Tuesday, June 30, 2009...7:00 am

Summer reading suggestions for journalism students #2

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WallaceYesterday I suggested journalism students should read Jeffrey Goldberg’s financial feature “Why I fired my broker” from the May issue of The Atlantic magazine.

But I’m well aware that most student journalists aren’t that keen to write insightful business articles. 

Instead, I’m sure a lot of you want to write witty and amusing columns of your clever observations about life. I don’t blame you. It’s a lot easier: there’s much less research and it’s more fun to produce.

But often these kinds of column are not so much fun to read. If you don’t know what you’re doing, they turn out to be self-indulgent and flabbily written. The columnist is often the only one enjoying themself. Although they seem as if they should be easy, writing a humorous and topical column that actually works is very hard indeed

But some writers do it very well. One is Danny Wallace, who writes for London lifestyle freesheet ShortList on a Thursday.

He should be good at this. He writes for radio and TV, as well as turning out books. More importantly, he’s been writing since he was at school. It takes time and practice, after all.

Why is his self-indulgent humour column worth reading? Mainly, timing and structure.

He has a certain formula – pick a social event and bring out the embarrassing misunderstandings. This piece starts with an old schoolfriend inviting him to meet up and asking if he can “suggest a date”.

They meet with an awkward moment as Wallace goes for the handshake and his friend for the hug – then they head out to dinner, only for it to slowly dawn on Wallace that he’s in a gay restaurant. 

Now we are two men in a dimly lit restaurant inches from each other’s faces, our hands almost touching, lit only by flickering candlelight.

“Well, this is unusual,” I think.

If this were the 1970s, that would be the joke. But because we’re in the 21st century, the humour comes from Wallace’s desperate – and futile – attempts not to say anything offensive. 

And he’s getting more and more worried that “suggest a date” means “suggest a date“. How can he let his friend down gently? 

The faux pas come think and fast. Wallace is so desperate not to seem homophobic that he can’t say anything right. Each time he tries to dig himself out, he digs his hole deeper. 

The finale comes with the farewell. This time, Wallace remembers to hug, but his slightly unnerved friend goes for the handshake. 

I ignore this, and just hold him. Tight. 

“I’ll be back in London soon,” he says, looking a little uncomfortable.

“It’s a date,” I say.

The structure works well – by the end of the evening their roles are reversed and therein lies the humour. The timing is good too – he doesn’t labour things and the punchline is really nicely done.

I’m really not keen on the personal column format – it’s so rarely done well. But I actually make a point of picking up ShortList partly to read its Danny Wallace Is A Man page. If you want to write humour, he’s well worth reading – and stealing from in terms of style (before you develop your own unique voice, obviously). 

The ShortList web site is a bit weird, in that it has its archive of back issues in some electronic reader format rather than HTML. But all the back issues are on the site if you want to trawl through them.

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