And now for an A N Wilson - but don't try this at home

`How do you know what to write about?' they ask, as if writing a column involved thinking!
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The Independent Culture
IT'S THE time of the year when letters start coming in from eager young things about to embark upon that hot academic discipline of our time, Media Studies. They've passed their exams. They've chosen their core modules - usually the films of Quentin Tarantino or a deconstruction of the Papa-Nicole advertising campaign. Now they have to select at least one course related in some way to the written word. Some choose the style novel, others the press release. All too many opt for a foundation course in column-writing.

Goodness knows, one tries to be encouraging, but the naivety of these people is nothing short of frightening. They seem to believe that a columnist gets up in the morning, makes a cup of coffee and just sort of "writes". Not for a moment do they consider that, like any other aspect of the modern media, the creation of a column is a complex, highly sophisticated form of communication involving a vast network of technical support systems and research engines.

Admittedly, the profession is less of a closed shop than it used to be. Until recently, the Guild of Columnists insisted upon a three-year apprenticeship of local training before one was allowed to take a sideways look at life on a national scale. Some of us found nothing wrong with this system: writing captions for the legendary "Bootiful Baby" competition in the Diss Express or venturing a hard-hitting critique of the Hedgehog Rescue scheme for the Bury Free Press never did me any harm. By the time an 800- word mood piece concerning the decline of the brown hare caught the eye of a features editor, I was ready for my big break.

Today it's all different. A few questions - "Can you get a table at the Pharmacy using their private VIP line?" "Do you know Will Self and/or Tara Palmer-Tomkinson?'" "Are you pretty?" - and you're in. Such is progress.

Interestingly, it's the question of subject matter which most intrigues the students. "How do you know what to write about?" they ask, as if writing a column involved sitting down and thinking very hard! The truth, of course, is that all of us depend upon a comprehensive back-up service, that much of the craft of the job lies in knowing how to use the technology.

The initial process is simple enough. On the morning of a column, one goes on- line, accessing the relevant website (http//:www. columnaid) and punching up the subjects of the day. Today, for example, almost all my colleagues will be looking at available themes under the "Princess" heading. Glancing at the many hundreds of lines, I can see that several - "Caring nation?", "Death of charity", "Top 10 conspiracy theories" - have been taken, while one or two - "The caring face of Al Fayed", "Time to give paparazzi a break?" - remain available.

Because there's fantastic rivalry for these headline themes, with some columnists getting up as early as 7am to reserve one, or "bag a line" as it's known in the trade, other columnists will be opting for lighter subject- matter.

Scrolling down, I see "Posh and Pregnant" ("Scary - the truth about unmarried showbiz mums", "The bulge as design accoutrement", "Is this the end of marriage?") and "Feltz - Fab or Fatcat?" ("Are women taking over broadcasting?", "The irresistible rise of confessional TV", "The bulge as design accoutrement"). Relatively unpopular are "Cool Britannia Reaches Track and Field" and "Porn or Politically Correct? The Fringe Exposed".

But the problem with reducing columns to this simple form is that students become convinced that, with basic computer skills and an introduction to Will Self, virtually anyone can do it. They fail to see that choosing a columnar personality is as complex as the selection of a role for an actor. Should you be the old-fashioned lefty betrayed by Blair or the ever-popular, no-nonsense voice of commonsense? What happens if, having elected to write a sickeningly frank running commentary on your miserable home life and incipient nervous collapse, you enter a disastrously contented phase?

Finally, there's the question of opinions. It's not enough merely to have strongly-held views on virtually everything; your views must change rapidly and unpredictably, so that, at any given moment, they will baffle and enrage even the most loyal readers. A master of the column, notably the great A N Wilson, can actually take a position, oppose himself, and end up where he first started, all within the same article.

But this is a complex and dangerous manoeuvre, running a high risk of rupture, and should only be attempted by third-year students.

Miles Kington is on holiday