A few starter posts for new visitors

I’m on a list! Hello to anyone who has arrived here via Journalism.co.uk’s 36 blogs by journalists, for journalists, which was published today (and updated in the future in January 2022).

If you’re struggling for work and interested in making the digital transition from being a print sub, then you’ll find a fair few posts here on that. It’s the reason I started this blog. In fact, I still think blogging is one of the easiest and cheapest (free!) ways to self-train in digital publishing. Just set up a basic blog on WordPress.com (or platform of your choice) and Google anything you get stuck on.

Having made the transition, I don’t keep this site updated. My main site is now at fionacullinan.com, which has evolved into a hub for work and other projects. (Future update: in 2022 I’ve transitioned again. Still working as a digital content editor but also working as a walking artist. Who knew?).

Meanwhile, here are five of the most popular reads from Subs’ Standards, which tell a story of digital transition that will probably become more of a historical document in time. Enjoy!

Thanks for stopping by.

Two excellent reads on the changing nature of sub-editing

Both of these were spotted by Richard Cosgrove on the Subs UK forum:

Copy editing: It’s taught me a lot, but it has to change
Over in the US, Steve Buttry has some advice for copy editors seeking to contribute to Digital First newsrooms and some copy editing tips for all journalists.

The corrections column co-editor on… the changing role of the subeditor

On the Guardian site, Barbara Harper writes about the news skills subs need to learn and their competition from new applicants who are technically adept but without the sub-editing training. She says:

A subeditor preparing an article for our website will, among other things, be expected to write headlines that are optimised for search engines so the article can be easily seen online, add keywords to make sure it appears in the right places on the website, create packages to direct readers to related articles, embed links, attach pictures, add videos and think about how the article will look when it is accessed on mobile phones and other digital platforms.

After running the digital skills workshop for subs (slides are here) last weekend, I feel happy that I have directed them with up-to-date guidelines for online sub-editing. I don’t work on newspaper online sites so I did wonder if they face different or more discrete tasks. But it seems we are all in this together and that a standard role may be forming. For now, at least.

Does anyone else find it ironic that subs can’t agree a style on their job title by the way? Sub-editor or subeditor? And let’s not even get started with why proofreading doesn’t get a hyphen…

Online editing and digital skills for print subs

Fiona Cullinan presenting to attendees

Photo by Pete Ashton / ash10.com

I did a workshop!
On Saturday I delivered my first-ever workshop to a group of London-based freelance sub-editors. The framework was a practical walk-through of online editing using a content management system, with theory on SEO, tone, style, structure, length, linking, accessibility and user-friendliness. Some wider web editing skills were touched on – such as picture research and manipulation, video embeds and post-publishing work.

I’ve blogged about the workshop here: Helping print sub-editors go digital.

I’d also like to thank the Centre for Creative Collaboration for hosting us – it’s a great venue for project involving collaboration, creativity, innovation and freelance creatives.

Want to join in?
There may be a second run of the beginners workshop – although it may be a longer or two-part workshop to fit everything in. We’re also looking at putting together a follow-up session on work and how to get it. And perhaps something on the more techy side of things and the wider internet culture, as this is what Pete Ashton is the bee’s knees at teaching. So if any subs out there are interested in any of these options, please get in touch – I’m at fionacullinan@hotmail.com

Online sub-editing slideshow
Meanwhile, here are my slides from Saturday’s workshop. They’re pretty much notes without the talk-through or the practical CMS/workshop stuff – but you get the idea:

When jargon, slang and waffle is OK to leave in

This TES article on writing vs sub-editing came to me via the Twitters this week: a rather nice piece written in 1996 by Lynne Truss, called No jokes please, we edit. Anyone who’s crossed the writer-sub rubicon will find truth on both sides. For example:

The writers pained at being subbed:

Sub-editors change words, move jokes, cut sentences in the middle. And the irony is, they assume they are making improvements. I know this, because I was a sub-editor for 13 years and blithely rewrote some of the biggest brains in England. Now I am in the enemy camp, I feel quite sick at the recollection of former crimes.

But then how many more times do subs perform miracles on rambling, double-the-word-count, late-filed copy?

Writing journalism, the trouble is that nobody will tell you how it’s done; they simply rewrite you to fit the bill. When I handed in my first ever piece for publication, I expected a mark, lots of pointers in red ink, and a day’s grace to revise. Instead it was accepted, cut to fit, and printed.

Looking back, the classically trained sub can be a rigorous and rigid beast – they follow a set of rules taught on NTCJ or PTC courses, so it’s no wonder writers don’t understand all the edits. But there is usually a reason.  As a former chief sub of mine once said: “I can justify every single one of my changes – I just don’t have the time.”

