Craig Wilson has always wanted to write. He loves playing with words, so it makes sense that he would become a journalist.
Wilson, a weekly columnist who writes “The Final Word” for USA Today, came to American University on Tuesday to talk to summer journalism students about his experiences as a journalist and the differences between news and column writing.
“With news, you go out, you get the facts, you come back, you write the story,” he said. “But with a column, inspiration can come from anywhere.
“I feel like my job is the hardest because columns can be about anything,” Wilson added. “A column could be you guys. I feel like I’m working 24 hours a day because I’m always looking for my next column.”
Long before becoming a USA Today columnist, Wilson wrote for his “very bad” high school paper. He also was the editor of his yearbook. Wilson graduated from Syracuse University, and then he wrote for a regional paper in upstate New York.
Then Wilson moved to Washington to take part in the USA Today experiment when the paper was being founded. It was four months of “slave labor,” as he calls it, and at the end of those four months, Wilson had the chance to leave but chose to stay. He has been there ever since.
Wilson has been with USA Today for 27 years, and has been writing his column for 15.
Wilson’s column is 85 lines long: a little slice of life, he says.
“I like to think of my columns as postcards back home about my experiences,” he said.
Wilson says that the biggest compliment he can receive is when a reader emails him, and if he can make himself laugh, he knows he has succeeded.
“The point of a column is to make the reader feel like they know you,” Wilson said.
He has received countless emails from his readers connecting to stories about his dog, Maggie. According to Wilson, people love dog columns. He has also spoken on the phone with Oprah Winfrey and baked bread with Julia Child.
The beauty of a column is you can put yourself into it, according to Wilson. The color of your writing is important, but it takes time to find your voice, he said.
“You have to write the way you talk” he said.