After 39 years of fighting ‘boffins, toffs and cads’, Daily Mail style guide writer reveals all (including Dacre’s sub-editor ‘fears’)

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A sub-editor who worked for the Daily Mail for 39 years has published a revised version of the style guide she wrote for the newspaper group – and told of her former editor’s “fear” of the back bench.

Margaret Ashworth, 65, who started her career as a trainee on the Luton Evening Post, began working on the Mail as a freelance in 1974. After working her way up to become splash sub, she retired in 2012, but continued shifting on the paper for another year.

Ashworth then moved with her husband Alan, a former assistant night editor on the Mail, to Lancashire where she had the “faint idea” of finding some sub-editing shifts on a local or regional newspaper. “[I] was swiftly disabused by a reporter who roared with laughter. ‘We haven’t had subs for years,’ he said. ‘We just write our stuff into holes in the page, and that’s how it goes in, errors and all.’ This was a considerable shock to me.”

Ashworth said that on the Mail subs have been “relentlessly downgraded”. She said former editor David English was “proud to have ‘the finest table in Fleet Street’. Good headlines were occasionally rewarded with a case of champagne”.

But, according to Ashworth, his successor Paul Dacre (pictured, Reuters) “has never really grasped what subs do, apart from, as he sees it, holding up production”.

She said: “I think he fears subs rather as people in the Middle Ages feared monks, because they were the only ones who could do the magic reading and writing.

“Over the last eight or ten years, all the highly talented and experienced (and obviously more expensive) older subs have been eased out in a variety of ways.

“The result has been the promotion to the middle and back benches of far less experienced people. The lower end of the table is now almost exclusively occupied by graduates of the Mail’s own training scheme.”

She described the trainees as “charming young people, with excellent degrees mainly from Oxbridge”, but added that they are “very raw and to my mind suffer from an odd lack of curiosity”.

“For example, if I had a story about a 'veteran' driver, shall we say, I would want to know his exact age,” Ashworth said. “Or if it said that someone had three children and named only two, I would find out about the third.

“This sort of question does not seem to trouble the youngsters. There was a conversation a while ago between an old-timer and a trainee who had not heard of Rudolph Valentino. 'Before my time, I'm afraid,' said the trainee breezily. 'Hitler was before mine but I've still heard of him,' was the reply. The trainee in question is now chief sub on a quality national.

“This lack of curiosity, coupled with the absence of guidance or training from the middle bench has resulted in a catastrophic drop in standards.”

Ashworth added: “Having been fortunate enough to be a sub in the heyday of the craft, I feel passionately that our demise is bad for journalism. We didn't just correct spellings and punctuation. Our extra pairs of eyes could see when the intro was buried in the last par, when an approach was not right for our own publication, and even when a story stank to high heaven. We were actively and closely involved in getting the story as good as it could possibly be. And by golly it was fun!”

Ashworth's Style Matters, which can be found here, is a “substantially revised” version of the Mail style guide and is now aimed at reporters working without sub-editors.

She said: "I decided to write the guide when I realised that subbing as I knew and loved it had all but disappeared, and I wanted to get the accumulated lore down before it was all forgotten."

Below are a selection of extracts from the style guide.

BANNED

boffin/toff/cad/jape: Joke words which belong in the 1950s, as do many other antiquated words and phrases such as ‘flushed with success’ in any story to do with plumbing. Other shockers are red-faced for embarrassed; scratching their heads (usually in connection with police confronted with a mystery); case-hardened, as in ‘even case-hardened detectives were shocked by the murder’; flame-haired (Titian-haired is not much better); pooch/mutt/moggy, and the wretched just purrfect which used to feature in every caption on a cat picture.

fall pregnant: Absolutely not. This is a chavvy expression with connotations of ‘fallen woman’. A woman may become pregnant, find she is expecting, or conceive.

high-class call girl: I don’t think ‘high-class’ can be applied to any prostitute, but you may disagree. If you need to make a distinction, ‘call girl’ tends to suggest a higher-earning individual than ‘prostitute’. A prostitute can be assumed to be a woman. Use ‘male prostitute’ if necessary. I don’t like ‘sex worker’.

live audience: Is there any other kind of audience? Rows of corpses? When a writer says: ‘Kylie performed in front of a live audience’, it should be: ‘Kylie performed live in front of an audience’. This holds good for recorded performances with an audience present.

tuned in, as in ‘Millions tuned in to watch Britain’s Got Talent’. Televisions do not need to be tuned these days.

