Writing a Column for the New York Times Is Harder Than It Looks

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

Any day that I have a column coming out in the New York Times is a good one. The megaphone of the Times' edit page is rather ridiculous. I'm half-expecting Kendrick Lamar himself to text me -- not because the column is so extraordinary, but because a shocking number, and range, of people read it. I've never seen anything like it. This causes no small amount of stress when I'm writing. I don't want to embarrass myself by saying something lazy or stupid. And I also want to sound good.


I'm always flattered to get tweets or comments from people barking at Andy Rosenthal to give me a job. This conveniently overlooks the fact that I have a job, and that the edit page has a full roster of columnists. But more than that, it ignores the fact that my writing for the Times is rather irregular, and that I endure none of the pressures that a Gail Collins or David Brooks must cope with.

Here is an exercise: Spend a week counting all the original ideas you have. Then try to write each one down, in all its nuance, in 800 words. Perhaps you'd be very successful at this. Now try to do it for four weeks. Then two months, then six, then a year, then five years. Add on to that all other ambitions you might have -- teaching, blogging, writing long-form articles, speaking, writing books. etc. How do you think you'd fare? I won't go so far as to say I'd fail. But I strongly suspect that the some of the same people who were convinced this would be a perfect marriage, would -- inside of a year -- be tweeting, "Remember when that dude could actually write? Oh that's right, he never could write. #lulz"

I end up recycling ideas in my own blogging, and blogging is a much more forgiving form. I can't imagine how'd cope with the demands of staying fresh for a regular column. The point I'm making isn't that you shouldn't criticize columnists at the Times (I've done my share of criticizing), but that you should have some sense of the built-in structural limitations of the form. They are formidable.

Those columns generally take me three to five days to pull together. They are a good bit of work. And then there's the fact-check the night before they're published. So while I appreciate the compliments, and I really do, I'm actually left with a grudging respect for the job of columnists. It really is a lot harder than it looks.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/02/writing-a-column-for-the-new-york-times-is-harder-than-it-looks/272968/