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What does an Advice Columnist do?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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An advice columnist writes a column, either for the print media or online, in which he or she provides useful tips and advice. Generally, advice columnists use their columns to answer questions posed by readers. There are as many different varieties of advice columnist as there are types of question to be asked, but a large number of these writers address questions having to do with relationships. Etiquette, technical issues, and medical issues also receive similar treatment.

Advice columns are inexpensive to produce and engage reader interest, and have therefore been staples of the newspaper business for almost as long as there has been a newspaper business. Early examples appeared in print in the 1700s, and offered comfort and suggestions to readers, primarily women, facing romantic difficulties. As the circulation of newspapers grew in the 19th century, and as an emerging middle class was increasingly interested in reading human interest stories, these columns proliferated.

The most famous advice columnists in American history are almost certainly the Friedman sisters. These identical twins wrote the columns "Dear Abby" and "Ask Ann Landers." Both were widely successful and ran in many American papers, but were tied to two Chicago papers where the two sisters maintained a friendly rivalry. These two columns, and other similar columns, relied on questions submitted by readers. These advice columnists published selected letters, with responses that attempted to provide support and useful advice.

Modern advice columnists have expanded the original model, which dealt mostly with questions of romance and manners, and began to address the theme of sexuality as well. Dan Savage, the author of the column "Savage Love," was one of the pioneers this new style of advice column. His columns mixed real advice with a good deal of edgy humor, and addressed issues that would have been taboo for an earlier generation of advice columnist. This frank discussion of sexuality emerged at many different points on the social spectrum, as columns offering similar advice from a Christian perspective have also proven to be successful.

The emergence of the Internet as a major form of communication has revolutionized the practice of writing advice columns. Whereas previously the support of a newspaper or magazine was necessary to work as an advice columnist, in the age of the Internet, anyone with a blog could potentially become an advice columnist. Although the audience for individual Internet columnists is generally smaller than that reached by columnists working in print media, many such columns exist and are widely read.

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Discussion Comments
By Ana1234 — On Feb 14, 2015

@bythewell - It's definitely a tradition for advice columnists to take on a particular persona, or to invent one for the purpose of the column. Often the idea was to disguise whoever was writing it, because they may not have been a person the public would consider best suited for the job.

I don't think they are something to take too seriously. Either the advice works for you or it doesn't.

By bythewell — On Feb 13, 2015

@Fa5t3r - Well, it's not really the fault of the advice columnist if people send in fake letters. And there are some really good ones out there if you look for them. I particularly like the Savage Love column, but there are others out there that are just as interesting.

I guess it's a matter of finding one that matches your interests. If you are used to reading relationship advice columns they do become rather repetitive, but there are advice columns for everything under the sun, from childcare to pets to gardening, to science and so forth.

I've even seen advice columns where the person giving the advice gets into a particular character, like Batman, and gives tongue in cheek advice to questions as that character, which can be a lot of fun, and surprisingly helpful at times.

By Fa5t3r — On Feb 13, 2015

I used to love advice columns when I was a kid but I think I kind of grew out of them. It's very rare now that I'll read one and think that the advice given was at all original or anything that the person concerned couldn't have worked out for themselves.

Unfortunately, it often seems like the letters are rather fake as well, whether that's intentional or not.

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