Supertext: The textbook that changed my life

February 25, 2005

Of course I could write. I had just turned out a lengthy PhD, hadn't I? But while my new employer conceded that I had, somehow, survived a scientific education still able to write a sensible sentence, newspapers were different. As a trainee sub-editor on a medical weekly staffed by bright young things on the way up and Fleet Street hacks on the way down, I knew amazingly little.

I knew how to read, though. And when I got my hands on Harold Evans's Newsman's English , I knew I would get by. Here was a man who knew what he was talking about, and passing on what he knew so well. He made you want to write as effectively as he did, while showing you how to do it.

The book is intensely practical and I used to reread it annually, and insist that others read it (though I never lent them mine). I lost that habit a while ago, and leafing through it again, it seems a beguiling combination of a period piece (that title) and timeless truths.

It was the first book in a five-volume series on editing and design published for the National Council for the Training of Journalists. The full set was then aggressively up to date, but is now as evocative of the lost times of the 1970s as The Rotters' Club . Here are hot metal, copy boys, the back bench and the spike, all long swept away by new technology. And here is Evans in his prime as editor of The Sunday Times , laying down the law.

The first volume is both a style guide and a manual on how to construct a news story. It laid out a path that any diligent writer could follow to attain, if not grace, then certainly economy and clarity - which will do most of the time.

Nowadays I have a whole shelf of style guides and writing manuals. I can see how Evans drew on past efforts, from Strunk and White's canonical Elements of Style to Ernest Gowers, George Orwell and W.H. Auden. And Evans's largely empirical approach has now been partly superseded by guides to writing informed by advances in linguistics and cognitive science. Still, Newsman's English seems to me a landmark text. Its only rival for my affections is the second edition of James Watson's Molecular Biology of the Gene , a science textbook, long since lost, that I could read for pleasure.

Like Watson's book, a distant descendant of Newsman's English is in print today, with a suitably non-sexist title and another editorial hand turning two of the original texts into one. It is not the same, but well worth reading before you try to write a PhD.

Jon Turney is a science writer and a visiting fellow in science and technology studies, University College London.

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