Anthony Longden Column: Old texts still relevant for new ways of working
Print imposes its own parameters on the journalist. Font, page size, pagination and layout combine to create limitations that are as much a mercy for the reader as they are healthy discipline for the writer.
Or so it might seem… on paper at least. Digital media, despite its infinite capacity, has turned brevity into an art form. With its non-negotiable character count, Twitter forces the distillation of information in a way I don’t think print has ever done, except perhaps if you write haiku.
In the right hands we are now working in poetry as well as in prose. For journalists, choosing the right words remains one of our core skills.
Select the wrong words and the point is obscured; use too many, and our readers – impatient and owing us no favours – will move on.
Two classic texts help us with clarity and conciseness in writing: The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers, and Newsman’s English by veteran Times editor, Harold Evans, and I recommend them both.
Gowers was a distinguished civil servant with an unassailable reputation for clear written English. In an attempt to throw off the civil service stereotype of mandarins hiding behind their own verbosity, the Treasury commissioned him to devise guidelines for officialdom.
Rightly, his work earned a wider audience. His Plain Words was published in 1948; The ABC of Plain Words in 1954. Such was their popularity they were collected as a single volume Complete Plain Words.
Don’t be put off by the post war vintage – it has as much to say to today’s multi-platform journalists as it did to their inky-fingered forebears. The book can still be picked up online and in bookshops.
In his prologue, Gowers writes: ‘Writing is an instrument for conveying ideas from one mind to another; the writer’s job is to make his reader apprehend his meaning readily and precisely.’
A revised edition takes account of shifts in English usage, but the original message endures, whatever the medium: write in a way that is easy to understand, avoid cliché, resist euphemism.
Harold Evans’s 1972 manual is a practitioners’ masterpiece. Reprinted many times and given a thorough update by Crawford Gillan, it is now known as Essential English for Journalists, Editors and Writers.
Apart from the wealth of its wisdom, the value lies in its various lists of wasteful, redundant and inappropriate words.
‘English is a battlefield,” Evans writes. ‘Purists fight off invading yes-men, dropouts, hobos, killjoys, stooges, highbrows and co-eds. Vulgarians beseech them to trust the people because the people speak real good. Grammarians, shocked by sentences concluding with prepositions, construct syntactical defences up with which we will not put. Officials observe that in connection with the recent disturbances there does not appear to have been a resolution of the issue. And journalists race to the colourful scene to report the dramatic new moves.’
Gowers and Evans make the same essential point: don’t waste a single word. As a trainee, I was urged to avoid ‘that’ and ‘had’ wherever possible. So… ‘He had said that he thought that that was a good idea’ becomes: ‘He said he thought it was a good idea.’ Simple, but effective.
Reporters and features writers sometimes succumb to the idea that cliché adds pace and drama. On the contrary, it merely forces expression into a straitjacket. Stock phrases turn the message stale.
In the recent season of general election campaigning, who among us felt more politically engaged when we heard the words ‘hard-working families’ or ‘we’ve been very clear on this’?
All stock expressions were original once. The challenge and the joy of journalism is to be vibrant, original and clear over and over again.
“I just sit at a typewriter and curse a bit.”
– Comic author P G Wodehouse on being asked how he wrote his books.
* Anthony Longden advises News Associates on journalism. He spent 20 years as editor and senior editorial executive in various regional companies in the UK, including Newsquest and Trinity Mirror.
He is a member of the Society of Editors’ parliamentary and legal committee, lobbying on behalf of the media industry on a wide range of issues.
He completed a three-year term as an editorial member of the Press Complaints Commission in 2012, and sat on its reform committee. Now a consultant and journalist, he advises the SoE and Alder Media, a London-based crisis PR firm. He judges the annual UK national and regional Newspaper Awards.