How to Write Your Own Advice Column

Writing an advice column sounds fun and easy. Until you think about being responsible for the thoughts and actions of the person who takes your advice. Then it gets a little scary. None of us are omnipotent, all knowing. After all, how often do you take your own advice?

If you want to be an advice writer (and you don’t have some kind of background in therapy, psychology or anything else to particularly give you credentials) you can break into advice writing by doing it yourself. Start your own advice column.

Writing your own advice column will take a lot of promotion of yourself and the column you write. Be prepared to put yourself out there, especially if you tend to be the quiet type versus the social butterfly. If you really have a hard time with the social side then round up a friend to be your PR (public relations) person. You’re going to need friends to get you started in other ways too. Who do you think will be writing those first letters for your advice?

Finding a Niche for your Advice Column

These days, when there are already lots of advice columnists, you will need something to make yourself different. This can be your witty sense of humour, but it might be simpler to start out with a theme. I especially like the idea which started Dead Advice (though the site is now dormant).

Think about your own background, the things which interest you and consider a topic which you can sustain over a long time. Something you can keep fresh and have new opinions and ideas about for a long lasting column. You might focus on people fresh from divorce – if you have experience in that area. You might focus on new Mothers – if you have been a new Mother yourself. You might give advice to Grandparents, from the perspective of a new Mother.

Perhaps your advice is less personal and intimate, career oriented or more about how to do things than writing about feelings and emotions. You might write advice for people who work in office cubicles, customer service, online craft sellers, freelance writers, musicians, inventors, dog lovers, figure skaters, tourists, fast food vendors, beauty school drop-outs, any career, business or hobby. There are endless genres and topics and circles of people which you would be suitable to give advice.

If you really aren’t sure what niche you could fill, think about the last time you gave someone advice. Who did you give the advice to? What was the situation? What made you feel competent to give the advice you gave at the time?

When Giving Advice…

Read the question carefully, more than once. Understand what is really being asked under the emotions, the frustration or negative feelings expressed. As you begin your reply work in the original question, repeating back the information in order to make clear communication.

Stay focused on the main question, the point of the advice asked for. Don’t wander off topic into your own personal issues or agenda. You don’t need to judge your readers, lecture them or over explain things and make them feel belittled or stupid. Give them options for moving forward, whatever the problem may have been. Give them empathy and ideas, stay optimistic rather than discouraging them.

Give the reader different view points, a fresh perspective and help them see solutions which they may have been too close to the issue to see themselves. Show your readers the skills they have (and may have forgotten, or taken for granted) which could help solve the problem. Often people just need someone telling them to focus on what they do have, rather than what they don’t have. To look for what they want to find, rather than focusing on the things they don’t like.

If you don’t know the answer, or the question is somehow more than you can handle, don’t just answer it anyway, hoping for the best. Write back to the reader, explain that they are asking too much from an advice column but also, offer them other resources where they can get trained/ skilled help.

Get Writing It!

When you know what you are going to write, it’s time to decide how you will write it. This is the same for any writer in any topic. Should you choose a newsletter, a weblog? What about a podcast? Maybe you want to create a zine (an independent print publication)? The format should be something that will work for you. Consider the ups and downs of each and decide which of them you can work with and distribute to readers/ listeners.

At first you will have to begin your advice column with letters you write yourself for advice, or get family and friends to take this seriously and write the letters for you. Unless you are trying to write a humourous advice column, don’t start out with tacky, soap opera sounding advice requests. Begin as you mean to go on, as they say.

As you answer the advice you will find your voice, your tone, your personality and your perspective. Try at least a few practice letters before you begin to publish anything. Having your niche isn’t enough, now you need to find your style too. Are you practical and sensible, witty, sharp, or even abrasive? Is your column going to be snarky, for the point of making fun of people or genuine and sincere?

