Hack’s hacks for real life interviews

In 1998 I did my first interview for a women’s weekly – I nervously flew up to Scotland to interview a dominatrix who was upset because other mums were blanking her at the school gate. She was lovely – she made me a cheese sandwich and gave me a blue crystal “which aids communication” before explaining how she divided her time between school runs and dribbling hot wax on men’s chests. As first interviews go it could have been far, far worse.

image of a blue crystal

The actual crystal – not sure if it has aided communication but I’m quite attached to it.

Since then I’ve done too many real life interviews to count – I’ve spoken to Elvis impersonators, shagging DJs, lifesaving surgeons, campaigning mums and survivors of domestic abuse. And before each one I’m still nervous. Because until you pick up the phone you have no idea what sort of person you’ll be speaking to. However experienced an interviewer you are, each individual is unknown territory.

And then it’s up to me – the interviewer – to tread the path between what the editor wants, what the interviewee thinks their story is and the truth of the story itself. Get it right and everyone will be happy. Getting it wrong is unthinkable.

Over the years I’ve come up with a few rules to cling to as I head into this wild, wild west situation, so here’s a rough guide from a true life hack…

Get chatting

What makes a story come to life is the characters in it – how did they spend Saturday nights? What’s their favourite takeaway? What makes them laugh? Those are the details which, if cleverly woven in, make a person seem more real, gets the reader rooting for them. So before you jump into the narrative – the when, where how of what happened, take some time to ask about the people involved and what they are like.

Carry the details through

As you gather these details, squirrel them away in your mind and bring them up again later. One young woman I interviewed used to love watching The 100 with her father. Later, when she was struggling to talk about how it felt after he passed away I had some tangible questions to ask her. What was it like watching the show without him? How did it feel to hear his favourite song, watch his football team win? These sound like cruel questions but people respond well to them – it’s difficult to express grief but this gives them a framework for doing it and prompts new stories to come into their minds. That kind of detail also makes it feel more real for the readers without having to resort to cliches.

Avoid talking about yourself

Except in the rarest of cases, this kills the conversation stone dead – especially with celebrities. It’s fine to say something like “oh yes, I’ve got two kids as well, they can be a right handful, can’t they?” But once you start regaling them with tales of Little Johnny’s behavioural issues it changes the dynamic of the chat and leaves the interviewee floundering.

Sweat the small stuff

When people are describing something you can both get swept away on the narrative, then when you go to write it up you realise you’re missing a vital detail. “Then he threw a knife at me,” she says. You’re so shocked and sympathetic that you forget to ask where he got the knife from, whether it was a big scary carving knife or a butter knife, where it landed. Sometimes you have to break the flow to ask this crappy, horrible, unpleasant stuff. If you can’t break the flow, write a note to yourself to ask about it later in the conversation. No, it’s not nice but if you’re going to write a true reflection of what happened you have to know where things are.

Dates, dates dates.

The same goes for when things happen. Before you write a feature create a timeline of events and fill it in as you go – then refer back to it when you’re writing.

Check spellings

I shouldn’t even have to mention this, but I will. There are about eight different ways to spell Tracy.

journalist notepad scrawled with notes

If this was a proper blog, this would be a beautiful handmade notepad with a unicorn pen.

Check your voice recorder. Then check it again.

Once my voice recorder ran out of battery half way through an interview with Julie Walters. It was one of the most mortifying moments of my life – to the extent that I’m ashamed to even admit it here, years later. Sure, I have shorthand but I find my notes don’t capture the nuance of the conversation as well, and it’s a bitch to decipher. The PR had to record the rest of the chat on her iPhone and email it over to me – I was so embarrassed I never told anyone in the office what happened. Since then before every interview I’ve checked the battery life and available memory on my trusty Olympus.

Get some playback software

Words cannot express how much I hate transcribing, speech-to-text software is hilariously bad and most commissions don’t pay well enough to pay a transcriber. So recently I downloaded some playback software to my computer. It’s not perfect but it allows you to slow down, speed up and play back small sections over and over until you’ve figured out what that vital mumbled word actually was.

