Brief Encounters


My only training before going in to journalism was to read The Newsman’s English by Harold Evans, the revered former editor of The Times and Sunday Times, and I reckon it taught me all I needed to know about writing and editing. I forget most of the details now, but one anecdote that sticks in my mind was the story of a subeditor who was trying to help his fishmonger friend advertise his shop.

The fishmonger put up a sign saying Fresh Fish Sold Here, and the subeditor went to work. No need to say “fresh”, he said, because you’ll hardly sell putrid fish.

No need to say “here” because why would you be advertising someone else’s shop. No need to say “sold” because you’ll hardly be giving it away. And while we’re at it, you can smell the fish a mile off so no need to say that either. So he gave the fishmonger a blank sign to hang in his shop window.

The point is it’s great to be concise, and time spent stripping away superfluous information is never wasted. But you need to know when to stop.

Brevity is a wonderful thing, so don’t feel you need to pad out your press releases with extra quotes and florid descriptions to make them interesting; every word should count.

But at the same time, you’re doing a selling job, so you’ve got to draw us in at least a bit.

I just think the person who emailed me the other week, saying “Hiya Tony, x is launching a new tonic water. Any interest?” could have done with telling me a bit more.