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October 5, 2022

Marina Hyde on the art of writing a column: ‘It’s a trade. You just have to fill the space’

By William Turvill

“I absolutely hate reading anything I’ve written. Anything at all. I – yeah. Every single thing.”

Spare a thought for Marina Hyde. The Guardian writer recently had to trawl through all of her work dating back to 2016 to decide what to include in a collection of columns for her new book, ‘What Just Happened!?’

“I mean, I will hate it by supper that night,” she wails. “No, no. Imagine. With six years on it, you’re like: ‘Oh my God! You’re a histrionic twat! Shut up, love!’ But I suppose you have to get over that because it’s your job.”

Hyde is great company as an interviewee, even over Zoom, full of jokes, charm and self-deprecation. But when it comes to writing up our interview a few days later, she is a nightmare.

By my rough estimate, Hyde speaks about 200 words per minute. Listening back to my recording, I find incomplete sentences, jokes half told, and most of my quickfire questions left unanswered (“I hate ranking things. Can you put that I hate ranking things?”)

Towards the end of my half-an-hour with Hyde, I start to wonder what The Guardian’s sub-editors make of her. (Hyde has told me she writes quickly and is proud to embrace “some bad grammar” in her work.)

“Oh, I hope we get on,” she says earnestly when I ask whether she has a good relationship with the subs. “Yes. I thank them very much for all their work. It takes a village.”

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Hyde seems slightly put out by my question, so I say that it’s nothing personal – it’s just that you often hear of subs being frustrated with columnists (e.g. Giles Coren). “Oh, really? Yes, I’m sure they do.”

But not with you? “Do you think? I’ve no idea. Why don’t you ring some up and see if you can get them to call me an absolute shit, off the record? I would.”

One Guardian editor told me Hyde’s columns are “rarely touched – because there’s no reason to. Most of the subs, as well as the editors, are in awe of her writing, which lands word perfect. The only challenge is the occasional need for legal changes – she’s not terribly keen on being watered down, but will of course accept tweaks that can’t be avoided.” A sub-editor also spoke out in support of Hyde, saying she is “always prompt, decisive and polite if we have to deal with her”.

‘Almost everything good I’ve done was after I had children’

Hyde, 48, stumbled into journalism in her early 20s after graduating from Oxford. She was working as a secretarial temp, mainly in the financial services sector, when her agency asked if she’d like to take on a short assignment answering phones on the showbiz desk of The Sun. “And I just thought: yes! Much more than I would like to go to another bank and be insulted by the people who walk through the reception all the time. So I did go, and it was brilliant fun.”

Hyde managed to establish herself as a fixture at The Sun doing “all sorts of little dog’s body jobs – researching, picture research – and that’s how I started”.

Hyde says she never would have had the “confidence to think: Oh, I could be a journalist – I could go and train as a journalist. Which seems odd because I think people think my writing’s very confident or whatever they think now. But it took a long time to get there”.

How did Hyde transform herself from a timid temp into a forthright Guardian columnist? “The thing that made me much more confident to try lots of different things actually, strangely, was having children,” says Hyde, who first joined The Guardian as a diary reporter in 2000 and went on to earn several column billets covering politics, sport and showbiz.

“Because I suddenly felt they’re the most important. So weirdly I became more of a professional risk-taker. Because it didn’t matter so much. In a way, the stakes suddenly felt lower because something else was much more important. So I actually became braver in lots of ways.

“Which I would never have figured. In a way, I suppose, women particularly feel like: Oh God, what’s going to happen when I have children? Am I going to shut down professionally? Really the opposite has been true for me. Almost everything good I’ve done I’ve done after I had children.”

Hyde had her first child at 36. So, I say, you’ve been in your prime for 12 years? “Oh, no! I don’t think I’m in my prime now. It’s probably all long past me… Really, probably after 40 I think I’ve done better things. It will all start tailing off really quite fast now, I think. It’s downhill all the way from here.”

Supporting the theory that Hyde is going through something of a purple patch, she has been named comment journalist of the year three times in a row at the British Journalism Awards.

‘It’s a trade. And you just have to fill the space’

Hyde is good at making people laugh. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Gary Lineker and Caitlin Moran are all quoted on the cover of her book describing her as the funniest writer of our time.

