It’s difficult to sit in a room with Guardian columnist and features writer Hadley Freeman, author of the soon to be published ‘Be Awesome,’ without feeling somewhat inferior. Hadley is, after all, what so many women – and men – of her generation aspire to be; a celebrated writer. But one thing Hadley is not is intimidating; in fact she’s both naturally funny and utterly charming, which makes it impossible to dislike her. Is there anything this American in London can’t do?
The event Hadley is speaking at is the Guardian Masterclass on column writing. She begins by telling the audience how she got into writing for a newspaper. Her “pushy Jewish mother” entered her in a competition whilst she was at university which, unbeknownst to her, she went on to win. Her mother duly collected her award and she was none the wiser, until an editor spotted her writing and approached her – and the rest, as they say, is history.
What would Hadley’s top tips be to succeed in column writing? Firstly, she says, write as widely as possible. Be funny if you can, and write for yourself rather than your audience. Don’t feel locked in by your voice; change it as appropriate, for example when writing about something outside of your comfort zone. Don’t feel pressure to always write news-reactive copy. Be careful how much of yourself you reveal to the reader. And, above all else, only write what you feel strongly about – if you don’t care then why should the reader?
After imparting her words of wisdom Hadley dashes off home (to write a feature, she tells us, somewhat appropriately). Replacing her at the front of the room is Michael Hodges, who writes for Time Out magazine. His advice to aspiring columnists is to be forceful and willing not only to be knocked back but also to write about things you don’t necessarily want to write about. He stresses the importance of being concise (“cut, cut, cut,” he says, “like sharpening a sword. It’s always better afterwards.”)
Michael’s style of journalism differs from Hadley’s, he says, because he waits for things to happen rather than seeking them out. He believes that “the weird is in the every day,” and that “there’s nothing more rewarding than observing your fellow human beings.” Ultimately, he says, it comes down to discipline. If you practice anything let it be producing clean copy that is well paced and holds the reader’s attention.
After the break Guardian columnist Marina Hyde takes to the stage. Marina has such presence that she wins over the audience immediately. Her chatty style, relaxed demeanour and her ability to laugh at herself make her approachable and real. She begins by warning the audience against using the word “I” – “know the rules before you break them,” she says, giving the example of Caitlin Moran as someone who has earned the right to use the word.
Comments, Marina says, should be largely ignored. And she agrees with Michael that being concise is vital: “If you can’t say what you want to say in 750 words you’re going wrong.” The best things she has written were completed in under an hour; the worst took three or more. “Sometimes I put the brakes on the word count and accept it’s a piece that has to go stillborn into the world,” she says, to laughs from the crowd.
Always be honest when you make a mistake, says Marina. And don’t assume that even if you put links in your stories people will know what you are referring to, because, she says, “It’s courtesy to explain.” Keep anger out of your writing because “it makes people switch off.” Be careful of your tone, and always try to get a joke in early to win over your audience. It’s also important to be able to write about a broad range of subjects, she says – and if anyone’s got that down to a fine art it’s Marina herself, writing three columns each week on completely different themes.
Marina closes with one final piece of advice: “Be someone people want to have a pint with.” Looking around the room it’s clear she’s easily achieved that goal.