In November, I will be hosting a short, residential writing course with award-winning journalist Louise Tickle, someone who I have worked with on various assignments over the last decade. Here, Louise talks about her appearance this week on a popular BBC Radio 4 programme.

Easdale island, Argyll on Scotland’s west coast. © Colin McPherson, all rights reserved

“How do you even begin ‘writing to challenge and change your world’? 
This is the title of a three-day intensive course I’m running on Easdale island in November, so I thought I’d jot down some thoughts as to how I try to approach the question in my own work, by describing a process I’ve just undergone over a concentrated 24 hour period.

On the morning of Tuesday 2nd July, I was invited to appear as a “witness” on Radio 4’s The Moral Maze. It would go out, live, the very next evening. The programme would deal with the issue of anonymity in our legal system, which pertains directly to the issue of how to protect people’s privacy in family courts. I am a strong proponent of greater scrutiny, accountability and openness in family court hearings, which in this country are almost always held in private. Requiring our family court system to be more open in order to hold the state to account inevitably however increases the risk to the anonymity of vulnerable children and their parents. It’s a genuine dilemma. 

Anyway, I said yes to the researcher’s invitation, and then realised I was trembling. This lasted a couple of hours. I know from previous broadcast experience that it can be hard to articulate nuanced arguments under pressure of time, live in a studio, with very smart people challenging you. 
In that 24 hour period however, I undertook a version of the preparation I might well do in order to write a comment piece. This involved:

  • emailing for help from people who know more than me on the subject at hand, and vitally, also have differing perspectives and starting points than my own.
  • reading two academic articles on the subject which gave a thorough historical perspective on the campaign for greater transparency and the arguments against.
  • reading through several of my own blogs and articles on the subject, to see how I’d constructed my arguments.
  • reading through the submissions made in my recent challenge in the court of appeal  so that I had a firm grasp of the legal basis on which freedom of expression in family cases had been justified in past cases.
  • writing out, and then reading out, the points I thought were most compelling in the case for more transparency, and writing out, and then reading out – by this time I was in a Paul cafe near Broadcasting House an hour before broadcast – my responses to the opposing view. I wasn’t very succinct, in fact it was all a bit rambly, but at least I felt clear in my own mind. 

Once ushered into the studio, the seven minutes in front of my interrogators flew by, as I was told they would. And it was lots of fun. More importantly, I am told that I got my arguments across. 

So, what does this experience show?
Writing – and communicating – to challenge and change your world is about so much more than being able to string an impassioned sentence together. I’d actually argue it is rarely, if ever, going to be about using florid rhetoric, or declaring how you feel, and far more about deep engagement with and research into the subject you care about, evaluation of the evidence, and very importantly, engaging in good faith and in detail with the facts that are strongest in support of the position opposite to your own. 
From Lucy Reed, a friend, a family barrister and chair of the charity The Transparency Project – Lucy has represented me in court – I have begun to learn the power of understatement when putting forward a point of view: from my (rightly) demanding editors at the Guardian over the many years I have been writing for them, I have learned the importance of basing my work on facts that can be evidenced. This is vital to all good journalism, but it is particularly so in comment writing that seeks to persuade: it is crucial in this situation to base your opinion on facts, particularly if you are going to say something that will outrage certain interest groups. See this article  I wrote about how the state kidnaps children: it was highly controversial and some people really didn’t like it, but my logic could not be picked apart because it was tightly based on verifiable facts.

Probably most importantly, look hard at the facts that don’t help you. How do you persuade the people who base their view on those facts? How do you find ways to change their minds or alter how they act? This is about being imaginative, empathic and willing to think creatively around a problem. Is there something you can offer that works for them, or that addresses their concerns (which may well be perfectly well-founded). I’ve found that while I can do the empathy, and am very willing to try to think around difficulties, I’m not actually all that great at coming up with creative solutions. However… I am really good at asking other people for their ideas and persuading them to help me, and then going hell for leather to make the good solutions they come up with happen. (Always, always give the people who help you the public acknowledgement and credit they deserve).
Finally, think big and go high. I’m not bad at this, for which I need to thank the RSPB for giving me my first job: a major national charity aims to influence at the highest levels, and being in this environment at the age of 24 set my expectations of what is achievable if only you dare to stretch.

So… in conclusion, effectively challenging and changing your world is never going to be only about the writing: it is also about preparation, a willingness to learn, and having the gumption to dare to ask for a lot, rather than a little.

But we will, absolutely and definitely, be doing lots of writing on Easdale as well as talking about attitude, ambition and persistence – and for anyone who fancies wild swimming in quarry in November, bring your cossie! 
More information on the course and bookings details here:

Hope to see you there!

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