St Croix River Road Ramblings

Welcome to River Road Ramblings.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Writing a weekly newspaper column

Rambling into 2012?

Dictionary Entry: “ramble.” Part of Speech: verb. Definition: talk aimlessly, endlessly
Synonyms: amplify, babble, be diffuse, beat around bush, blather, chatter, depart, descant, digress, divagate, diverge, drift, drivel, dwell on, enlarge, excurse, expatiate, get off the subject, go astray, go off on tangent, go on and on, gossip, harp on, lose the thread, maunder, meander, prose, protract, rant and rave, rattle on, stray, talk nonsense, talk off top of head, talk randomly, wander.

As the River Road Ramblings blatherer-in-chief, we try each week to meet the spirit of the above dictionary definition, spurred on by reading the list of synonyms, we labor mightily to produce something new, exciting and rewarding to you.

However, year end is a time for reflection, a time for resolutions of self improvement. Thus, we pause to consider the future of the column. This week you can share in what goes into the yet unmade decision whether we continue for another year or not.

We will diverge for a moment to tell you about the “writers we.” Newspaper writers, kings, popes, and doctors tend to use the word “we” when we really mean “I” or “you.” Dr. Hyde asks “and how are we feeling today?” This started with kings who believed they were divinely chosen to rule and so when giving a new law used “we” to indicate God and I (the King) are behind it. We newspaper people rate our authority only slightly lower so too use “we” sometimes when we mean “I.”

Next I should tell you about digression, one of the definitions of rambling. A good writer sets a theme or goal for his writing—where he is headed and goes bull headedly in that direction. One of my rambling columns may head off with good intentions to get somewhere, but then wanders into side trips along the way making the journey more important than the arrival.

My favorite rambling book is “Tristram Shandy,” a free e-book found on the Internet written in the mid 1700s, where the author writing his own story takes half of the book to reach his birth. Having free access to almost any book written that is out of copyright (before 1923) is, for me, the most wonderful thing that the Internet brings—provided free by the company Google.

We began writing a weekly column in the Leader January of 2005. Since then we have continued supplying 52 columns per year for 6 years. Over the years, about 25% have been stories written by other folks, and 75% my own work. Doing some quick calculations: 52 weeks per year multiplied by 6 years equals 312 columns. Twice we failed to connect with the Leader, so really there have only been 310 columns. Of that, I have put together over 225 of the total.

Bernice Abrahamzon, who has written for the Leader for more than 40 years, is never impressed when I total these up at the writers group!

The column started at about half of a Leader page, but quickly expanded to most of the page. A good writer writes his piece then brutally edits it down to get the point across concisely. Someone writing rambles has an awful job of trying to figure out what to toss and what to keep, as likely there is no point to it at all, and the value of it lies in the overall effect—like looking at a surrealistic painting. Note: this paragraph says the same thing as an earlier one, but it is an important point for you to understand, so I won’t edit it out.

The average word count is about 1500 per column, although last year was closer to 1750 as my rambling expertise has progressed. Over the past six years I have come up with slightly over one third of a million words. To put that in perspective, it is equivalent to the number of words in the first ten books of the Bible (and the authors of those books were helped out directly by God while I had to do mine on my own).

My writing, as analyzed by Microsoft Word, has a Flesch Reading Ease level of 61.8, where 60.0–70.0 means it should easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students. The 9.6 grade level corresponds again to the same age range. These are calculated using words per sentence and syllables per word equations.

My average letters per word comes in at 4.4. That is pretty amazing when you consider the Leader’s copy editors carefully remove the four-letter-words I sprinkle through the column for emphasis.

Eight percent of the time I use passive sentences. That means I write, “The large wood pile had been split by Margo” rather than “Margo split the wood in the pile.” Passive sentences are meant for reading by retirees in the afternoon as they relax and nod off. Active sentences are preferred by younger folks whose ambitions have not yet been subdued by management.

After stalling a little telling you about the technical aspects of a typical column, we plan to get back on track here to the why’s and wherefores of the whole thing.

Following Charles Dickens lead, we will first go to RRR Past. So, why did I start the column? The first year was to assist the Sterling Eureka and Laketown Historical Society, based in uptown Cushing, WI, celebrate the 150th anniversary of Sterling Township.

