Category Archives: Justify my sub

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…)

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.

HSE in typo-ridden, grammer-challenged style guide shocker!

In-house style guides are there to keep publications clear, consistent and accurate so shouldn’t they be proofread for spelling, grammar and punctuation themselves?

You’d think so, but it seems the Health Service Executive (HSE) in Ireland forgot to check its work (or it hired the worst proofreader in the world) when it published a Plain language style guide for documents.

You can see the pretty long list of the errors on the document in Stan Carey’s post: HSE – Who proofreads the proofreaders? There’s also a good discussion going on in the comments.

My experience is that this kind of work can easily fall between the cracks in a big organisation. It is often the comms people who create the copy and the illustrators who lay it out. Technical points or queries about sense will most likely be run past a subject matter expert.

But basic proofreading is often passed on to the person in the department considered to have a good grasp of English. This is like giving the company accounts to someone who likes numbers, or layout to someone who is good at drawing.

Big orgs seem unaware of (or unwilling to prioritise the budget for?) proofreaders. But proofreading is a skill. Not only does it keep spelling, grammar and style points on track but, through accuracy and better readability, it builds trust in the reader.

I’ve only worked for two public sector organisations and both had previously just done the proofing themselves. In some cases, they didn’t do a bad job. But when they saw the level of red pen marks of a qualified proofreader, then they realised the difference between a quick read-though and a proper markup.

Still, the HSE errors are particularly surprising – even an automatic spellcheck should have picked up many of the issues that Stan highlights.

But, yanno, whatevah! I’m sure HSE is not the only outfit in the land with a dodgy style guide. I remember a superbly accurately Radio Times style guide that was completely unusable because it was the size of a doorstep.

Anyway, enough finger-pointing. Here is a LOLcat to rebalance the universe.

10 reasons Wanky Balls cockup may not be lazy journalism

Last Saturday (7.08.10) the Independent printed – oh horror oh horror! – an error. Rather a funny error, though. For anyone who hasn’t had wanky balls on their lips today (sorry, that one nicked from The Twitchhiker), the clip claims that The Big Chill was formerly known as the Wanky Balls festival. Evidence in the final par below from the original spotter.

Independent clip with the error on

Spotted and clipped by musician Kat Arney, who knows the organisers of The Big CHill

The misinformation was lifted from Wikipedia – which Kat also clipped and published on her blog post.

It’s a classic fact-check funny that has also garnered many a witty comment wherever it was blogged. Bitter Wallet‘s commentators, for example, started openly bragging about their Wiki fiddling:

I once changed Roy Keane’s middle name from Maurice to Sarah, and it remained thus for a fortnight. I also changed the bit about him “often seen walking his dog, Triggs” subtly to “wanking”.

For ages Emily Bronte’s Wikipedia page kept reverting to a version which claimed she was buried with her pet monkey, Dave.

Etc etc. Warning: Depart now if you just want to enjoy the funny and skip my imminent rant.

But there were also many calls of ‘lazy journalism’ as well as the usual journalist haters who tend to lurk in comment sections. And, to be honest, they sucked all the fun out of the Wanky Ballsup, causing me to be a ranting subbing funsucker in return.

Of course, they could well be RIGHT. Someone lifted it from the Wikipedia page after all.


As a sub-editor who was assigned to fact check every tiny detail for about 20 years, and who no longer does this for a living because of the advent of the lovely World Wide Web, I also call ‘lazy commenting’. I can think of plenty of excuses other than laziness for the appearance of Wanky Balls.

Such as…

Subbing cuts
Anyone who follows newsprint’s woes will know that editorial staff have been slashed and those who remain are often swamped with the extra workload. Entire subs teams have been let go in some cases and national newspaper subbing outsourced to other countries.

Subs brain drain
Freelance rates for sub-editors have been static or falling for a few years, work has been drying up and good subs have been moving on so that they can pay their mortgage. Budget cuts = ever-shrinking subs desk = fewer (not less!) factcheckers.

Web-first publishing
In web-first environments, reporters may have to sub their own copy whereas traditionally the sub-editing team would have checked the facts. Proofing your own copy? Cue potential Wanky Ball errors.

Human error
(sh)It happens.

Sub with a grudge
I remember a whole subbing team banding together after being sacked to code naughties into the captions.

Bored sub
As above but with a sense of humour.