Whatever voice and style you choose, make sure you can maintain it for the long haul. You also want to develop loyal readers. People who will make up your fan base and stick with you each week, or as often as you publish. In order to find readers who stick with you and believe in your advice you need to be both visible and predictable as a publisher. Pick a publishing schedule and stick to it. If you need to be away, announce it first and give a return date. Answer comments from readers on your posts or in your forums, contact forms, etc. Try to answer every reader comment in less than a week and give readers an expected response time when they leave comments. Respond quickly and give them the feeling of having your personal attention and being someone you wanted to reply to.

Don’t forget to actually ask readers to send in their questions for your advice. Never assume people will understand this without being given instructions. Use a contact form in your blog for people to send you questions. Or, give them an email address which you have created just for the advice column. (You can set up a new email address on Gmail or another web account for free). Give instructions for asking advice in the top of the newsletter/ site and give the instructions again at the end of your site/ newsletter. (Don’t use the same text – write it differently for people who didn’t understand the first instructions for whatever reason).

Treat your readers well, promote your column and give good, authentic advice from a real human being – those are the important things for publishing your own advice column. Good luck and have fun with it.

Writing Roles According to Skyword

Writer roles defined as per Skyword.com

Blogger
Regularly contributes to an online discussion or information site

Columnist
Reports on trends rather than news; writes on the same topic regularly

Journalist – Feature Writing
Writes for newspapers and magazines and creates in-depth, human-interest articles that go into detail about a particular subject that may or may not be closely tied to a current event.

Journalist – News Writing
Writes for newspapers and magazines and creates short, to-the-point pieces that report on a particular current event or issue.

Catalog or Product Description Writer
Specializes in creating succinct, accurate descriptions of products based on research of product attributes, features and benefits.

Academic Writer
Writes to inform and to further their reputation in their field, in scientific journals, university magazines, research, and other professional journals.

Copy Writer
Specializes in promotional copy, such as brochures, press releases, web copy, and advertisements.

Technical Writer
Produces instruction manuals and other supporting documents to communicate complex and technical information more easily

Editorial Writer
Writes with purpose to influence public opinion on a specific issue in categories such as politics, religion, economics, etc.

Business Writer
Experience writing memorandums, reports, proposals, contracts, and other forms of writing used in organizations to communicate with internal or external audiences.

Creative Writer
Experience writing short stories, novels, novellas, and poetry.

via Writing Experience – My Writer Profile | Writer.

Advice Column Writer

I think I would have enjoyed being an advice column writer. But, I’m not sure I would have been able to see things from every point of view, predicted every reaction and then been comfortable telling people what to do and have the responsibility for whatever happens, the fall out. That’s a bit scary. As an advice column writer you want to do more good than harm and yet, you can only know as much as you are told in one letter. There is always more to a situation and hidden details that could change your whole point of view (and the advice you would give) if you knew more.

Of course, that’s why most advice columnists (if not all of them) write a statement pretty much explaining they are not omnipotent and can’t take responsibility for whatever happens to people who take their advice. It does sound like a bit of a cop-out. Here you are, giving advice and then telling people you aren’t responsible for it. However, it would be stupid not to have that kind of statement. There is no way one advice columnist (especially those who tend to give pretty biased advice) can know every eventuality and accept blame for whatever happens.

Still, it would be an interesting writing job. I’d do it. I think I would even give good, sensible advice. Unless I was having a bad day, got a bit too cocky and full of my own powers or became angry and then lost my perspective.

Remembering HerCorner and the HerPlanet Network

Over ten years ago I wrote a site called HerCorner as part of the HerPlanet network of sites for women.  Included in the site I wrote were writing exercises, short ideas people could pick up, try and move on with their writing day. I kept all of them on the same page. That way, if the first idea didn’t do much for any one reader, the next or the next would eventually work for them.

 

Here is the list, taken from the Wayback Machine, because HerCorner (my HerCorner) hasn’t been online for more than ten years now.

