More and more, I’ve found myself covering the state of journalism, on the implications of writing for free and my experiences of online discourse, often drawing pessimistic conclusions. Having tried to become ‘a writer’ and ‘a journalist’ for nearly ten years, a decade of failure with infrequent success, I’ve found myself wanting to share some advice with the (occasional) younger people who’ve asked for tips.
Suzanne Moore, vastly more experienced (and concise) than me, tweeted some principles after judging the Guardian Student Media Awards, collected here by Rhodri Marsden. They’re all sound, but I want to expand on certain points, as well as discussing what I’ve learned growing up with the Internet, and publishing mostly online. Parts of this are most relevant to political writers, but I think much applies more universally.
Part I: Preparing
Suzanne starts here too – as it’s obvious. We read before we write: trying to write before reading is like running a car without fuel. (I like Graham Linehan’s comparison of writing to defecating, mainly because it kills any romance, and reminds us that if you don’t eat properly, you’ll become constipated. I liken it to mining. You dig relentlessly where you hope to strike something; perhaps you will, perhaps not.)
But what to read? Newspapers and current affairs journals, Left or Right, domestic and foreign, but consume as much culture as possible. Like any other writing, journalism is an art (George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is strong on this, but not gospel) and your sentences will have more cadence if you are conversant with literature, theatre, poetry, film, comedy and other fields. This matters: readers may not always praise good writing, but they’ll be quick to call out what they think is bad. More noticeably, you’ll find a wider frame of reference, which is distinctively yours.
2. Listen to criticism
This never becomes irrelevant, no matter how successful you become: you may see just one name on a byline, but writing is always collaborative. Besides reading, the main way you’ll improve is by taking on feedback, on both your style and content. Don’t ignore corrections of your spelling and grammar, thinking that it’ll be fixed by whoever publishes you: editors won’t study your argument if it’s poorly presented (and even if they did, sub-editors are a dying breed, so don’t rely on their presence).
Further down the line, don’t look down on the public – you are them and they are you. Try not to attribute criticism to jealousy, or dismiss critics as ‘trolls’, at least publicly, even if you feel it’s fair, as it looks graceless: only disregard it if it’s impossible to take anything positive, in which case ignore it. Readers will be more sympathetic if you engage, particularly if you’re hauled up for saying something they find offensive – I’ve used the wrong word or laughed at the wrong thing once or twice, and have found dialogue and (where necessary) contrition a better response than bullishness. We all make mistakes – most of this post draws on mine – and these days we make lots of them publicly. Someone will haul you up, so have a strategy.
3. Don’t regard anyone as ‘a journalist’
Yourself or others. Thinking of yourself as ‘a journalist’ is a fast route to pomposity; thinking of others thus will result in you being star-struck if you meet them. They’d much rather relate to you as a human being – it’s more fun. This isn’t all about contacts – the main thing, as Suzanne says, is to write well – but you’ll make better connections if your conversation grabs people than if you badger them to open doors for you. And besides, nobody is just a journalist, in their personal or even (increasingly) their professional lives.
4. Don’t lose heart if you’re in a ‘day job’
I’ve written around full or part-time jobs (in retail or administration) since I graduated. Much as it has frustrated me, I’ve met an amazing range of people, enjoyed some fascinating conversations and used the financial security to experiment with different styles and subjects.
As I wrote my Transgender Journey series for The Guardian, I worked as a secretary, which kept my self-importance in check: I never had long to congratulate myself on publication before someone asked me to make the tea. I learned plenty about NHS commissioning (which informed my work) and saw the insidious effects of Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Bill far more than many others would have, too – wherever you find yourself, there will be plenty to learn. Your judgement and your writing will be better for it, and the difference between pundits who’ve done ‘proper jobs’ and those who haven’t is striking.
In my worst job, I got my best advice: you become a loser when you give up. Whenever I feel my writing won’t achieve what I’d hope, I recall these words from a colleague and continue.
5. There may be better options than the NCTJ course
I did this once I’d already published quite a lot. In my first interview afterwards, I was asked why, the implication being that I hadn’t needed to. If you want to enter newspaper journalism by starting on a local, it’s often a requirement for employment – otherwise, you might be better taking one-off courses in (say) pitching articles, or interview techniques.
Doing the NCTJ helped me, but not always directly: I’ve not used shorthand or magazine design software since, and I could have taught myself the current affairs and written English modules, but the media law section was helpful, as were the guest speakers. More widely, it gave me structure to explore what I cared about most: I started covering trans issues for Brighton & Hove’s LGBT press after submitting something written for the course. However, my contact at The Guardian, who put me in touch with my commissioning editor, was someone who’d liked the caustic match reports I posted on a football messageboard, purely for fun. There’s more to life than diplomas.
Editors are assailed by correspondence. I did work experience at a national newspaper once (not The Guardian), and on being introduced to the person who had enough time to supervise us, saw that she had 972 unread emails. I used to send pitches with headings like ‘article’ and wonder why no-one answered – I got a better response when I started packing as much information as possible into the titles, like this to Record Collector:
‘FEATURE PITCH: Telex (Belgian synth band, 1978-2006, Eurovision entrants, Kraftwerk-influenced experimental/conceptual pop)’
This was rejected, but with the caveat that ‘While your reminder about the wonders of Telex made me grin and I would be interested to read about this cross between The Residents and 80s electropop hell, I don’t think they are quite right for the magazine at present’ and I was thanked for offering it. I didn’t get the commission, but I go t a contact –more encouraging than being ignored. And it made me grin, too.
