Guardian Masterclass

An evening with Tim Dowling

Tim Dowling stood at the lectern. There was an easy manner about him as if he was enjoying this moment, talking to a hundred strangers at the Guardian Masterclass.

Tim writes a humorous column for the Guardian which he describes as ‘observational writing, a lifestyle sub-genre otherwise known as ‘wonky trolley’ columns, and by ‘wonky trolley’ he means those times in our lives when things don’t exactly go to plan.

What does he write about? His advice is “Don’t try to be anything other than yourself. Writing the column comes with responsibilities, readers don’t like it when you’re settling a score. The point is that you want people to think your heart is in the right place even if you’re making a terrible joke.”

He uses New Journalism techniques popularised by Tom Wolff and his colleagues. That means that he writes his columns using colourful characters, sustained dialogue and vivid scenes. Don’t summarise people in a couple of lines. What’s important is how they relate to Tim, not what Tim thinks of them.

Tim sees the first reader to be a stranger, not a friend. They don’t read to find out what Tim thinks. They come here to find out what they believe. The bargain Tim makes with his reader is that this actually happened. This is not fiction but real life, and so he always reports what is true and always uses straight facts. He does turn up his reactions but is careful not to exaggerate. There is a fine line between irony and farce. It’s always better to underplay the moment; to keep a straight face as you tell a joke. No need for exclamation marks. In fact, an exclamation mark can be a kiss of death.

He often works in the morning lying in bed, letting his mind wander. He looks for a subject – something he can focus on.  He allows his mind wander, looking for the small humiliations over the past week. Maybe he will look to connect the story to events in the news or something he overheard on the train. Tim writes down the ideas as single statements such as “when the wife hired a car” and then does some thinking at the keyboard. In essence, he allows his fingers to do the thinking.

His writing style is confessional and self-depreciating. Sometimes he constructs an argument to test his opinions and then ask himself “What’s funny about this?” He’s only looking for a couple of jokes, but they got to be good jokes.

Here’s Tim’s advice:

  • What gets your creative juices going? Ask yourself ‘What do you think about these subjects?’
  • A good way to find a story’s narrative structure is to tell a friend. Tim said that we naturally impose a narrative structure on a story just by recounting it.
  • There’s always got to be something at stake which is stated early on in a casual fashion. You don’t want highlight what is at stake. Don’t make a big deal of it.
  • The reader is always expecting you to be the expert. So you have to write with confidence – no hesitation, no “maybes” or “possibly” or “mights” – everything happened as you wrote it and you know everything about it.
  • Always remove as many ‘I’ as possible in the rewrite.
  • Write in the historic present to give the piece immediacy. Tim’s pieces are 700 words long with a clear start and a clear sign-off.
  • Pace is important. Top and tail the piece with an anecdote, start with the problem and resolve the problem at the end.
  • If you’re stuck with an ending, check the second paragraph because sometimes you find the answer there lurking in the dark. (Caitlin Moran gave him that piece of advice.)

11 December 2017