Issue # 161

Another death in the Ranters family… Gordon Amory died in hospital at the weekend, following a short illness. Like Stanley Blenkinsop, his old colleague and closest friend for more than half a century, he’d been a founder (pre-launch) supporter and contributor to this website. There are tributes to him – plus the piece he wrote virtually on his deathbed – in a special memorial page, here.

This Week

It is, at the risk of sounding immodest, the publishing event of the year.

Next week (Friday) sees the republication of that classic work, Waterhouse On Newspaper Style revisited, revised, and sympathetically edited by Stella Bingham.

Out of print since the most recent (1993) Penguin edition, it nevertheless remained required reading for media students, and joyous reading for everybody in the business. As Stella says in the Editor’s Notes –

…demand for it, from universities and journalism schools, never ceased. Last year, when a reprint was proposed, Waterhouse was delighted and agreed to update it, ‘removing titles of now-dead newspapers, defunct TV stars, etc’ but leaving the quotes and extracts as they stood. ‘Most of them,’ he wrote, ‘belong to that timeless world of tabloidese and don’t date at all’.

Sadly, Waterhouse died before he could carry out the work and the task fell to me. The publisher and I decided to leave it almost untouched, as a book of its time and a tribute to its author. Many chapters Waterhouse himself would have felt no need to update. Others, such as Captions, which focuses on the sadly diminished world of page three girls, now have a period charm.

Waterhouse on Newspaper Style is still the standard, and most entertaining, manual of tabloid journalism, as important and relevant today as when it was first published in 1989.

Gentlemen Ranters’ publishing arm was immensely flattered when Keith’s literary executors offered us the book to republish, for it’s a book that most of us have owned and kept within reach for decades – in fact since its original conception as the so-called Daily Mirror Stylebook.

Shame on you if you don’t already own a copy. Double shame if you haven’t read it. Treble shames all round if you’re one of those miserable bastards that ran off a photocopy of somebody else’s copy of the book.

It is available for pre-order, now, from Book Depository (with free postage, worldwide), or on-line from amazon or Waterstones, or on order from any half-decent bookshop, anywhere in the world.

Below, Revel Barker tells the story of the book, in-house pedant Dr. Syntax reviews it, and there’s an extract of the rules that, according to Waterhouse, (should) govern Newspaper Style.

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The stylistics

By Revel Barker

When they sit at your feet and ask exactly how it was different in the old days, and why the glory days are remembered as being great, tell them about how Keith Waterhouse wrote the Daily Mirror Stylebook.

The Mirror may have been the most stylistic paper in its heyday, but it had never had a style book. There was a memo floating around somewhere that said, boldly but bluntly: ‘The stylebook of the Daily Mirror is this morning’s copy of the Daily Mirror.’

Sounds good, except the Mirror was anything but consistent in its styles and spelling. Colonel Gaddafi may have been spelt with a double-D in that morning’s paper, but in the afternoon he could become Gadafi for the simple reason that two Ds would bust in the headline. There could be two dots for an ellipsis, or three… according to width (and sometimes according to the whim and no doubt also according to lunch).

Cudlipp thought there should be a hyphen in to-day, but inexplicably not in tomorrow. Fleet-st was presented with a hyphen (and sometimes, though not always, with a full point to show that street had been abbreviated) for no other reason than that it was how the street was listed in the book of London street names that subs used to check spellings (Shaftsbury or Shaftesbury? Hannover or Hanover?).

Features put quotes around book and movie titles, but the news didn’t; the news would say ‘a hotel’ while features used ‘a hotel’.

Tony Miles, the chairman and editorial director, thought the paper could benefit from consistency and that a stylebook would help achieve it. Editor Mike Molloy nominated Waterhouse, a literary pedant whose copy, like Cassandra’s before him, was officially untouchable by subs, for the job.

And – here’s the point of the intro – they told him he could go anywhere in the world to compile it.

He chose San Francisco for no other reason than that he’d never been there. He collected a handful of folding stuff from cashiers and jetted off with a suitcase full of cuttings to inspire him.

What emerged, towards the end of 1979, was about a hundred stiffish pages of a cheaply-glued book called Daily Mirror Style, of which 1,000 copies were printed and distributed to the editorial staff. Although intended only for internal reading, in the way of things copies mysteriously materialised in other newspaper offices and started to change hands, at a price.