Try this: Take one intense emotion you’ve experienced (pain, fear, lust, anger) and give it to a fictional character. Make sure the character is not you. Create a scenario and involve another character as an antagonist or co-protagonist.

Try this: Describe an historical event that intrigues you. Use the perspective of someone who was really there but on the sidelines. How do they take part in some small way?

Try this: Write about the path not taken. Start with something you did today but imagine your day if you had made a different choice. Just something as simple as missing your bus, taking the other route, wearing a different shirt, etc.

Try this: Blogs are popular online now (online journals and scrapbooks) try writing your own ‘about me’ page for your blog. How much or how little would you say about yourself? Keep in mind the flavour of a blog:  informal, opinionated and creative.

Try this: In honour of Valentines Day, write a really steamy love letter to someone real or imagined. Be shameless and daring, make it lusty and full of passion. Have fun with it.

Try this: Write about your perfect vacation. Where would you go, who with (or alone), what would you most like to do and how long would you stay away, if you could?

Try this: Try writing a short story without using the letter ‘e’. It’s much harder than it sounds. ‘E’ is the most often used letter. If that’s too frustrating, just pick a different letter to avoid. Work your way up to ‘e’.

Try this: Design a game. If you can draw add those too. But, game design starts with an idea and a story or plot to focus all the characters and play on. What kind of game would yours be: strategy, racing, role playing…?

Try this: Think of something you were really angry about and write a letter to whoever was responsible. Be as bitchy as you can. Don’t send it, just write it. 

Try this: Write about your Christmas traditions. What are you favourite things, things you miss and things you can’t wait for?

Try this: How would your day go if it was a disaster?

Try this: Imagine you’ve just moved. Consider the people or person who lived in the house before you. Write about their life and the home they made there. 

Try this: Take your journal/ diary on a road trip. Write at least 3 pages in some location you have never written before. If you don’t keep a journal just bring along some paper and write!

Try this: Write about silence. Whether it’s a brief pin-prick of time or a long, drawn out moment, write about absolute silence.

Try this: Try to make a list of the best things you like about yourself. List at least 10 things. Don’t cop out either, you’ll know if it’s an honest list or fluff. Don’t cheat yourself or sell yourself short.

Try this: Write a weblog or online journal. Write one entry knowing masses of unknown people will be reading it. Write another as if your daughter or Mother were reading it. Lastly, write an entry no one will ever read but yourself. How much do you feel comfortable writing about yourself, who you are and what you really think? 

Try this:  Write a haiku about writing. Remember, a haiku is a short poem with 3 lines which have 5, 7, and 5 syllables. A haiku captures a specific moment.

Try this: Something really extraordinary has happened (a dragon gave you a treasure hoard, you won the biggest lottery jackpot ever, aliens from space came down to ask you for directions, etc) now… how do you get anyone to believe you? Physical evidence is not enough, you might be crazy enough to make that up yourself. 

Try this: 1001 (or at least a hundred) uses for – last year’s calendar, a worn out toothbrush, roadkill, stale bread, flat pop, dirty laundry, AOL CDs – pick one or come up with your own.

Try this: Write about something you lost. Give it an adventure, what happened to it after you lost it?

Try this: Randomly pick two ads from the personals in your local newspaper. Give them a story, does it all work out or is it a complete disaster right from the start?

Try this: Consider your website (or your computer if you don’t have a site) and put together a FAQ (frequently asked questions) page all about your site. Don’t forget a guide to how to use the site as well as the purpose for it being there. Study a few other FAQs to get ideas.

Try this:  Write a simple poem then change it to show happiness, fear, anger, love, and sadness. What words will you use differently? How will you change the rhythm of the words?

Try this: Write an advertising slogan or jingle for your favourite junk food.

Try this: Write a grocery list for a character in your story.

Try this: Write something for the holidays, a family newsletter, a scary story or a mushy love letter.

