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Writing for the Press

Every public speaker or debater is likely, sooner or later, to come in contact with the press. He will need it to assist in making known his view, or in vindicating himself against the adverse criticisms of opponents, or in correcting erroneous reports of what he has said. Even John Arthur Roebuck, the most direct speaker of his day, had to do this. Even Mr. Cobden, whom it was difficult to misconstrue or misunderstand, had to do this. Even Mr. Gladstone, the most circumambient speaker of all—that is, he travels all round his main idea, and not only explains it, but illustrates its purport—has had to write to the press, from time to time, in vindication of his meaning. Therefore humbler speakers, who may one day be publicists, may be interested in knowing something of the art of communicating to the press, with fewer of those disappointments usually ascribed to editorial malevolence or neglect of rising genius, when the fault is in the writer.

Every attempt at expressing opinion by the pen, however ill it may succeed, is a part of the process of self-education, and often the only mode available to the poor. Whatever shall render this more practicable and common among the people does good, and to this end a few rules are submitted for the guidance of correspondents unaccustomed to write to the press. Literature is a republic where all eminence is honorable, where none can attain distinction save by effort and patience, which are the chief forces of genius. But by reason of the necessary conditions of admission being overlooked, many sustain disappointment, which to them is inexplicable. The conditions which are very simple, I have heretofore expressed for students thus:—
1. Use large note-size paper, because a larger sheet covers the printer's case, and hinders his work.
2. Do not write on the back of the paper, as while one side is being 'set up' what is written on the back cannot be 'gone on with.'
3. Write with dark-black ink, for an editor will read with reluctance what he sees with difficulty, and the compositor, for the same reason, will dislike to set it up.
4. Always write a plain, bold hand; if you send an undistinguishable scrawl, it will be thrown aside until the editor has leisure to make it out, which may not be until the 'interest of the article has passed away,' and it may be too late to print it.
5. Remember, that whatever gives an editor trouble at his desk, may double expense in the printing office; the printers and readers waste time in deciphering bad MS., and out of any failure in interpretation commonly grows a charge against the journal for 'misrepresenting' the writer.
6. If you know that the editor will take any trouble to oblige you, and you have no scruples, give him any trouble you please. If you are rich, and can send the printers a guinea for making out your letter, you may scrawl like a gentleman. If you have a great name, so that the responsibility of anything you write will attach to yourself and not reflect on the paper, express yourself how you will; you may scribble with a pin on butter paper, and the editor will try to make it out. But if the editor is under no obligation to you, if you have no guineas to spare, if you are not so popular that anything must be printed that bears your name, you had better cleave to good sense, good taste, clear expression, black ink, and a plain hand. If you cannot write plainly, have your communication copied by someone who can. Never fear that an editor will omit or abridge your communication without cause. If it have value he will be glad of it. If it contains only relevant facts, and be, as all relations of facts ought to be, briefly told, without declamation, digression, or personal imputation on others, it will be impossible to abridge it. A well-written letter or narrative is incapable of being altered or abbreviated for the better. Hardly anything is ever refused, if well written. The artistic taste of an editor for the literary perfection of his paper is a ruling passion, stronger than personal feeling or political prejudice, and next to the love of fair play he is attracted by a communication which is well expressed.

It is common with new writers to put all they have to say into one sentence. A long sentence is most difficult to construct clearly and that is what the inexperienced first attempt, though not knowing how to separate distinct pieces of information. After a while, young writers discover that every separate idea should be separately expressed, in separate sentences. Long sentences are wearisome to read, difficult to understand, and almost impossible to correct. This fault in writing prevents many useful articles from appearing in print. Editors cannot find time for re-writing such papers. It is a common complaint that editors strike out the 'best parts' of papers sent them. They do this seldomer than is supposed, for editors in their own interest are commonly good judges of the 'best parts' of letters or other communications calculated to interest or allure readers.

In Mavor's History of Greece, which used to be a common school-book for young students, may be read in Chapter XI. such sentences as the following:—
'Nicias asked merely for quarter for the miserable remains of his troops who had not perished in the Asinarius, or upon its banks.' No one need be at loss to discover the superfluous information given that Nicias asked for quarter for 'those who had not perished.' No general asks for quarter for those who have. The same writer tells us that 'discipline yielded to the pressure of necessity. They hurried down the steep in confusion and without order, and trod one another to death in the stream.' Necessity is all 'pressure,' and it is not necessary to specify the essence of a thing as operative. It is needless to tell us, that men all 'in confusion' 'were without order.' It had been better for Mavor's History and his own reputation had some editor put his pen through his superfluous words.

When we discover a number of emphatic words employed, we know the writer or speaker has no sense of measure. 'When Rigby,' says Disraeli, 'was of opinion he had made a point, you may be sure the hit was in italics, that last resource of the forcible feebles.' 'Ordinarily,' says Schlegel, 'men entertain a very erroneous notion of criticism, and understand by it nothing more than a certain shrewdness in detecting and exposing the faults of a work of art. Art cannot exist without nature, and man can give nothing to his fellow-men but himself.' This explains all the student need take to heart at this point. If he will give 'himself,' in his communications he will be interesting. Cobbett said, 'the secret of good writing is to talk with the pen.' If a writer will put down his sentences in the free, natural, unaffected way he would speak them to a friend in talking over what interests him, he will find favor with editors. If a man is dull, and his dullness is absolute, perfect, complete in all its parts, and coherent—he will often obtain a hearing, like Mirabeau's head, whose entire ugliness rendered it alluring. Perfect stupidity or relevant, unaffected good sense will win attention. It is the mixture that gives editors trouble. Delane, the editor of the Times, once struck out a weak sentence and an irrelevant remark in a letter of mine to my great advantage. I was very grateful for it. But it is rarely an editor will do this. The writer is almost sure to charge him with emasculating his communication, and rather than risk this, the editor leaves out the letter.

One thing the correspondent of a newspaper should bear in mind is—not to make any dishonoring imputation upon the persons he writes about. Even if he thinks he has been willfully misrepresented by an adversary, a reporter, or by the editor, he had better not say so. First, because he can hardly ever be sure of it. Second, because he can hardly ever prove it, and it is a serious thing to make a charge of dishonorable willfulness, if you cannot prove it. Third, because human capacity for seeing things the wrong way, and drawing the wrong conclusion from the plainest premises, is so universally diffused among mankind that you can hardly ever be quite sure that a perversion of what has been said is really willful. The Dutch proverb says, 'It is misapprehension which brings lies to town.' Now, the power of honest misapprehension is very strong in well-meaning people. Besides, the editor has to be consulted. To publish a personal imputation might render him liable to an action, and he may not like it. If he inserted the imputation, the person assailed might claim the right of reply and might give his assailant 'as good as he had sent,' which might convert the journal into a bear garden, and the readers might not like this.

Finally, it may be worthwhile to consider what kind of person the editor to whom you write is. If he has strong prejudices, it is wisdom to say as little as you can which may excite him, and as much as you can which may conciliate him. If you wanted to borrow half a guinea you would not think of asking the first person you met, but would cast about among all the persons you knew for one likely to have half a guinea about him, and give some thought as to the best way of addressing him likeliest to induce him to part with the same. An editor's compliance with your request may in one way or other, sooner or later, be worth many half-guineas to the writer. Thus editors are worthy of consideration in the way in which they are addressed, and especially in the nature and expression of the communication sent to them.

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George Jacob Holyoake

  • Born April 13, 1817 in Birmingham, UK and died on January 22nd, 1906.
  • Was a British secularist, co-operator (The English Leader), and newspaper editor (Reasoner).

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