Respect your interviewee

This person might have done things you would never consider doing in a million years. He or she might live a life you disapprove of or disagree with or just don’t get. None of that matters. It’s up to you to get into their heads and understand why they got that tattoo of Donald Trump on their face. In my day-to-day life almost everyone I meet in real life looks like me, thinks like me and often agrees with me so it’s good to see things from a different point of view and get the chance to meet some amazing people I’d never otherwise talk to. And I get paid for it too! Result.

Why anyone who publishes a book is amazing

It’s easy to slag books off. I do it all the time – as a reviewer I see lots of not-very-good books: novels which are cynical imitations of another title which did quite well a few years ago, novels written to a formula, novels cranked out when the writer had a deadline but was struggling for inspiration. And everyone’s favourite punching bag, Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s fun to slag off books and as a wannabe author it’s encouraging – if this load of old twaddle can get published, so can I. So yes, I do it, I’m only human.

But it’s also deeply wrong and unfair, because every non-celeb person who has ever had a book published deserves huge respect for beating the odds. They have been through at least a dozen agonising and increasingly Hunger Games-esque stages to get there…

To get your book published takes faith determination and a rhino-like skin1: They had a Very Good Idea. You know, just like the one that’s floating round your head at the moment that would be an absolute best seller if only you could find the time to write it all down.

2: They had a Second Very Good Idea which gave the initial Very Good Idea wings. Boy goes to wizard school has potential, but Orphaned boy goes to wizard school where he discovers a dark link between himself and the powerful wizard who murdered his parents is the start of a seven-book series.

3: They found the time to write it down. Hours. Days. Months. In the middle of the night, getting out of bed at 5am, punching it out with their thumbs on their iPhone on a commute. Or even giving up their jobs. Despite all the crap going on in their lives, they found the time.

4: They didn’t give up when they got 30,000 words in and realised that the Second Very Good Idea actually doesn’t work at all unless they go back and unpick everything that happened after Chapter Two. Instead, they went back and unpicked. Or they replaced the duff Second Idea with a shiny new Third Very Good Idea which made it even better.

5: They wrote 60,000 to 150,000 words about Very Good Ideas One and Two (or Three.) It might not be in a genre you like, it might be too light and fluffy or too flabby and pretentious but they wrote the words down. A story now exists where there was none before.

6: Then they edited, going through the whole thing until they were sick of the sight of it, rejigging it, taking bits out, regretting it, putting them back in. They cut things they loved, sliced out whole characters and wrote entirely new scenes instead, all the while not truly knowing whether they were making the thing better or worse.

7: They then sent it to agents. Dozens of ‘em. They received rejection email after rejection email until they wondered whether the Very Good Idea was actually Utter Tripe Idea in disguise. Maybe they took too long writing it and nobody wants dystopian YA stories any more, or a major plot point has been wiped out by the invention of Google Maps. Or maybe they just wasted an immense amount of their time and passion on something nobody wants to read. This could happen, and does – all the time. But if it doesn’t…

More bashing into shape ensues

8: An agent actually picks it out of their slush pile of hundreds, is moved by the words, blown away by VGIs One and Two, and signs them up. More editing ensues. Author and agent eventually agree that book is in good shape. Hooray!

9: Said agent believes in the book enough to haul it all around town to different publishers, or even take it to a book fair and say: “Buy my client’s book, it’s great and it will make money for you.”

10: In order to get a book deal, the author then has to cage fight JK Rowling using only a copy of The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook as a weapon. Oh wait, no, that’s just a weird dream I had.

10: A publisher sees the book, likes it and thinks that this is a Very Good Idea, which will possibly make money for them.

11: The publisher then introduces an editor into the mix who undertakes more Bashing Into Shape along with the author who is probably feeling pretty bashed themself by now. Once they’re happy, they haul it around town to the booksellers and supermarkets, convincing them that the author has had a Very Good Idea and that they, too could make money from it.

