Good Advice Always Comes Too Late

ERNEST B. FURGURSON

January 03, 1992|By ERNEST B. FURGURSON

WASHINGTON — Washington. - After intruding on the breakfasts of innocent people for years, I happened, too late, upon a second-hand book titled ''How to Write Columns.'' I bought it, and stuck it on the shelf for a rainy day.

Today's forecast includes afternoon showers, so:

Olin E. Hinkle of the University of Texas and John M. Henry of the Des Moines Register and Tribune offered their advice to would-be columnists in 1952 via the Iowa State College Press, so it has a down-to-earth touch. They open with suggestions about column titles, for example ''Roamin' the Range,'' ''Farmer Peck's Wife,'' ''Rambling Roses and Flying Bricks'' and ''The Office Cat.''

They have a chapter on ''Style -- and the Light Touch.'' It notes that, as of '52, ''For reasons too involved to discuss fully here, young women often object to being called 'good girls.' It is the adjective which offends.''

Even before the Great Enlightenment, our authors' consciousness had been raised so high that they worked in a section on ''Women as Columnists.'' They list women's interests, as suitable subjects for women columnists:

''1. Engagements and marriages; 2. Household management; 3. Beauty care; 4. Fashions; 5. Rearing of children; 6. Health and safety; 7. Clean government and good moral conditions; 8. Women's clubs and organizations; 9. Entertainment and recreation; 10. Public welfare; 11. Religion, and 12. Education.''

Without comment, I move on to the chapter on ''The Paragraph,'' which means the column in which single snappy paragraphs try to convey complete thoughts. Example: ''Rubbing elbows with a man will reveal things about him you never suspected. So will rubbing fenders.''

That gem from the Grimes (Iowa) News made me regret that I had not turned to Hinkle and Henry on earlier rainy days, of which there have been plenty.

I could have profited from their advice on ''Developing a Column Personality'' and on the use of anecdotes, essays and verse -- for instance this modest offering from the Lebanon (Ohio) Star: ''I hate to see a puppy's tail/With nothing much to measure/For what is there for him to use/To indicate his pleasure?''

But everyone who has spent time on the squirrel wheel called a column will recognize that all the foregoing is just wrapping for the hard core, for what sounds like the most valuable rainy-day present conceivable -- ''One Hundred Column Ideas.''

Helpful as this sounds, the chapter is a letdown to anyone facing deadline, because the list implies thought, perhaps even work, before writing. Except for a few samples in an appendix, Hinkle and Henry are too shrewd to flesh out ideas they themselves might have to fall back on some day.

No. 1: ''Departments. Some writers classify materials by divisions or labels. Examples: Edge-of-the-seat department; Room-for-research department -- Did bridge drive men to golf or did golf drive women to bridge? . . . ''

No. 9. ''The weather. . . . Columnists who neglect it do so at a sacrifice in reader interest . . . ''

No. 12. ''Apologies . . . ''

No. 99. ''Exaggeration. . . . Some popular writers attend picnics and then report on them like this: 'The most delicious basket lunches in the world are served by those wonderful, wonderful women of the Blank community.' It does not seem to matter that similar adjectives are handed another group a week later. . . . But the writer's appreciation must be regarded as genuine.''

And finally, No. 100. ''Candor . . . ''

Without benefit of Hinkle and Henry, I was naive enough to try that one first. I started in high school with a jive-talk record column called '''Reet n' Sweet'' and a heavily Walter Winchell-influenced effort called ''Sportscoop.'' Then I did one called ''In This Corner'' in my hometown semi-weekly. After a long detour into straight news, I started offering my opinion in The Sun 23 years ago.

I have tried candor, exaggeration, the weather and poetry. I have even tried to seem sincere when offering apologies. As regular readers will agree, I still haven't got it. Had I opened Hinkle and Henry much sooner, no doubt I would have soared higher.

But my failure has not been from lack of study. It's hard to believe, but I have read even more columns than I have written, enough to know a good one when I see it. As a public service, I will cite some of those next time out.

Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.

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