How To Be A Student Magazine Columnist

The monthly releases of Farrago magazine were the scariest moments of my first year at Uni.

Upon seeing a new cover grace the ubiquitous Farrago stands around campus, a spasm would rocket down my spine. At first, I’d hold back, preventing myself from picking up a copy. But with a deep breath, I’d take the plunge, pick up a copy, and flick through the pages in search of my name.

Each of these moments ended exactly the same way. After careful consideration of every page, I’d consistently discover that my submission had once again not made the cut.

By the end of first year, I had been rejected by the faceless men and women of Farrago half a dozen times. Sometimes I’d receive passive aggressive emails, chastising me for not reading the content list correctly. Other times I’d be met with stone-cold silence, the only communication between them and I being the words on the page that weren’t my own.

In late 2010, however, I was offered a second chance. With new editors set to take over the magazine, I knew I could start afresh. I wanted to impress them as best as I could. I wanted to become a columnist.

This is what columnists do

This is what columnists do

Up until this point, the only places I’d had my work published were a largely-unknown high-school magazine, and a Melbourne Demons football forum. While I was proud of these efforts, I felt unqualified to contribute – let alone become a regular writer – for Australia’s oldest student magazine. I didn’t think my application would get me anywhere. But I tried anyway.

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Three years on, I’m extremely humbled to be one of the incoming editors of this esteemed publication. In that time, I’ve been lucky enough to be a columnist three years running. The remainder of this article will reflect on my learnings from this experience, for the benefit of prospective Farrago columnists. To apply to become a Farrago columnist, or to join the 2014 editorial or communications teams, follow this link.

What is a column?

In a magazine or newspaper context, columns are regular sections that cover a particular theme, often written by the same author. Traditionally, they take up a column width of space – hence the name.

The wrong type of columns

This is what columns look like

I like to think of a column as a concept album, and the separate articles as tracks. While each track is unique and can be appreciated in its own right, it is best understood in the context of the whole album and to audiences familiar with the other tracks.

For example, Merran Reed’s “Psyched Up” (Farrago 2013) concept album explored the idea of social anxiety. She achieved this with individual tracks about fetish nights, Japanese bathhouses, and meeting heroes – among other adventures. Each piece was engaging in its own right, but the column worked well because of the strong thematic links between each piece.

Know the magazine and pitch your idea accordingly

When you pitch your writing somewhere, you don’t necessarily have to have experience writing for that publication. It’s a journalistic crime, however, to have never read your target publication. Your pitch must both suit the publication’s target demographic and fill a gap that the publication is missing.

Eeva Armand’s “The Bedroom Scholar” (Farrago 2012) was not only an innovative idea, but a clever pitch. Rather than sell a typical Uni-mag tell-all sex column, Eeva  produced a fascinating series of articles about the science behind sex. In doing so, she identified key things about the magazine (it commonly featured articles on sex) and its audience (it didn’t appeal to enough science students, something the editors wished to address) and put the two together. Voilà.

Fletcher Diamantis also achieved this with “Tram Tracks” (Farrago 2013). The idea was simple: interview tram passengers about what songs they had on their iPod. The column tapped into Farrago’s existing commitment to music coverage, as well as identifying a common trait among many Farrago readers – they catch the tram to Uni.

Before pitching your column idea, think about what the magazine does well and what it doesn’t do so well. Think about the people who read the magazine – who are they and what are they interested in? In regards to Farrago, think about Bailieu library; flat whites; Cinema Nova; student politics; goon; or the LMS. Of course your column idea doesn’t have to tap into this culture, but it’s a good place to start thinking.

What’s your perspective and why does it matter?

Before beginning any article, it’s important to think about what authority you have to write it. The same rule applies for columns. There are a million and one good column ideas, but only a few that a given individual could reasonably pitch. For instance, my status as a straight white male has prevented me from pitching columns from the perspectives of queer people, African students, or females.

Everybody is an expert in something, whether that be making origami or finding eBay bargains. Whatever your column idea, make sure you are able to justify why you are the right person to write it. And if you aren’t, think about how you can appropriately modify your idea so that you are.

A second rule applies here, and that’s to be creative. A female student who cares about women’s rights may be inclined to pitch a column about feminism. There’s nothing wrong with that, but now imagine the same pitch from an Islamic male whose progressive girlfriend converted him to feminism. Or from a conservative feminist who voted for Tony Abbott. Or from feminist who happens to be the only female in her engineering class.

The lesson here is to think about what makes you unique: perhaps you’re a mature-age student who lives in a sharehouse with twentysomethings, a socialist Catholic, or the only international student from Poland in your whole degree. These perspectives make good articles, but they make even better columns if you can take that perspective and apply it to a clever idea.

Can you write?

You can have a brilliant idea, a unique perspective, and a sound knowledge of Farrago, but that’s worth nothing if you can’t operate a pen (or a keyboard). A good columnist not only articulates their ideas with the perfect words, but delivers each column with a consistent structure and tone.

The best concept albums flow from one track to another so seamlessly you don’t even notice. Given that individual articles are separated from one another by a few weeks or months, achieving such a flow is far more difficult. In its place is the need for a solid structure, whereby each article in the series reminds you of the last – much like remembering an old friend.

I’m going to use this opportunity to pay tribute to “James Whitmore & Other Animals” (Farrago 2012). James’ column was predominantly about natural history and fauna – not the most accessible or mainstream topics. Potentially, neither of those topics would appeal to your average Farrago reader either. However, James’ ability as a wordsmith made his idea irrelevant.

To step outside Farrago for a moment, Danny Katz (The Age and Good Weekend) produces a couple of excellent columns every weekend. When I pick up the paper, his articles are the first things I read. Katz’s humour keeps me coming back, but his tone and structure are so consistent that I’ve continually satisfied by his writing, even when his gags aren’t great. Obviously you want to keep your audiences entertained regardless, but a good column will hook readers in and keep them coming back.

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As stated earlier, I have had the privilege of being a Farrago columnist since 2011. To read the succesful pitches I sent the Farrago editors for “Standing Up For The Short Guy”, “Life S’port”, and “Melbored?” – click on the accompanying links below.

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To apply to become a Farrago columnist, or to join the 2014 editorial or communications teams, follow this link.