Tag Archives: online copy editing

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…

RIP Sub-editing: Does email have a hyphen and does anyone care? – pt 3

Well, the end is nigh – both for this RIP Sub-editing series and for my sub-editing career. It is fond farewell time. In this final post, the technology changes again but this time it is taking no prisoners and I ask myself, ‘Do I miss my old job?’ For those on a catch-up, here is RIP subbing part one and RIP subbing part two.

It’s just a series of tubes
In 1995 I went into something called an internet café. It was on Cleveland St in London, and there were computers set up all around the windows. I ‘dialled up’ the internet though I had no idea what that actually meant. Little did I know then that the internet is just a series of tubes! 😉

Google didn’t exist but Hotmail did. Hello email!

Apart from being able to email chief subs with a CV, the nature of subbing changed little in the 1990s. The World Wide Web was over there, work was over here. But it was coming. And in the summer of 2000, my own work life went online.

The journalists are revolting
Personally I was quite keen to join the online revolution, thanks to Matthew Broderick (see why in part one). So I applied for online work.

After a brief spell as Commissioning Editor with Moonpig.com during the dot.com bubble, I realised my heart lay in producing editorial content not commercial greeting cards. (Though really I can’t understand why I’m not personally thanked in How They Started In Tough Times. I’m sure my two months there in May/June 2000 was crucial!)

My first online subbing job was at Freeserve women’s channel – then called icircle.com (now part of Orange). Only I was called a web producer not a sub. It was great. The Web was a modern-day leveller with web editors and producer seen as equally valuable. No more bitchy magazine or newspaper hierarchy.

The software was clunky, though. CHAS, Spectrum and other weirdly named content management systems became the bane of my work life. Work was all about ‘wanking the computer’ rather than mad editing skillz. The database set-up meant endless copying and pasting into little boxes – aka shelf-stacking. It really was dull, dull work.

But the ‘Publish’ button at the bottom was nothing less than astounding – no printing presses or repro houses, just one click and there it was up on site. Unfortunately, working a CMS was not only a bore but a health risk – and my RSI returned.

For fluff’s sake: the rise of client publishing
So I went back to less-frenetic, more refined print in 2002 (while also having fun with Facebook’s predecessors of Friendster and MySpace in my spare time). Print software was faster and more intuitive, and the work was more creative than web-style plain titles, metatag lists and easy-scan copy structure.

Even then, it was 100% employment as a freelance sub. But the best paid work started coming from client publishers through an explosion in contract publishing. Their rates beat even the biggest consumer glossies, so work changed again. Subbing now had to factor in client changes, and arguments arose over their bad grammar and vague, fluffy marketing blurbs.

In 2003/4, InDesign arrived on magazines, kicking QuarkXpress (mostly) into the software dustbin of history.

I got a website – and you don’t have one!
In 2005, web software was also getting smarter. So I got a website, created in DreamWeaver by a friend who was a graphic designer.

It seemed so slick, featuring a world map that readers could click on and interact with to see examples of my travel writing. It seemed to get me more work, too. No more emailed CV to post or download, I just sent a link and introductory paragraph to the chief sub over email. Why trawl through pages of a stiff CV when you can quickly scan a friendly online resumé?

Little did I know that static personal websites were going to be passé within just two years.

Ditch the website, get a blog!
It was around this time that I started getting more writing work. Subbing still made up the bulk of the work but no longer the whole of it. Over time, more creative was needed by the clients, which meant more writing. The subbing-writing balance shifted with the client’s needs.

Meanwhile, Web 2.0 was getting into full swing. In 2007 I wrote three personal blogs – all one-offs and with small, definite audiences in mind. But digital was hotting up as free blog platforms like Blogspot and WordPress broke down the tech barriers to set-up.

Pardon my personal digital explosion
And so, in the downtime of the magazine subs desk, I started blogging. The two blogs I started in 2008 were free WordPress templates, designed to reach a wider audience: there was this one for sub-editors and a travel dress codes blog at What To Wear Where.

I also started several Nings (themed social networks), just y’know because it was there and it was easy, and was asked to kick off  a wiki online style guide for sub-editors via a tweet from the head of Journalism.co.uk on Twitter.

I joined everything from Google Reader to Delicious bookmarks to Guardian Soulmates. I became a DJ on my own Blip.fm radio station. I uploaded photos to Flickr and went on real-life Flickr meets, blending the virtual world into the real one. I live-tweeted a Birmingham council event on Twitter – I couldn’t believe I was being paid to update the news in real time.

