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For newspaper readers, advice can add a lot of spice

Former magazine editor Rix Quinn writes a weekly feature for 100-plus newspapers, and business biographies for trade magazines.

What writing format has flourished in American newspapers – and magazines – for over 200 years? If you answered “advice columns,” give yourself a warm handshake.

Yes, these features have been around longer than this country. Even way back in 1722, Ben Franklin wrote a question-answer column (“Silence Dogood”) for his brother’s newspaper in Boston.

An advice column offers three distinct advantages: (1) It gives the reader a chance to interact with the writer. (2) Experts can offer ideas on virtually any subject, and the column can even be sponsored by an advertiser. (3) Most important, advice columns are often cut out of the paper, saved, and quoted around the home or office.

Expert advice is big business

Think of all the famous writers who’ve offered advice over the years. We’ve all heard of Ann Landers and Dear Abby, who offer personal advice. And there’s also Miss Manners, and Hints from Heloise, plus loads of other columns about religion, and car maintenance, and animal care, and clothing selection, and internet use, and…well, you name it.

I’ve often heard that advice and self-help is a gigantic business. Americans reportedly spend $11 billion a year on self-help!

Let me share a personal story about how I discovered the power of advice features.

Many years ago, I worked for my Dad’s trade magazine company. He was a former newspaper editor.

He told me one informal way to gauge a story’s impact was to find out how many times it got forwarded to another person, or displayed in an office or home. This meant the reader cared enough to clip the article out of the publication.

What stories do people clip out?

I researched more, and found out folks displayed clips on office bulletin boards or home refrigerators. (Did that mean the news had gotten cold?)

In homes, people posted family photos, children’s artwork, obituaries, invitations, grocery lists, and advice articles.

At the office, workers displayed quotations, business cards, calendars, cartoons, and advice articles.

Of course, today that “clipping” is mostly electronic as readers link to the column in social media or forward a link by email.

Clip-ability equals memorability!

We made consistent efforts to shorten news and feature articles to under 250 words. We carried many brief quotations from industry executives.

We posted famous saying on the back of subscription renewal cards. And we regularly carried advice features from business experts…not only from the industries we served, but from experts in other professions too.

How to get started?

How many experts could offer advice in your community? Do you have an accountant, or a dentist, or an exercise studio, or somebody else who might want to write – and sponsor – a question-answer column?

I’m convinced that each column should be under 250 words. Each column should offer an e-mail address, and ask questioners to write to that address.

Here’s what we did: After we received a question, we did not publish the questioner’s name unless they gave us specific, written permission.

And…each column carried a disclaimer that said something like this: “Answers offer the views of this column writer only, and not this publication.” I am NOT an expert on this! You should check with your attorney for specific wording.

Finally…

I’ll be glad to talk to you more about advice columns…for free. Just call me at 817-920-7999 or email me at [email protected]

 

 

By Rix Quinn

Rix Qiuinn is a former magazine publisher who provides audio and print features for magazines and newspapers nationwide. His weekly column “Minute Story” now appears in about 40 newspapers. The column is free. To see samples, e-mail the word MINUTE to [email protected] Rix can be reached by phone at 817-920-7999.