— anonymous, via Google form
Hello, and thank you for your interesting question. I chose to answer your question because it wasn’t graphic, unintelligible, or any of the five questions I received asking what my last name was. So I regret to say that I don’t love your question.
I will try my best to explain the process behind writing an advice column so that you can try doing it yourself. First, you should set a conversational mood — this is, after all, an exchange of letters. This entails putting things like “hello” and “thank you for your interesting question” at the beginning of your column. You should do this even if it is insincere. It will be easier to do this if you pick questions to which you are excited to respond, and harder to do this if you choose to answer questions like “how do you write an advice column.” Really what I am saying here is that the first step in the process is to have good readers. If you can, solicit questions from an audience broader than your merry band of lovable-if-petulant college friends, who will send you lots of questions anonymously asking about what is the correct pronunciation of “Swarthmore,” how do I get the dead turkey smell out of my car, etc.
The next step is to answer the question you have been asked and answer as few other questions as possible. People hate it when you answer a question with a question, especially if you don’t even answer that question. But don’t stress if you have trouble sticking to this — don’t most good advice columnists advocate for bending the rules a little bit?
If someone asked you how to write an advice column, you would give a thorough explanation about how to write an advice column. You would do well to include the occasional non sequitur. Digressions can be cohesive, thoughtful or humorous if you are careful not to drag them out for too long or use them too frequently. People love jokes. Different advice columns will of course differ in their approach to advice-giving. Sometimes the writer will pretend to be a therapist, sometimes they will pretend to be your friend. Some advice columnists love to be helpful, others get off on being facetious. The particulars of your style and the content of your response to the given question are up to you. If you think the best way to solve a given problem is to go vegan, tell your correspondent to go vegan. The advice column offers a unique opportunity to promote an agenda. Step carefully and gracefully through social issues. You have been given the immense power of public broadcast and you must use it with responsibility. If, in your experience, responsibility is more often the thing you shirk than the thing you do, you may want to try being very funny and see if it absolves you of accountability for the less carefully chosen things you say. This is not a very reliable course of action, and I would not recommend trying it. Good comedy is rarely offensive; conversely, offensive comedy is rarely good.
The fun thing about advice columns is that you don’t have to hand them in for a grade or use them to apply for jobs, so you can do whatever you want. Go crazy. There are very few standards in the world of advice columns and it will benefit you to take advantage of this fact. I will say that one thing is constant across all advice columns, and that is a contagious air of self-assurance. You should be so confident that what you have to say is good advice that, even if it is terrible advice, you will lay your words upon the page with the smug righteousness of the most depraved mall cop giving the most unreasonable parking ticket. You can do this because you’re the one with the advice column, and they’re the ones asking you how to write an advice column instead of just consulting their favorite search engine or college writing center. There are plenty of people your readers may trust more to answer their questions; people will read your column because they expect it to be somehow particularly insightful or entertaining. What I am trying to say is that somebody should be able to read your advice column and say, “this isn’t my mother’s advice column.” Part of the pleasure derived from giving and receiving advice is that it is a communication of personality. So if you think you have a good personality, you might also suspect that you have good advice. That was my third to last point. Make your advice column clear and easy to follow. That was my second to last point.
When you are writing an advice column, you have to look professional. If you are an asshole, or an airhead — if you really have nothing to say — people will figure it out on their own. In the worst case, you don’t want to explicitly reveal the shameful reality that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Maybe you are one of those people of the generally persuasive persuasion, in which case this will be easier for you. If not, good luck. I hope you write an interesting, if in a sense “half-baked,” advice column, and that it gets published in your college newspaper. I hope that people read it.
In need of some strictly good advice? Send questions by electronic mail to strictlygoodadvice(at)gmail(dot)com or by analog mail to the author at 500 College Avenue, Swarthmore, PA, 19081.