You mean you’ll pay me to Tweet?
All this online activity was leading somewhere. I’d work in print by day then go home and play online all night. So it was a relief when, in January 2009, I became a full-time web editor and could do the fun stuff from 9-5, rather than the other way round. I landed the job in that most modern Web 2.0 way: via a friend in a pub messaging a photo and a testimonial on his new iPhone to the head of digital’s iPhone at Seven Squared.

[Aside: I rarely get work the traditional way anymore, ie, through chief sub contacts and subbing colleagues. Mostly they come from Twitter connections and social networking or by meeting up at social media events.]

The big question: Do I miss subbing?
To be honest, although I love copy editing work, I love online content more. So I have to say no, I don’t really miss it. I do miss the subs desk and the people on it.

But sub-editing itself feels kind of one-dimensional now. A singular task of production whereas ‘whatever my new job title is’ involves creating content including text, audio, visual, writing, editing, social media marketing, SEO, brainstorming new ideas and experimenting with new tools.

In some ways I wanted to write down and pay homage to my many years as a non-techie print sub because they are now pretty much over and I feel nostalgia for them. In 2010 my subbing days feel a very long way away.

How easy is it to transfer skills to online?
Well, it’s an ongoing process, a learning curve and quite a career swerve. After years of knowing exactly what I’m doing, it’s kind of freeing to go back to basics, and be able to play and make mistakes and learn new stuff again.

It also feels good to be in a medium that is expanding rather than in print media, which is contracting. There is a positive vibe that is no longer there for me in print and the future seems more certain here as budgets move online. It is also busier than ever. And once again something of an RSI risk.

Tech is changing so fast, how to keep up?
Well, right now, I’m on a train pulling into New Orleans [note: or I was when I was writing this], on a railroad trip to SXSW Interactive festival – the world’s premier web conference – in Austin, Texas.

In the next week, I’ll undergo a five-day download of information and expertise from the world’s leading digital thinkers and practitioners. Next stop for me in keeping up my skills is moving towards content strategy as well as content creation. Curation also interests me. And video work. And possibly passing on this knowledge to others.

But enough already. At 2,500-plus words here, I’m sure no one’s even got this far so it’s time for me either to wind up or ask a sub-editor to cut the crap out of this behemoth. If anyone has any questions about how to make the jump to online, or anything about subbing itself, then feel free to get in contact.

Future posts will undoubtedly be shorter, less rambling, less punny, more SEO-friendly… in other words, normal online service will resume shortly.

R.I.P Sub-editing 1987-2008

RIP Sub-editing: the rise of technology – pt 2

Continuing on from yesterday’s intro on a farewell to my former life in sub-editing, here’s a bit about who sub-editors are, what they do (did?) and how they do (did) them… with a particular look at the changing tools of the trade. But first a picture of my old kit, dredged out of the attic for your viewing pleasure.

typewriter typescale wheel proofmarks

A colon of sub-editors (or should that be a semi-colon?)
Most people don’t seem to know the copy editing role even exists beyond perhaps a cursory proofread. ‘What! You mean the press actually checks things?’ But I kid you not. Checking, revising, headling, captioning, styling and generally sorting out copy was my full-time job for around 20 years.

I’m assuming most of the people reading this blog are subs. But just in case, for those who don’t know what sub-editing or copy editing is, it essentially involves all those tasks that take place between the writer’s raw copy and the final publishing.

Most are corrections, amends or refinements of copy, some tasks involve fact-checking or legal queries. With online work there is the addition of SEO, metadata, hyperlinking, categorising, tagging and chunking copy.

Sub-editing is also called subbing in the UK and copy-editing in the US. Which makes for annoying SEO – in this blog anyway.

proofing marks

British Standard proofing marks - proofreading is sort of like sub-editing on galleys or page proofs. © Periodical Training Council training material

Dirigible submarines
For online work, I’m using the term ‘digi sub’, probably also because it crosses dirigible and submarine in my head. But mainly because it’s a faster, easier way to indicate a sub-editor with digital skills.

The trouble is, the universal language of job titles hasn’t caught up with technology. Maybe the job role doesn’t even exist anyway.

Traditional sub-editing (and proofreading, see pic left), for me anyway, has all but disappeared, shrunk into a task within a wider set of tasks, disappearing under the weight of new roles, new technologies and job titles like web editor, producer, content person, content strategist, email editor, SEO writer, etc.