But then the newspaper form is a rigid space, with a stylebook handed down through the ages. Online is more freeform. It requires very little copy-fitting and a whole lot more awareness of the writer’s ‘voice’. (Something which Lynne Truss says she was always trying to get past the subs, like a weed ‘pushing through a crack in the pavement’.)

This is throwing up some new challenges for the copy editor. For example, as I was planning a workshop for print subs on digital skills this week, I found myself updating some of those classic rules of sub-editing to reflect the less strict and changing publishing environment.

That’s partly because we now live in a very different world from 1996 when at least reporters understood that their copy would be hacked to fit or styled for the publication over the voice of the writer. Non-journalists hold very different expectations and, shock horror, are arguing back. Not so much about grammar and spelling but voice, tone and content. Bylined subject matter experts want personal sign-off on anything they put their name to on the web.

And perhaps that is fair enough. Especially on a blog, where a byline is synonymous with personal writing and voice (even a waffly one).

Publishing may be getting easier but sub-editing isn’t the straightforward profession it once was. When I tell a print sub not to bother about smart quotes or widows, for example, you can see their shock.

Or when I depart from the set style of titles in full first time followed by the acronym, to sprinkle variations throughout the copy, I’m sub-editing for Google.

Even worse, I’ve realised that there is a place for jargon or slang in order to edit the copy for SEO for a target audience that uses those words as search terms.

Next week, I’ll be trying to explain these new world anomalies and rationales to a group of print subs who are making the transition into online editing. Expect to hear the sound of foundations shaking.

(I hope this makes sense, it’s late, I’m tired, and really I just wanted to get Lynne Truss’s article out there but like a midnight rambler without a sub, I carried on, and on, and…)

Guardian’s “needs legalling” typo highlights trend for ‘verbing’ nouns

The dangers of typing a sub’s query into a text doc these days is that it doesn’t go through endless proofreads before a web ed presses publish, as this Guardian interview with Lynne Featherstone today shows. [Thanks to Andrew Stuart for the spot on Twitter.]

AnnyrSpCMAAq9V5.jpg (JPEG Image, 600 × 800 pixels) - Scaled (78%)

Does any sub out there know of a workaround for this, apart from a thorough final read on the preview? Isn’t there some kind of app that can prevent you from publishing BEFORE queries are dealt with? (Developers, note: there should be!)

I checked just now and the typo has been removed from the browser – who reads the Guardian in the browser these days? – but it’s still there on my phone app, which downloaded at 3am.

The lesson here is that, once live, there is no recall in digital.

The article is instantly sent out to RSS feeds and soon downloaded via apps to iPads and mobile phones, cached by Google, etc. Copies are made – and the error is OUT THERE. Deleting the offender at source won’t cover you – the source has shifted, the nature of digital is to make copies.

Which is fine, you just need to understand the lay of the land.

But what did irk slightly was that the sub has turned a noun into a verb; legal into ‘legalling’. (In my print days, you’d ring the offending par on a printout and mark ‘legal?’ or ‘ch: legal’ next to it, then ring the lawyer.)

Why the sudden ‘verbing?’

The verb-to-noun trend was also a hot topic in my Twitterstream this week – or, to hammer home the point, it was ‘trending’. Here’s a flavour:

The tweets also linked to a couple of nice reads, which show the trend is partly down to the rise of new tech and the need to create words for all the new stuff:



The Verb: Why do we sound so dumb when we talk about communication? Maybe because our verbs aren’t really verbs.

I’m sure I do it, ahem, verbally, and as a joke, but not in the day job. What’s your take on this? Is ‘legalling’ just in-house jargon? Is ‘verbing’ part of the flux of a living language or just plain wrong?

Let me know. Until then, I’m off to de-border my flowerbed and then maybe do some Facebooking.

Rates for the job – will they drop even further?

Update: in writing this post I’ve come up with the idea of a subs’ workshop in digital skills – if you’re familiar with the rates argument, skip to the end of the post to find out more and let me know what you think of this potential skill-sharing idea.

Today on a London freelance subs group/forum I belong to, a row broke out about sub-editor day rates. A well-known music magazine posted a temporary contract, offering a rate of £110 a day. This was followed by general admonishment as the standard day rate is around £130 (and has been unhappily stuck at this level for about a decade).

Unusually, no one spoke up in favour of the contract/rate – normally there is at least one person arguing the defence.

The outraged subs, quite rightly, made sure not to blame the poster but wanted him to communicate that the rate was unacceptably low and suggested that their response be passed up the line to the budget-holders. They also called out for other subs in the group not to accept the rate.

But it is a slim hope.

There is no longer a strong union in journalism and there is no real solidarity over freelance rates.

The bottom line is that some out-of-work freelancer probably snapped up the low-paid contract soon after posting. After all, some work is better than none at all. Food on the table over morals, and all that.

The standard response to these low-rate employment deals is: ‘If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.’ Which is probably true although it’s cold comfort in a self-employed world.