12: It has been years since the author had the Very Good Idea but it’s stood the test of time, it’s on the shelves. Now the author, the publisher and booksellers all join forces to convince us – the reading public – that the Very Good Idea is worth spending the price of a cup of coffee on.

What a way to make a living!

Seriously, it’s ridiculous, but that’s the way it works in traditional publishing. So to get your book onto shelves and into people’s hands takes an astonishing amount of faith in yourself and your idea, extraordinary discipline and commitment plus a rhino-like skin to deal with all those rejections and edits along the way. So anyone who has ever, ever had anything published is an utter hero. I salute you. And one day, glutton for punishment that I am, I hope to join you.

Book review: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober

Around three years ago, my former colleague and friend Catherine Gray told me that she was a recovering alcoholic. For about two seconds I couldn’t have been more surprised – and then our whole history suddenly fell into place and I went ohhhh…

It explained why, after working like mad to build a career she clearly loved, she started Cover image of the unexpected joy of being sober by Catherine Grayrolling in late and taking Mondays off sick. It explained all the mysterious bumps and bruises and injuries. It explained why the features team used the words “totally Cathed” as a euphemism for steaming drunk. And now I understood why, on our way out of a work Christmas party, I’d had to stop Cath jumping into a limo full of men on a stag.

It also showed me something else – how easy it is to ignore something that’s going on right under your nose, and how ill-equipped the modern working world is to deal with it. And if I’d known, what could I have done? “Nothing,” Cath told me – and of course she was right. When someone wants to drink it takes more than a concerned boss to stop them.

What eventually did stop Cath was her own decision and the sheer strength of mind to follow it through – after a lot of false starts and endless soul searching she found her own personal way to get sober and did it. I’m in awe of her for this achievement – but even more so because she’s shared it in a book: The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober.

The adventures don’t stop after she quits – they just change

I’m not usually a big fan of sober-lit – so many rehab memoirs focus on fabulous drinking stories until we’re actually a bit disappointed when they quit. But this one is different: Yes, there’s a fair few celebrity snogs and drinking den adventures but she also shares the process she went through. The times she tried and failed, the things which worked for her, the things which didn’t. Like a good magazine journalist she pulls in statistics and facts to support her argument. And she does a great sales job on the sheer joy of sobriety that waits on the other side.

Because Cath’s argument is that life just gets better and better after you stop drinking. That it’s worth going to bed at 1am if you’re up in time for a hangover-free sunrise. The adventures don’t stop after she quits – they just change. She travels, she makes friends and discovers new things about herself. The sheer joy of her life shines through in her writing, in an honest and totally non-preachy way. It’s also entertaining – even when she’s describing her lowest ebb she does it with wit and humour and without any anger or frustration.

When someone you know writes a memoir, the first thing you do is check out any references to yourself*. The second thing you do is agonise over whether that ambiguous statement in chapter 42 was actually about you and whether, if that is the case, you should apologise. The third thing is to feel an odd sense of pride that a person you know has clawed into the depths of their own experience and created something wonderful and life affirming out of it. And, even though you’re not their mother, and nor did you actually help with the book in any way, you still feel curiously proud to know them.

The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober is out now

Follow Cath on Twitter @cathgraywrites

*My wedding was in it! Luckily it’s the one she enjoys. She and her friend were pretty much the life and soul of the party.

Tales of a book reviewer

I’ve just finished a nine month stint reviewing books for Good Housekeeping. Their Huge bookshelf stuffed with booksBookshelf page is one of the most densely populated ones in monthly magazines – around 15 slots to fill each month and, because obviously not every book makes the cut, you have to dip into considerably more than that.

Some months it was a struggle – I was speed-reading into the night, getting to the end of yet another wannabe Gone Girl and groaning when I realised that the twist at the end was just too stupid. Finishing a review only to find the publication date had changed and I had five hours to find a replacement for the page. Or realising that a novel didn’t live up to the hype surrounding it.