It’s no wonder I have trouble answering the ‘what do you do’ question these days.

This next section makes me feel old
Since I started subbing in 1987, technology has advanced rapidly. I’ve gone from subbing on paper through the revolution of desk-top publishing and onto the Web. Feel free to skip the nostalgia trip… but the following were once the tools of my trade.

In 1986 I remember running around the many floors of the Elephant and Castle skyscraper that housed the London College of Printing (now Communication), trying to find a hugely heavy and ancient Imperial Corona 55 typewriter to produce an article to deadline on.

Val Clark, the fearsome feature-writing tutor, was a scary hack, famous for her slicked-back power ponytail and crimson lips. She wanted 200 words in 20 minutes – and she didn’t give a fig about providing you with the ‘technology’ to produce them. No excuses. No obstacles. If you failed, you missed the deadline and therefore were no journalist. Her best lesson was tenacity!

We learnt shorthand at 100 words a minute using a pen and reporter’s notebook.

I had a rubbish mini tape recorder that sped up progressively until my interviewees sounded like they were Pinky & Perky. I also had a Silver Reed typewriter (which I still have – see pic!) – my pride and joy – that cost £79.99 from WH Smith in 1987, and a wodge of carbon copy paper.

page scheme

Scheme of a layout from my Periodical Journalism training notes © Periodical Training Council.

Sub-editing and proofreading were carried out using red pen and printer’s proofing marks – brief hieroglyphic instructions that the printers used to amend copy. A typescale and photo wheel (aka ‘Reproduction computer’ – which always tickled me as it was essentially two bits of plastic stuck together) completed the kit if you were doing layout too, which I was. All of these can be seen along with my trusty (dusty) typewriter in the picture at the top of the post.

Oh look! A page! On the screen!
Around 1988, computers were creeping into the magazine and newspaper production process. You produced your own galleys of body copy. How exciting! Seeing actual print pasted onto the layout (the design was still done by pencil and typescale ruler).

PageMaker and QuarkXpress page layout software arrived around 1990 and, with them, design by mouse. No more casting off characters or guess work for the sub; a headline was now WYSIWYG and a little red X icon signalled overmatter to cut

As time and software moved on, those with Quark skills got the work, while PageMaker subs began to languish. I learnt the lesson – you had to keep up with technology.

Desktop publishing = copy fiddling = repetitive strain injury
Discovering kerning and tracking was a satisfying moment. How neat we could now make the copy look – without squeezing a line beyond ‘-3’, of course (whatever that meant).

All the tweaking and endless opportunities for correction, as well as the lack of knowledge about ergonomics and how to sit and compute for 8 hours, gave me the modern version of Scrivener’s Palsy: RSI, repetitive strain injury. I was 22 and unable to work for a year.

Still, it was a boom time for subs. Throughout the 90s, there seemed to be new mag and newspaper launches every other month. The software was further refined and delineated: subs needed Word and Quark; designers Quark, PhotoShop and Illustrator.

Next (bear with me, it’s an epic but I promise LOLcats): The internet arrives and changes everything.

LOLcat

LOLcats changes evryfing. © Kitty de Medici/Flickr

RIP Sub-editing 1987-2008 – pt 1

Everyone has an indulgent, epic blog post in them and this is mine: a look back and a farewell to my 21 years of sub-editing.

I started this blog when the print industry was starting to really fall apart 18 months ago. I wanted to put down some of the funny things that happen on the subs desk, some of the issues that we had to deal with.

Instead it quickly turned into a personal transit lounge for crossing over to digital work. How did this happen? This is that story…

matthew broderick

Image: © @tnarik/Flickr

Thankyou Matthew Broderick!

My love of computers can be traced back to a teenage crush on Matthew Broderick who nerded his way though both Thermo-Nuclear War in War Games and bunking off school in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

This led me into the school computer room in the 80s, internet cafés in the 90s, a job with Freeserve in 2000, Friendster in 2002, blogging in 2008, and web editing in 2009.

In between all of this, the one constant was my work as a sub-editor. Demand was high and more often than not I was booked for weeks or months ahead of time. They were golden days for The Freelance Sub.

Even through the recession of the early 90s, there was work – albeit in the unhealthy, correction-heavy world of TV listings.

You’ll always need correct spelling (maybe)
But things got seriously shaky during the recession of 2008/9 as the increasing impact of the internet on advertising revenues finally seemed to wake newspapers up to their crumbling revenue model. Entire sub-editing departments were sacked, outsourced or cut back (Telegraph, City AM to name but two) as print budgets dried up.

