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The Last Windrow: Reflecting on 40 years of writing columns

Columnist shares a few tips on writing a long-lasting column

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Who would have thought that a comic strip written by a third grader would lead to that kid writing a published column for 40 years? 

Not me! But it happened that way.  

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One of my editors recently asked me how I managed to write a column a week for nearly 40 years. Where do my ideas come from that generate the ability to find some words to put together each week and keep readers turning the page to read that column? 

Well, I go back to that comic strip one of my classmates and I wrote together in our upstairs classroom in 1954. At the time I thought we were funny, but looking back we really were just dumb kids having fun. 

But, I discovered then that writing was actually fun, and I've written stuff off and on for the rest of my life.  

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I told someone one time that I could write a column about a cornflake if I had to. Somewhere in the crevices of my brain a thought would surface about that cornflake. 

How was it made? Who ate it? Did the flake provide any positive energy to the eater? If so, what happened when the cornflake was devoured? 

I could go on from there, but you get the idea.  

I firmly believe, at least in my case, that one must write about something they know. Readers can easily detect if you don't know what you're writing about. You can't really lie on paper. 

People look up things just trying to prove you wrong. And I really hear about it if my grammar and punctuation fall short, which it does more than I like to admit. 

I have friends who are English majors and they derive some joy in finding my snafus. But, they are goodhearted in their comments and I do like to know that someone is paying attention!

My first college English assignment was to write a three-page article about something. Since I was a young duck hunter at the time, I chose to write my paper about the dwindling duck population that was occurring at the time in the pothole country of the Dakotas. 

A drought and increased farming had depleted the nesting areas, and the duck population took a nosedive. I got a B+ on that paper. My professor actually thanked me for bringing the issue to her attention. 

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But she didn't give me an A, which I thought at the time I deserved.  

I had a similar experience a couple of years later when I wrote a theme paper for my South Dakota State creative writing class. I was quite sure I'd hit the mark until my paper came back full of red marks. 

That professor had no sense of humor and promptly gave me a C grade. She told me that if I were ever to write for a living, I had to buckle up. 

I thought I should have had an A for that paper too. But writers all know that they are at the mercy of whoever reads their words, and judgments can be critical at times. 

You develop a thick skin if you write for money.  

John Wetrosky
John Wetrosky (2022)

As for my editor who asked how I come up with columns every week, I offer this advice to those who might want to try it. 

  • (1) Write about something you really know about or have experienced firsthand. 
  • (2)  Don't use words that your audience can't understand. 
  • (3) Stay away from politics unless you want to alienate one half of your prospective readers. 
  • (4) Don't miss deadlines. 
  • (5)  If you decide to pick a fight, get ready for rebuttals. 
  • (6)  Try to find some humor in the common things in your life. If you look hard enough, you'll find some. 
  • (7)  Watch your grammar and punctuation. Editors don't like to edit every word.   
  • (8) Have fun! Writing is the most freeing thing I've ever discovered!  

I loved writing that first comic strip with my friend in third grade! Somehow that feeling has never left me. We even caused our teacher and a couple of fellow students to laugh!  

See you next time. Okay?

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