Part II: Writing
1. Criticise everything …
… especially your own beliefs and biases. Any political writers worth reading, from Orwell as a democratic socialist to those at Conservative Home are so because they fearlessly critique their own parties, politicians and power bases. Don’t just explore your own position – dialogue is everything – but there’s nothing wrong with being partisan, as long as you’re not uncritical. The best writing comes from a place of knowledge, and also from the heart.
2. Look through the consensus
Some ideas are repeated so widely that they feel like truths: the strongest writing questions rather than reiterates clichés. A robust critique of even just one received idea can really make a writer – a good example is comedian Stewart Lee, who broke onto BBC television in the Nineties before spending a long time out of the limelight, rediscovering a much larger audience years later.
Lee thought critically about how he used language, and how others used it, leading him to examine the place of ‘political correctness’. He understood that lots of people from all angles would attack ‘political correctness’, often without really understanding what it was, or setting it up as a straw man. Even its left-leaning or liberal critics would posit it as an assault on ‘free speech’, without acknowledging how the “move towards a formally inclusive language” had improved numerous lives.
Lee cut through this, ruthlessly exposing the ulterior motives of its more vociferous opponents. When interviewed, he said that he saw political correctness attacked so often that the most radical thing he could do was defend it. He was right, and right to do so: articulating so many people’s suspicions so astutely brought a new generation to his work and changed the terms of the debate.
(On this, Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick’s documentary Manufacturing Consent, which outlines Noam Chomsky’s views on how the media polices the limits of political discourse in liberal-democratic societies, is interesting food for thought.)
3. Think about what power and privilege you have
These ideas come primarily from the left but apply to everyone. The bigger your platform, whether it’s measured in circulation figures or Twitter followers, the more power – and thus duty – you have. Far too many writers who use their positions for malicious ends are quick to cite their right to free speech but slower to consider any responsibility that comes with it.
Try to punch up – never down. Stand-up comedy provides good examples, positive and negative, on use and abuse of power: Richard Herring wrote well on this after Ricky Gervais’ questionable use of language caused controversy on Twitter, and Bill Hicks’ attacks on the institutions who handled the Los Angeles riots have dated far better than the more recent Little Britain’s mockery of minorities or more disenfranchised people. Wherever possible, criticise organisations or systems rather than individuals, and when confronted with cultural produce that isn’t brilliant, consider its intentions – an honest but flawed work that attempts to say something is far more forgivable than something made solely because its producer thinks it’ll be profitable.
Constantly assess your own privilege, too, and when writing about people from different backgrounds, consider if you’re speaking on their behalf, and how reasonable this is. (Sometimes, if you don’t, nobody else will – but try not to appropriate.) If you’re in a minority, it’s important to attack prejudice but this should never blind you to the fact that within your field, you may well have advantages that others don’t (and almost certainly do, if you’ve been able to get your voice amplified by the media), particularly if they belong to more than one group. Intersectionality is crucial.
If in doubt, ask yourself: “Is this fair?”
4. Be honest
Nothing justifies intentional dishonesty, whether it’s to further a career or a cause. Historically, little good has come from putting a higher ‘truth’ above personal ethics, and if you’re caught lying in the service of a social aim, you will damage not only yourself but the things you care about. Be sceptical about facts – where they come from, how they were agreed and why they are propagated – but if the facts don’t fit your argument, then your argument must change.
Don’t, however, give people who seem not to have any principles an easy ride when they do bad things, just because they’re “consistent”. Be vigilant against hypocrisy, but remember that this attitude stops people from challenging selfishness and exploitation – a task which remains as important as ever.
5. Write for the right reasons
The Internet is lawless, but strangely self-correcting. After I started writing for The Guardian, I thought about where to go next, and amongst other things, I wrote football reports and posted them here. A friend, who’d read the biting ones I mentioned earlier, told me they didn’t work because they were written like something I thought would suit a broadsheet, rather than in my own voice. I’d been caught red-handed, and realised that if I wrote with impure motivation, people will notice.
PART III: Publicising
1. “All publicity is good publicity” is not true
I tried to find out who first said this, but couldn’t establish a culprit – luckily, as the idea that there’s no such thing as bad publicity is, and always has been 24-carat bollocks (ask Gerald Ratner, to name just one), and has been wheeled out to justify no end of stupidity. If you want publicity, write something – nobody will take you seriously if you try to secure it any other way. In the long run, that will damage you, whatever the immediate gains.
2. Think carefully about how you use social media
There’s a perception that Twitter (more than other social networks) is merely a bunch of self-important fools hurling inanities into the void, and if you want to see this, it’s not hard. However, Twitter is a quick, easy way to build a persona, escape typecasting (if you write mainly on one subject) and interact with other writers, and you’re shooting yourself in the foot if you won’t use it, but you still need take some care about what you share.
Rightly or wrongly, Jody McIntyre lost his Independent blog over what he tweeted about the riots, and whilst you never want to be censored by a third party, it’s best to ask yourself “Should I post this?” before pressing Send. Luckily, people will let you know quickly if your answer should have been No, and if you respond sensitively, you’ll strike the right balance.
One last thing. In my early Twenties, bored and frustrated, I wrote to my favourite director, Werner Herzog, saying how much I loved his films and wanted to be in one. Despite the fact that he almost certainly gets dozens of such letters a week, he sent me a handwritten response from Guyana (where he was filming The White Diamond), on the day he received it, and said: ‘The only advice I can give you is to do some work, creative or otherwise, where you are able to control your own destiny.’ I keep it in a folder in my room, and look at it again whenever I need motivation to get back to my desk. You can ignore most of what I’ve posted, and sometimes you definitely should, but the crux never changes: think, read and write, as much as you possibly can.