Try this: Pick an inanimate object, something ordinary like a light bulb, a coffee mug, or a carpet, and give it life. What does it think, feel? Answer as many who, what, where, when, why and how questions as you can. Then the real challenge, can you edit it down to just a few sentences?

Try this: Write a poem that could be placed on a spacecraft like the voyager, a poem that would explain to someone unfamiliar with the whole human race who we are, where we’ve been, why we act the way we do, and so on.

Try this: Use something you have written recently. Run a spellchecker over it. If any typos or spelling mistakes come up make note of them. Now, if your software has a grammar or style checker run that too. What kind of mistakes does it pick up? Write those down and find out how to fix them. Now, rewrite your original article or story. Run the same checks again and see if anything new comes up. Keep track of your most common errors and learn from them. You don’t have to be a grammar, punctuation or spelling queen but you should know your weak points and focus on them in your work. That way you will be the one in control and your quality of writing and communicating will improve.

Try this: Pretend you’re someone else. Choose someone you admire or someone you think interesting. Now write as if you were that person. What would their writing style be? What would they choose to write about? 

Try this: Set an alarm clock to go off in 5 minutes. Sit with paper and pen (or computer keyboard) in front of you and don’t write anything at all until after the alarm goes off. Once the alarm sounds write as many ideas down as you can. 

Try this: Write backwards. Begin your story from the ending and work your way back to the beginning. This way you’ve already finished writing your story, you just need to add in the details and in betweens.

Try this: Try writing like a theatre script. Show each action you want your characters to make and give stage directions. Now, take all that out and just leave dialogue. How much stage direction do your characters really need and how much is just extra stuff? Could your dialogue be getting lost in your stage directions?

Try this: Write a letter to someone you are angry or upset with. Spew at them, full force. Write all the things left unsaid, or the things you wish you had said at the time. But, don’t send the letter. Keep it as a journal entry, for your eyes only.

Try this: Suddenly you have dropped back in time, no explanations or warning. Do you see dinosaurs, druids, castles or pirates? Write about your first impressions. Don’t forget the who, where, smells, sounds, etc.

Try this: Write a fictional biography for yourself. Have grand adventures, scandalous love affairs, skeletons in your closets, secret criminal activities, and so on. Once you have it done re-work it to 300 words. Not more or less than 300.

Try this: Write an essay for a time capsule to be opened in 30 years. What would you tell yourself or whoever opens your time capsule then? What would you write about, yourself, life in the year 2002 or something else entirely?

Try this: Pretend you are a gossip columnist. Write about a recent personal encounter. Don’t use any names of people, places or things. How does that change your writing? Make you more aware of who, what, why, when and where? 

Try this: Think of a place you feel passionate about, somewhere you have been often, whether its your favourite bookstore, garden or town. Now, write a journal about the trip. Include all the details like how it sounds, smells, your favourite spot or thing, where you found free parking, where’s the best view? Tell someone else all about your place, as if they were going there themselves.

Try this: Create a character with a secret to confess. Write their journal entries over the days, weeks, months they keep the secret. Show how it affects the people in their lives. Why do they continue to keep the secret? How does it affect them?

Try this: Practise paraphrasing. Take a large block of quoted text and pare it down to the bare essentials. This is a great skill to have for interviews or your own writing (if you tend to be wordy).

Try this: Find a newspaper article you feel passionate about and write a letter to the editor. Write as if you are going to send it in to be published, think carefully of each of your points, make sure the style is professional and then actually send it in.

Try this: Write a letter to one of your ancestors, someone you have never met but have heard something about. Or make up an ancestor. Tell them all about yourself, who you are, what makes you the person you are. 

Try this: Write a letter to someone from another planet. Tell them about life on Earth. Describe everything to someone who may not know what air is, who has never heard of the fast food concept, etc. 

Try this: Write out your favourite joke (or fairy tale or poem). Then rewrite that narrative as a tragedy, as a limerick, as a haiku, as a serious academic treatise, as a breaking news story, or as the script for a music video.