I ask Hyde if she makes herself laugh. “Me!? No. I don’t make myself laugh out – I do try and often make people laugh,” she says, laughing. “But no, I don’t chuckle at my desk. No. I mean. I know I’m laughing now. But I’m laughing at the idea of it.”

Which writers make her laugh? “I really like this person called Alexandra Petri who writes for The Washington Post,” says Hyde. “I always think it’s such a shame that America doesn’t have sketch writers and more humorous political columnists. Because they have so much raw material, of course.

“They take themselves very seriously, I think, there as journalists. I mean, I always think at least we know we’re scum in the British press, so we allow ourselves more of a laugh.”

Hyde usually works from her home study for The Guardian, but she enjoys travelling to cover political events when she can.

When I start to ask about her process for writing a column, she interjects – “Oh my God, ‘my process’!? I mean, that dignifies it more than it deserves. I sit down with an empty document quite early in the morning. And I normally would write it in two or three hours.

“I never write it in order, weirdly. I just end up putting phrases and things and then moving around the word document. And eventually out of that mess something staggers.”

Do you ever experience writer’s block? “I suppose I did more when I was younger. Now it’s just such a trade. You learn the trade and you can fill the space – often in a way that I deplore what I’ve done and think: ‘This is dreadful, I hate it!’ But I can fill the space within the timeframe and I’m not gripped by some anxiety of authorship or whatever some poet called it.

“I mean, really, it’s a trade. And you just have to fill the space. And it’s good if you can do it better. But if you can’t, it must nonetheless be filled.”

‘Tone is everything’

Who, I ask Hyde, is she writing her columns to? Herself? Her friends? Readers? “I don’t thinkerm. I think I’m writing to readers. I’ve always tried to be a friend as a writer to the reader.”

And is the columnist Marina Hyde the real you? Or a character in some ways? “That’s another good question. I think it must be me because it’s just me writing it. Yes, I think it must be me.”

Do other columnists play characters sometimes, do you think? “I don’t know. There’s a certain type of character where people feel they have to be a provocateur or a contrarian,” says Hyde. “I don’t feel like that. I don’t feel I have time to think like that. No. It must be exactly what I think because I don’t feel I have time to create something different.”

Hyde concedes that her writing can be “more polished” than her speech “because you can shave off words”. But, she doesn’t aim to “revise too much when I’m writing – because I like it to be quite conversational and to have some bad grammar in it and to have some colloquialisms in it and for it to sound a bit more like people talk than a formal treatise”.

“I think that voice is quite helpful in a way,” she adds. “Tone is everything. That’s something rather unfair in a way. Because I’ve read people often who have such interesting things to say but they’ve got the tone wrong, and it really is a switch off.

“And equally, it’s an awful sleight of hand, but if you get the tone right and actually have nothing to say – i.e. loads of my columns – sometimes people don’t notice and like it anyway.”

Quickfire questions with Marina Hyde

Favourite columnist? “Oh my God. I couldn’t narrow it down.”

Book? “I hate ranking things. Can you put that I hate ranking things? Ugh. The complete works of Shakespeare – put that in! No, no. Okay. Not the complete works of Shakespeare. Don’t put that. Anything about 1940s Hollywood – put that in.”

Film? “Pfft. Casablanca. No, maybe The Searchers. The Searchers.”

Newspaper (apart from The Guardian and Observer)? “Oh, God, it’s hard… I’m never off Mail Online – put that. I bet people don’t admit to it, but I love it. Never off it. And I love the commenters. I read more Mail Online commenters than I read actual newspapers. That’s another bad thing to admit.”

Video game? I heard in a recent Newsnight appearance that you play Call Of Duty – is that true or was it a joke? “Yes. Now I just have to play Roblox with my children. Put Roblox. Roblox with my children.”

Podcast? “I like the Rest is Politics.”

Career low point? “Oh, God, where do you start? Probably tomorrow. No, I mean, I don’t have low points. I just move on.”

High point? “I treat the two imposters just the same. I feel I’d be a hostage to fortune if I said one.”

The epilogue with Marina Hyde

“Sorry,” says Hyde when I tell her I’ve run out of quickfire questions. “I bet that’s the worst fucking quickfire that any human has ever done.”

Yeah, probably, I agree.

“I should have actually been fired on by you with actual live bullets at the end of that. I’m so sorry. I bet you hate me.”

Photo credit: Matt Crockett

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