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Other kinds of writing

Journalism Posted on Mon, July 01, 2019 12:32:56

Like most writers, I have a day job (or two!).
I teach journalism at Leeds Beckett University and I am programme leader for creative writing with the Open College of the Arts. Something writing and academics have in common, though, is a great love of researching.
And anyone who works in academia will also know the importance of getting that research published in recognised journals.
It’s a slow process: all articles have to be peer reviewed and in all cases, that means revisions are required before they can be published.
I’m happy to say that my article on Commoners Choir has just been published by the Journal of Language and Politics. For anyone interested in campaigning choirs, or unusual forms of journalism, this may be of interest – so I’ve attached it here as a PDF.

March 25th/NAWE article

Journalism Posted on Sun, March 30, 2014 18:11:25

This is a link to a piece written for the National Association of Writers in Education magazine, about the importance of teaching creativity to students of journalism.

February 11th

Journalism Posted on Tue, February 11, 2014 15:20:40

Journal reporter Brian Daniel interviewing Bailiffgate volunteer Hilary Waugh, resplendent in her plaid!
At the Bailiffgate Museum media launch today.

February 8th

Journalism Posted on Sat, February 08, 2014 13:34:46

Writing press releases for next week’s relaunch of Alnwick’s Bailiffgate Museum. I know far too much about this mouse than is good for me.

Raising your Profile

Journalism Posted on Thu, October 11, 2012 15:03:39

I had a rather depressing
conversation this week with a student, who was seeking a potential interviewee
for a profile piece. After two weeks of thinking time, she hadn’t come up with

“I don’t know anyone
interesting,” she told me.

“Yes, you do,” I said. “Everyone

“No, I really don’t,”
she argued. This says a great deal more about her than it does about her
friends and family. To a reporter, everyone is interesting and has a potential
story to tell. But that mindset can and must be learned, to succeed in this

This semester, students
on two of my journalism modules have to produce a similar assignment: writing a
profile. Some will produce a profile of any interesting character for the
Magazine Journalism module, while others studying Fashion Writing need to find
someone related to the industry.

Writing a good profile
is quite a skill, although to read some of the published pieces that come under this
general umbrella, you wouldn’t think it. In trying to explain what makes a
worthwhile read, I’ve not only used the exemplars, but also the woefully large
number of examples of how not to do it. Students can be forgiven, in a way, for
getting it wrong. So many articles that purport to be profiles are simply ‘cuttings
jobs’, in other words a mish-mash of other people’s pieces that offer no new information
on the subject at all.

Even worse, I think,
are the ones that are set out simply as Q and As, or a series of statements in
the guise of answers to questions. This seems to me to be a deeply lazy form,
the likely result of nothing more than an e-mail exchange between the reporter
and the subject (or the subject’s press team). It means the interviewee can
carefully control all the information that’s published about them, and the
reader gets no insight into their personality at all. It’s a PR puff. For the
reader, what’s the point of that?

The trouble is, this is
the preferred style in so many magazines and even newspapers these days. I
think it’s another example of the media treating the reader like an imbecile, as
if we’re all incapable of reading longer-form, more nuanced writing that digs
deeper than the public persona. So I tell the students that I know they’re
capable of sending out a list of questions by e-mail and copy-and-pasting the
replies. I don’t need to test this. I need to test their ability to interview
face to face, to get a subject open up, to include their own observations and
to write it up in a compelling way.

The profiles that do
work really well are those where the reporter is not only informed but,
crucially, is unafraid. Examples that I’ve read recently include The Guardian’s profiles on Louise Mensch
(written before she resigned) and actor James Corden. Both of these show reporters
who’re unafraid to press a subject long enough to get them to reveal something
of themselves, and they are a joy to read.

Understandably, the
students agonise a little over who they should interview. “I don’t know anyone
famous,” is often the anguished cry. No – and most reporters don’t. Most
interviews are with people you don’t know, and having the courage to ‘cold call’
and ask people to talk to you is a key journalistic skill. Assume they will
talk to you, I always say – because most people do say yes, and a positive,
unapologetic attitude will encourage that.

I’ve also made it clear
that their subject doesn’t have to be someone famous, just someone interesting.
A classic example of an excellent profile – where the subject is someone most
of us haven’t heard of – is from The New
and is about ‘the chef who catches your dinner.’ (Once again – the
American long-form journalism often beats ours into a shameful pulp).

