Andrew Hankinson on writing non-fiction

Posted by Andrew Hankinson

“…it might take a bit of battling, but if you figure out what you want to do, there probably is a way to get there, and it’s most likely you who’s going to stop you.”


I was okay at writing at school, and I remember I liked being complimented for it, but doing it for a living was so distant and dream-like that it never occurred to me to consider it as a career – who does what they want in life? Those around me worked in construction, HR, hotels, computing, so that’s what I headed for.

While studying Business & IT at Manchester Metropolitan University I submitted a sample review to the university magazine or newspaper, and the editor liked it, but I never followed it up by actually getting a commission. Instead I continued my drift towards ‘something in IT’, and ended up working in a call centre after graduation.

It was a Ricky Gervais quote that saved me. In an interview about his new show, The Office, he said something about not working your whole life in a job you hate then retiring with a gold watch and a pat on the back. So I quit and went to teach English in South Korea with a good friend. We talked a lot about our futures and dreams and abilities – being away from our ‘real’ lives gave us clarity.

Another friend had just trained as a journalist at Darlington College, so I returned to the UK and enrolled there (if you’re going to try and be a journalist you need to learn the basics). That only took a few months. It was a newspaper course, but I loved magazines and wanted to write features, so after college I became a writer at a local magazine for three months, then quit, got on the Magic Bus and headed to London.

I dropped off CVs around London by hand (how prehistoric that sounds now, but it was only 2005). I also had an interview lined up at Construction News. They hired me as a reporter, and I began working in a newsroom of proper journalists who developed contacts, used tools such as Freedom of Information, and punted their stories on to nationals and TV. Trade papers are a good route into journalism.

I still wanted to write features though, so after a year I got a job at the now-defunct Arena magazine. I remember during the hiring process being up against Oxbridge candidates. My interview didn’t go well at all. I was devastated. On the Tube back to my girlfriend’s flat, I decided I would email the two interviewers a self-deprecating post-interview review, which I did. I wouldn’t recommend it, but it worked.

It’s worth noting that it had taken me about two and a half years to go from a call centre to writing on a national magazine, which is something I always remind myself of – it might take a bit of battling, but if you figure out what you want to do, there probably is a way to get there, and it’s most likely you who’s going to stop you.

So I was a staff writer at Arena, then FHM, then I freelanced for a bit. I met an agent, pitched a book, but it went nowhere. I knew a book was the next step to push my career forward, and I wanted to write a particular kind of book, so when Raoul Moat went on his shooting spree I returned to the North East to try and write about that (also, my wife was pregnant and eager to live somewhere more affordable).

I freelanced still, but I spent a lot of time in court for my book, or interviewing for it, or researching. I submitted an early draft for a Northern Writers’ Award, which bailed me out and helped me find an agent. The first agent didn’t work out, so I got a second one, who didn’t work out. In the meantime I got a job at a regional magazine, Living North. Then a friend gave my proposal to Philip Gwyn Jones at Scribe, who signed it.

The book, You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life, was published in February 2016 and reviewed in places that made me happy. The Observer ran an extract over five pages. After that I did a Masters in Creative Writing at Newcastle University, where I now teach. I also started a PhD in creative nonfiction at Northumbria University. In 2020 my second nonfiction book, Don’t applaud. Either laugh or don’t. (At the Comedy Cellar.), was published. It’s about a comedy club on the frontline of the culture war. Now I need to think of a third book idea, which is something I talk about on my podcast, Logroll.

Andrew Hankinson is a freelance journalist, author of two creative nonfiction books, and host of the Logroll podcast, on which he interviews the world’s best nonfiction writers.

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5 tips for writers of non-fiction

1. Keep your overheads low

2. If you don’t know what to write, do more reporting

3. If you still don’t know what to write, read something

4. Interview more people than you think necessary

5. Once you start reporting, better stories often reveal themselves