Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Keith Waterhouse's excellent rules for writing

Keith Waterhouse.
English novelist and newspaper columnist Keith Waterhouse (1929-2009) was a prolific writer: 16 novels, countless plays and film scripts, and, for almost 40 years, a twice-weekly newspaper column.

In his book, Waterhouse on Newspaper Style, now back in print in both the U.S. and the U.K. At the end of the book, Waterhouse summarizes a number of his key points with these "ground rules" for writers. Richard Nordquist lists them on his blog:
  1. Use specific words (red and blue) not general ones (brightly coloured).
  2. Use concrete words (rain, fog) rather than abstract ones (bad weather).
  3. Use plain words (began, said, end) not college-educated ones (commenced, stated, termination).
  4. 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?).
  5. Don't overstate: fell is starker than plunged.
  6. Don't lard the story with emotive or "dramatic" words (astonishing, staggering, sensational, shock).
  7. Avoid non-working words that cluster together like derelicts (but for the fact that, the question as to whether, there is no doubt that).
  8. 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.)
  9. Don't use unknown quantities (very, really, truly, quite. How much is very?).
  10. Never qualify absolutes. A thing cannot be quite impossible, glaringly obvious or most essential, any more than it can be absolutely absolute.
  11. Don't use jargon, clich├ęs, puns, elegant or inelegant variations, or inexact synonyms (BRAVE WIFE DIED SAVING HER SON is wrong; wife is not a synonym for mother).
  12. Words are facts. Check them (spelling and meaning) as you would any other.

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