I feel like I've given birth. When I left Biteback I decided that one of my priorities in the second half of 2018 was to write more. In July I asked Eleanor Mills, editor of the Sunday Times magazine, if she'd like me to write a profile of a senior politician. I put a list of ten names to her and she chose Gavin Williamson. I didn't know him at all so I started with a blank sheet of paper.
The article I've given birth to, published in today's magazine (click HERE for online version), is the result of several months of research, interviews and spending time with Gavin Williamson himself. In all, I interviewed about 20 people for the piece, ranging from cabinet ministers and advisers to military people. Almost none would go on the record, but the interesting thing - as I say in the article - is the fact that with one exception, none of his political enemies would talk to me, even off the record. Make of that what you will.
I don't have much experience of writing this type of article. That inexperience led me to dramatically over-write. I was commissioned to write 3,000 words. I ended up writing 8,000. Ridiculous. I thought back to my A Level History exam, where I splurged out 42 sides of A4 over three hours. I wrote everything that my head contained about the causes of the First World War. I got a B. I managed to get rid of 500 words, but I couldn't cut anything else out. I was like a proud bitch who couldn't bear to part with any of her puppies.
To be honest I was a bit embarrassed about the fact I had written so much - about Gavin W, not in my A Level. I called Eleanor and she seemed entirely relaxed about it and said: 'Oh, send the whole thing over, we'll edit it down - it's what we're good at". But even she and her colleagues couldn't get it down to 3,000, and it ended up being a smidge under 5,200.
I have had quite a few texts and calls this morning from people saying how much they enjoyed it, but then again, no one's hardly likely to tell me directly it was a crock of shit. People are polite like that. Usually.
My favourite was a message from a Tory MP...
Just read it but more importantly have my family (inc teenagers!). Verdict was incredibly positive, not from GW’s perspective necessarily, but because we all felt it was interesting, fun and different. What a skill!
I'll settle for that. One comment on the Sunday Times website reckoned I had written an "advertorial". And that's the trouble nowadays. There are no shades of grey. You either write a puff piece or a hatchet job. I've done neither. I genuinely think I have written something which is fair, balanced and enables the reader to learn things they didn't know before about a major league politician.
Other comments I have had include these...
You made him appear likeable but untrustworthy.
Comprehensive and fair. Big takeaway from me: The organiser comment.
One thing I have learnt from this experience is that I know my methods in writing a long piece like this can work. Do the research. Do the interviews. Transcribe them. Start the article with on the record quotes from the interviewee. Add off the record quotes (get permission at the end of the process), then go through the transcribed interviews one by one, add in information and quotes from those, then add factual items from the research. Reorder it all. Then polish it.
I'm very grateful to the Sunday Times for commissioning me to write this piece, as it's helped me realise I can actually do it. It's helped push back the usual imposter syndrome that I suffer from.
I'd like to write another one now. I wonder who my subject will be.