Issue 001, 7 June 2021
This happened a long time ago.
Addison just knew, somehow, that Steele had written it. Not just because of the topics he mentioned, but the specific words he used.
He’d have to wait to find out for sure, because Steele was in Ireland at the time. But here was Addison, in London, reading Steele’s writing in an exciting new publication.
They’d known each other since school, Charterhouse in London. Steele had always been a little slavish towards Addison, whom he regarded as more talented than himself. And yet… he’d started this publication on his own.
What was going on?
Hi, I’m John-Paul Flintoff, and this is ::Everyday Writing::, a newsletter that undermines its own title by coming out once a month.
But it is about writing, whether it’s a shopping list on your iPhone or a groundbreaking novel. By reading here about my writing, or somebody else’s, I hope you find something that applies to your own.
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That story about Steele and Addison is true, by the way. They went on to become two of the most famous journalists in English. But to be clear, the newsletter they published wasn’t distributed by email.
It was a printed in double columns, on folio half-sheets of foolscap, published three times a week, with a title that indicated its gossipy mission: The Tatler. Every issue contained one longish essay (about 2,500 words), and advertising at the end. The essays were written under a pseudonym, by a variety of hands: Addison started writing alongside Steele soon after the first issue came out; other notable contributors included Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels.
Among modern journalists, The Tatler possesses a somewhat legendary reputation, though I doubt that many have actually read it. Much of it is too dated to hold attention, or sounds a bit awful (Steele writes in issue 001 “I resolve to include something which may be of Entertainment to the Fair Sex, in Honour of whom I have invented the Title of this Paper”).
But many passages could be reprinted today with just a few names changed.
One of the things Steele did was invite letters from readers. This helped him to generate new ideas; and if the letters were worth quoting, he’d quote them. He also invented letters from readers, and I like that very much.
Bearing in mind its legendary status, I was surprised to learn that Steele closed The Tatler (again, without consulting Addison) after less than two years.
Almost immediately, they set up a different publication, The Spectator - likewise legendary, likewise short-lived.
If they were alive today, would they publish on paper? It’s possible, and people do launch new print titles (thank goodness). But my hunch is that they would publish an email newsletter, a bit like this one you’re reading now.
A long time ago, but considerably more recently than the career of Steele and Addison, I was hired to write for the Financial Times.
I’d never previously worked on staff at a big newspaper, and was thrilled by what did indeed turn out to be an amazing opportunity. Why me? Well, I had done some good work for other publications, including hard business reporting, and had recently published my first book, with lots of reviews, many positive. It was a memoir – which is to say that I didn’t only write about business.
These were real qualifications, but it’s important to acknowledge that I was lucky enough to know people: the girlfriend of a friend of mine was working at the FT, and she recommended me to the UK news editor, who seemed to like me. I was invited to go through eight interviews, with several other editors, right up to the top man (it was a man), before they even told me what the job was.
Would I like to be feature writer on a new weekly magazine?
Yes, I said.
When I joined, there was just me and the editor. The team quickly grew to include a deputy editor, editor’s assistant, editor of the news section, managing editor (responsible for page allocation, ads, printing), picture editor and deputy, art director and deputy, chief sub, sub-editors and a couple of freelance writers who somehow made themselves at home.
We launched into the dot-com boom, and when that ended with a collapse in advertising, the magazine closed. We had published only slightly longer than The Tatler.
Everybody was made redundant, except me. And nobody could tell me why I was kept on. It was the strangest, loneliest period of my working life: for six months, I came into an office that had previously been full of people, and sat at my desk with nothing to do. At lunch, I sat in the canteen on my own. Most days, I didn’t speak to anybody at all.
Just occasionally, somebody on the news desk downstairs remembered that I existed, and asked me to write something. One story I do remember was about a well-known businessman whose son-in-law, a board member, had taken his own life. It was sad, and I felt very sorry for the well-known businessman when I went to interview him.
By now, the paper was under a new editor. My friend’s girlfriend was now my friend’s wife. Impressively, and quite separately, she had also become deputy editor of the Financial Times. One day she asked if I’d come and see her in her office. I went down. The room was, as ever, piled high with papers. She told me they wanted me to start work on launching a new magazine. I did as she asked, and it pleases me to report that that magazine is still published by the FT, every Saturday.
The first issue of any publication is a bit weird. It’s not quite like the second, or the third - or the many that (with luck) might follow. The writer doesn’t really know what he or she is doing. The tone, and contents, are uncertain. Is there a plan to go on “forever”, or for a limited period?
