Skip to Content

The Editor's View May 2004


John Jenkins

John Jenkins' monthly column from Writers' Forum magazine

Free offer (UK only)


Agency teamwork spots talent . . .

a new £10,000 prize . . .

mistakes in Shakespeare . . .

how now BBC?


WE RECEIVE many moans about literary agents but it’s good to know that one of the leaders takes so much trouble to spot new talent. Peters Fraser Dunlop demonstrate how teamwork can unearth a story, work on it, encourage the author and head for a three-book deal and possibly film rights. Sophia McDougall, a young dramatist, is a beneficiary of this approach.

SIR Christopher Ondaatje, author and philanthropist, is supporting a new £10,000 prize for writers. The award embraces fiction and non-fiction. What makes it different is that the book will be judged on how it evokes the geography, history and people of its setting.

Sir Christopher, whose work on Hemingway won critical acclaim, is an explorer at heart. The shortlist for his award includes: Gulag by Anne Applebaum, A Biography of John Clare by Jonathan Bate, Voices by Susan Elderkin, Mountains of the Mind by Robert McFarlane, Clouds of Glory by Bryan Magee and Hearing Birds Fly by Louisa Waugh. Three of the shortlist are first books.

Richard Holmes is chairman of the judges and the result will be out on May 18.

* * *

WE receive many articles requesting information and talks on freelance writing.

How many people are earning between £5,000 and £30,000 p.a. this way with "second careers" is impossible to judge but here’s a word of warning.

In this celebrity-crazy age many knock together (and these words are not lightly chosen) biographical sketches culled from secondary sources. "Cuttings jobs" as they are known in the newspaper trade. Beware.

Many new writers think that you can trawl the internet for a few facts, top it up from some newspaper cuttings and hey presto!

Nine times out of ten you might get away with this and everything would be fine. But you should be aware that repeating somebody else’s material could land you in trouble.

Supposing, for example, you had used the Christian Science Monitor as a source for an article on George Galloway, the Labour MP for Glasgow East who vehemently opposed the war on Iraq, adopted a pro–Iraq stance and made several visits to that country.

The newspaper, respected world wide, has recently had to pay Mr Galloway substantial damages for defamation in addition to a correction and the MP’s costs.

The paper had been misled by false documents. It’s not only newspapers and magazines that can fall foul of the laws of libel.

Publishers HarperCollins who produced an unauthorised biography about Jimmy Nail, written by Geraint Jones, have had to apologise to Mr Nail for inaccuracies and false allegations, pay him substantial damages and withdraw all copies.

Using secondary sources can be a dangerous game. In these days of second-hand information and multiple sources there is no substitute for the personal interview.

* * *

I’VE LONG thought that the general inability to spell stems from the lack of attention given to speech training. Hence I applaud any move to persuade the BBC to revert to its traditional standards.

A letter in the Independent signed by seven of the great and the good reinforced this view. The seven were Christabel Burniston, Founder of the English Speaking Board, Professor Sir Michael Dummett, Dr Peter Ford, Dr Joyce Morris, Patron of the Queen’s English Society, Eva Retkin and Lord Tebbitt.

They were giving support to Ian Bruton Simmonds, author of Mend Your English. He recently gave a lecture sponsored by the Queen’s English society and the Churchill Society calling for the BBC to appoint a language adviser and a network of unpaid monitors. Highlighting the huge influence of broadcasting, the authors of the letter wrote:

Like it or not the BBC is an active participant in and not a mute observer of the process of linguistic development. The syntax, vocabulary and style of those who speak in its name matter as never before.

Yet the BBC appears reluctant to acknowledge the fact. It prefers a neutral stance "not to preserve any specific form of English language but to reflect its fluid and ever-changing nature."

What the hierarchy at the BBC fails to understand is that this is not about accents. We do not want a nation of received pronunciation, or Stuart Hibberds. If the corporation as a whole cannot embrace this responsibility, why not select radio programmes and television channels where we can be sure the BBC sets a standard rather than following a trend?

* * *

WAS Shakespeare a printer? Consider the following lines:

whereas before our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou has caused printing to be used; and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou has built a paper mill. Henry VI.

This suggests that Will knew a bit about the rude mechanical art of printing apart from his skill as a poet and playwright. William Blades, the print historian, was among the first to claim that the Bard may have had really inky fingers, but he noted that the list of jobs Shakespeare may have performed is endless.

He had a vocabulary of 28,000 words whereas the average person today gets by on 10,000.

One of Shakespeare’s Stratford acquaintances was Richard Field, a printer, and the master may well have learned something about the art from his friend.

Printing in the 17th century was not a speedy business. It took two years to set and print a 900-page edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

That, of course, gave time to get things right but ironically a typographical error has had scholars arguing for years. In the first two Quarto editions of Hamlet the following line:

O that this too, too solid flesh would melt. . . sees the word solid printed as sallied, a variant of sullied. A debate for scholars down the ages and a cri de coeur from slimmers.


John Jenkins, Publisher, Writers' Forum


Read the article about setting up WritersServices which was originally published in Writers' Forum magazine.

© Writers International Ltd 2004. Reproduced from the December-January edition of Writers' Forum magazine by kind permission of the editor.