After three years of writing at the Andrew Breitbart-era Breitbart, then over five more at Townhall, plus some books and freelancing from the 1980s to the 2000s, aspiring writers will ask me what they need to do to be a conservative writer, and I get sad. I get sad because I know the answer is the one answer they don’t really want to hear.
You have to write. As my friend Michael Walsh says, it’s “Behind in seat.” Except he doesn’t say “behind.”
Get the “writing” part down first. Then you add the “conservative” component to what is already hard work. No, it’s not hard work like doing construction or carrying a rifle and rucksack are, but if it was easy everyone would do it. And only a few people are so inclined to take on the challenge. Most people have more sense.
If you want to get published as a conservative writer, here’s the good news. There’s always a market for good conservative writing. Content truly is king, and if your stuff is good – and sometimes if it’s mediocre – someone somewhere will publish it. The bad news is that the going rate for new writers is nothing, and everyone is always willing to pay the going rate.
So, you want to get published in a place where your work will get seen, and you want to get a check out of it. As a kid, I wanted a pony. Actually, as a kid I wanted a M16A1, which never showed up under the tree, but that’s not the point. The point is sometimes you are not going to get what you want right away. I did get that M16A1 though; I just had to carry it around in a desert. But it is possible to get published and get paid. You just don’t get it by wanting.
You need to produce product conservative outlets will want enough to pay you for.
Let’s start with the basics. Obviously, know your outlet and start somewhere.
You need to make sure your brand of conservatism matches the site you are considering. If your Twitter bio (Advanced Tip: Use social media to publicize your work) reads “TRUMP #MAGA TRAIN!!!” then perhaps The Weekly Standard is not your venue, but you might consider climbing aboard that sinking cruise ship if you are the kind of conservative who feels Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse need to tone down their inflammatory right-wing rhetoric in favor of a more bipartisan, conciliatory tone.
Once you identify an outlet you want to write for, get its writers’ guidelines and do exactly what they say. You don’t get to break the rules. If it says pieces must be 500-700 words, that’s what your audition piece – because you are auditioning – needs to be. On the technical side, proofread it carefully, then get a pal to proofread it too. Email it to the person the guidelines tell you to send it to with a short cover letter explaining why you are qualified to write it. Be confident, but not arrogant. And be professional. A solid writer provides good work consistently by deadline in near-final form (Yes, they will copy edit, but ideally they will find few typos). Oh, and don’t be a pain – a lot of writers are, and they tend to not last long.
Mechanics aside, do you have something to say? Have something to say. Often, I’ll get asked by a new conservative writer to look at a piece, and I ask what it’s about, and the writer will reply, “It’s about how liberals suck.” I like the premise, sure, but that’s not an article or a column. That’s a book. Or a series of books. Ann Coulter has made a career on that general topic, and it’s a well I draw from on a regular basis. But it’s not an article or a column.
Narrow your focus. Tie the concept to an event happening right now – be topical and save your evergreen think pieces for when you have a following that will indulge a more leisurely take. Be fresh, even on a subject that everyone is writing about. Take Hillary Clinton, who I often refer to as “Felonia Milhous von Pantsuit.” (Advanced Tip: Catchphrases can help set you apart from the pack) You might almost think that there is nothing left to be written about that dizzy diva and her epic flameout, but she’s always coming up with some embarrassing new scheme to steal back a sliver of the limelight she so desperately needs. Find one little aspect of her horribleness, like her toleration for abusers on her staff even as she poses as The Champion of Womyn, or how Democrats are terrified she might try to make it a failure trifecta by running in 2020, and zero in. Be clear. Be focused. Be different from all those writers who submit a wet noodle when the editors are looking for a cold steel scalpel.
Every line in a column should “hit” – the reader either nods at an insight or laughs at every single line. Every. Single. Line. Chisel, then polish your sentences until they gleam. There’s no room for flab in a column. You’re a conservative. Think of sentences that do nothing for the article as Dreamers living here on welfare. Deport them.
Be merciless. You may love that line you crafted about Donald Trump and Steven Miller being two of the four horsemen of the liberal apocalypse, but if you delete it no one is going to miss it.
Here are some other tips.
Do not try to sound smart. You will sound dumb. Focus on writing clearly.
Obey the Rule of Threes. When listing things, list three. Two is too short, four gets clunky. For example: “Even in her forced retirement, Hillary maintains her unique ability to be simultaneously vacuous, condescending, and smarmy.”
Specific over general, vivid over bland. Always use a specific image where you can, including by using proper nouns. Write vivid phrases that pop on the page, not ones that convey the idea blandly. Avoid: “Hillary walks around the woods drunk and depressed.” Instead: “Her Majesty staggers between Chappaqua’s oaks, sobbing and clutching a half-empty screw top bottle of Chuck Shaw Chardonnay.”
But then that’s my style. Yours won’t be quite the same. So what? Keep at it. Develop your own style, so that people who read your piece will know it’s yours without ever checking the byline.
And, most important, write. Write write write write write. That may not be the answer you wanted to hear, but it’s the answer every aspiring conservative writer needs to hear.