Al Alborn

Al Alborn

Sometimes writing my column is easy. The words fill my head while I drive around Prince William County, and I rush to write them down.  

Other times it’s hard work. This is one of those times when ideas aren’t coming as quickly as I like, so I thought I would share my 10 rules for writing columns. I developed them writing for InsideNoVa over the past five years.

1. Target 600 words plus or minus a couple.  Kari Pugh, an InsideNoVa editor, gets full credit.  When we met to discuss a freelance gig and she agreed to bring me on, I asked, “How long should a column be?” She said between 400 and 800 words. Compromising at 600 became my goal.

2. Always start with around 1,000 words. This gives me something to work with. I liken it to working with a piece of marble. Once I get a large “chunk” on my computer, I take away the bits the subject matter doesn’t need. Hopefully, that results in something beautiful. Sometimes my hopes are aspirational.

3. Try not to talk about myself. This is harder than it appears. I usually mention myself often in the 1,000-word version of my column. Then, I “chip away” unnecessary personal references.

4. Sometimes I am the story. In that case, I ignore rule #3.

5. Don’t write about subjects that have been “beaten to death” already in the news. The only exception is if I believe I have something new to share.

6. “Throw a grenade”  every now and then. A “grenade” is an outlandish idea that makes people think. These are usually my most successful columns. Two of my favorites are “Should the county be split in two?” and “The county is named after a butcher; it’s time for a change.”

7. Measure success by writing something people want to read. It doesn’t matter if people like it or hate it as long as they read it. The best columns result in passionate responses. “The county is named after a butcher” was my most successful “grenade.” It was also the most hated thing I have ever published. InsideNoVa had to turn off comments because of the angry vitriol it produced. “Snakes must have sucked your brains out” will go down as my favorite quote. The author of that comment obviously felt passion after reading about the good Duke and my suggestion we dump his name. I may have that one engraved on a plaque to hang on my wall.

8. Mix it up. Folks who have been reading my column might have noticed I enjoy interviews, like to write about interesting things in Prince William and occasionally share some personal experience or insight. I get the most positive feedback on the very personal columns.

9. Don’t expect to “move the needle.” I’ve written a few political columns, but as a cynic regarding government, I understand decisions are usually made behind the curtain.  Government then spends time convincing the public that those decisions are the right ones.  Consultants with expertise in sales are often called upon to help sell the tougher decisions.

10. Don’t reply to comments. The gentleman who edits my column (and prefers not to be mentioned) advised me once after a string of particularly negative feedback to ignore it and move on to the next column. That’s what I do these days.

Mission accomplished! I managed to grind out a column when I didn’t really have anything to write about. Now it’s on to the next column. I have an idea.

Al Alborn is an award-winning columnist and member of the Virginia Press Association. His column appears every other week.  You can learn more about Al at and LinkedIn.

(1) comment

Paul Benedict

Nothing worth commenting on here.

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