Baltimore Sun Columnist Susan Reimer spoke to my graduate class last week giving us some tips and suggestions on writing columns, including:

  • ask a lotĀ of questions
  • write what you know
  • simplicity and clarity are key
  • read other writers
  • if you’re not an expert, admit it
  • be a contrarian
Michael Vick

Michael Vick is a bad man.

The last one, “be a contrarian,” came to mind when I read her latest column for the Sun, Call off the dogs; Vick’s paid enough. It’s a good read, and well-argued column that makes the case that as bad as NFL player and dog-killer Michael Vick might be, the punishment for his crimes have been excessive:

This country is completely schizophrenic in its treatment of animals. Not only do we eat them, we treat them with inhumanity before we do. And we hunt them for sport. There was a lottery for the pleasure of killing bears, for heaven’s sake. The winners celebrated their good fortune. The bears? Not so much.

Dogs, unlike cows, pigs, chickens and deer, had the good fortune to respond to domestication centuries ago, and for that reason we label them friends, apparently in better standing that the wives, girlfriends or random hotel workers and night-clubbers who happen to get in the way of other sports stars.

I asked Reimer if the column was what she really thought, or whether she wrote it to “be contrarian,” work up readers, and try to spark a strong reaction. She sprang to life, arguing her case to me, raising her voice and gesturing dramatically. It reminded me of many loud, animated dinner table debates I had growing up in an Italian-Jewish family. Her passion suggested that her argument was her argument, not just a devil’s advocate position whipped up to generate web traffic. Her defense of Vick works well, in part, because it’s based on a genuine opinion, not some reflexive effort to flip expectations and take the unpopular side of public sentiment.

So a lesson to take from this: being contrarian is an effective tactic as a writer; being a contrarian with conviction is even better.