The Five Signs You’ve Written a Bad Column

A handy checklist for everyone labouring in the content mines trying to avoid becoming a national Twitter joke.

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Mar 27 2017, 3:47pm

Still from 'The Hand That Rocks the Cradle'

Writing a Bad Column is every columnist's worst fear. We may say we're afraid of creeping fascism/creeping shariah/creeping avocado-based brunch restaurants or whatever our pet cause is, but the real worst-case scenario is opening up Twitter on a Sunday night to discover everyone on the planet is just absolutely fucking roasting you for publishing something dumb.

It could happen to any of us. It's been a long week but you've still got a deadline and there's nothing really going on but your editor is shooting emails at you with all the fury of J. Jonah Jameson demanding photos of Spider-Man so you just gotta bang something out and hope it doesn't end in a lawsuit. Or there's some huge story that demands instant reaction but it's not really in your wheelhouse and your head is kind of up your own ass a bit anyway so you write some really tedious hot take where it's obvious you didn't actually think too hard about the issue and also maybe that you've got some weird hangups about sex.

Every time some mildly fuddled writer publicly self-immolates because they flew too close to the sun, remember: there, but for the grace of God (and my editor), go I.

Fortunately, thanks to years of sleepless nights lost to pathological social anxiety, I have come up with a handy five-point checklist to keep you out of harm's way. As far as I can tell, the checklist can never fail—it can only be failed. If you keep these five fails in mind while writing, you will never go astray.

1. Is the column about attempting to illicitly dry-nurse a stranger's baby at a house party for no reason?

The first thing to ask yourself is: what is the point of what I am writing? What is the argument I'm making? Where is my thesis statement? If the point of the article is to convey that you either don't understand or don't respect extremely basic cultural mores surrounding consent and maternal intimacy, that's fine. But you should state it clearly near the top of your argument so that it can guide and support the rest of your piece, in the same way that you should gently support an infant's head as you try to shove your useless nipple in its mouth.

2. Is the column about attempting to illicitly dry-nurse a stranger's baby at a house party for no reason?

You need to make sure, especially when tying together several separate anecdotes, that there is some thematic connection between the things you write about. So, let's say you want to challenge the conventional bourgeois morality dictating who should or should not breastfeed an infant. Excellent. But, outside of "I am fascinated by breast milk," there is no real connection between "the mothers in our friend group found that our young infants did not discriminate between which one of us was feeding them and it taught me something about communal parenting" and "I found a baby in a coat room when I was 25 and said 'fuck it, let's see where this goes.'"

Put yourself in the reader's position; it's tough to follow a disjointed argument.

3. Is the column about attempting to illicitly dry-nurse a stranger's baby at a house party for no reason?

Even if you're writing about personal experiences, the column shouldn't be all about you—at least in the sense that it seems like it was just written to toot your own horn. Like, OK, we're glad you got to hang out with MP Michael Chong at a boozy bougie Toronto dinner party at the turn of the millennium. But is this story a lurid confession about being so sick with baby fever at 25 that you pried a stranger's baby from its crib in a delirious emulation of motherhood? Or is this just a cloying effort to re-assert your own personal relevance because of your marginal and horrifying relationship to a C-list Canadian political celebrity?

In order to let your subject speak, you have to get out of the way.

4. Is the column about attempting to illicitly dry-nurse a stranger's baby at a house party for no reason?

You need to make sure your column is true. I can't stress this one enough, and not just for ethical reasons. Journalists are ethically obligated to convey the truth—even if it is a partial or polemical or partisan or subjective truth, even if it's done through the medium of creative non-fiction. Even if it's opinion, you should be able to defend it and back it up with substance. If you want to make up an interesting story, take a crack at short fiction.

But it's also important to make sure you have your facts straight because you look like a dumbass if your account of a real event is problematic. For instance: you need to make sure that Michael Chong actually did have an infant son when you describe finding his baby in a darkened room and trying to put your boob in his face. According to recent profiles of the Conservative leadership candidate, he would have been childless in the year 2000, so, readers are left with questions like: did this happen when the author says it did? Is the author entirely accurate about her age? Did she confuse Michael Chong's baby for someone else's baby?

For these and other reasons, honesty is always the best policy.

Update: Since publishing this column, Chong has confirmed the incident happened, although the timeline still appears a bit fuzzy. 

5. Is the column about attempting to illicitly dry-nurse a stranger's baby at a house party for no reason?

You have to take what you're doing seriously. I know writing about all the wild things that happen in this crazy mixed-up world seems like fun and games—especially when you're making a living at it, let's be real, this gig feels like a fever dream sometimes—but writing is a serious and noble profession. The stakes can be surprisingly high and it's important to use your platform responsibly. Your work should strive to be useful, informative, and/or funny—but in its content, not as an object lesson in catastrophic personal failure.

Please check yourself before you wreck yourself and stay safe, friends. God bless.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.