When he learnt that pirated facsimiles were being run off on office photocopiers all over Fleet Street and beyond (and it was easy to copy because the pages fell out), Waterhouse suggested that the book be put on general sale and eventually, in 1981, the in-house publishing arm, Mirror Group Books, took it on, placing around 10,000 copies of the retitled Daily Mirror Style – the Mirror’s Way With Words in bookshops.

It was an instant hit, reviewed everywhere and recommended by everybody from World Medicine to the Cabinet Office as a guide to good plain English,

It became a standard textbook for students of journalism but when it went out of print it was back to the photocopier.

Waterhouse said he didn’t know whether to be flattered or inflamed when a journalism student he met on a train asked him to autograph a photocopy of his work.

In 1989, after he had parted company with the Daily Mirror, it was revised and expanded and published by Viking as Waterhouse on Newspaper Style and in 1993 was taken up and republished by Penguin.

By the time he died last year it was long out of print again, with copies changing hands at up to £50. He was already working on an update – for news, he said, ‘is ephemeral, as are most of the personalities who make the headlines and some of the examples quoted had become well nigh incomprehensible.’

As he’d predicted, when his literary executors offered the book to me for a revised reprint, the transient nature of celebrity fame presented a few problems for the editing. General Knowledge – once a compulsory subject in junior schools – was no longer fashionable; the new generation of aspiring journalists knows of Harry Potter but not of Harry Procter; Billy Connolly but not Bill Connor; Cameron Diaz but not Jimmy Cameron; they don’t read books, or even newspapers. So had they heard of Princess Caroline, or Frank Bruno? If they hadn’t, they bloody well should have.

In the end the challenge fell to Stella Bingham, journalist and sometimes Waterhouse wife, long-term partner, supporter, and confidante, to sort out the notes, spoken thoughts, and plans that the author had for the revision.

The task – as everybody who knows her would expect – resulted in the revised version that Waterhouse wanted: barely distinguishable from the original, merely updated where absolutely necessary solely on the grounds of accuracy or comprehension. No need to photocopy it.

Waterhouse on Newspaper Style, ISBN 978-0-9563686-9-0, is published by Revel Barker Publishing at £9.99 and is available (with free delivery worldwide) from Book Depository, or amazon or Waterstones, or on order from any half-decent bookshop.

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Putting on the style

By Dr. Syntax

It is not, of course, a style book at all. Waterhouse concedes in his introduction that a newspaper stylebook is something that tells journalists on The Times, for example, that the house spelling of recognise is recognized.

[In fact, The Times English Style and Usage does no such thing. It used to favour the Greek -ize ending over the Latin –ise: but for 20 years or more, certainly since Simon Jenkins’ time in the editor’s chair, it has adopted –ise in all cases apart from the otherwise awkward capsize and synthesizer.]

Which is more than you can say for the Daily Mirror, for whom Waterhouse wrote the first version of this book. Wade through the back numbers of that newspaper and you’ll find izes and ises intermingled and interchangeable all over the place. When you encounter advertizer, you may feel like pulling out your – or somebody’s – hair.

Waterhouse offers no guidance to the preferred Mirror house style on this matter (if, indeed, there was a preference). Nor does he appear sure himself, and in different places he opts for different endings. You might suspect, from the example he quotes, that he feels recognise is the correct spelling; but in the book he opts for realize, specialize and summarize suggesting, perhaps, that he is as one with The Times, or at least with The Times of his youth. But then he uses revise, not revize, and surprise, exercise, and otherwise.

It’s difficult to avoid the thought that a stylebook would have helped, here.

But if – in spite of its original title (Daily Mirror Style) – it isn’t a stylebook, what is it? The clue is in the On in the revised title. It never was, nor did it set out to be, a style book in the accepted sense. It is a treatise, a dissertation, a thesis, a discourse on newspaper style, a critique of newspaper (especially tabloid) language and the way it was ‘developing not to say deteriorating’. It is a commentary on the writing manners and mannerisms of the so-called popular press, a style that these days the so-called quality press is not ashamed to copy.

So it isn’t a how-to-do-it book, nor is it a guide to how not to do it.

Rather, it is a railing against the lazy way of writing headlines and, to a lesser extent, body-copy.