But most of the time it was brilliant. Receiving a pile of review copies in the post never got old – although my postman may have aged prematurely. Attending book launches and chatting with fellow book buffs online made me feel part of a wonderful community.

The process of sorting through a week's #bookpost

The process of sorting through a week’s #bookpost

But the best thing about the job was being surprised. There are plenty of books I expected to love and did love, but nothing beats the feeling of picking something up without any particular expectations and then suddenly feeling a deep connection with it. Here are some which really took me aback:

 

 

In Shock by Dr Rana Awdish We’ve had medic-turned-patient memoirs before, like the amazing When Breath Becomes Air, but the urgency and pace of this really grabbed me. And she has such fascinating thoughts on the doctor-patient relationship and where communication goes wrong.

The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson – I generally avoid anything which feels a bit hypey. All those books about how great French women are, others urging me to get hygge or live lagom… But the author is so wise and charming. She’s aged “somewhere between the age of eighty and a hundred” and I fell in love with her warm, wry and understated tone.

When will I learn never to rule out entire authors or genres?

The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain – she’s a big best-seller but I had her down firmly in my head as “not my thing.” Silly me, when will I learn never to rule out entire authors or genres? I had a really good time reading this one and the direction of the story surprised me.

And that’s the best thing about my time reviewing for GH – stretching my reading boundaries. When you have small children days and weeks pass without reading anything at all, but this forced me to read – without procrastinating or rejecting a book because I wasn’t in the mood for a particular genre. I tore through romantic fiction, speculative fiction, literary fiction, sagas, bestsellers, poetry, bonkbusters… anything. My brain has been jump-started, my writing has improved (honest!) and now my reviewing time is up (their wonderful books ed is back from maternity leave) I’m planning to keep going and going. Watch this space.

In which my Twitter name goes viral

Last week a publisher tweeted me to ask if I was interested in seeing a self-help book called Walking On Sunshine, and the tweet kind of went viral. I mean, not crazy-viral like that story about the stripper going to Florida, but a bit infectious. Think common cold rather than Ebola. My phone blinking in the middle of the night with news that yet another person in the States had seen it and thought – awesome!

Twitter used to be about the banter

This doesn’t usually happen with book related news but it does when the tweet includes a photo of Twitter-catnip Harry Styles reading a copy of said book.

I KNOW! Amazing or what?!?! Some of the comments from fans were really sweet, so chuffed to see their hero relaxing with a good read.

Although if I’m honest he could look a teeny bit more cheerful about it – but maybe I’m just being fussy.harry styles reading a book looking a bit sad

At first it was kind of exciting. I’ve known for ages that I probably have to build up my Twitter profile a bit, and now my name was spreading across the planet like an infectious disease. Surely it was a matter of time before I started reaping the rewards. And sure, all those 1D fans would be a bit disappointed about the lack of Harry in my day to day tweeting life but some of them might just stay for the craic…

And then, nothing happened. More likes, more favourites but, over that first frenzied 48 hours, I actually lost four followers.

It underlined how much Twitter has changed over the past few years. Back when I joined in 2010 I got followers if I so much as sneezed. But more importantly it used to be about the banter. I remember lots of late night chats with a science dude about the guilty pleasure movie that is The Scorpion King, there was another guy with a quintessentially British sense of humour who always had a funny comeback for everything I tweeted.

Then I took two years off Twitter for work reasons, and somehow I got hopelessly left behind. By the time I went freelance and returned to my old tweeting ways my former pals now had so many followers my voice was completely lost among them – during those two years they went from being nearly-friends to minor celebrities.

Retweets are incredibly rare and the only way to increase your network is by following people and hoping they follow you back. I duly did so, adding lots of interesting people to my list, but the result is that my news feed is a long list of strange faces and mysterious links rather than  cosy group of friends.