Perhaps media companies are cynically testing the water with lower rates – after all, they are not in business to play fair. Or perhaps they are dealing their own budget pressures – a classic print music magazine is surely facing both falling circulation and shrinking ad revenues.

I’m not trying to sort out the rights and wrongs of today’s rates storm. I’m just wondering where it is all leading. I find myself asking:

Do the rules of supply and demand apply anymore in a world which is undergoing a publishing revolution and a “mass-amateurisation of everything” (Shirky). And is it ultimately inevitable that there is a downward price pressure on print subs’ day rates?

Like rising and falling share prices, there seems to be an upper and lower resistance level to subbing day rates. Today the lower level was breached at £110. But like falling shares in a financial crisis, I worry that this resistance may give way to further falls. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

I don’t know the answers.

Two of the reasons I moved into web editing from sub-editing were the slump in demand for freelance print subs circa 2008 and a rise in the number of awkward situations where I was competing with my long-time subbing friends for work.

I’m happy that traditional market forces are in play for digital content work. There are currently not enough skilled people to service the new world in which everyone is a publisher. (More on that in a post I edited for a content recruiter’s blog on content growth areas and talent shortages: Europe in crisis but digital jobs remain a bright spot.)

All I know is that, when I started freelance subbing in 1989, the rate on my local paper was £65 a day. This jumped up to £110 for consumer mags in 1992, and then plateaued for many years, before rising to £130 around 2000. It’s been stuck there as a base rate ever since.

And this is a freelance rate – with no employee benefits or holiday pay (unless you’re booked on a long contract).

It’s no wonder experienced subs are leaving the profession or are desperate to re-skill and find work in the digital arena.

To this end, I’ve been thinking that there is a workshop in this that I could run to help other freelance subs make the transition. I’ve been working in digital since 2000 and went full-time in 2009. To keep up with the skills, I now train myself each week (using cake – but that’s another story).

I’m also thinking long-term how great would it be to recreate the freelance subs’ community with a connected team of skilled, reliable and readily available freelance digital editors.

If we can find a venue in London (available on a weekend as I live outside of London), and can get a group of up to five subs together, would anyone be interested in attending a low-cost half-day digital skills workshop?

What would you like to know? What are your questions? [Please email me at fionacullinan at hotmail dot com with your details so I can start a list of interested people and find out what they want to learn about.]

It would be great to hear your thoughts.

Going freelance: an editor’s guide to working for yourself

While this blog is predominantly for and about sub-editors in journalism, my second guest blogger is interesting because she applies her writing and editing skills in a much broader range of markets. Liz Broomfield set up LibroEditing, a proof-reading, editing and writing business in 2009. Here she passes on some hard-earned advice on going freelance to anyone thinking of taking the plunge.

Liz Broomfield.jpgTwo years ago, I decided to set up my own business offering (initially) proofreading and editing services based in the UK. While I’m not an expert on the business side, I have been through those beginning stages, the launch phase and how it works once you’ve started. Here’s what I’ve learnt…

There are quite a few things to ask yourself before you launch a freelance career, for example:

• Do I have useful skills people are prepared to pay for? If you’re already an editor, then yes, you may well have. I had done a fair bit of editing and writing in various jobs, but it didn’t strike me how many different things I could offer until I was running the business. I could have offered more from the start.

• Is there a market for my particular skills, and can I access it? Do you have contacts or colleagues who can help you find freelance work? Think about specialist skills you might have; for example, I have experience working for the UK office of an American company, so I’m able to offer localisation services changing US into UK English and vice versa.

• Can I work from home in isolation? Are you a self-starter who can motivate yourself? If you need people around you, co-working spaces might be an option.

• Can the rest of my life take it? This is really important if you’re thinking of starting your own business while still working. I’ve done that, and there have been times when I’ve had so much of my own work that I’ve had to put off friends, tell my partner he can sit quietly in the corner of my study if he wants to spend time with me, and give up reading for pleasure. Can your social and family life take this?

Once you’ve decided to set up on your own, consider the following:

• Online presence. Buy a suitable domain name and set up a web page and email addresses using it. You’ll look more professional and it’s a place to market your work.

• Keeping records. Go on the HMRC course “Becoming self-employed” (or find information in your local library). This will tell you what records to keep so you can do your tax return.

• Register as self-employed. You have to register with HMRC within a certain period after you start working and being paid for it. Phone them up or look on the website – I have found their staff to be really nice and helpful.

• Certificate of Small Earnings Exception. This allows you to earn a certain amount before paying National Insurance and tax so it can be worth registering for this if your freelance income is likely to be minimal at first.

• Business cards. At first you can use somewhere inexpensive like Vistaprint but it’s important to have something to give out to potential clients.

If you’ve made it this far, here are my tips for staying on track.

