Keith Waterhouse was one of the most prolific writers of his era, the ultimate newspaper man. And while that era — one of ink-stained fingers, rattling presses, nicotine and liquid lunch — now seems as distant as the Tudors, his understanding of what makes good journalism work is still valuable today, and applies just as much to blogs and Twitter as it does to the pages of a newspaper. The Press Gazette recently republished some of his top tips, first written in 1981. Here’s a selection:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.