Untrained sub
This is so going to sound like an old fart but back in the day you had to learn your subbing chops through an accredited apprenticeship or training course. I can’t tell you the amount of subs I’ve met who say they’ve just shimmied over into subbing from writing. Hello? Media law? Understanding of a decent source? Not out of the realms of possibility that the chief shouted over to the rookie to ask if it he checked it and the rookie said yes to save embarrassment.

Untrained writer
Same same but likely to nick willy-nilly wanky balls off the internet, especially from that nice, handy, informative Wikipedia site. Good subs should be trained to spot such plagiarism; see my next excuse.

Luddite sub
With a grey head long stuck in print, he/she possibly has no idea that Wikipedia is a first port of call not a fact-checking end destination. It came up first in Google…

Deadline call
It looked suspect but just wasn’t worth holding up the presses for. Or more likely, the end sub saw it and thought there’s no way this got to me without being checked – it’s so OTT it must be true.

Of course, has anyone considered that it might actually be true, that Wanky Balls was an affectionate working title named by the wags behind it ? After all, many a silly or rude band name has been tried on for size by musicians before they picked the final winner.

So just to be sure I asked Kat Arney what her source was, and could it possibly be true on some level?

She replied:

I personally know Pete Lawrence, the founder of the Big Chill, and many people who’ve been involved in the festival since the very beginning. So I can categorically tell you it’s incorrect.

So I checked. Happy now? Although perhaps we should phone the organisers to be 100% sure and get it direct from the horse’s mouth.

You’ll have to do it, though; there’s a huge spider that just legged it under my sofa (I’m serious), and imma gonna have to jump to safety.

Now BIG SPIDER – that is a proper excuse for Wanky Balls.


Blogger’s style guide: Five tips on tone

  1. Be yourself. Write in the first person and let your personality show through – TIP: this will happen naturally if you choose to write about something you are interested in or enthusiastic about, otherwise this will seem like homework (and who wants to read homework?).
  2. It can take time to find your voice, especially if you are not used to writing in this more conversational way, but reading other blogs will help and practice makes perfect. Having trouble? Try pretending you are emailing a knowledgeable friend or colleague. And read it out loud – it shouldn’t jar.
  3. Avoid jargon – you might think it sounds clever but jargon is a no-no for readers. By all means show your expertise and authority, but explanations in plain English will be welcomed by, and more engaging for, your readers.
  4. Invite conversation – fortunately, you don’t have to know it all! Ask questions, think out loud, be humble and say that you’d be interested to hear what others think about >whatever you are writing about<.
  5. Have fun – this is not an annual report! You can still be a corporate expert, but be a human one.

Don’t worry, it takes time – here’s me wrestling with online tone and etiquette two years ago.

[FYI: Last year I wrote a Blogger’s Style Guide to help people in the organisations I was working for start writing posts and publishing them on the company blog. Many had never written anything beyond an email before but they did know their subject far better than I, so they just needed a good briefing in style, tone, structure and so on. This is that starter kit for company bloggers, consisting of  10 mini-posts in all.]

Blogger’s style guide: What does SEO mean for writers?

Search engine optimisation is the quick answer. But what does that actually mean for you when you are writing your post?

Some people will come to read your post by looking around on the blog. But the majority of readers will come to it via search engines such as Google. They will have typed in relevant words, and if those ‘keywords’ match your words/subject, then your post is likely to appear in the search results. If you want your writing to be found, you have to think a little bit about SEO.

So here’s my fastest-ever, two-point guide to SEO:

  1. Make sure you write out IN FULL the names of people (ie, first and last name) and the titles of things/products rather than writing generically, eg, ‘the Sale of Goods Act says…’, rather than just ‘the law says…’. Ask yourself if there several relevant words or international translations? If so include them, eg, swine flu, H1N1, flu, pandemic; sub-editor (UK) and copy editor (US).
  2. Secondly, write useful and engaging posts that other people want to link to. Incoming links raise the SEO value of  your post, lifting it higher up the search results. You should do the same with your posts. Linking out to other online places creates a sense of your site being an information hub and this will also encourage inbound links. (More on linking in the next post.)

[FYI: Last year I wrote a Blogger’s Style Guide to help people in the organisations I was working for start writing posts and publishing them on the company blog. Many had never written anything beyond an email before but they did know their subject far better than I, so they just needed a good briefing in style, tone, structure and so on. This is that starter kit for company bloggers, consisting of  10 mini-posts in all.]

