What I've been reading: Waterhouse on newspaper style

Cover of Waterhouse on Newspaper Style

Keith Waterhouse was a journalist and author. I first came across his writing through the film of his book, Billy Liar. I came across his writing some years later, through his column in the tabloid newspaper The Daily Mirror.

I mention that latter fact because I think it important. People are often a bit snooty about the tabloids, but it's a snobbery born of ignorance. A newspaper that can make a complex topic like Brexit comprehensible to someone with a reading age of 11, which is a kind of benchmark for the tabloids, is doing a pretty good job. It takes real journalistic skill to achieve that. 

The interesting thing, as Waterhouse points out in this book, is that although the tabloids write in simple terms, they are not condescending. For example, when a newspaper ran with the headline "Mucky Jim", it assumed that its readers would understand the reference to the Kingsley Amis novel, Lucky Jim. 

'On newspaper style' started life as an in-house manual for journalists on the Daily Mirror. It was, in effect, the paper's house style guide. I'm glad it escaped the confines of Fleet Street because it is one of the best reference books I have read, and consult.

Some of it is humorous. For example, while the more salacious tabloids have headlines shouting about 'sex romps', nobody in everyday life talks about sex romps. In a chapter on 'Tabloidese' he makes a p[lea for using plain, normal English. For example, on Planet Tabloid, a criticism becomes a 'blast'; a drive (for or against something) is a 'blitz'; a mystery is a 'riddle'. Such drama in article after article is apt to leave one exhausted!

Waterhouse points out errors of use, such as when the second part of the sentence does not fit with the first half (for example, if you remove a subordinate clause, you would end up with a sentence that began "I have saw..."). I pride myself in trying to write well, but I've found since buying this book that I am much more sensitive to mistakes like that.

Although he is a stickler for correct English, Waterhouse is, I am pleased to say, not a stickler for what he calls  'Imaginary rules'. For instance, if splitting an infinitive makes a sentence easier to read and understand, then spilt it should be. It reminds me of Churchill's statement: "This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.".

Organised in alphabetical order, Waterhouse On Newspaper Style may be read from beginning to end, or by dipping in to chapters at random. It may be 30 years old, but much of the advice is as relevant today as it was then.