Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Style, and doing it by the book

Interesting to see the Telegraph have updated their stylebook for the modern age. It's full of the traditional stylebook pomp, suited and booted by Simon Heffer, and includes for the first time references on how to write for multiple platforms.

For the uninitiated, stylebooks are a newspaper's workshop manual; they're there to ensure all the pages speak in one voice.

In practice, they can usually be summarised by a well-honed introduction setting out the basic aims and three to four pages of banned words, adopted spellings and a few quirks.

In reality, they are often an excuse for the Style Guru of the day to vent matters dear to his or her heart with a pithiness that underlines their ambition to be seen the next Leslie Sellers.

Often, the editor changes his mind (or the management change the editor) before the ink is dry and the keenest pedants eagerly await "the revised version" that never materialises. Meanwhile, everyone uses their common sense and defers to the wisdom they brought with them from their first job - or uses the search engine to find consensus.

They do provide important clarification on issues such as adopted spellings - do we write gipsy or gypsy? Is it fulfil or fulfill? And more: Can we say wed when we mean marry and is Xmas OK for headlines? (and is OK okay?)

Heffer’s offering answers these but also regurgitates loads of age old stuff that fatten up all style sheets and turn them into style books:

Birds Eye doesn’t have an apostrophe, McDonald's does; Cate Blanchett spells her name with a C; farther relates to distance, further means additional – all basic stuff that anyone on a national broadsheet should be able to recite in their sleep. And any intern reporter would be expected to Google before placing in the news editor's basket on a freesheet.

Often style is confirmed or amended on the spin. In 2001, Charles Moore had to think on his feet to confirm the spelling of Taliban (not the BBC’s Taleban). A few years earlier, Max Hastings, aware that young bucks like me were stealthily dumbing down the news pages, banned the words Youth and Celebrity. Moore later told me he had a problem with the way we were using Timeline on the web.

Bill Deedes had bequeathed Hastings the edict: never insult your worldly-wise readers by reminding them of Ministers' christian names. Thus: Mr Howe walked out of Mrs Thatcher's government and Mr Biffen expressed his regret.

The best style guru the Telegraph ever had was Andrew Hutchinson, the managing editor and reader ombudsman whose legendary and revered tome cautioned us against being flippant with the language, with the reminder: “Only Malays run amok.”

His gentlemanly bollockings of subs who failed to spot even the most minor error were legendary. “To err is human,” he told me years ago over a glass of wine in his glass box where my misery was on show to all. “To do it on the pages of the Daily Telegraph is quite another matter.”

He went on: “Never mind this missive had been written in haste by a foreign correspondent . . . passed by a harassed news desk . . . approved by the night editor . . . placed on a page by his lieutenant, the responsibility for this most heinous of spelling errors falls entirely on the shoulders of you, the sub editor.”

I’m not sure how he would have responded to Heffer’s latest assertion:

No journalist should expect his or her line editors to spot mistakes or solecisms or to be there to correct them. While executives handling copy and production journalists should be alert to any errors and should correct them when spotted, the responsibility for any that get into the paper will lie solely with the writer..

How times change. Wish I’d had that with me when I went for my spanking. Would have been more effective than a copy of Debretts down my trousers.


Anonymous said...
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Ian Douglas said...

I'm sure that the sub will still be bollocked but I'm glad that it's been made clear that 'the sub will sort it out, just file' is no longer acceptable.

Richard Burton said...

Good point. But I'm not sure that's a matter for a stylebook. More a recruitment matter if you ask me.

Mind you, at least reporters are filing on time these days. There was a time when subs would have killed for something, anything, in the basket on time to sort out - before having to blag a few pars from PA to get a page away.

Ian Douglas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Douglas said...

Which, of course, never happens these days.