HANDLE WITH CARE

admit: This can imply that a person has been hiding something which we are invited to perceive as discreditable eg ‘He admitted that he was a homosexual’.

brutal: As in ‘brutal murder’. The number of ‘gentle’ or ‘kind’ murders is very small.

pretty/attractive/beautiful: As in ‘the pretty student’. Take care, especially if there is a picture, because everyone has different ideas about good looks and many will not agree with you. Think whether you would put the equivalent word for a male subject, and if not, lose it. There is often an implication that a crime or accident is somehow worse if the victim is pretty/attractive/beautiful, and this is unacceptable. The victim’s appearance, rightly or wrongly, may be the reason the story is in the news, but you should not make this blatantly obvious.

NEWSPAPERSPEAK

condemned: ‘Ministers were condemned last night for . . .’ Unless it really is a hanging offence, ‘criticised’ is usually better. Similarly ‘Ministers were slammed/blasted/attacked’.

romp: useful jolly word for sexual activity, but very tabloid.

CLICHÉS

‘egg’ or ‘eggs’ as a replacement prefix for ‘ex’, often in the context of Easter, such as ‘eggcellent’ or ‘eggstraordinary’. There is not one variation that has not been used thousands of times, and they are all very tedious.

fighting for his/her life

tug of love, or even worse, love tug

worse than animals as applied to nasty behaviour: I particularly dislike this one as animals do not use violence for its own sake.

NUMBERS

Numbers as words: You can make your own decision about which numbers to spell out and which to keep as numbers, but be consistent. A common format is to spell out the numbers one to nine or ten, except in the case of percentages, eg ‘2 per cent’. (I think per cent, not % or pc, looks better in copy, but % is acceptable in headings). Another exception is dress sizes (8, 10, 12 etc), though I think size zero is better than size 0, and shoe sizes. If you have a quote such as ‘There were fifty people in the room’, I think ‘fifty’ looks better than ‘50’, because people speak in words rather than numbers.

Never put figures at the beginning of a sentence. Obviously some numbers are fine spelled out, such as Twenty, but Seven thousand, five hundred and forty-three is less good. Ways to get round this include ‘As many as’, ‘A total of’, and ‘Some’.

One in three etc: I acknowledge help from the Guardian style book here. All my working life I have believed that ‘one in three’ etc should be treated as singular, eg ‘one in three children leaves school unable to count’. However the Guardian points out that grammatically we are not talking about the noun ‘one’ but the noun phrase ‘one in three’ signifying a group of people. It is the same concept as one-third, 33 per cent, or three out of ten, all of which would be followed by the plural formula ‘ … (of) children leave school unable to count’. So I have revised my ideas and suggest treating ‘one in three’ etc as plural. To back up my theory, here is an intro from the Daily Mail in September 2010: ‘One in four women faces an impoverished retirement because they are relying on their husband’s pension.’ The sub, as I would have done hitherto, has treated ‘one in four’ as singular and paired that with the singular ‘faces’.  However things go a bit awry with the plural ‘they’ and ‘their’. To be consistent, it would need to say: ‘One in four women faces an impoverished retirement because she is relying on her husband’s pension.’ That reads most oddly to me. The only way to make it grammatical and read well, it seems to me, is to treat ‘one in four’ as plural, thus: ‘One in four women face an impoverished retirement because they are relying on their husbands’ pension.’

Astonishing numbers: Many writers feel compelled to add adjectives such as ‘jaw-dropping’ or ‘eye-watering’ to even modest figures. Consider whether this is really justified. Similarly, resist the temptation to describe a small change as ‘soaring’, ‘leaping’ or plunging’.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

women: The vast majority of media executives are men, and they can lose sight of the female perspective. They should take care not to patronise ‘the fairer sex’ (that’s meant to be an example). There was a shocker of a headline in August 2010 on a feature about a community of nuns: ‘The only place in Britain where women keep their mouths shut’. I am informed that this was meant to be a joke. All I would say is that a woman would never have written this heading, and to me it displays an attitude of male superiority, subconscious though it may be.

THE NATURAL WORLD

Apes are not the same as monkeys. I will die happy if I can banish the heading ‘Monkey business’ on stories about apes (or monkeys, come to that). [This, Ashworth said, is why she decided to write the style guide in the first place.]