Meanwhile, the diligent fact-checking sub-editor was also facing a new Web-first world where correct spelling, fact-checking, pun headlines and copy-fitting were becoming increasingly redundant, post-moderated or deprioritised.

Still, I hung on to my safe, traditional sub-editing role for as long as I could. And in the downtime of the monthly magazine subs desk, I started a blog.

You would blog too if it happened to you
Little did I know that blogging was going to change everything.

For one thing, I started social networking with people beyond my Myspace/Facebook pool of friends and family. For another, I met my lovely partner Pete Ashton who was teaching me to blog at his weekly blog surgeries held in a Birmingham coffee shop.

My relationship with Web 2.0 was also taking off. The progression went something like this: a LinkedIn profile, a Twitter account, a Flickr account and a Tumblr. Then came the ‘IRL’ meet ups with my new virtual friends and signing up for Web unconferences.

It was a whole ’nother world, one that you only had access to if you were engaged with it. Socially and with half an eye on the future, it made sense and felt right. Online felt expansive while print now felt reductive.

Twitter became my personal recommendation engine. It pushed interesting and new ideas at me through links and blog posts. It was thanks to Twitter that I decided to send myself to South by Southwest Interactive festival in Austin, Texas, held in March each year. Nothing else had changed their life / career / outlook as much as going to SXSW.

Digital skills: I can haz them?
As my print work dried up, I started to get small jobs from my engagement with an online network that was just a few weeks old. One memorable job came from discovering a Twitter contact was in my local Coop. We tweeted. We met in the wine aisle. He offered me work writing on a new website. As you do.

Digital skills combined with old-school editorial experience were in demand. I landed a contract with a digital agency and soon found myself working on blogs, wikis, ezines and SEO features. It was liking starting all over again.

Suddenly sub-editing was something I had to outsource to other subs because I was too busy doing something called ‘web editing’ or ‘social media copywriting’ or whatever the task of the day was. Only there weren’t any digital subs out there so suddenly I found myself having to teach the little that I knew to print subs.

For a while now I’ve been giddy with how much my work life has shifted in just two years. The last 12 months in particular have involved a complete reinvention of my career. Am I even a journalist anymore? Mostly I would say no, although I still use the skills of the trade. Sub-editing still happens, but the skills have had to be revised and expanded, and the amount of time to sub has been slashed. At least the online medium is, by its instant-publish nature, more forgiving of a typo.

Next… part two: sub-editing and the rise of technology

Pick of the links (12 Feb-22 Sept 2009)

      Journalist, train thyself! Online needs you… desperately!

      A few days ago I was asked by The Jobless Journalist about the merging of reporting and subbing in an online environment… and should s/he as a reporter (with some subbing experience) apply for sub-editing roles.

      Well, the digital skills gap has been a source of frustration for me for a few months now so I’m afraid the subject rather got me going… it’s very much from a client publishing perspective rather than a multimedia newsroom but here’s the transcript.

      And if you don’t want to read 1200 words on future-subbing, then the short version is nicely SEO’d into the header above.

      Do you see the divide between reporter and sub lessening with online journalism, ie a reporter needs to be able to sub as content is uploaded directly online?

      Firstly, good on you for blogging about this. Not only are you engaging a load of other journalists who are probably pretty damn worried about their trade and their future, but you are opening up many more potential job opportunities for yourself by engaging in the culture of online and learning the skills of digital publishing.

      Oh and unless someone’s radically altering your post and headlines, you’re already both reporting and subbing, yes?

      Right now, you’re working out for yourself what works in this environment copywise, headlinewise, structurewise. In blogging at least, reporting and subbing tend to be integrated (along with photography, IT skills and social media basics).

      Which kind of answers your question on the divide between reporter and sub in online environments. Divide? What divide?

      The divide is less about reporting versus subbing, imho, and more about are you engaged or not, are you digitally included or not.

      By not engaging more in online environments, traditional journalists are not developing their digital writing or subbing skills, let alone all the other skills that go with publishing to the Web, like:

      • picture research under Creative Commons licences
      • image manipulation
      • linking skills
      • SEO knowledge
      • how to upload and promote content
      • and the big one: the ability to deal with readers talking back to you.

      It is an ongoing frustration in my line of work – currently web editor/corporate blogger – that people say they want to work online but don’t have a blog, Twitter account, Tumblr or Posterous, and don’t use feeds, social bookmarking, alerts and other tools to help them be a journalist online.