Now it’s all about getting software to manage who you follow, to automatically unfollow someone who doesn’t follow you back because it affects your “reach”. If you don’t do this, Twitter essentially, auto-brands you a Big Fat Loser. So instead of being a fun thing to do it’s become a way of measuring yourself and the imprint you make in the world. For example, I recently heard about an author whose book was rejected by a publisher on the basis that, with a mere 2,000 or so followers, her reach was too small.

Going on that, I am a pipsqueak that probably couldn’t even get a magazine down off a shelf.

It’s kind of sad but the truth is that, unless you’re a comedy account like @shitmydadsays or @50ShedsofGrey, people don’t follow you for the laughs any more, they follow because of what you can offer them. So when I was a commissioning editor, freelancers followed me. And now I’m a book reviewer, book publicists follow me. Mighty entertaining and informative they are too, but it’s still all about work.

I cherish the non work-related people I’ve come across – glimpses into different worlds like @theonlyspoon. He’s a PUPPETEER – coolest job ever! And I love tweeters who go out of their way to entertain, like @Joannechocolat‘s #10tweetsabout… and #storytime. Even better are the real friends – the ones I know offline and the fellow freelancers from online community I belong to. We recently held a Social Media Monday where we all followed each other and sent supportive messages. It felt good to be part of a community again – and also for some of my notifications to be non-Styles related for a change.

I miss the rawness of it, though. The fact you could go online on a Sunday night, talk about what’s on TV and find a bunch of kindred spirits you never knew existed. I’m aware that makes me sound like my nan talking about the good old days of the jitterbug but hey, it comes to us all. Perhaps I should give Snapchat a try instead?

It’s all pretty depressing but on the bright side, I can always cheer myself up by reading Walking On Sunshine which is actually quite a fun little book with cartoons and bitesize tips on how to brighten up your day. It’s out now and comes under recommendation from Harry Styles.

awalking

 

 

 

 

PS: And here’s a review of Viral by Helen Fitzgerald, just for the tenuous link of it…

This nice girl would like the corner office please

I was brought up to be nice. I know, what were my parents thinking? Didn’t they know that nice people finish last, that good girls go to heaven but bad girls go to London and that if you wanted to succeed in life you have to kick ass? Didn’t they know that nice would become a byword for ‘boring,’ ‘pedestrian’ and ‘afraid to take risks?’

No, they didn’t. They weren’t thinking about my future career success, net income and social media profile. They just wanted to raise kids who were decent human beings and knew how to behave in public.

We share too much and apologise too often

Now of course we know that niceness is an insidious poison that destroys careers – especially if you are a woman. Niceness is what makes you share your ideas with people who promptly steal them. It’s what makes you offer a leg-up to a new intern who then guns for your job. It’s what makes you punctuate every email with the words ‘just’ and ‘sorry’ and ‘I hope’ – the literary equivalent of the physical cringe – making yourself as small and non-threatening as possible.

Former Google exec and entrepreneur Ellen Petry Leanse first noticed the problem with ‘just’ and posted about it on LinkedIn earlier this year causing a chorus of agreement from women in tough professions everywhere.

Yes, many of us are guilty of niceness. We put ourselves forward to help more than our male colleagues. We try to solve problems that aren’t our own, we share too much and apologise too often. According to Lois Frankel’s Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office we’re our own worst enemies, especially when niceness slides all to easily into self-deprecating. Sorry to disturb… It’s only little me… I hope you don’t mind me asking but…

it's nice to be nice printed on a doormat

Nice message. Shame it’s printed on a doormat. #Symbolism

I can see it in my own career, in every email I send. Even writing this blog I try to look at things from every perspective and in an effort to stay fair I end up equivocating and sometimes not even publishing for fear of upsetting somebody.

So niceness has truly hampered my career. Without it I’d have shoved myself into the limelight; written a few in-your-face columns and acerbic tweets about how I hate x, y and z; made people laugh, pissed people off and got a tasty book deal out of it.

Hell, I could be Caitlin Moran by now*. Well, if I honed my writing a bit and said FUCK more.

Nice has definitely held me back.

Fuck nice. No, FUCK nice.