Try this: Eavesdrop on a conversation, capture a snippet of it in your mind. Write a story or scene using dialogue only. Since every scene in every story should contain conflict, you’ll want to keep this key concept in mind.

Try this: Watch something happen in public and remember what it was. Try and remember everything and write about it in detail.

Try this: Do a full character analysis. Create a real person: how they walk, the colours they like, who they most admire, where their family came from, their Mother’s maiden name, do they have a zit today and so on. 

Try this: Your character is suddenly blinded and danger still abounds. Focus on those senses you might normally neglect when writing.

Try this: Design three tools, inventions, or customs for your science fiction or fantasy world.

Try this: In five hundred words or less, choose a superstition or old wives’ tale and describe how a character of your design came to learn it and/or who the character first remembers teaching it to him/her.

Try this: Choose a favourite fable, fairy tale or literary story.  Pick a character (not the main characters) and tell the story through his or her eyes in five hundred words or less.

Try this: Write a poem describing the colour red to someone who has been blind from birth. Keep in mind, this person has never seen the typical things like fire, the sun, etc which you could use as a comparison. If poetry isn’t your thing, write in prose but try to be lyrical.

Try this: Pick out your favourite tape or CD and put it on. Sing a long, dance, pretend you are one of the backup singers or the singer herself. Put energy into it and go wild. Dress up like a rock star, grab a make-shift microphone and sing out loud. When you feel charged up write something. 

Try this: Write about a dream, real or imagined. Be vivid. Dreams tend to jump around since they don’t have to make sense or be guided by rules of time and space.

Try this: Get away from your usual writing place. Go outside, get a coffee at the local diner, sit in your car and write. You may find it hard to adapt to the change but it could bring you all new perspectives.

Try this: Verbs make the world go round. With that in mind write a story where the characters are running out of time or involved in an extreme sport. Keep the action sharp and crisp with verbs. 

Try this: Try a short word challenge. Write a short story using only words that have six letters or less. Really great practice at keeping it simple for anyone who tends to use ten dollar words when a 10 cent word would work just as well.

Twitter Tweets #30ThingsAboutMe

Twitter bares their soul with the hashtag #30ThingsAboutMe.

How far would you go with a post about yourself, something personal, on Twitter? I wouldn’t post this list to Twitter. Although I’ve posted personal thoughts before I wouldn’t want to make that many posts in a row there. Also, I do feel there is a line I won’t cross when it comes to how personal and in depth I want to go about myself, especially on Twitter.

Writing this list is like coming up with 30 diary entires. Short, but to the point.

So, here is my list:

  1. Soap operas turn themselves on my TV most afternoons.
  2. I have way too many books, non-fiction, which I haven’t read yet.
  3. I always thought I couldn’t draw, until I started to sketch and got better at it.
  4. I like cute socks and clever brooches.
  5. I haven’t had a bath since I was 30. I love showers.
  6. Rainy days make me want to get out for a walk outside.
  7. I drink tea when there isn’t coffee, usually just to be nice.
  8. I’m missing a tooth towards the back.
  9. I still have the Raggedy Ann doll my Mom made me.
  10. Blue might be my new favourite colour, I always thought it was red.
  11. Onions, especially raw, make me very sick.
  12. I prefer Winter to Summer because I don’t like being too hot.
  13. Wearing purple or red makes me feel better if I’m having a bad day.
  14. Growing up I always wanted to be a newspaper columnist.
  15. If my neck were longer I’d always wear dangling, sparkly, chandelier earrings.
  16. Buttermilk is possibly my favourite thing to drink.
  17. When I buy a new book I never get the first one in the stack.
  18. People who put other people down are a pet peeve of mine.
  19. Running Ubuntu Linux is great, but I miss my Windows games.
  20. I have asthma and I’m allergic to mildew, animals and other things.
  21. I like to sew, even mending clothes and hemming things.
  22. I taught myself to crochet and then forgot how to do it.
  23. I’m a hand washer. I am not afraid of soap and water, even in public.
  24. There really is no where I’d rather live than Ontario, Canada.
  25. I’d travel to Russia as my first stop of a world exploration tour.
  26. It wasn’t a dramatic event, but I stopped believing in god last year.
  27. I like to explore old, abandoned buildings and I’m not really sure why.
  28. People who claim they are easily bored really annoy me.
  29. I don’t like arrogance, even from people who are THAT great.
  30. When someone uses foul language, I think less of them.

