Nine tips for political writing

I’ve been editing other people’s political writing almost all my journalistic career. I hate it. It gives me almost no pleasure at all. Some editors are genuinely good people. They take pride in sending other people’s work into the world in the best possible state. They have a saintly, selfless quality which I will never be able to emotionally understand.

But you learn a lot as a writer from being an editor. It was a privilege, and a stroke of luck, to have done so much of it, even though I despised every single fucking moment of it. The relentless day-in-day-out drudgery of it taught me the basic elements of good writing. At any stage of that process I would have walked away and never done it again if I could. So it just goes to show that you absolutely do not know what’s best for you.

A few months ago I stopped editing and started writing full time, so this seemed a good moment to put something out there about the kinds of things editors look for. I’ve no idea whether this is remotely useful to anyone, or indeed if other editors would agree with it, but for what it’s worth: these are the kind of things I appreciated. Bear in mind these relate mostly to political blogging and comment writing, but you could probably apply them to most journalistic writing.

First, the obvious: Make it an interesting idea. If you are a budding political writer, do not pitch a piece on how Starmer is attacking Johnson on corruption, or how Brexit suggests Britain is moving towards culture war politics. Both these points are true, but everyone else has already said them. Publications will have tried-and-tested writers on hand who will make these arguments and they will do it better than you. Make your email to the commissioning editor immediately attention-grabbing – something other people are not saying or have not yet realised. 

A good way of doing that is to find an area you find interesting and properly understand it, then pitch a piece which makes what’s happening there pertinent to a broader audience. Huge policy areas currently get comparatively little attention – criminal justice, drugs, transport, energy, the list is endless. We need more attention on them, and less on the daily Westminster goings-on.

Second: Do the research. It takes time, patience and humility to really understand a subject area. Have those qualities. Reading the newspapers is not enough. Do proper research. Read reports by think tanks and industry bodies. And read all of them – not just the executive summaries. Watch select committee hearings online. The old ones are on the parliamentary website and are an invaluable resource. Notice the witnesses who really know their subject. Follow them on Twitter. Read the reports they’ve contributed to. 

Read papers by the House of Commons Library. Check out the sources and read those papers too. Phone up people who are experts in the field and talk to them, but do not do this until you have done the background reading. They’re not a shortcut for you to understand things. They’re there to help you fully understand them once you have a broad grasp of the subject. Treat them like saints, because they are.

When you’ve written the piece, go through each sentence imagining that your worst enemy in the world is sitting there trying to fuck you up. Imagine you’re an interviewee on one of Andrew Neil’s old BBC shows and he wants to make a human ruin of you. What would your answer be when he raises a problem with each sentence? Which report would you cite? Which expert that you trust vouched for the information? This can be a boring process, but it’s better to go through it now, in private, than later, in public.

Third, submit the piece on time, as described, and to the right word count. Do not make the editor wait for it. You will stress them out and they will be less likely to hire you again. You are being commissioned to deliver a service. Deliver the service as advertised. 

Fourth, provide an immediately arresting introduction. Too many pieces begin with the most boring pieces of information available, something like: ‘The commission on financial irregularities recently brought out a report, having interviewed several stakeholders, about fluctuations in the…..’ Fuck my life. No-one cares what else you have to say. 

Begin instead with the most exciting element of the story – the most dramatic eventuality, the moment of highest conflict, the fact which is most shocking to the reader, the most arresting image. And then work back from there to the issue you want to talk about – the parliamentary debate, or local council meeting, or think tank report. Give them the stakes first, so they want to find out more.

Fifth, stage-post your narrative. Stage-post like your fucking life depends on it. So many pieces descend into a swamp of impenetrable arguments and events. This is a betrayal of the valuable time you are being given by the reader.

They should know exactly where they are in the argument for every single second that they are reading it. They should know why what they’re reading is important, the point you are making, and why this current sentence contributes to it. Hold their hand. Guide them through. Look at each sentence and ask yourself why it’s pertinent. If you can’t answer that question, delete it.

Your readers are busy. Your job is to make the process of accumulating knowledge about the world easy. They should not struggle to understand you. You are not a poet, writing for people to appreciate your words through introspection in the moonlight. You are a hack, writing for busy people on a bus who are late for work. Your job is to deliver this information into their brain effortlessly. 

That goes for the wording too. In fact, let’s make that the sixth point. Do not use jargon, except insofar as you want to equip the reader to understand the jargon that is being used in general debate. If there is a phrase, like ‘quantitative easing’ say, which you cannot describe in simple words then you do not understand it. Go back and make sure you do. 

This will not be fun. You will get very little recognition for it. Understanding is like an iceberg. The reader will only see the very tip of all the work you do. But it’s only by building that immense slab underneath the water that the reader gets the bit above the surface.

Seventh, check out your publication’s style guide. Do they use straight quotes or curly? Do they capitalise job titles? Follow it. This isn’t a deal breaker. Publications will fix what you do. But in an ideal world they won’t have to do a goddamned thing to your copy. And then they will ask you for more.

Eighth, do not argue with the person editing your copy. I have lost track of how many people want to have a strop about an edit, or who answer with such curt seething replies that they’re clearly aggrieved someone has fondled their beautiful words. Well, that’s the job. You are not Hemingway. Your copy will and often must be fucked with. 

Place yourself in the editor’s shoes. They are taking time out of their working day to improve your work. It is a gracious and thoughtful act. Do not throw that back in their face. There is absolutely nothing you can do which will make them less likely to commission you again. It’s genuinely better to hand in shoddy work than complain when someone fixes it. 

In fact, let’s expand that to the ninth and final point, one which also functions as a general moral principle in life: Don’t be a dick. Don’t be an egomaniac. Don’t be pompous or self-important. Don’t make other people’s lives harder. Be a pleasant person to work with. Be nice and thoughtful. When you raise a problem, also raise a solution. Editors want to get through the day as easily and pleasantly as possible. They reward those who help them do that. 

Right, that’s it from me. You may have noticed typos in this piece, or arguments which could have been made more effectively or concisely. That’s because it didn’t have an editor. Good editors are heroes in a world of civilians. Treat them well.