      It’s like trying to write a news story but only occasionally reading a newspaper. Just having a Facebook page isn’t enough, because your readers online will know more than you – and they’ll let you know it.

      I came across a great quote to illustrate this in the Top 10 Lies Newspaper Execs are Telling Themselves:

      Until you have a blog, a Twitter feed and a Facebook account and until you are reading most of your news online and commenting on what you read, until you are all over Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, iGoogle, Netvibes and the like, until you can actually explain to me how online CPM-based advertising works, until you can explain how SEO and SEM work, until you know what “pwnd” means, until you know the significance of the 3 Wolf Moon or 3 Cat Keyboard t-shirt, you don’t know what you don’t know.

      You are competing with the very people who created the Internet.  Increasingly, you are competing with the generation who grew up online.   How can you possibly be so arrogant that you think you can compete in that world without becoming a part of it?

      I’ve been actively looking to hire digital subs and SEO-trained writers in the last six months – but I’ve struggled to find people who are really digitally engaged. I sometimes wonder if it’s because journalists tend to rely on mammoth publishing organisations for training. They are not used to going out there and training themselves. (This is where freelances have an advantage – we are used to self-development because it’s a generous publisher who will pay for our training.)

      This presents great opportunities for reporters and subs who are looking for online work because in online publishing there is no set path in… at least for the moment while universities get to grips with how to train up the journalists of the future and those who are traditional print journalists move from shock at their industry collapsing either to engaging with the new medium or perhaps, resentfully, having it foisted upon them on top of their usual work.

      No one can prescribe you a way into a job in online journalism. No one is asking you to train as a reporter first and perhaps later, when you’ve learnt how to write in a certain style, then train as a sub. There is no discrete set of jobs in online publishing – unless you count the way the digital dept I work for is divided: web editor, developer, designer with a side order of subs who process print stuff easily but need to [find the time to] engage [in online culture] in order to ‘get’ online.

      From what I’ve read (mostly on teh Online Journalism Blog – and, subs, you can stet that ‘teh’ – it’s an online thang), reporters in multimedia newsrooms are being asked to sub their own work; meanwhile subs are being made redundant. How reporters are supposed to sub to old-school standards, perhaps with minimal experience or training, and 24-hour newsroom deadline pressures, should be interesting! Would love to be a fly on the wall of the 21st century newsroom. But just on a practical level, I know I find it hard to sub my own work, and I know I’m not alone in that.

      Then again, online environments are a different beast. It’s publish first, refine later. You may not be shot for a typo but you do need to know the pitfalls – particularly if you are working for a brand – and this is perfect sub-editor territory.

      Does this herald the death of the sub or will there always be the need for a second pair of eyes?

      Every bit of copy benefits from a second pair of eyes, imho. But the comments section can act as a rather more public second set of eyes, pointing out your typos and incorrect facts. In a way this is more transparent but it has its downsides.

      Personally, I’d love a sub to come along and clean up my typos, SEO my copy for me, add metadata to my content, suggest a better mobile-phone-surfer-headline, keep me out of court then social bookmark my content in relevant places and ways. In practice, this rarely happens – mainly due to the current digital skills gap.

      How does freelance subbing compare with a full-time subbing job. Which is easier to get into?
      You’re asking the wrong person here as a dedicated freelancer. Freelance subbing is the same for me as full-time subbing except you occasionally have to put up with the ‘just a freelance’ mentality of some employers, and you have to work the British summer as it’s peak time to cover holidays. The pay off is you can (potentially) take months off at a time to travel, write your novel, start a blog… 😉

      Easier to get into? Hard to say. The last year has been a difficult one for freelance subs definitely, although there seem to be a few green shoots of recovery around now. All I can say is, it takes balls and bluff to go straight into freelance subbing without having done a full-time stint somewhere first. And that budgets are moving online.

      In which case, the ‘jobless journalist’, who’s done a year’s subbing already, and is now visibly blogging for all the world to see, is perfectly positioned for hire.

      Good luck with the job search. I suspect and hope you won’t just be blogging for long.

      LATE ADD: I left my job last week to go freelance as a blogger and do more social media and content strategy ‘stuff’.  Sooo…. my agency is looking for web editors – check out the job advert if you’re interested. And if you’re a freelance sub/writer with a blog, Twitter account and a general immersion in online, then it may be worth sticking in a CV or a link to your site, too.

      Pick of the links (18 Nov-22 Jan 2009)