Except…

It’s the subtitle of Frankel’s book that bothers me: Unconscious mistakes women make that sabotages their careers. Oh that’s right – silly little women making mistakes again. That huge, colossal howler of being ourselves and expecting everyone to respect that.

Silly little women making mistakes again. That huge, colossal howler of being ourselves

The assumption is that men are more successful because they’re less nice, rather than because the system is set up for them and women somehow have to operate within it. We’re the ones who have to police our emails, our actions and thoughts. To become someone different in order to reach our goals.

But niceness has helped my career too, in countless ways. No intern has ever tried to steal my job (this is reality, not a Hollywood script) but I’ve pointed plenty of talented ones in the direction of job vacancies and put in a good word. The result? Happy ex-interns who got their first job in journalism through me. This gave me a warm fuzzy feeling – and then a few years later some warm fuzzy commissions.

I’ve generally tried to be a pleasant, approachable boss – even when there are difficult decisions to be made and sheer corporate insanity to be justified. Which means I now have a bunch of ex employees/friends who think of me as a decent human being and who are now editors. In fact one of the nicest women I know just took up a job as editor of one of a hugely successful magazine. Not that she’s a softie – I’m sure she’ll kick ass, but it’ll be the right asses at the right time.

And as for my job itself: a huge part of it is about getting to people to talk. Unless you’re grilling a politician, the interviewer’s role is to fade into the background, to enable people to express themselves, teasing details out of them that even they didn’t know until they started talking. And the first challenge is to get them to feel comfortable and in control.

That’s when ‘just’ becomes powerful. Just one more question… Just asking… Sorry, I know this is hard for you but could you tell me…

If any men out there would like a course in how to be self deprecating and get what you want, I’m happy to teach you. It’s only £3,000 for the day, including biscuits and coffee.

It’s not just journalism either. Across the country millions of women are succeeding in their careers by exercising empathy, caring about what they do and not being afraid to show it. Some of them are undervalued and underpaid but there are those who really do get the corner office. And when the email goes round announcing their promotion everyone sighs with relief that the job didn’t go to an over-assertive wanker.

The trick is to draw the line between nice and pushover. To treat people as human beings who need positive motivation one day and a kick up the bum the next. To know what you want and communicate it honestly but politely. The trick is not to change who you are for some stupid job title – ‘just’ be yourself.

Nice crop 2

* I am not alleging that Caitlin Moran isn’t nice – from what I hear, she is. But she’s not afraid to trample on a few toes to get her point across. **

** See? I can’t even make a throwaway comment about an uber successful journalist who will likely neither read this blog nor care without adding a placatory footnote. Pathetic. Or Nice. You decide.

Do we still need magazines to run our love lives?

Earlier this month US Glamour magazine had a Two Bags Of Sand moment. You remember the scene in The 40 Year Old Virgin when the guys are all sitting around with a takeaway talking about their sexual experiences and Steve Carell’s character says “yeah, her breasts were like, um, two bags of sand…”

It’s the moment everyone around the table realises that he’s faking it, that he has no idea what he’s talking about. And when Glamour’s website published it’s 13 little things that can make a man fall hard for you, including such gems as “make him a sandwich after sex” and “answer the door in a negligee” something similar happened. Everyone stopped eating their pizza and stared. The entire source of a magazine’s power lies in its ability to convince its readers, advertisers and critics that it knows best and for a moment that effortless glossy facade dropped to reveal the magazine’s inner workings – a legion of tiny tired journalists searching desperately for something new to say about sex and relationships.

As someone who worked for years on women’s magazines I read the whole thing through my fingers, cringing in horror and the mockery that followed was richly deserved. But then came the usual parade of accusations, that women’s magazines were dated and woefully out of touch. Several listicles appeared online poking fun at the sex tips magazines have  offered over the years (the one about ‘teasing’ your partner’s testicles with a fork was a particular humdinger). And the message – usually from online sources that like to consider themselves edgier than old fashioned paper – is that women’s magazines are dated and woefully out of touch.

