Joe Holley’s Advice for Writing Effective Columns


Today my students had a very special honor to get professional advice and wisdom from Joe Holley, columnist with the Houston Chronicle.

Joe Holley has been with the Chronicle since 2009, working on his dual-role as opinion writer: he is an editorial writer and keeps his “Native Texan” regular column.

During a guest lecture to COMM 4310 students, Holley described his dual and sometimes conflicting role as follows:

“In one of reader comments I have recently received, somebody told me ‘The only reason I subscribe to this wretched leftist paper rag is to read your column.’ I responded back “Do you know who writes the editorials of this leftist rag?”

Despite differences in writing editorials and columns, Holley spoke at large about commonalities. Here are some take away advice for young opinion writers:

  1. As a writer you need to have some sense of who your audience is!

“I worry that I might offend my audiences with my writing, thus I need to know them. Also knowing my audiences helps me choose the right cultural references,” said Holley.

  1. As I writer, I want to engage you!

This means making your audiences happy or sad or passionate. But you need to avoid boring your audiences. “I want you to know something more by the time you are done reading my column. Weather you love being entertained or informed, I want you to do something.”

  1. Both editorials and columns require sensitivity about how you write!

“You don’t want extra words in your opinion piece, it has to be tight. Especially avoid clichés!”

  1. You need to bring it from abstract to concrete!

“That helps you connect with your audience. You want your audience to see what you see, to smell what you smell, to hear what you hear. You need to show instead of tell!”

  1. Running helps deal with writing

“Once you are done with the writing part, go out and run. It will help you clear your ideas and come up with better ones. So, get up, leave it for a while, then come back to it again.”

  1. Be brave, if not outrageous!

“Find a way to connect with something your readers have not thought about”

  1. You need to read and read a lot!!

“This helps you write with a sense of authority,”

Finally, Holley claimed that the most important role of a columnist is to open a dialog and perhaps speak to people who think differently.

“Gun control will never happen in Texas. But, we want people to look at it in a different light. I wrote this piece knowing my audiences might not like to talk about it. But, we wanted to bring something to the reader that keeps them reading, something that resonates with them,” Holley discussed a recent editorial he wrote for the Houston Chronicle about the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

In fact, Joe Holley together with his colleague Evan Mintz, were the 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalists for their series of editorials on gun laws and gun culture in Texas. The nomination war for their editorials that combined with, eloquence and moral power in a fine brew of commonsense argumentation.”

Holley is originally from Waco, Texas. He got his degrees from Abilene Christian University, the University of Texas at Austin and Columbia University. He is also a former editor of the Texas Observer, a former editorial page editor and columnist for newspapers in San Antonio and San Diego and a staff writer for The Washington Post. He has been a regular contributor to Texas Monthly and Columbia Journalism Review and is the author of two books.


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