Herbert Sidebotham’s three rules of news writing

When journalists are learning to write, there is no shortage of advice for them to draw on.

From Orwell to Hemingway, and plenty in-between, there are lots of writers and journalists who have given their thoughts on the craft of writing.

Well, I’ve found another one!

While researching my biography of Basil Clarke, I discovered that at the start of his career he was given advice on news writing by his friend Herbert Sidebotham, then a journalist at the Manchester Guardian and later better known for his “Scrutator” column in the Sunday Times.

It is advice that has, as far as I know, been forgotten for the best part of a century. And while the world is hardly crying out for new bits of writing advice, I think it has stood the test of time and could be a useful tool when reviewing your own work.

Sidebotham told Clarke that, after writing an article, he should always ask himself three questions:

  • Is that exactly what I meant to say, neither more nor less?
  • Could any person – wise man, knave or fool – construe it to mean anything different from what I meant to say, either more or less?
  • Could I have made it more easy for the reader to understand what I meant him to understand?

Incidentally, Clarke continued to use this checklist after he made the switch from journalism to public relations in 1917. But, perhaps reflecting the different focus of public relations compared to journalism, he added a fourth question of his own:

  • Could I have written it so as to make a deeper impression on his [the reader’s] mind?
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What would Arthur Christiansen have made of Leveson?

Arthur Christiansen
Arthur Christiansen: “I deplore it.”

As we approach a crossroads in the history of media ethics, much of the debate can be boiled down to the question of how acceptable it is to intrude into people’s lives in pursuit of a story.

So while recently reading the autobiography of Arthur Christiansen, the legendary editor of the Daily Express from the 1930s to the 1950s, I was interested to discover his views on press intrusion.

Given Christiansen’s famous advice that journalists should “always, always tell the news through people”, I was surprised to find just how nuanced his views were. Certainly, he was more ambivalent about prying into people’s personal lives than many of witnesses representing the media at the Leveson Inquiry.

He wrote:

People who court publicity must take the rough with the smooth; Royalty cannot help but receive publicity and have learned to accept most of it with good grace; but the pestering by reporters of people who are unfortunate or unhappy and who do not wish any part of it is not what I had in mind when as a young man I tried to open out ‘the human angle’.

When a murderer was hanged I wanted to know how his children were faring; when a girl rocketed to stardom I wanted to know what her parents had contributed. I wanted to know about people – humble, unimportant people as well as those who were established.

But the idea got out of hand. The human story, like the size of headline type, seems often nowadays to be sought ruthlessly at the sacrifice of taste, sense and decent feeling… I deplore it.

I should add that Headlines All My Life, published in 1961, is a brilliant book that gives a fascinating insight into newspaper history. Although out of print, it can be picked up for under £10 on Amazon.