For you purists out there, a township in Wisconsin is actually a land division made by the surveyors to sell the land in the old days shortly after it was stolen from the Indians. The Town of Sterling is the correct name for the elected government overseeing the land, which in the case of Sterling, covers nearly two townships of land. (this is an example of a digressive paragraph that could be edited out of the column. However, if I remove it, a few of you will think I am ignorant. Marcus Aurelius said, “we fear more what our neighbors will think of us than what we think of ourselves,” a guiding principle for this column.)

Well, getting back to the point, history is interesting to a small group of people, those who have pretty much lived their lives and now in retirement haven’t much else to do other than think about the past. The occasional columns that were not pure history, but included some chatter on personal doings were better received than the history only stories.

“I skip to the end of the column where you tell what Margo is doing,” was a common comment I got in the first year or two when we were concentrating doggedly on local history, and adding a personal note at the end. To meet the perceived public clamor, the column drifted in that direction, still with the attempt to be historic, or at least nostalgic in tone, and a little humorous but never historically funny.

Having exhausted most of my researched history and printable personal experiences from the past, and stories passed on from readers and becoming too busy as well as too lazy to do new local history research, the column in the past two years has evolved even further into the present. Often it is no more than “What I did on my vacation,” the assignment every school kid dreaded each fall.

Mine never varied; hauled hay, swimming school, Bible school, and shoveled manure. Hardly inspiring, although as I look back, shoveling manure was some of the best training I had for being a good employee and a creative writer.

So now we come to RRR future. We return to question, “Do we continue for another year?” We can break that down into “Is there any value in the column?” which further breaks into “Is there any value in it for me?” and “Is there any value in it for the Leader?” and “Is there any value in it for you, the readers?”

As a science kind of guy, I like to make decisions rationally, based on accepted scientific principles. According to Manfred Max-Neef, an economist, there is a set of human needs that must be met for humans to be comfortable in life. His list: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity and freedom. I think he has gotten it reasonably well, although I would put sex as a separate item instead of hiding it under affection.

Therefore, writing the column for another year must fulfill one or more of the above list items, for me, for the Leader and for you, or we all should drop it.

If the Leader paid me for the column, then I wouldn’t be asking these questions—I would instead be negotiating a raise for 2012. I would also know the Leader’s position as to the value of the column. However, they don’t pay me—they assume my needs for creation and identity are enough to keep me at it, and it fills one of the 60 pages each week without cost or effort for them.

I think items 4-8 are in some ways being met for me through the column. It is rather fun to be notorious while trying to be creative. I tell Margo “having a weekly deadline to write something forces me to do something with time I probably would otherwise waste anyway.” Occasionally, although rarely, a reader will comment on something or tell me they liked a column, and for a moment I think it might be worthwhile.

What do you think?

I read mostly everything in the Leader each week. As a retiree, I have the time and the patience to read almost anything except long winded political letters or rambling articles without clear points. I like to find out if Carrie has gotten things figured out, to read Joe’s jokes, to find out what Dr. Ingalls is musing on, to get uplifted by Bernice and Sally, and so on right though the last page. I think of the columnists as my friends, although I don’t know most of them.

Email me at riverroadrambler @ or contact me (and order a 2011 collection of the best Ramblings plus for just $18 ) to Russ Hanson, 15937 County 27 Blvd, Pine Island MN 55963. I just put that book as well as the first Trade Lake Book history on where you can order printed copies nicely bound. All profits go to the Sterling Eureka and Laketown Historical society of Upper Cushing.

Margo is off to Christmas with her folks in West Bend. I had planned to go along, but my leg is questionable for that long of a ride in the car—it is still pretty sore from the hardware removal in preparation for the new knee, and I’m just not up to being on my best behavior for a whole week with those Germans down there where you have to eat raw spiced hamburger just to be polite (writing a very long sentence bumps my writing to a higher grade level, especially if the words are humongously syllabled—this paragraph came in at grade level 22 (PhD) although the whole column is exactly average for me!).

Happy New Year! We will leave you with two quotes from Mark Twain, my favorite author. “We can secure other people's approval if we do right and try hard; but our own is worth a hundred of it, and no way has been found out of securing that.” And, “I have been complimented many times and they always embarrass me; I always feel that they have not said enough.”