On Newspaper Style

Summary
In 1979 journalist Keith Waterhouse was commissioned by his editor at UK national tabloid the Daily Mirror to write an instruction manual for the newspaper’s new recruits. The result was a booklet that became an instant success, with half the hacks in Fleet Street trying to beg, borrow or photocopy what had started as an in-house publication.

The modern version, revised, expanded and titled On Newspaper Style, is not aimed exclusively at journalists, yet it retains the professionalism and purpose that have made it a classic in its field.

It is laid out much like Fowler or Amis’ Kings’ English or like Bryson’s dictionary of troublesome words, taking one small subject – adjectives, alliteration, captions – at a time. There is little argument and no larger theory – only the essential practicalities of producing good copy.

There is mission behind it all. Waterhouse argues that tabloid English is in constant danger of lapsing into self-parody. Because no-one ever speaks like a tabloid, there are no outside checks on the language, and the set tabloid formulae can lead to lazy, ill-considered writing. The point of the manual, he declares, is to ‘start hacking away at the dead wood’.

Why is it worth reading?

On Newspaper Style is regarded as a modern classic among journalists. Their editor will have read it and will pick them up on mistakes that he or she only learnt about from Waterhouse. Despite being funny, light and easy to read, it is above all a professional account aimed at the working journalist with the purpose of making his or her copy better by the standards of both the editor and the public.

Often books on writing are produced for the pedant or the dilettante and disappear into the realms of theory or grammatical minutiae: charges that could never be brought against Waterhouse.

Talking points

The original purpose of the book – to instruct and harangue Daily Mirror journalists of the late seventies – remains evident, and On Newspaper Style is filled with the atmosphere of the print newsroom. Yet what comes through most vividly is the fascination that a renowned playwright like Waterhouse can have for this peculiar dialect he calls tabloidese.

Underlying all Waterhouse’s instructions is the perpetual fear that these days the reader would rather be watching television, and the possibility that the unique popularity of national newspapers in the UK is on the wane.

Quotes

‘It [tabloid style] was not as has sometimes been claimed, “the language of the people”, for just as people had never called criminals “denizens of the underworld” nor goalkeepers “custodians of the citadel”, neither did they now call psychiatrists “mind-doctors” nor professors “eggheads”, nor drop the definite article from the beginnings of sentences …but it was language the people could understand’.

‘Although the tabloids are reckoned to need a reading age of around ten, understanding them needs a high degree of sophistication’.

‘[Tabloid style is] one of the most difficult English idioms to master’

‘Think of the obvious, and then discard it’.

What others say
Daily Mirror: ‘A youngster ambitious to be a good journalist will learn more from reading Waterhouse’s book than [from] any amount of tuition at a journalists’ training school’.

Daily Mail: ‘What Waterhouse has done is to make the teaching of grammar and writing interesting. This is a minor miracle … this is also one of the funniest books you are likely to read’.

Author
Keith Waterhouse, born in Leeds in 1929, is famous for writing Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell, Billy Liar and Whistle Down the Wind, as well as numerous other pieces for stage, screen and newspaper. He was at the Daily Mirror for sixteen years – during which he wrote On Newspaper Style – before moving to the Daily Mail in 1986.

Details
On Newspaper Style by Keith Waterhouse is currently out of print. However, Penguin is planning a reprint in the near future. ISBN 0 14 011819 5.

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