‘What will you miss when newspapers are gone?’

Will you miss me, Seth Godin? You don’t seem to mention copy editors, concentrating as you have in your post on the loss of  ‘local news, investigative journalism and intelligent coverage of national news’.

I am/was a sub-editor who is having to check less and less as life moves online and into endless opinion. My job has all but disappeared. The ‘invisible’ skill – to the readers anyway – of copy editing, checking and proofreading may be missed as reputations fall, libel and copyright court cases soar, stocks crash on the back of incorrect tagging and anal grammar pundits click away in annoyance.

While you’ve obviously done a spell-check on your column, I did have to laugh at:

I worry about the quality of a democracy when the the state government …

And I worry about the quality of ‘the the’ content, and where I will be able to find checked content. I’m not meaning to nitpick. It’s a small example, nothing to bother about. But it’s the trustworthiness, I will miss; the knowing that what I’m reading has been via the lawyers, a copy editor and/or a chief sub-editor.

We can all live with a  few spelling/grammar stuff -ups. But it’s kind of like airlines and maintenance. If the seatbacks don’t work and the carpets are worn, then you don’t care but you do worry about the engine. The trust has gone. 

So I think the ‘invisible’ sub-editor may finally become visible when newspapers are gone – and, even with the tabloid spin, it’s them who I’ll miss. And in case you think I’m feeling sorry for myself, I don’t think that’s it. My job’s already moved on. The sub-editing element has sunk to less than 20%. I’m just another opinionated media outlet now!

Storking the typo-makers

You can publish then edit all you like but, beware, the original may still be ‘out there’ – and there are people willing to spot it, tweet it, snap it, blog it and generally announce it to the world. Like this one from Tom Ackroyd who took a snapshot of a 3News headline typo tonight (since corrected) and uploaded it to Twitpic before tweeting me:

Too heavy for the stalk: newborn weighs in at 6.4kg

Beauty. It makes me think fondly of all those job adverts for sub-editors asking for the ‘ability to spot a literal at 50 paces’.

Even funnier is that the original 50-pace typo spotter uknzguy has pointed out that the error has been immortalised in the URL.

Note to self:  check my permalinks! Thank Buddha, there’s an edit function in WordPress for just this kind of cock-up.

So you think you’re a good sub?

Would you have checked the Sarah ‘Africa is a country’ Palin story? Turns out this top tale is a hoax anecdote by a fake advisor to McCain, name of Martin Eisenstadt – allegedly checkable with a bit of surfing around the online joint. The wind-up perps, real names Eitan Gorlin and Dan Mirvish, blame sloppy work by traditional news media and by bloggers:

“With the 24-hour news cycle they rush into anything they can find,” said Mr. Mirvish.

Maybe just mention this story if any web types tell you that checks and edits are a ‘nice to have’.

It actually got me feeling sorry for the hockey mom. More on the story at the NY Times

PS I can see a potential future of disclaimers – ‘Status for this story: unverified’. For copy editors, perhaps the line is: if the story sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

PPS Status of this post: unverified and slung up as soon as I heard the news from BhamPostJoanna on Twitter. Cheers Jo G 😉

Google wants more copy editors – not less!

Why? Because its Googlebots aren’t able to do the job of traditional editors and are, in fact, at the mercy of misinformation published direct to Web by news companies in the rush to inform.

Incorrect tagging and unchecked facts have led to major problems, as reported on the editorsweblog following the World Editors Forum.

Despite the ongoing deletion of subs/copy editors from newsrooms, it turns out that Google’s reps at the WEF reckon editors and fact-checking are more important than ever.

It’s a thought backed up by Pete Clifton, senior BBC News exec, who supports journalist gate-keepers (aka editors?) for processing its UGC:

It’s gone through all the filters that our journalism would have gone through. It’s quite labour intensive. We’ve another arm of our newsgathering operation – it can ultimately add to the richness of what we do, but we shouldn’t take it lightly.

Because taking it lightly would compromise the brand’s trustworthiness as well as making it potentially legal liable.

Can’t help thinking that although subs are seen as an editable expense at the moment, those who find money in the budget for them will win in the long run, because, y’know, you like to know where to go to get the facts. Or am I deluding myself?