A guide to help potential contributors develop their skills.
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- “Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.” (Samuel Johnson)
- “Young writers often suppose that style is a garnish for the meat of prose, a sauce by which a dull dish is made palatable.” (William Strunk)
- “Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue. Never use an adverb to modify the verb said.” (Elmore Leonard)
Six rules from “Politics and the English Language” (George Orwell):
- never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print
- never use a long word where a short word will do
- if it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out
- never use the passive whether you can use the active
- never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent
- break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Vs. “Pure prose is as rare as pure virtue, and for the same reasons. Metaphors are just more fun.” (Richard Lanham)
-> prescriptions are where we practice as apprentices, mastery comes later …
Exeter Observer house style
The principal aim is for broad consistency across the publication (without erasing individual voices).
Summary guidance: active not passive; broadsheet not tabloid; accurate, clear and concise without ornament or rhetoric.
Spelling and grammar rules apply. Any journalist who cannot use a dictionary or grasp basic grammatical rules will not be taken seriously by serious readers.
Specific guidance (derived from editorial team preferences):
- Abbreviations: use in full where appropriate to aid understanding e.g. Councillor not Cllr but St Sidwell’s (without a point) not Saint Sidwell’s
- Addresses: someone is of, not from a road, and something is in, not on a street
- Acronyms: always upper case with no dividing points e.g. ASBO
- Active vs passive: The twain will meet not A meeting will take place between the twain
- Age: either 18 years old or 18-year-old, not 18 year old or 18-years-old
- Ampersands: never use to replace and, only use when present in proper nouns e.g. B&Q, Farrow & Ball
- Apostrophes: only for possession and elision, noting the difference between it’s and its
- As: not a substitute for because or when
- Bullet lists: only use in info boxes, never in body text
- Capitals: only use where necessary, which is usually for proper nouns (people, titles, places, organisations, companies and institutions) and only when used in full e.g. Exeter City Council, Exeter’s city council, and never use for emphasis
- Clichés: avoid like the plague, neither the tip of the iceberg nor the bare minimum, don’t greenlight going forward
- Colons: use to quote speech or lead to demonstrating subclauses
- Commas: only use the Oxford comma when necessary to clarify scope
- Compass points: north, south, east and west should be lower case unless used to refer to a recognised place e.g. South West
- Dates: don’t include a comma or st/rd/th after the day number e.g. Monday 1 May not Monday, 1st May, don’t include the year if current, don’t use apostrophes for plurals e.g. the 2010s, capitalise days with proper names e.g. New Year’s Eve, Bank Holiday Monday
- En/em-dashes: use minimally, or not at all, preferring commas and clearer sentence construction
- Facts/statistics: use comparisons and/or changes for context whenever possible e.g. an increase of 25% in the past ten years
- Fewer and less: use fewer for things that are quantifiable and less for things that are not e.g. ten items or fewer, less shopping
- First person and/or the personal: only use when appropriate
- Fractions: write in full with hyphens, never as numbers with a slash e.g. two-thirds not 2/3
- Gender and nouns: always prefer non-gendered nouns e.g. spokesperson not spokesman, chair not chairman, firefighter not fireman, police officer not policeman, actor not actress etc. (overriding anachronistic organisational usage)
- Gender and pronouns: use non-gendered pronouns according to individual preference e.g. they rather than he or she (not overriding individual usage)
- Hyperbole: don’t go over the top thumping tubs
- Hyphens: use to clarify meaning e.g. sweet-shop girl vs. sweet shop-girl, to hyphenate double e or o prefixes e.g. re-election and co-operative but not reassess or reopen, and to join two words that together form an adjective or adverb e.g. the people-friendly politician
- Initialisms: unless very familiar (e.g. BBC, NHS) write in full the first time (only capitalising the words that form the initialism) with the initialism following in brackets (without dividing points) then use the initialism in subsequent instances e.g. Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) then RSPB
- Italics: use for works of film, literature etc.
- It’s and its: it’s is an elision of it is denoting identity, its denotes ownership/possession
- Jargon: always prefer everyday language, employing an explanation if necessary
- Measurements: write litres or kilometres in full the first time, with a space e.g. 4.5 litres, then subsequently as an abbreviation, without a space e.g. 4.5l
- Money: write millions or billions in full the first time, with a space e.g. $64 million, then subsequently as an abbreviation, without a space e.g. $64m
- Names: usually employ both first and last names but usage varies depending on context and people involved
- Numbers: words up to and including twenty, numerals from 21, except when using abbreviated measurements e.g. 5km not five km and when writing in general terms e.g. two thousand people attended the protest
- OK: do not use Okay
- Proper nouns: always reproduce accurately, noting that organisations, companies and institutions are singular e.g. Exeter City Council has confirmed its determination to build St Sidwell’s Point not Exeter City Council have confirmed their determination
- Quotes: use double inverted commas, precede with colons and capitalise the first word e.g. He said: “Pools are cool” (unless indirect/reported and/or a continuation e.g. He said that pools are cool, adding: “and not for fools”), use single inverted commas to quote within a quote, use square brackets to insert a word or words to clarify meaning when necessary, precede closing quote marks with a full stop at the end of a sentence, avoid stacking information before use
- Redundancy: don’t repeat yourself or say the same thing twice, and don’t use two or three words when one will do
- Relevance: if you have just seen aliens land, don’t start your report by mentioning the weather
- Semi-colons: use only if confident; even then, sparingly (especially in news reports)
- Sentences: usually follow orthodox subject, verb, object structure with a single idea in each sentence, only use subclauses sparingly (especially in news reports)
- Slang: beware inappropriate registers e..g. chavs, whatever, like and changing use of language e.g. not fit for purpose
- Time: use 4pm not four o’clock, from 11.30am-4pm not from 11.30am to 4pm and between 3pm and 4pm not between 3pm-4pm
- They’re, their and there: they’re is an elision of they are denoting identity, their denotes possession and there refers to a place/possession
- Titles: only use titles for professionally qualified or elected people e.g. Dr and Councillor not Mr or Mrs, only use honorifics when relevant
- To, too and two: to is typically used before a noun or verb and describes a destination, recipient or action e.g. I walked to work, I sent the email to my colleague, I want to make a cup of coffee; too is used as an alternative to also or as well or to describe an adjective in extremes e.g. my colleague is thirsty too, the coffee is too hot to drink; two is a number
- Word endings: use while and among not whilst or amongst, burned and dreamed not burnt or dreamt etc.
- Years: 2019/20 for a one-year gap, 1999-2019 for longer periods
- You’re and your: you’re is an elision of you are denoting identity, your denotes ownership/possession
- Z: use recognise not recognize etc.
In the absence of specific guidance, please refer to The Guardian & Observer style guide.