A day in the life of a sub-editor

An excerpt from the diary of Charles Purcell. Cartoon by Judy Horacek.

7am. Wake up. Partner asks, “What myriad of problems will you be tackling today?” Get out the Style Guide (Home Edition) from under the pillow and educate them on the correct use of “myriad”.

8am. The bus stop notice says “stationery” instead of “stationary”. A rookie mistake. Correct the spelling with the indelible ink pen all sub-editors carry. Passenger accuses me of vandalism, until I point out that I am, in fact, a sub-editor, unofficially licensed to correct spelling mistakes everywhere. Bus queue looks on at me in awe, as if I am some kind of superhero.

9am. First coffee of the day. Note with distaste that “cappuccino” is spelt “cappucino”. Staff member says he’d love to change the spelling but he doesn’t have permission to use the menu chalk.

9.01am. Demand to see the manager. Manager is surprised to learn that “cappucino” is wrong. “I’ll fix it for the second edition,” he jokes, in an alarmingly apt journalistic reference.

9.30am. Receive email titled “its your abc”. Offended on so many levels.

10am. Fistfight breaks out over the correct use of “its” or “it’s”. A common occurrence in the newsroom.

10.30am. Discuss the internet. Agree that “it’s a fad”.

11am. Consider with irritation the brand names “McDonald’s” and “Hungry Jack’s”. Yes, they are technically correct … but what are they actually referring to? “McDonald’s Burgers”? “Hungry Jack’s Five Hungry Children”? Send an angry email to McDonald’s and Hungry Jack’s PR asking them to fix the problem. Ask for more background: “Who exactly IS Hungry Jack? Is he based on a real person?”

11.30am. Case study email goes out: “Does anyone know any senior citizens selling their pain medication to bikie gangs to supplement their pension?” Sadly, I am not among this august list.

Noon. Send out note to writer: “It’s BARBRA Streisand, not Barbara Streisand.” Feel strangely self-righteous and satisfied.

12.15pm. Tick off junior writer who spelt “Colombia” “Columbia”. My tsk can be heard across the newsroom.

12.30pm. Correct the copy of the political reporter. “It should be, ‘The Prime Minister disciplined his staff with his nunchaku,’ not ‘nunchuks’,” I tell the amazed reporter.

12.45pm. Point out that “Sydney’s thriving Spanish Quarter” consists of precisely four buildings. “Four corners … that’s technically a Quarter,” says the reporter. I am left speechless.

1pm. Note that the daily crossword has, disturbingly, taken on the shape of a swastika. Tell the puzzle editor, who says that the crossword shapes are randomly generated by computer. He promises to fix it. A smug glow fills my being.

1.30pm. McDonald’s PR gets back to me. Changes to the McDonald’s logo will have to wait.

2pm. Lunch. Note with alarm that “cappucino” has not been corrected on the menu board. Fix it with indelible ink. “You can’t do that,” squeaks the junior behind the counter. “Of course I can,” I reply. “I’m a sub-editor.” The lunchtime crowd applauds. Maybe I really am some kind of superhero.

2.30pm. Point out to reporter that she has filed 400 words too much for her story. “Just cut it from the bottom,” she says snarkily. “Is that what you always do?” “Not always,” I say, deleting furiously. “Sometimes we cut them mid-sentence.”

3pm. Blood pressure spikes as junior reporter writes Dalai Lama “Daily Lama”. My thrown copy of the Style Guide hits him square between the shoulders.

3.30pm. Check tomorrow’s page three correction: “It was reported on page three yesterday that Gladys Jones was charged with manslaughter after allegedly beating her husband to death with a George Foreman Griller. She is in fact the conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.”

3.45pm. Remove the honorific “Mr” from the name of a now-convicted felon. “Justice is served!” I shout to no one in particular.

4pm. Reporter who should know better asks, “Does the Oxford comma have something to do with Oxford Street?” My sigh can be heard two suburbs away.

4.15pm. Strenuously object to headline entitled, “Mummy, do I have scurvy?”

5pm. High-five the sub-editor next to me in the time-honoured tradition.

5.15pm. Discuss decline of spelling, grammar and punctuation in society … as well as why no one wears hats any more.

5.30pm. Turn off computer, knowing I have made the world a better place today.

Charles Purcell is a former writer and sub-editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. He is the author of The Spartan, available on Amazon (Pan Macmillan, $5.99). He is also the author of the unpublished book The Last Newspaper on Earth, which he’s considering rewriting as a zombie thriller entitled Zombies Ate My Newspaper.

Judy Horacek is a freelance cartoonist and artist. See more of her wonderful work at www.horacek.com.au.