Patrick Kingsley is one of life’s overachievers: Guardian feature writer at just 23 and voted by MHP Communications as one of the top five young journalists to watch in 2012. Rebecca Greig caught up with him to talk deadlines, euphoria and strip-clubs…
Journalism has always fascinated me. As a child I remember seeing all these different newspapers in the newsagents on the way to school and asking my mum what the difference was. One day she said, “Why don’t we buy them all and analyse the differences?” and so we spent an evening going through The Times, The Guardian, The Mail, The Evening Standard and looking at what the difference was between a tabloid and a broadsheet, a rightwing and leftwing paper.
I always had it in the back of my head that it was something I wanted to do when I was grown-up, but by the time I was at university I had decided that I was going to be a teacher. I fluked my way into being editor of this very august student newspaper called Varsity and I was lucky enough to work with people who were much more talented than me. Riding on the coattails of my team I got a special award, student journalist of the year at the 2009 Guardian Student Media Awards. That was one lucky break. My second lucky break was getting six weeks of work experience at The Guardian.
I’d been sitting at the news-desk for about a minute when they asked me to write 500 words on strip-club licensing laws. I had two hours to write on a subject I knew absolutely nothing about. Somehow I did it and it was in the paper the next day.
I was hit by the journalism bug: the thrill of writing to a deadline and discovering new things and your emotions turning from panic to relief to euphoria. It made me think “I wish I was doing this for the rest of my life”.
For some reason the features editor thought I was all right at what I was doing and gave me a series of really large pieces to do. They got me to write a piece on fonts, about why I liked Comic Sans and one day the features editor asked me to write 2000 words on the Slow Reading movement. After that the features editor told me they were short on staff and asked if I wanted to continue writing for them on a contract. And at that point I thought, “I better quit my teaching job”. I’ve been writing for the Guardian ever since.
When I’d been working there for three weeks the editor asked me whether I wanted to go to Thailand and report on the gap year industry - that was a pinch me moment! When I was out there it was quite stressful - a kind of vertigo, simultaneously exciting and terrifying.
I’ve had to walk around London in a Team GB tracksuit and write about people’s reactions. I also walked up and down Baker Street in a Sherlock Holmes-style cape. I’ve spent all night in a gym and opened Tower Bridge.
The two pieces I’m most proud of are the ones I wrote on the Occupy Movement. It was a revelation - it made me realise how a group of people could set out to create a working society that could function in a different way to the rest of the world. Most recently I’ve written a book about Denmark, which aims to satisfy the current British obsession with all things Danish, whether that’s knitwear, chairs, or TV series The Killing and Borgen.
In Focus: Patrick’s top five tips for budding hacks
1. Read everything you can get your hands on: newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, Facebook groups. If you’re reading as much as you can, it helps you to connect the dots, to be aware of what’s going on in the world.
2. Write. If you’re reading, you’re constantly learning how to create sentences, how to structure an article, how to construct a paragraph. You need to be on the lookout for how a writer begins an article, how she ends it, how she alternates between long and short sentences, what turns of phrase he uses to connect different points etc.
3. Find a niche. If you establish a niche you make yourself more visible to editors. If you are interested in South American politics or British feminism, create a blog. Make yourself a lightning rod for media requests on a specialist subject.
4. Diversify. Don’t limit yourself to one type of media. Journalism is going the way of online and broadcast media. If you can’t go to journalism school, learn how to cut video on Final Cut Pro. Use your smartphone to make a video.
5. Pitch. Act like a journalist. Even if you’re a student, discover the publications you’re interested in and pitch lots and lots of ideas to the editors. Don’t sit around waiting for someone to come to you.
How to Be Danish: A Short Journey into the Mysterious Heart of Denmark is published on 1 November by Short Books. You can pre-order a copy here.
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