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Mike Baker: PWB Guest Column Contest

Earlier this morning, hunched over a large mug of coffee at the local diner, I was taking a bit of time to decide the topic for today’s column. My guess is that real columnists, those with syndication deals, large craniums and loads of big words at their command, probably manage their column-writing responsibilities more professionally than we do here at the PWB.

I’ll bet if you walk into the offices of an actual columnist, you’ll find a drawer labeled "Future Columns." In that drawer I bet you unearth several finished columns all waiting their turn to be sent off to the editor. There undoubtedly are other drawers labeled "Research," "Clever Analysis" and probably one marked "Original Ideas."

Walk into the PWB offices and you’ll find a drawer labeled "Emergency Bourbon," a file cabinet stuffed with old copies of Cigar Aficionado and a dart board with some potential column topics pinned to it. In the past I’ve suggested to the staff that we try to implement a little discipline and forward planning… maybe even a bit of research and fact-checking.

Unfortunately, that would imply that the staff and assorted slacker interns develop initiative and a level of drive heretofore unseen. And, by the way, when was the last time you saw the word "heretofore" in print?

Since a number of faithful readers have asked how we manage to pick each week’s topic, I thought I’d take a minute or two to walk you through the process.

The column should be submitted to the editorial staff each week no later than Monday afternoon. Well, that ain’t gonna’ happen, given that Mondays at the office are dedicated to a recap of sporting events from over the weekend; plus, we close early on Mondays to go shoot pool and drink beer.

Make Monday a happy day at the office and people look forward to coming to work. I should write a damn business book. Anyway, as you can plainly see, a Monday deadline is basically impossible to meet.

This means that every Tuesday we go through the same routine. Over coffee, sometimes lots of it, we wait for inspiration to strike in the form of some world or domestic event, issue or activity that either inspires us or really frosts our collective butt. Personally, I find more inspiration from stories that both irritate me and strike me as exceedingly stupid. That combination, irritation and stupidity, is a powerful writing tonic.

The above process may seem simple but in reality there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye. You’ll see what I mean when I announce this week’s exciting and groundbreaking contest.

The difficulty lies in sifting through the dozens of irritating issues and events that tend to occur each week to find the one topic that really blows your skirt up. There are certain elements that each good topic should contain in order to justify pinning it up on the dart board as potential fodder.

The acknowledged bible for columnists, the seminal 1947 study "Bloviating for Print Media" by T. G. Woodson, correctly noted that a worthy topic should be current, capable of generating strong opinions, easily explainable and possessing of a beginning, middle and end within the context of a column.

Prior to Woodson’s conviction for felony assault on a rival journalist, he wrote eloquently on topics ranging from politics to sports to his Pulitzer-winning two-part series "WWII — A Brief Summary." While much of his work was found to be plagiarized, he’s still fondly remembered by the print media for his love of writing and tendency to leave home without his trousers.

But I digress. The pain that goes into choosing a topic every week that I think will reach out and grab the privates of each reader is usually mitigated by the feedback we get week after week from said readers. One of the best rewards for writing this column, even better than the not-for-profit status it affords me, is the reader input.

Whether it’s positive or negative, the comments from the PWB faithful are always entertaining, insightful and appreciated.

So… there I was staring at my big mug of coffee this morning, ticking off topics ranging from the latest troubles in Afghanistan, recent Homeland Security directives, Al Qaeda activity in Southeast Asia, domestic political crap, the game-changing Miley Cyrus scandal, when suddenly it occurred to me… if I enjoy the reader comments as much as I do, why not demand more?

And, thus, the first annual PWB Guest Column Contest was born. You heard right. I’ve canceled all leave for the interns and taken away their PS2 until this revolutionary event is completed. How’s it work? The rules are simple….

Choose a topic and write a column for the PWB of 800 words or fewer. And, yes, one of the interns can count up to 800 so we’ll be keeping track. A panel of judges will select the winning entry based on topicality, clarity of writing, use of difficult words and, of course, spelling. Just like in elementary school, spelling counts. Grammar not so much.

The winning entry will be featured in the PWB column for next week…which means you’ll need to submit your writing no later than Monday, 5th May. Here are a few tips to get started:

· Avoid any wild-eyed ranting… complaining is fine, but keep it in check

· Don’t over-personalize… it’s good to keep some secrets

· Try to keep your details factual… or at least write stuff that sounds factual

· This is a family-friendly site… if you must use colorful language, refer to NSA’s 2007 publication "Potty Mouth on the Information Superhighway"

· The PWB’s trademark phrase, "What a load of crap," must be included at least once within the column.

And finally, write the column within your e-mail rather than as a separate attached document... the PWB routinely filters out attachments so we don’t want to lose your entry.

Good luck and till next week, stay safe.

Respond to the Writer.

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.