Review of Charles Shaar Murray’s Hothouse writing course in north London


Review of the Hothouse Project Journalism as Craft and Art writing course

Hot foot from the furnace of the Hothouse Project, a course in journalism as art and craft, taught by music writer, author and West Hampsteader, Charles Shaar Murray, I fly on newly waxed wings into the heat of the print press. Well, the teacher’s ‘moving on’ advice to me is to “self-propel”!

Mixed metaphors notwithstanding, this marvellous eight week course, taught by inspiring and experienced professional Mr Murray and held in Emmanuel Church Hall, West Hampstead, is a masterclass in good, original writing and in the techniques and conventions of journalism. Emphasising the fundamentals of literacy and the development of an individual writing style, the teacher brings out the best writing from each student via a weekly assignment, critiqued in class the following week.

An interesting pre-course reading list embraces such influential and culturally iconic journalists as George Orwell, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S Thompson, Norman Mailer, Pauline Kael, Clive James, Charlie Brooker, Elizabeth Young et al…which the student cohort all duly reads. Well, we read the reading list anyway!

Thursday evening classroom sessions kick off with a rhythmic naming game in which participants point to and name objects in the room. So far, so simple, but there follows the un-nervingly tricky un-naming game, same idea but giving objects a name totally unconnected with the object itself – such as pointing to a wall and naming it a marmoset. This gets the students warmed up and thinking laterally, as well as literally, so the lesson can begin.

Each class is devoted to a specific form of journalistic writing, always with a focus on accuracy and style, preferably with a bit of subversion thrown in. The finer points of feature writing (using the ‘easy feature template’), the interview, the review, the press conference (this lesson holds an element of surprise), the profile, the finding your own voice piece, are all covered.

Armed with basic principles, such as writing a ‘killer intro’, and prodded into producing some ideas of our own, whether we have any or not, we start scribbling a piece in class which we use as basis for a homework assignment. Deadline to post assignment pieces on the Hothouse Facebook is the following Wednesday morning.

The discipline of having to produce a piece of work keeps us on our toes all week, while the anticipation of finding out which teacher’s pet will be first to post his or her homework and the enjoyment of reading each other’s pieces as they pop up on the page, are part of the fun. And then there’s always the optional after class pint in the pub.

Towards the end of the course there is an excellent session on production. Mr Paul Anderson, another experienced professional in his own field, takes the class on a fact-filled tour through all the vital work done by a sub editor, including a detailed explanation of the extensive understanding of media law required.

The Hothouse is an environment which suits anyone who has done a bit, or even a lot, of writing, whether in the work context or as a creative outlet, and who wants to nurture, prune and grow his or her craft and splice in the art. Or just to inject a bit of life into Thursday nights.

The slow burn benefit of an adult education course like the Hothouse Project keeps smouldering long after the final curtain call. Skills acquired and honed, connections and friendships made, all lead onward towards who knows where?

Melissa Harman April 2014

Read more about the Hothouse Project Journalism as Craft and Art writing course in West Hampstead.