Keith Waterhouse on journalistic style

Through 35 years at the Daily Mirror – and the last 23 years writing a twice-weekly column for the Daily Mail – Keith Waterhouse was a master of the sort of straight-forward, readable and crystal-clear prose which is journalism at its best.

While at the Daily Mirror, Waterhouse wrote an in-house style-guide in 1981 which remains one of the best ever reference books on journalistic writing.

Press Gazette borrowed a copy from the Daily Mirror and here reproduces some Waterhouse gems:

Adjectives should not be allowed in newspapers unless they have something to say

Red-haired tells us a person has red hair. Vivacious a word belonging to the lost world of Marcel waves and cocktail cherries tells us nothing except that someone has sat down at a typewriter and tapped out the word ‘vivacious’.

An adjective should not raise questions in the reader’s mind, it should answer them. Angry informs. Tall invites the question, how tall? The well-loved phrase ‘his expensive tastes ran to fast cars’ simply whets the appetite for examples of the expensive tastes, and the makes and engine capacity of the fast cars.

Adjectives used for effect should not be too clapped-out to evoke anything in the reader’s mind – grim timetable of death, vital clues, brutal murder, hush-hush inquiry – no longer add very much to the nouns they accompany.

And

We were taught at school that we may not begin sentences with ‘And’.

Then we were taught in newspaper offices that we may.

And quite right too. But newspapers so overdo it that they sometimes read like the New English Bible.

It cannot be said that And is often wrongly-used, but it becomes tedious when over-used. If the story eats Ands as a worn-out engine eats lubricating oil, try an overhaul.

Cliches

When Sam Goldwyn advised that cliches should be avoided like the plague, he forgot that the plague, by its very nature, is almost impossible to avoid. That is what gave the Black Death such a bad name.

Cliches should be avoided by writers in general because reach-me-down phraseology has no place in original prose. They should be avoided by journalists in particular because it is the tendency of cliches to generalise, approximate or distort.

More haste

The standard Fleet Street excuse for shoddy or silly writing has always been that the offending story was written against the clock.

It usually isn’t so.

Deadline fever encourages taut, crisp writing with a maximum of facts and a minimum of frills. The straightforward hard news story, phoned virtually straight on to page one, rarely displays any of the faults discussed in this book.

The truly awfully-written story, of the kind that ought to be hung on the walls of schools of journalism as an example of how not to do it, demands time.

The puns have to be sweated over, the laborious intro has to be reworked again and again until it cannot possibly be any more forced, the jocular references have to be carefully strung together like blunt razor blades dangling from a magnet.

Our readers in Wigan

If any line of the paper cannot be understood, it is not because of the limited education or intelligence of the reader but because of the limited ability or effort of the writer.

It should never be assumed, as the only yardstick, that any topic is outside the spectrum of interest of Mirror readers. Popular journalism was founded on the belief that ordinary people have an unquenchable thirst for information of all kinds.

When the range of a typical saloon-bar discussion is more limited than that of the Mirror’s usual editorial content, it never is, Northcliffe will have been proved wrong at last.

Screamers

The exclamation mark is an aid to good English. It is not a prop for bad writing.

A sentence that falls flat without an exclamation mark is a flat sentence. The exclamation mark will not inject drama into it. It must be re-cast.

An exclamation mark cannot tell the reader that a particular passage is funny. The most it can tell him is that it was meant to be funny.

Stagger off

Sums of money, percentages, weights, heights, depths, lengths, numbers, measurements by volume, temperatures, distances, prices, and so on, do not stagger.

Where staggering (going unsteadily as if about to fall; shaking conviction; giddiness as in horses and cattle disease) is supposed to convey astonishing, it no longer does. The word is worn out.

This article first appeared in the October 2009 issue of Press Gazette and is reproduced here as a reminder of the sort of great content those who don’t subscribe to the magazine are missing out on:

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