns also apply to the way businesses market their products and services.

While some of this is pretty basic, I believe it bears repeating:

Do you know what you’re doing? Are you an expert? Are you passionate about your business — so much so it’s evident to customers?

For businesses that serve niche markets, do you write to your audience? That is, do you tailor your marketing to your customers? Are you certain you know who your customers really are?
If so, do you connect with them?

Are your marketing messages compelling? Do they engage customers and motivate them to take action?

Do you reveal new information about products and services or highlight comparative advantages of which customers might not have been aware?

Is your marketing unique to your business? Do you bring a distinctive style to your approach? Some of the most successful businesses don’t sell products or services that are that much different or even better. But they do so in a way that’s far different that sets them apart.

See? When the going gets tough and it’s difficult to decide on a topic for a column, the tough get writing. Even it it’s writing columns about writing columns.

More to the point, when the going gets tough for those in business — and the going has been incredibly tough in the midst of a pandemic — I’m grateful the tough get down to business.