The first person who wrote Dollar Takes A Pounding, was surely clever, and Say Hello To The Good Buys may be difficult to beat on a shopping feature. The sub who put up Phew, What A Scorcher (the first time) was, unquestionably, inspired.

But the difficulty arises when subs are too idle to think of anything new and trot out the old favourites so they become clichés – and a cliché, remember, was a stick of prepared type kept within reach in the days of hand-setting because it was going to be needed day after day.

The sub who thought of First Of The Phew for the start of a heatwave was writing for his mates, though, rather than for the readers.

So what Waterhouse gives us is a jolly romp through (mainly) the red-tops in the company of an apparently grumpy old man who, you might think, sometimes protests too much.

He is clearly enjoying himself immensely, and the readers share the fun of finding shock-horror in the easy headlines above jollified copy.

In any case, what would be the alternative to tabloid headings as we know, and have come to expect, them? Newspaper headlines are more than labels, but not much more. Readers, insofar as they are ever actually conscious of headings, are surely entitled to share the fun. And, let’s be honest, the familiar is the more comfortable.

It would be a bold reporter who attempted to write a story about bingo without including the words eyes down… And an even bolder sub who let it go without those words. Could anybody envisage a story about a bell-ringer who didn’t drop a clanger? And if a council is cleaning up graffiti isn’t the writing already on the wall? (Waterhouse found a mention of writing on the wall in a Mirror edition in June 1939…)

He doesn’t suggest alternatives although, if anybody could have done that, it would have been the founder-president of the Association for the Abolition of Aberrant Apostrophes.

Without doubt he was, if not the greatest living author in his day (which ended less than a year ago), certainly the greatest journalist-author. And I think I’m right in saying that with Billy Liar he was the first living author to have a book on the Eng-Lit O-level syllabus.

There is much to learn from Waterhouse’s Style. For example, his explanation of the difference between which and that is simplicity itself – yet still ignored, or misunderstood, by the vast majority of ‘professional’ writers and editors.

The rules of English are, he says, there to be broken; the exception to that rule being the rules laid down in his book. But just a minute, Lord Copper: he breaks some of them himself, and ever since the first, exclusively in-house, edition, it’s been a bit of a game for self-styled wordsmiths to spot his own deviations from the form. Doesn’t he stray, in places, with the which/that dilemma and the less/fewer rule? The problem is that it’s Waterhouse; it is impossible to tell whether he has broken his own rules in error (surely not) or deliberately, by way of a small joke or as an amusement for the careful reader.

The Cabinet Office listed the book along with Fowler and Partridge as recommended reading in urging civil servants to adopt plain English. It was a set book for student journalists from the first public printing, and a popular guide for students of English, although it had been out of print for years.

This is basically because the reader learns from the book during a delightful journey that doesn’t appear, en route, to be anything remotely related to education.

And that, to put it simply, was always Waterhouse’s style.

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Waterhouse on Newspaper Style

Imaginary rules

By Keith Waterhouse

Along with their visible stylebook, most newspapers seem to maintain an invisible, unwritten style book full of imaginary rules for the harassment of the journalist who cares about English. Some of the commonest:

1. An intro must consist of a specific number of lines according to its position in the paper. This particularly applies to regular features, where the paragraphing, at whatever cost to the style or sense of the piece, is made to follow the page scheme instead of the page scheme following the paragraphing.

2. A new leg cannot commence with a new paragraph. This leads to running on of paragraphs with the absurd results discussed in Paragraphs.

3. Certain words, such as university and government, must be given a capital letter irrespective of whether their use is specific or general. The Daily Mirror once put a contributor to the absurdity of saying that the European Parliament was not a European Government – thus giving the accolade of a capital letter to an institution that does not exist.

4. The subject of a sentence must be seen to be believed. Not so. This is what a journalist wrote:

I have been spending the last few days in the United States. Saw a couple of shows and solved the President’s energy problem.

This is what appeared in print:

I have been spending the last few days in the United States, saw a couple of shows and solved the President’s energy problem.

The ‘correction’ – apparently made in the belief that the second sentence lacks a subject (it doesn’t: the subject I is implied) – robs the passage not only of its style but of its grammar. The fused ‘sentence’, in the form presented, is governed by the auxiliary verb have, and one cannot say I have saw a couple of shows.

