Column: What Makes a Good Magazine Columnist?

Photography Credit: Dirk De Jager

I never thought of myself as a columnist. After over 30 years of writing columns for our magazines, however, I am at least guilty by association. (You would think a guy would run out of things to say in that length of time, and I have feared that becoming the case, but so far I’m plugging along.) Still, there are times I feel like an imposter.

Maybe that’s because I have never really cared for columnists. Like most of you, I grew up reading stuff by Brock Yates, David E. Davis and Peter Egan. Except for Peter–who really touched the way I felt about cars, and who it’s been my great pleasure to get to know just a little bit–I didn’t really connect with any of their writing. 

I thought David E. sounded downright pompous and talked down to readers like he was on some kind of permanent fantasy press junket. (I had the opportunity to get to know him, too, although just casually. He was super nice and complimentary of our efforts with this publication. I felt bad about what I’d thought of him.)

Not being a great reader at heart, I’ve always thought columns took up space that could be better devoted to other things. Don’t philosophize; teach me about another old sports car, or how to make the cars I have run better and go faster. There is one club magazine out there that at last count had 11 columnists. Eleven! Sorry, but no magazine needs that many columns.

I am no great writer, and I don’t feel worthy of shining the shoes of a guy like Egan. But I am cheap and available, and I’ve never missed an issue.

Maybe it’s because I’m not a great writer that when I started writing these columns, back at the tender age of 24, I developed some ground rules.

Rule number one was that I would try to never talk down to readers. That whole “you are the unwashed and we are up here in automotive nirvana looking down upon you” approach really turns me off. 

I also vowed never to preach. As I get older I realize that I do break that rule occasionally, but hey, I am trying to help you people!

I have always worked hard to treat our readers like family. This is pretty easy for me, since I like to get out and meet people. We hold several public events each year, and we often spend the other weekends joining you guys at your events. This openness and involvement is the way I like to live my life and the way I have tried to write these columns. 

Another rule: Never turn my column into a quick “look at what’s in this issue” listing. You can get that from the table of contents, so any columnist who just rehashes that is wasting a page.

I have gotten a lot of feedback over the years on my columns, and am extremely grateful that most of it has been positive. I do write back everyone who emails me. That just seems like the right thing to do–if I took the time to write someone, I’d expect them to write me back. 

I’ve had people tell me they cannot believe how personal I get in my columns. Some have told me I helped them feel better about something–this is the ultimate compliment and keeps me moving forward.

I’ve had some highs and lows, too. Some columns got scrapped before they saw the light of day, while some clunkers have snuck through, especially when I’ve been too busy to write a better one. 

Naturally I have my favorites, but I don’t spend as much time thinking about it as I probably should. I’ve gotten the most feedback on columns that were the most personal–topics like 9/11, my son being born, and my dad dying.

I don’t think much about what I will be remembered for, but I doubt it will be for my writing. That’s okay. I would rather be thought of as the guy who came up with ideas like the sports car versus minivan track test and our $2000 Challenge events, the latter which helped start crap can racing. Even better, I hope my legacy is as the guy who built that cool rotary Spitfire and that crazy Tornado Typhoon.

Hopefully all that remembrance stuff is still a ways off. In the meantime, drop me a line and let me know what you want me to write about, either in this column or elsewhere in the magazine.

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Comments
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Frank Calandra
Frank Calandra New Reader
10/28/20 2:05 p.m.

I enjoy your columns, Tim.  With DED, Jr and Yates gone, and Egan enjoying a well-deserved retirement, the pickings are mighty slim. The car mag business has changed greatly, as I'm sure you're aware, and the once mighty titles I've loved for decades just don't hold much interest for me anymore.  I depend on Classic Motorsports to serve my car nut needs, to inspire me to keep my Spitfire and not replace it with a Prius. I miss being able to stop by your kiosk at the Glen vintage events, renew my sub, and exchange pleasantries. If things ever get back to normal, maybe I'll be able to do that again. Keep up the good work. It is much appreciated!

Frank Calandra, Webster, NY.

frankcalandra49@gmail.com

759NRNG (Forum Partidario)
759NRNG (Forum Partidario) UltraDork
11/12/20 8:29 p.m.

JOHN PHILLIPS 

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