10 Questions With Sir Harold Evans

4 minute read
Edward Felsenthal is the Executive Chairman and former Editor-in-Chief of TIME.

The acclaimed editor, author of Do I Make Myself Clear?, on how to write better and whether precision and concision can survive the digital age

TIME: You discuss many writing evils in your book, from pleonasms to pesky pronouns. What kind of bad writing upsets you most?

EVANS: Writing that is deliberately designed to deceive–insurance policies, political statements. Business verbosity wastes money, confuses millions. I find myself getting much more angry about the moral question of obligation of fairness than I do about a misplaced semicolon.

And you believe in freedom from the language police?

The language police are a bloody nuisance, some linguists in particular. The English language got corrupted by pettifoggers. Do you know that word, pettifogger? It’s somebody who stumbles over a neck but misses the body lying on the floor.

You lay out 10 rules for writing clearly. Orwell had only six rules. Did he forget some?

Yes. I know that I did. I’m not obsessed by rules. I’m just trying to say what helped me through millions and millions of words at speed when I was in newspapers and publishing.

I loved the section in the book about why FDR used infamy instead of world history to describe Dec. 7, 1941.

That speech is really a masterpiece. Note that he said “the date” will live in infamy. Not “the day.” That’s why we remember the date.

Which Presidents have been the least clear in their writing, and where does Donald Trump rank?

Donald Trump can actually be very clear. But the thought is zero, virtually. The real problem with him is not the clarity of language.

You talk about the seduction of Trump’s insistent certainty.

Exactly. It’s very seductive. It is classic demagoguery. We’re now in a situation of anarchic disorder. Trump has an ability to be clear when he wants to be and is aware surely of the immorality of falsehoods. “We’re going to stop immigration. We’re going to have a wall.”

How would you grade the American press on handling the Trump era so far?

Admirable. Many publications are not afraid to say, “This doesn’t quite make sense.” The press has escaped from the false objectivity of “on the one hand this and on the other hand that.”

Twitter certainly requires concision. Has it made any positive contributions to the practice of writing?

Not much. Twitter’s wonderful for assertion. It’s absolutely useless for argument. You cannot deploy an argument of even the simplest kind in 140 characters.

What about texting?

I understand its appeal, but we’ve got to have a capacity to expand, explain and give an example.

Do you ever say “OMG”?

No, but I can understand it. I’ve never said “LOL,” but I’m quite inclined to regard it a beneficial abbreviation. I’m not against acronyms.

You’re married to a legendary editor, Tina Brown. What has she taught you about writing?

Tattooed on my chest is what she tells me about writing. It basically adds up to, “Get to the point. Your point’s down here in paragraph 29. What the hell are you doing with it down there?” She adopted the term the vomit draft. It’s very uncomfortable to have your masterpiece be called a vomit draft.

You worked for Rupert Murdoch. What advice would you give him about the current problems at Fox News?

My advice that he won’t take from me is transparency. He’s quite capable of telling blunt truths when he wants. He’s not a fantasist. He has a brilliant, original mind. But the mess around Ailes and Fox is self-inflicted by a corporate mind-set, just like the self-inflicted crisis of the hacking stuff. Side with the truth tellers.

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