COMPLEAT SUB-EDITOR

Minimal subbing: Contrary to what many believe, it is not the duty of the sub-editor to turn every story inside out and rewrite it from top to bottom. On the contrary, the more that can be left alone the better. Every change is another opportunity for an error to creep in. While it is bad for a sub to miss an error in copy, it is a hundred times worse to write one in. Remember that the story goes in under the writer’s name, not yours, and his or her reputation with contacts and readers is on the line.

One of the main attributes of a good sub is having the wisdom to know when to leave copy alone. Almost every story can be done in a variety of ways, and often one is not much better than any other. It is a waste of time and effort to change one version for another which is no improvement, just different. To sum up: If you cannot improve it, leave it alone.

Headlines in newspapers should not be a condensed version of the intro, or as sometimes happens, a word-for-word copy of the intro. If you need the intro words for the heading, you should change the intro. It is actually very good practice to write the heading before subbing the story. You tend to have a clearer outline of the story in your mind. If at all possible headlines should be in the present tense and the active voice, rather than passive, for example ‘dog bites man’ rather than ‘man bitten by dog’ or ‘dog bit man’. Internet headings are tackled in a different way, to get in relevant words that will be picked up by search engines, so the foregoing advice does not apply.

Wide-eyed: One type of story which is really wearisome revolves around a candid snap of some actress going shopping. The reporter is invariably amazed that she is not in full slap or period costume as per her latest role. Sadly this is often the angle expected by executives, but do try to keep the surprise to a minimum. When you think about it, the real story would be if the actress did go shopping dressed as a Regency harlot or whatever. Another type involves celebrities who have grown older as the years have passed. Recently a picture story expressed astonishment that the Beach Boys, who all are around 70, looked older than when they were in their 20s: ‘The contrast with their Sixties heyday could hardly have been greater. Those fresh faces long gone, there were instead wrinkles and greying hair in various stages of retreat.’ Pop stars age in same way as normal mortals shock! The same week it was revealed that pop star Jessie J did not go around in full stage make-up at the age of 13. Much more subtlety is required with such stories.

Inelegant variation, as Keith Waterhouse called it, or straining to avoid repeating a word by casting around for a synonym. Examples that have been seen include ‘ball-like veg’ and the ‘once-sidelined green’ for Brussels sprouts (in the same piece of copy! Sheer genius) and ‘long-nosed equine creature’ for a horse. A recent favourite was Marmite – the ‘love-it-or-loathe-it condiment'. These keep the subs amused but must never get into print. There is always a different way to write the sentence to avoid such contortions.

Actually, it may be worth running through some other examples of misguided ingenuity from recent years:

the flamboyant bestubbled Portuguese  (Jose Mourinho)

foreign-bred rodent furballs (hamsters)

the titular sexual abstinent (Steve Carell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin)

culinary under-achiever (sprouts again)

shifting follicle cover (John Travolta’s hair)

cutting-edge valise (a suitcase)

vociferous Antipodeans (rowdy Aussies)

this musical mammal of the marine world (a saxophone-playing walrus)

the luxury fizzy wine (champagne)

our cosmic sidekick (the moon)

culinary outlaw (a kebab)

the bendy yellow fruit (a banana)

the tasty bread-based snack (a sandwich)

the red leather orb (a cricket ball)

the little rectangular treasure (a rare stamp)

the befeathered visitant (a nightingale that strayed to Birkenhead)

the stringy decay fighter (dental floss)

the tentacled tipster (Paul the psychic octopus)

And possibly the most determined effort ever (Paul again):

Who would have predicted it – an international squabble over the death of Paul the psychic octopus? But within hours of the announcement of the death of the remarkable Nostradamus of the deep, a strong whiff of skulduggery yesterday surrounded his demise. For while staff at the German aquarium he called home said the prophetic cephalopod had passed away peacefully on Monday, a Chinese film-maker served up what doubtless will be just the first of a series of conspiracy theories. She said the soccer seer of Sea Life, who caused a worldwide splash with his accurate World Cup predictions in the summer, had actually died three months ago – two days before the final in which British-born Paul once again correctly called the winner to global acclaim. Jiang Xiao accused the Germans of subterfuge in secretly replacing the underwater oracle with a body double.

Finally, if you are not a hundred per cent sure about anything in a story, check it. This is the very least we as subs should do. Fine writing and brilliant headlines are a welcome bonus but we should never forget that our priority is to ensure accuracy and if we can’t manage that, we might as well pack up.