Writing a column: things I’ve learned

by Rod Smith

“You and Me” is probably the longest running daily column by one writer in South Africa. Although no one appears to be able to confirm this, no one has suggested the name of another column that has lasted longer. The column was suggested and named by then Mercury editor, Denis Pather in March, 2001. Although we met for the first time in his office when I mooted the idea of writing for his paper, we have been friends since.

I asked for a “weekly” spot. He suggested it run daily.

Within the hour of our second meeting a headshot was taken, a design was confirmed, a price discussed and established, and “You and Me” was up and running within the next two days.

I have learned from the experience of appearing daily on your editorial page for 17 years:

• Readers develop the habit of reading the column and become faithful followers with many telling me it’s the only article they consistently read.

• Readers love to see their letters in print even after often ruthless editing. People tend to write very long letters, include far too many unnecessary details, and cover too many issues. My job is to boil each letter down to one central issue without losing the tone or the essence of the original letter.

• The smallest pieces of helpful advice can become cornerstones of change. It’s amazing to hear what sticks. It is often not what I regarded as important.

• Readers are often seeking “outside” permission to do what it is they want to do or to do what they know is right and good and wholesome.

• Some action or suggestion that feels radical to the reader may not seem radical to me. This often cuts both ways.

• Every reader has something to teach or show me, especially the readers who take the time to chastise me for my strong opinions or for my tone. These are often people expressing what I really need to hear.

• Readers sometimes express that they know me, and I often feel as if I know them, even when we know we have never met. The daily “meeting” with my writing in the newspaper gives a sense of intimacy (as if I am my work) albeit over thousands of miles. Many write about my children and ask about them with such loving warmth that is often moving.

Here, paraphrased, is something a woman said to me at a public meeting in South Africa in 2013 which made it all worth it: “I resented you when I was 15. My mother would cut you out and put you on my mirror. I grew up with you! Now I’m cutting you out for my own daughter.”

I was amazed to be inducted into the Circle of Valor (2013) for community service  in a community in which I have not lived in for close to three decades. It was my joy to travel the South Africa to receive this award. I think it speaks to the power of technology, the power of the written word, and the longing we all have to belong, to be recognized, and to have a voice and have it be heard.

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