Start a Plan to Get Where you Want to Be

What kind of writing do you really want to do? For me it was a newspaper (or some other medium) columnist. I still would like to do that but it seems a long step from here to there. I’m not sure where the connecting steps are. Or, I’m just not ready to test my wings and risk falling down on that first  hard concrete step.

If you aren’t writing the way you want to make a plan, just for yourself and put it on paper not a secret blog post or email to yourself. Go back to one of the traditional forms and write it longhand on paper with a pen. No pencil, you can’t erase this! Give yourself a plan, with at least a few steps you can take today and this week and this month.

At the end of the month see where you are from where you were. Did you make progress? Even a little progress is going forward, don’t belittle your own efforts. Any progress keeps you from falling into a rut or just running in place with your head above water.

Members of the Media

In the columnist message boards at BackWash, someone said “Don’t you just love the media.” They meant it sarcastically in reference to how an interview was handled. But, what they didn’t consider is that WE ARE the media.

I think a lot of writers take shots at ‘the media’ and forget to count themselves among them. Do you? Have you thought of yourself as a writer or publisher or member of the media in general today?

Well you are. Each time you put something out there for the masses to read you become the media. We may not all carry cards saying we are writers or publishers or editors, etc. But, that doesn’t mean we aren’t just one more member of the media.

Anyway, the discussion in the boards was about how someone was credited in an article. That is something to consider as you write an article using sources for information such as quotes or statistics. Always make sure you know how your contact sources want to be credited and then do your best to see that it comes out that way in print.

On the other hand, when you are the contact, make sure you tell the writer how you want to be credited. Make sure they have your URL along with your other information. Make sure they know it’s important for your website to be included as part of identifying you as a source of information for the article.

If it comes out in print you can’t do much to change it. You can get them to add it to a future issue but that’s not very useful without the rest of the content of the article. However, if it’s on the web you can get them to update the HTML or text quite easily, it just takes a moment of their time. So there is one more benefit to writing for online publications.

Well, members of the media, that’s it for this week.

Is your Meter Running?

Meter is one of those words with several meanings. It’s a measurement of size, though we spell it metre in Canada. It’s a device like a parking meter, measuring time. It’s also measurement of rhythm and pace.

According to my Funk Wagnalls dictionary, a meter is:

“A measured rhythm constituting one of the chief characteristics of verse.”

Meter isn’t just for poetry. There is some form of poetry in our fiction and nonfiction writing. The words you choose, how you arrange them and how they sound when they come together, are all part of writing something people will want to read more of. Think about it.

Recently in the BackWash message boards PussNBoots, one of the Adult columnist’s said:

“Every writer searches for their own ‘voice’. The best way to find it is to write. Also, pay attention to the voices of writers you admire. Read their work out loud to hear the rhythm and meter. Listen to why they chose particular words.”

I thought that was brilliant. Reading your work out loud is the best way to check it’s meter, the rhythm of your words. That doesn’t mean you need to make your writing longer or chop it down, just choose different words or arrange them differently. See how your words flow, does the rhythm change or get monotonous? Is it dramatic and fast paced when you write about action? Or are the sentences you use kind of long and clunky? Do you tend to start sentences with the same pattern or rhythm? Vary your sentence structure.

“Tom went to the market, at Guildwood, everyday” Could be “Everyday, Tom would go to Guildwood’s market.” Not great examples but you get the idea, I hope.