We have found our clitoris and we’re not afraid to use it.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe women’s magazines should stop talking about sex altogether.

Back in the 1970s and 80s we needed that sort of thing. Without magazines, and the occasional surreptitious look at Judy Bloom’s Forever, the only self proclaimed experts on sex were men. And where did men get their sex tips? The glorious world of 70s porn.

Of course we live in much more liberated times now. In the post Sex & The City generation women know they can expect more in bed. We have found our clitoris and we’re not afraid to use it. And there is an endless range of sources for reliable sex tips out there.

Isn’t there?

There’s the sex toy companies. After all every self respecting girl has a Rampant Rabbit or two tucked away in her bedside drawer. Although obviously the sex toy companies have a bit of a vested interest in selling you sex toys.

Or there’s erotic literature… because 50 Shades Of Grey is a perfect how-to handbook of sexy but responsible BDSM play isn’t it? It isn’t? Oh.

Then there’s our mates – but then we’re back in two bags of sand territory. According to research by Rachel Hills the author of The Sex Myth we’re all lying about how much sex we have and how creative we are when we’re doing it. No reliable information there, then.

Of course when we want to know something these days we Google it. There are some fabulous female friendly sex sites out there providing full, frank and funny discussions about love and sex – Em and Lo and Nerve for instance. But without knowing where to look it’s hard to get started – Googling sex questions can bring up a terrifying selection of misleading, unhealthy or eye-burningly horrid search results.

Which brings us right back to the source of all sex-inspiration: porn. Since the 70s skin-flicks have morphed into a monstrous, ever present stream of hard core which many young men have come to think of as ‘normal sex’. A while back I had coffee with an agony aunt who said a huge proportion of mail in her inbox was from young women who were worried there was something wrong with them because they didn’t enjoy anal sex.

So maybe women’s magazines do have a role after all.

In the 70s and after, women’s mags taught us that it was OK to enjoy sex – that we weren’t wanton hussies for liking it on top, or asking for oral or wanting to be good at it (because pleasing your partner is a part of sex for men and women alike.) It paved the way for splendid Samantha in Sex & The City and a generation of witty and honest sex bloggers.

The features that did really well were the ones that rang funny and true

I came to women’s glossies in the early 2000s when things started to change. In The Sex Myth Rachel Hills talks about that feeling of inadequacy if you feel uncomfortable sexting or don’t like doggy style. The feeling that everyone else is having a better time than you. And it’s up to women’s mags to burst that bubble… But without making the sexting doggy-fans feel like they’re being slut-shamed somehow. Tricky, huh?
For us, the features that did really well were the ones that rang funny and true. Like the hilarious takedown one of our writers did of some of the crazier sex toys on the market. Or the horrible consequences of When dirty talk goes wrong (Quote: “I’m the drill baby, and you’re the road…”) Or the sweet and sad piece Brooke Magnati, aka Belle De Jour, wrote for us on When the sex is great but everything else sucks. They were conversation starters, got us thinking about what we really wanted and showed us that everyone makes mistakes.

That’s the kind of sex article that women’s mags do best – funny frank and reassuring. And there’s a lot of that out there. There are also campaigns for women’s rights, and  sharp, insightful reports on the things which threaten our relationships – like porn addiction.

There’s still a role for how-to tips too. I figure that sex tips are like magazine recipes – a source of ideas that you can take or leave. You might see a recipe for chicken soup, read it and appreciate it but never get round to making it. You could leave out the cream and pepper or just decide your own formula is best. And if you don’t like chicken at all? Not a problem, there’s a carrot and coriander number on the next page. The message is not “do this” but, “you might like to try this, and if it doesn’t work at least it’ll be a giggle.”

Whatever the magazines might claim, they’re not all knowing and all seeing. They can’t give you guaranteed moves when every body is so different and sometimes they do get it wrong. But they’re more realistic than 50 Shades, more reliable than your best mate and funnier than porn. Just one more source of advice and inspiration to help you make the most of your relationships. Take it or leave it.

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