Tim Dowling on how to write an article

Four years ago, on Monday, 11 December 2017, I attended a talk given by the Guardian columnist Tim Dowling at the Guardian newspaper headquarters in North London. Tim writes amusing observational articles about his life, which he calls ‘wonky trolley’ writing.

He writes about his family, playing in a band, their animals at home, and the things that go wrong with his life. Even the tortoise is amusing. It goes around the garden, and Tim wonders if it is trying to find an escape route. Yeah, I like his articles. He writes about relationships such as being a father, a husband, and a son. He does not write what he thinks of other people but focuses on how they relate to him.

He’s an amenable, friendly, generous man, which comes across in his articles. So how does he write these articles? He begins with a bit of brainstorming. He said he lies on his bed, letting his mind wander, searching for small humiliations, those moments when something didn’t go to plan.

I read Tim’s columns because he makes me laugh. It is like reading a letter from a friend. We get to know all the characters; the wife, the sons, the animals, and the workmen. Tim makes himself vulnerable in a funny way. He uses setting, dialogue, action, and resolution with a sense of time, which can be a few hours, a day or over a weekend. There’s always a problem which he illustrates rather than explains.

He said that when you write, to sound confident. Your style may be confessional and self-deprecating but write confidently about this. So don’t write ‘maybe’ or ‘might’. Begin the piece by stating the problem. ‘The water mains burst!’ and then say what is at stake. ‘If I don’t get this sorted out, the apartment will be under water.’ What’s at stake if Tim doesn’t sort this out? Does the family have to move out into rented accommodation? Tim might construct an artificial argument with his wife in the brainstorming stage to build the risk of what is at stake. The deal with the reader is that this is Tim’s life.

Oh, and on how to end an article. Caitlin Moran gave Tim some good advice on finding an ending. She said to check your second paragraph if you are ever stuck. Sometimes the answer will be there, lurking in the dark.

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