As a bit of a nerd for 18th century writing, I find it fascinating to see how The Tatler developed, and which parts of it were abandoned. To note that, when they launched The Spectator, Addison and Steele decided to go daily (but not Sunday). They’d proved something to themselves with the Tatler, and evidently believed they could write and sell more copies. And they did, but Samuel Johnson, decades later, noted that when The Spectator closed it was already seeing subscriptions decline.
I love that kind of detail - that historical analysis. And not only to things that are obviously “historic”. Looking back on my own work too, I like to contemplate not only the “finished product” – whatever that may be - but the process by which it came into being, developed, and ended. By looking back like this, I typically find many new opportunities.
Recently, I recorded a course called How To Write for The Idler Academy. It was great fun. Preparing for it reminded me how much I enjoy sharing my own writing process, and things I’ve learned from others.
Over the years, I’ve tried many different kinds of writing. As well as all kinds of journalism, I’ve published memoir, fiction and non-fiction. Often I feel that this is a weakness, because it plays havoc with marketing. (If I just wrote thrillers, that would be so much easier for people to understand.) But I’m coming to believe that the variety is also a strength. My interest in different formats and platforms, as well as the mechanics of putting one word after another, might itself be something worth sharing.
I mentioned this to my agent recently. Jaime is a great agent, and a friend. I listen carefully to him. He wondered if I should do a book on how to write. I loved the idea, but what shape would it have? And why me? What would make this different from any of the other books about how to write, some a bit useless but many of them excellent?
I’ve not shared this before. You, dear reader, are one of the first people to read it. Naturally, I’m nervous sharing it.
About 100 years after Addison and Steele, Charles Dickens switched from being a journalist much like they were to publishing novels by monthly instalments - not after a book was finished but while he was still writing it.
I’ve always felt there was something exhilarating about that process – a bit like watching Gromit, the heroic plasticine dog in Nick Park’s film The Wrong Trousers, flinging down train tracks in the final scenes to make a path for the model train on which he hurtles forward at terrifying speed. If Gromit misplaced the track, he’d crash. The same could be said for Dickens.
Something about this reminds me how I felt when I was given a deadline - a real deadline, from a real editor. I had to start flinging down train tracks.
In case there is any doubt: I loved that pressure.
It’s often said (I say it myself all the time) that a writer needs a good sense of who the reader is. For me, on the Financial Times, the reader I cared most about was my editor. And at the Sunday Times, naturally I wanted to please the million or so weekly readers (million!). But I didn’t need to worry about them. I just worked to please my editor: that one person who was waiting for me to deliver my words. Somebody who expected great things from me, hoped for a pleasant surprise, but was not mad enough to expect perfection.
Someone who was, after all, an editor: ready, willing and able to edit.
Working in the office at the FT, as a member of staff, that salutary pressure was unavoidable, because my editor was sitting nearby. But the feeling was diluted when I left the FT, to work from home on contract to the Sunday Times, with a variety of different editors to serve.
My contract at the Sunday Times required me to write a story of about 4,000 words for the magazine, not less than six times a year; and at least 12 features for the News Review section – some as long as 3,000 words, others as short as 600.
These outlets called for very different approaches. Typically, I wrote twice the required quantity of stories for News Review (I was paid extra). Those stories were closely tied to the news, and I soon learned that this would affect whether they appeared in print the following Sunday. The first few times I was assigned a story on a Tuesday I’d throw myself into it: research, call people, write lots of notes. But I soon realised that most of those stories had become stale by Thursday, when section editors would tell me to forget them and start something else entirely, to file the next morning.
From then on, if I was given an assignment on Tuesdays, I did nothing. If, by Thursday, my editor still seemed keen I’d bluff – that is, I lied – saying I was making good progress. Then I’d put the phone down and start working fast.
It became addictive, the adrenaline rush of a deadline. As time went on, I got faster and faster. I remember one time I had to do the whole thing – research, draft, file – in just over an hour: a newspaper feature writer’s equivalent of walking the high wire without a safety net. Or swimming with sharks, as I did once for a travel story in The Financial Times.
But the adrenaline addiction made it increasingly hard for me to write for the magazine: the intervals were too far apart.
You might think that the privilege of writing for a prestigious title like the Sunday Times Magazine would be sufficiently thrilling. It should have been. It would once have been. And it did sometimes happen that I was given something to write that thrilled me. But I had been spoiled, writing magazine stories for the FT on all kinds of subjects – travel, business, arts, crime, politics, reportage, immersive… and so on.
II was fast, capable and versatile. I could do funny, I could do tragic. I could do technical, I could do human. I thought I knew it all. Almost regardless of what I was writing, I felt that I’d rather be writing something else. But it wasn’t the subject that mattered. What I didn’t realise was how badly I felt the lack of an individual champion, a specific individual reader/editor for whom I really wanted to do good work.
