Writer Charles Purcell pays tribute to the subs who make our copy sing and keep us on our toes, dreading an errant misspelling.
“Why are sub-editors so rude?” lamented a colleague recently after an abrupt putdown from a sub-editor.
The recipient of the snub wasn’t a sub-editor themselves – merely a fellow traveller in the media world – and yet, it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard sub-editors described as “rude”, “difficult”, “donnish”, “know-it-all” or even “abrupt”. Usually by non-subs, I may add. Mostly by writers, and, occasionally, artists (bloody artists … don’t get me started).
As a sub-editor and writer myself, I’ve had a few run-ins with subs that could be described as “tense”, “fraught”, “difficult” … even “harsh”. I can recall emails where I was sent the corrected name of a musician repeated a dozen times – just in case I missed it the first time – or received a dressing down in language that would make a sailor blush for the incorrect spelling of a suburb. (The latter filled me with some terror: there was an urban myth that a writer was fired for once spelling Coogee “Cooge”).
Imagine if Snow White had Seven Sub-Editors instead of Dwarfs: perhaps they would be called Doc (because they perform surgical miracles with ailing copy), Ropey (because if you make that mistake again they’ll be ropeable), Pedantic, Snippy, Sleepy (because they work the midnight shift), Shouty (because they yell your mistakes over the partitions) and Harpy (slur against female subs).
Yes, it can be a fraught relationship between writers and subs. The two have sometimes conflicting goals: the writer wants the maximum amount of words in print or online in the most prominent position possible. Meanwhile, the sub-editor wants the best-reading, most-accurate story possible in the space allotted. The artist? They just want everything to fit. They never read the words anyway. Boom, boom. (Sorry, I’ll cut out the artist jokes now.)
Naturally, defining any one group with a lone characteristic is an absurd generalisation. Yet sometimes the art of compromise with subs can cause friction. Sub-editors despair when a writer files 1000 words for what the writer already knows is a 400-500 word space. Then the writer may complain that the best bits, the colour or the “jokes” have been lost in the edited story. (I’ve complained about my “jokes” being cut before … but comedy is usually the first casualty of the editing process.)
Sometimes time constraints can make subs seem “rude” or “grumpy”. Sometimes there’s a huge stack of stories in the basket with only an hour to go before deadline and there’s no time for niceties. Sometimes subs are concentrating so hard for so long that a sudden interruption can evoke a brisk response.
Sometimes writers can be habitual offenders in the mistakes they make… and may take offence when said mistakes are pointed out. And sometimes subs are asked to perform miracles on lacklustre pieces.
From a writer’s perspective, having someone tinker with your copy can be, to quote Jerry Maguire, a “pride-swallowing siege”. It’s best to nip such feelings in the bud right at the start of your career. And indeed, such feelings do pass when you witness a top sub turn an average yarn into something spectacular. Good subs really are “value adders”. It’s best to learn from them and their experience … rather than treat them as pedantic schoolteachers looking down at you over horn-rimmed glasses after you’ve spelt Colombia “Columbia”. And I’ve yet to meet one who has launched something like a seven-year quest to fix precisely one grammatical error in Wikipedia – in this baffling case, the words “comprised of”.
I was deeply impressed by what the sub-editors and editors did to my first novel, The Spartan. They really made it a better work, something I am very grateful for.
And there may be another reason for the perceived “grumpiness” of sub-editors. The subs are often the last line of defence when it comes to accuracy. If an error goes to print, the writer cops a bollocking – but so, too, does the sub that supposedly checked the facts. Arguing that the writer should have got it right the first time cuts no ice.
As for myself, I have found sub-editors to be clever, witty, intelligent folk, only occasionally prone to what outsiders might describe as rudeness, and certainly no more than any other media professional. Why, some of my best friends are sub-editors. The best man at my wedding has worked as a sub.
Sub-editors are some of the best people you’ll ever meet.
If only they’d learn to go easy on my jokes.
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.
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