Proofreaders and editors love examining the text on which they are working. This is also the case with subeditors. Here, Humphrey Evans, subeditor, former tutor on the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) ‘Getting started as a freelance’ course, and author of e-books such as Edit: 23 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors and Copyeditors, talks about how to find pleasure in subediting.
Deep into reading a newspaper article about a woman’s relationship with her grandmother, I came across this sentence: ‘Her diaries were a thing of lore, huge tombs that looked like the Magna Carta, filled with pages of inky writings.’ I liked that reference to ‘huge tombs’ rather than ‘tomes’. It’s a mistake, and a mistake I feel should have been picked up by whoever subedited the piece, but it’s a mistake with wings.
It does raise the idea of diaries as tombs – for all those happenings and hopes and wishes recorded day by day. It raises, too, the idea of ‘tome-stones’, rows of large and worthy books that might furnish a room in some sense but are unlikely to be taken down and read.
Subediting offers up these flashes that enliven the humdrum checking of this and correcting of that. I was listening to a late-night radio programme devoted to the topic of subediting once, one in a series about words and their place in the world, when they interviewed a woman who worked as a subeditor at The Sun. She told how she’d been asked to handle a squib about Scottish men spending more and more money on grooming products. She’d worked her way to the headline ‘Robert the Spruce’ and you could still hear the pleasure she’d found in coming up with that.
Pleasure in subediting seemed to me the attitude to take when I had the chance to write for the Chief Sub column in the Journalist, the magazine of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ).
The then editor, Tim Gopsill, had established the column to shine some light on one of those journalistic skills that could so often be overlooked. His main contributor was Wynford Hicks, author of English for Journalists, which, according to one of the reviews (the one I wrote) is ‘… a jolly useful book. It’s short. It’s accessible. It’s cheap. And it tells you what you want to know.’
I lobbed in an interest in some of the odder byways of subediting, such as the ins and outs (or possibly in’s and out’s) of apostrophes.
I realised that people did actually read the pieces when someone wrote in to say I’d made a mistake. I hadn’t fully understood the intricacies of whether or not London’s Earls Court has an apostrophe. It doesn’t, except for the fact that the station and some of the nearby roads appear to have acquired one. Tim asked me if I had a response, so I was able to see this printed right beside the letter that provoked it: ‘Your reader is right. I was wrong. I am sorry. I will never believe anything I read in the Journalist again.’
Maybe not. But believe these pieces which, in the main, come from the Journalist. You don’t necessarily have to follow all the advice – but you will, hopefully, find that you have learnt a bit about editing and subediting and been entertained along the way.
What do you enjoy most about editing?
Humphrey Evans has spent 40 years subediting and writing and proofreading and teaching subediting and writing and proofreading, quite often for the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) where, for a long time, he was one of the tutors on the much-praised ‘Getting started as a freelance’ course. ‘Look for pleasure in editing’ is the result. Humphrey has written books including: Edit: 23 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors and Copyeditors; More Edit: 20 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors and Copyeditors, which is based on his experiences as Chief Sub; and Subedit: 25 Instructories for Anyone who has to Sub.
Proofread by Thomas Hawking.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.