If it’s not already obvious, I’d like to point out that you are reading the first ever email in a new email newsletter. It’s my version of Steele’s first Tatler. You, you’re like Addison, wondering what the heck this new thing is. (This has been a long email. If you’re still reading – and I see that you are - thank you!)
I could have just posted it on my website, yet another thing for visitors to stumble on. But that assumes that anybody does stumble on it. Do they?
I used to run away from from information about web traffic, because I dreaded what I might learn. But recently I decided to face the stats, whatever they are, and learn from them. I used something called Google Console, and Google Analytics. They were both horribly complicated, and I still have little idea what I am doing with them, but I did learn two things.
First: that my site routinely attracts about 3,000 new visitors each month, without me even trying. I don’t know if that’s a lot or a little, bearing in mind how long the site has been there. (About 20 years.) Most of these visitors come from searching Google for something that I’ve written about as a journalist.
Second: a large number of them are looking for articles about suicide – not the one about the well-known businessman’s son-in-law, but other, similarly dismal stories I wrote for the Sunday Times.
This was a shock.
Depressingly, it’s clear from the search terms people use on Google that they are in a bad way. (Google Console tells me what the terms were, but not who was looking.) I became worried: people who visit my website were thinking of doing something stupid, and I felt ever so slightly responsible. I went back into those articles to edit them, filling them with guidance about how to call Samaritans, as well as links to stories about my own 2018 breakdown.
When Addison and Steele were publishing The Tatler, there was no Google. Nobody could “search” through previous issues from the other side of the world, at any time of day or night. If they did, somehow, stumble upon a paper archive of Tatlers, Addison and Steele would never know, would not feel responsible, couldn’t update their essays to add tips about better mental health.
This is to state The Very Obvious, but there’s a reason I mention it.
The platforms we write for every day have enormously varied potential. Like our forebears, in their long wigs, we can print on paper. Like them, we can reprint amended versions: Addison, Steele and Swift added their own names when Tatler was reprinted in book form. We can publish electronically, to blogs, and tweak what we publish without anybody knowing. (Not everything digital can be edited. We can’t edit tweets.) We can write short, as seems to be the preference these days, or long. One of my editors on the FT used to joke that he didn’t have time to read short stories. I think he was onto something. Reading nothing but short work is like eating nothing but appetisers. Writers keep writing short because we know that our readers’ attention is bitterly contested. We’re told that nobody has time to read something long. Too often, I believe it. But then I remember the fat Harry Potter books, and how many there are. And the vast success of Hilary Mantel’s series of fat books for adults. Long may not suit everyone, but it does suit some people, and if you’ve read this far, I imagine you are one of them. In which case, please note that this has been the longest paragraph in an email that already contains 2,691 words. I hope you’ve enjoyed it. But I want to go back to the point I just made, in parenthesis, about tweets.
Tweets can’t be edited, and nor can email newsletters. Once they’re sent, they’re sent, and they sit in the archive just as they were. In that sense, what you are reading here is an exclusive, something that truly lives in the Now.
It’s also exclusive because I told you my vague idea to write a book about how to write. If I regret that, I won’t be able to withdraw this from your email inbox.
On the plus side, because this is an email you can reply directly to me without all the hoopla and (even mild) showing off/trepidation of public comments on a blog or in social media. If you do reply, I can include your insights into an edited version of this, and only you and I will know. If you don’t object, I could mention you by name in my next email newsletter, and quote you in part or in full. Naturally, I’ll check with you first.
This being the first newsletter, I don’t have any real letters from readers. So I’ve made one up (Steele, in The Tatler, never admitted to inventing them). Here it is:
I look forward to reading your new Everyday Writing newsletter. I just know it’s going to be interesting, informative, and entertaining (at least, in places) (or rather, I hope so). It’s inspired me to start my own newsletter.
John-Paul, do you by any chance have any plans to run some kind of Newsletter Challenge, in the next month or so? If you were planning such a thing, I wonder if I might join in…? Doing it with you and a few others would give me the momentum to get started on something I’ve contemplated for ages, and never got round to starting.
Your Imaginary Reader
Dear Imaginary Reader
It’s funny you ask that. Because I am indeed running a Newsletter Challenge, from Monday 14 June for exactly four weeks. I’m doing it with people in my Whizzy Group: each of us sending out a totally new email newsletter every weekday. That’s 20 newsletters in total.
Then we stop.
We’ll hold each other to account, just as I was held to account by my magazine editors. You can read more about it here: Newsletter Challenge, June-July 2021.
Till next month!
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