Some good elements to
include in a profile, I’d suggest, are:

Anecdotes about the subject’s childhood
or younger days, that hint at the person they’ve become;

Descriptions of their
surroundings, appearance and body language, because such details often give
away something of their character

And the things they didn’t want to talk about
or the questions they shy away from. Go back to that incisive interview with
Louise Mensch and see how she responds to questions about whether she’s had a
face-lift. That section tells us much more about her than anything else I’ve
ever read.

At the end of a
profile, the reader should feel that they know the subject a little more –
almost that they were there with the reporter, having a coffee with them,
watching it all go on. You can’t get that from a list of Q and As. Let’s hope
that newspapers and magazines begin to realise that and have the courage to
offer the reader something more.

Why ‘literary journalism’ matters

Journalism Posted on Fri, May 11, 2012 10:23:08

A student walked into my
Literary Journalism class on Week One, fresh from training for a cage fight. With
a broad Geordie accent and intimidatingly well-developed muscles, he was not the usual
third year student stereotype. But when he wrote about his favourite sports,
his personal stories and his original, affecting use of language shone right off
the page. He’d never seriously thought about writing for a living before. But now he’s
got a placement on the sports magazine he’s subscribed to for years, and is
entering his writing for national competitions, where I’m confident that it
will impress.

This week, as they used
to say on The Fast Show, I have mostly been marking. And so I thought it might
make sense to write something about the work that’s been coming out of the
Literary Journalism module, which has been of a standard to really restore my
faith in the future of non-fiction writing.

Recently, as a guest on
Victoria Watson’s very good blog, elementaryvwatson,
I discussed whether creative writing can be taught. You can read it here, and it’s something I’m quite
passionate about. I’ve watched some students, who’ve spent three years writing ‘just-the-facts-ma’am’
journalism, or else academic essays, try their hand for the first time at a
freer style of writing. And I would say that it’s like watching butterflies
struggling out of a cocoon, except that would be a cliché and I’d need to send
myself off to find a fresh way of saying it.

‘Literary journalism,’
if you’re not familiar with the term, is a kind of journalism that uses the
creative techniques more associated with fiction to tell true stories. These
techniques include creating strong character portraits, crafting scenes, using
dialogue and fresh description, to tell true stories. At first, when I tell the
students they can write about anything, they’re a little dubious and they spend
a couple of weeks trying to get me to direct them. Which I will not do. But by
weeks three or four, they are coming up with so many ideas that the only
problem will be sticking to the word count. They try their hand at life writing
and memoir, travel writing, or even biography, learning how the craft of
telling stories is what lifts any kind of writing away from the banal.

The Americans are way
ahead of us here. The writer Lee Gutkind,
who was dubbed by Vanity Fair
magazine the ‘godfather’ of the creative nonfiction movement, has developed
courses in which members of the legal, medical and other scientific professions
are learning the art of storytelling. Why on earth? Because all the research shows
us that we will understand and remember information if it’s told to us in a
story, rather than in a series of bald facts. And I watched a great talk online
by the writer Susan Orlean about the
role of a nonfiction writer in an age when facts can accessed at the click of a
mouse. It’s no longer, as in journalism of old, just to find the ‘facts’,
because anyone can do that, in a matter of seconds. It’s about telling the
stories that enable us to make sense of those facts and put them into a wider,
relevant context. It’s about finding more than information; it’s about finding
a kind of truth.

The students get this,
very quickly. And their writing displays not just the energy that you might
expect, but a maturity that defies expectations. Someone recently asked me if
there was any point in getting such young people to write pieces of memoir. If
they’d read the pieces I’ve just marked, on bullying, or anorexia, or living
with epilepsy, or being bereaved as a child, they wouldn’t need to ask. Their ability to write without the filter of many years of life experiences gives the work a raw excitement and authenticity. And don’t
think they’re all ‘misery’ memoirs – one
account of giving birth to a baby on Christmas Day and another’s ‘fish
out of water’ story (about being a more mature student) showed a gift for
comedy that deserves a wider audience.

It was only after
learning the techniques of creative nonfiction writing, rather than their more strictured
traditional journalism skills, that they were able to bring those stories to
life. The results have been revelatory – and not just for the students. I’m one
of those people who doesn’t ‘get’ sport and I would never, out of choice, read
a piece about a cage fight. But my student told his story in a way that made me
understand, entirely, why he does it – and why it matters. And that is creative non-fiction at its best.