• Prioritising your time is key. Make sure you have time for work, other people and yourself. If you work all hours, you’ll run yourself into the ground. And if you are likely to end up doing lots of little projects…

• Organise your work. I set up a Gantt chart on a spreadsheet – clients down, dates along; then colour in dates that projects are booked in for, when they arrive, when you’ve invoiced, when they’ve been paid.

• Efficient invoicing. Make sure you invoice clients right away after you’ve done the job. Or before, if you work that way round. There’s software you can buy, or you can just set up a Word template.

• Use good tools. Make sure you have up-to-date and legitimate versions of the software you need: Word, InDesign, etc. If you will be editing PDFs, there are free downloads of software that will let you annotate them. If you do transcriptions, again, you can find free software.

• Work for your clients, not yourself. My student customers need me to show edits using Word’s ‘track changes’ function, which enables them to make the decisions on what to change and also means I’m not writing their work for them. Not all clients want this; others just want me to rewrite and send it back to them. Offer them choices but be prepared to make recommendations, too.

• Be flexible and open. I started off as an editor and proofreader. Now I’m also a transcriber, copy typist, writer and localiser. More income streams equals more work.

• Network widely. Try to connect with your peers in the business and other freelancers who work from home, as well as businesspeople in your area. Twitter and Facebook are your friends for finding out what’s going on and networking gets you out of the house and meeting people.

• Know when to outsource. If a task is going to take longer in terms of hours and cost more in terms of work you have to turn down, outsource it. Could someone else transcribe your interview recordings or research, or do your bookkeeping each month, for example?

I hope you find this advice useful. It’s certainly helped me find my way into a happy and rewarding new career, and as someone who didn’t think she was a natural entrepreneur, going freelance has given me more confidence and a wider skill set.

Liz Broomfield runs LibroEditing, a proof-reading, editing and writing business based in Birmingham, UK. For more information see www.libroediting.com or email her at liz@libroediting.com – she also offers transcription and typing services.


Woman in sumo wrestler suit causes sub to wet their pants over lesbian-ex-lover-chocolate-jealousy-assault story and triggers global Twitter alert over mega-deck tabloid headline

Headline is the story

Thanks to Solo1Y for spotting this header.

Guardian pullquote in herey herey type

Dummy copy

Dummy copy left in The Guardian

I guess this is why they call it dummy copy. Hat-tip to Jack Kirby for this lovely miss by Guardian subs. Can anyone confirm which issue it was in?

Why live blogging and curation offer a renaissance for subs and their art

Last week I discovered Andy Bull on Twitter. Andy is a former national newspaper journalist who went on to become editorial director of AOL UK and editor of The Times Online. Now a multimedia trainer, he’s been trying out the recent rack of curation tools to tell a story (here he is on Scoop.It; here I am on Bundlr).

Further conversations led me to ask Andy to write Subs’ Standards’ first guest blog. It’s a great read and will hopefully inspire sub-editors who are in transition from print. If this is you, or you are digital subbing already, or you’d like to guest-post, please get in contact via comments or email me at fionacullinan at hotmail dot com.

Andy Bull

Andy Bull, multimedia journalist and trainer

There weren’t many pleasures working for the Daily Mail.

One was to see the splash sub at work on the night of a very big story: the sort that turned from 1 to 2, 3, 4 and 5.

To see the many ingredients being fed to him, and those items diced, sliced and fed into the sort of seamless read-through of a big and complex story that the Mail excels at, was a joy. Or what passed for joy in that torture chamber.

That skill came to mind when I was working on tuition on Curation and Live Blogging for my training book and website, Multimedia Journalism: A Practical Guide.

Curation is getting a lot of attention these days, as is live blogging. Guardian.co.uk’s live blogs won it 3.6 million new unique users last month [March 2011].

Yet while curation and live blogging are seen by some as new skills, and ones particularly suited to the new ways of reporting being developed for the web, it strikes me that they are infact very well-established skills indeed.

The sort of skills that any good sub has in spades.

Generally, the move to online news has not been kind to the art of sub-editing. It’s often considered an expendable link in the chain from reporter to (web) page. I don’t happen to agree with that, and I have the many typos on my website to support my view.

But I do think curation and live blogging offer great prospects for sub-editors. After all, what they involve is, rather than a lot of direct reporting, the selection, editing and mashing up of all sorts of inputs, from both professional and citizen journalists – or what I prefer to call eye-witnesses.

Any good sub can excel at these, and I believe subs should seize the opportunities offered by such developments in online media to underline their usefulness and carve out a redefined role for themselves.

To re-brand yourself from sub to curator and live blogger might even make management see you in a new light.

Footnote: Andy Bull offers an e-learning conversion course for print journalists, which gives practical experience in applying traditional skills to the new multimedia and mobile publishing platforms. You’ll find the details here.