5. Only must be placed as near as possible to the word it qualifies. This arises from a common pedantic fear that only in the sense of no more than (I have only one pen) may be mistaken for only meaning alone (I only have one pen), or that only meaning as recently as (I bought it only today) might similarly be confused (I only bought it today). In fact the serious possibility of confusion in the reader’s mind does not arise very often, and in any case, no more than and only can mean substantially the same thing. Drink to me only with thine eyes does not differ materially from Drink only to me with thine eyes. It just scans better.

6. Infinitives cannot be split. They can, where fusing them makes for clumsiness. The needless repair of split infinitives when they were split on purpose, and are all the better for it, is infuriating enough to the journalist with an ear for English; it is even more maddening when the infinitive was not split (i.e. the separation of to from its verb by an adverb, as in to really meddle) in the first place. Anyone who thinks that to be really meddled with or to have just meddled is an example of a split infinitive, should not meddle.

As guidelines, imaginary rules may serve a purpose. Followed slavishly, they serve only the pedant.

Whether self-imposed or not, rules were made to be broken.

Note: The above dispensation does not apply to anything laid down in this manual. This is the rule that proves the exception.

What is this style?

Why do some stories, captions and headlines have it and others not? It would be fruitless to try to define it – as Fats Waller said when asked for a definition of jazz, ‘Lady, if you have to ask, I can’t tell you.’

Obviously it demands flair, plus professionalism – two commodities that have never been in short supply in popular journalism. It demands experience, a quality that may be taken for granted in Fleet Street. For the rest, it consists simply of choosing a handful of words from the half a million or so samples available, and arranging them in the best order.

Neither this manual nor any other can show anyone how to do that, but for those who wish to be reminded of the ground rules of what they now do by instinct, the following notes may be useful.

Use specific words (red and blue) not general ones (brightly coloured).

Use concrete words (rain, fog) rather than abstract ones (bad weather).

Use plain words (began, said, end) not college-educated ones (commenced, stated, termination).

Use positive words (he was poor) not negative ones (he was not rich – the reader at once wants to know, how not rich was he?).

Use the active voice (police took no action) not the passive voice (no action was taken).

Don’t overstate: fell is starker than plunged.

Don’t lard the story with emotive or ‘dramatic’ words (astonishing, staggering, sensational, shock).

Avoid non-working words that cluster together like derelicts (but for the fact that, the question as to whether there is no doubt that).

Don’t use words thoughtlessly. (Waiting ambulances don’t rush victims to hospital. Waiting ambulances wait. Meteors fall, so there can be no meteoric rise.)

Don’t use auxiliaries or conditionals (was, might, would, should, may, etc.) unless you have to. (Mrs. Thatcher is a political Florence Nightingale, not Mrs. Thatcher might be termed a political Florence Nightingale.)

Don’t use unknown quantities (very, really, truly, quite. How much is very?).

Never qualify absolutes. A thing cannot be quite impossible, glaringly obvious or most essential, any more than it can be absolutely absolute.

Don’t use wrong prepositions. (Check them for sense: we may agree on this point; you may agree with this opinion; he may agree to this proposal.)

Don’t use jargon, clichés, puns, elegant or inelegant variations, or inexact synonyms (BRAVE WIFE DIED SAVING HER SON is wrong; wife is not a synonym for mother).

Use short sentences, but not all of the same length. A succession of one-clause sentences is monotonous and wearying. Avoid elaborate construction. Take the sentence to pieces and re-cast it – probably as two sentences.

If a sentence reads as if it has something wrong with it, it has something wrong with it. Whether you are motoring to see Mum, play trains in a railway museum or take in a stately home, this long Spring weekend can bring agony and death is technically correct, but ugly.

Don’t vary your rhythms for the sake of it. He was not ill, and neither was he poor is unnecessary variation. But there is a dramatic unity in He was not ill. He was not poor.

Even in a chronological narrative, the story should not start before it begins. John Smith was really looking forward to his dinner starts too early; the reader wants the dinner. Compare this with the opening of a short story by O. Henry: So I went to the doctor. A whole paragraph has happened offstage, and the reader is plunged straight into the action.

Words are facts. Check them (spelling and meaning) as you would any other.

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