The accidental columnist
By Elizabeth Underwood, CIPR Education and Skills Committee Member
Sheffield primary teacher Steve Eddison didn’t set out to be a columnist. So how come that for 14 years, he’s been writing a fortnightly column for ‘teachers’ bible’ the TES? As well as reading his thoughts and tips, listen to a CIPR Education & Skills podcast below to hear how Steve’s column came about.
Fifteen years ago, a colleague asked Steve for his advice. She wanted to write something for Sounding Off, a column that ran in the days when the TES was a paper rather than a magazine. It gave teachers the opportunity to vent their feelings about an education issue that was irritating them. Steve’s response? Keep it light hearted.
Shortly afterwards, the TES invited Steve to write a piece for the Give us a break column. It took three attempts before Steve had something accepted. More TES commissions followed. In his early days as an occasional TES writer, Steve overlapped with regular columnist Ted Wragg. When Ted wasn’t available, Steve was sometimes given the opportunity to fill in for him. When the paper became a magazine, Steve was asked to write once a fortnight.
Here are Steve’s nine tips for establishing your voice as a columnist and coming up with ideas.
- Know what you’re writing about. The publication has chosen you as a regular writer because you’re an expert. So write about things you know inside out – and reject ideas that you would have to research.
- Stick to the brief – that’s what the publication you’re writing for will expect. Steve’s brief is to write about the relationships between staff and children at school – and that means not getting distracted by teachers’ workload, the curriculum or SATs.
- Write in your own voice. When you’re starting out as a columnist, ask a few people who know you well to read what you’ve written. Is your voice in print the same as your voice when you’re speaking? If not, start again.
- Capture ideas the moment they come to you. If you don’t, you’ll forget them. Expect to discard some of them later. When he’s in lessons and staff meetings, Steve notes down anything he thinks would make good copy.
- Get all your ideas out of your head and onto the screen or page first. It will be a total mess and won’t fit together properly, but don’t worry. You’re not after the finished article at this stage.
- Leave the first draft alone for at least 24 hours. Only then should you start to edit and redraft. That might involve refining a sentence here and changing a word there – or changing the structure completely. Sometimes you’ll only need two drafts. Sometimes, you’ll feel you’ve been drafting forever.
- Think about your readers. They deserve your best work. If you find yourself thinking ‘That’ll do’, it won’t. OK isn’t good enough. Before you click ‘send’ to submit your final draft, be satisfied it’s the best it can be.
- Leave your final draft alone for 24 hours. Then give it a final read so you have the chance to make any minor changes before you click ‘send’.
- Expect the publication to edit what you’ve written. That’s their job. Whoever edits your copy will chop bits out (including the bits you are most attached to), change the title (if you’ve included one) and shift the paragraphs about (even making your ending the opening paragraph).
Steve’s nine tips in three:
1. Know your subject inside out
2. Write in your own voice
3. Make every column your best writing
Listen to this CIPR Education & Skills podcast to hear Steve tell his story in his own words (18 minute listen). The podcast includes Steve reading To Hull and back, his hilarious account of a trip to The Deep, a huge shark-shaped aquarium overlooking with River Humber, with 30 five- and six-year olds. You’ll also hear the answer to the question ‘Why has the oldest and least mobile member of staff (Steve) been put in charge of the slipperiest and most agile child (Dylan)?’
Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveEddison and read his column every fortnight in the TES.
Interested in more that the CIPR Education and Skills Committee have to offer and say? Check out our upcoming Purposeful Social Media event on 17 May.