Review of a Guardian Column Writing Course: Owen Jones on Monday 14th November 2016

This was well worth attending, mostly because of Owen’s undoubted enthusiasm for his job as a columnist for the Guardian newspaper.

He is quite right when he says that journalism should hold the powerful to account.

He gave an interesting account of his background, of the decline in the print media and of investigative journalism although now newspapers online are thriving.

Advice I found most useful:

Write a blog and update it two or three times a week. (Yes, I must do this.)

Register a domain in your own name. (I’m not sure I’ll do this one because it will cost money.)

Your approach to a subject should be different, unique and should be made relevant to current events/opinions.

Your blog should be written with:

  • font 12, Arial
  • each paragraph should have more than 9 lines (I must take heed.)
  • a photo with each blog
  • long-winded sentences (yes, my downfall)
  • always spellcheck

Your column should be no more than 600-800 words, snappy with information about you and your background (but not too much) e.g. ‘Here’s my experience…’ You should show your personality.

He is in favour of effective blog headers e.g. Laurie Penny’s. (I’m not sure how to do this. L)

You must use Twitter (While I am on twitter, @DrRoe, I’m not using it much). What I do notice is that it is important to make sure what you say will make sense to someone who hasn’t been following the thread.)

Use Facebook – the optimum time is 0900 Monday to Thursday. (Interesting!)

Useful sites to write for, where they pay or not and whether they edit your work:

Labour List: no fee, minimal editing

Huffington Post: no fee, some editing but feedback given. It has a bigger audience.

New Statesman: £50-75 editing

Comment is Free: £90 some editing

 

Pitching:

Write only 5 or so sentences: ‘Here’s me, here’s the issue, here’s my take, here’s my previous work.’

Don’t pitch with a finished article. (I did this with the Times Ed, – they thought it would be OK as a letter and never heard from them again – I’ve no idea if they published or not and I certainly didn’t get paid for it. L)

Start with an intriguing question: e.g. ‘Have you wondered if turtles are responsible for the financial crisis?’ Say why you are the person to write it, give a link to your blog and attach a CV.

Hook your content to recent stories – even pop culture.

The best pitching time is 8 am (a bit early for me!)

Getting ideas: sources:

  • NGO press officers. (He never did say what NGO stands for – I suspect it means National Government Offices.)
  • think tanks
  • upcoming books
  • seminars, public talks,
  • foreign e.g. American, Indian press (being Australian born, I try to use the Aussie papers)

online:

  • googlebooks and google scholar ( have used these, but never thought of them as source material before)
  • JSTOR academic , have to pay (I wonder JSTOR what it stands for?

 

Use a hyperlink to your source: cover your own back.

 

Use personal stories and if you’re going to use statistics, weave them inside your story.

When you generalise and talk about groups of people it loses its impact.

When you’re having to explain what you’ve written, you are losing.

Emotionally compelling stories are better.

 

Getting stories:

-stop people in the streets, get out of London (already there!)

-use internet forums for interest groups e.g. disabled campaigners

-make requests to NGOs/campaigners

-on Twitter, ask someone who has a lot of followers to retweet your requests. (I assume that was RT stands for.)

 

The opening:

The first sentence has to grab your attention – no beating about the bush. Make it punchy and short.

Use a dramatic contrast e.g. everyone is saying this, but they’re wrong.

Knock down something that is commonly accepted.

The last paragraph should be a summary of what matters and what should be done about it, and what happens if nothing is done.

 

Language

Use the simplest words that accurately sum up the meaning. (Why then do Guardian reviewers of concerts use such highfalutin words? – maybe there’s an opening for me here?)

Use the active not the passive voice i.e. not ‘The child was bitten by a dog.’ but ‘The dog bit the child.)

Avoid cliché’s/f figures of speech metaphors. (I’m not sure I agree with this, for I think they help to colour the text and indicate something of your personality.)

Avoid jargon, elitist, foreign, ‘aren’t I clever?’ – types of words.

Be conversational/chatty, but don’t overdo it.

Use radical ideas but moderate them.

Start with where we are e.g. ‘We all know…’

 

For tabloid columns use:

-shorter snappier sentences

– more emotive language, e.g. ‘They are downright lies.’

– use rhetorical questions e.g. ‘Who’d have thought…?’

 

launch pad:

Start with saying where you’ve got expertise – you don’t want an editor to think your material should be good for someone else to write.

 

Guardian contacts that Owen praises that might be worth seeing what they write as examples of their interests and style:

Simon Jenkins e.g. ‘home ownership is rubbish’,

Mark Steel exposes absurdity of situations

Tom Olivers – shows two extremes – both wrong, I’m in the middle – always right

Peter Oborne – I’m Labour but I’m going to surprise the Tories

 

You can write anonymously

Stick to the deadlines.

 

Dealing with responses:

-don’t’ take them personally

-know the difference between critics and trolls

-learn from critics, it’s easy to be defensive

 

How to change the world:

Public shame through the media is more effective than approaching the powers that be personally with your stories/with information.

 

To pitch to the Guardian:

  • look up commissioning editors e.g. Joseph Harker, Sarah Phillips.

 

END of my review of Own Jones.

 

I hope to present some of these ideas in my 20-minute talk at ‘Ely Writers’ Day’ on 1st July 2017, 1000 to 1500 in Ely Library Cambridgeshire for the ‘Ely Arts Festival’. Spaces for this free event are limited, so book early by contacting rjwestwell@hotmail.com (Free coffee and biscuits and lunchtime refreshments will be provided, although donations against costs may be requested.)

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