The other night I was in the pub with a group of women, when someone asked me what I did for a living. I explained that I’m a copywriter, and that I used to work as a sub-editor. Like many people, she wasn’t too sure what a sub-editor did. I joked that sub-editors are like the distant cousins of axe-murderers – that there’s a lot of hacking and slashing involved.
Everyone knows what an editor is, of course, and people often assume that you are the editor of some publication or other, inadvertently pegging you further up the career ladder to a slightly more impressive position than the one you actually occupy. But in fact, sub-editors are usually a few notches below the editor, doing the dogsbody work of axing, lengthening, re-writing, fact-checking, spell-checking, proofreading, headlines and captions, while making the text look tidy, consistent and presentable.
I like to think of sub-editors as the unsung heroes of journalism, that behind every great journalist is a team of great subs, whipping that copy into shape, giving it an attention-grabbing (sometimes misleading) headline, axing a lot of unnecessary waffle and leading it towards a neatly tied-up conclusion.
Subs also have the power to change the tone of a sentence and take words out of context (surely the bane of every celebrity’s life). This isn’t always intentional. Sometimes a 1000-word article has to lose 500 words in order to fit into an appointed space and leave room for pictures. A sub decides which 500 words must go. Sentences will get skimmed down, losing words here and there, sometimes with the result that a light-hearted remark ends up sounding brusque.
Sub-editing is definitely a geek’s job. You get apoplectic about apostrophes, and you appreciate a sentence that has the words apoplectic and apostrophe in it. You weigh up ‘the staff is helpful’ versus ‘the staff are helpful’, knowing the former is correct but the latter sounds more natural. And of course, you are as smug as a bug in a rug when you spot a typo such as this one: ‘The lightweight screen shits comfortably on top of the hard drive’, which I’m relieved to say I spotted when working on an IT magazine years ago. (Although I’m pretty sure the editor planted it there just to keep me on my toes.)
Subbing is also a creative job. Thinking of the right headline to match the article is one thing, but getting it to fit into the allotted space with the given font size is another challenge. This was particularly tricky working at The Sun TV Guide years ago: Most headlines for the soap pages were only three or four short words long, and there was only so many times you could have ‘Mum’s the word’ or ‘Kat’s got the cream’.
But there are also disadvantages to working as a sub-editor. For example, I am now programmed to always think in puns when trying to come up with a headline, strapline, caption or title. A deluge of corny, cheesy, inappropriate ideas will always come gushing out before anything vaguely on the money.
But by far the worst disadvantage: I am not allowed to make a mistake. Ever. Dare I send a text or email to a friend abbreviating ‘you’re’ to ‘your’ because I’m in a hurry? No, I dare not, lest they think I don’t know the first thing about the English language. If I’m proofreading, I cannot miss a single forgotten full stop or misplaced apostrophe, even if my eyes are bloodshot from staying up way past midnight ploughing through a box set of The Killing.
No, there is no mercy for the sub who makes a mistake (despite eradicating hundreds). So I raise my glass to subs and copywriters everywhere: “Pats you’reselfs on the bak, u lot. U is all doin a gr8 job:-)’