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Subeditors make the best writers

November 29, 2011

“Subeditors make the best writers,” a magazine editor I once worked with said. It was a casual remark, and it was clearly made in relation to our specific field: magazines. But it got me thinking about how, as a subeditor, I approach writing.

For me, a story unfolds from a solid understanding of language: words, sentences, paragraphs, and the cement that holds these bricks of language together – grammar. Over the past 15 years, I have carefully considered many aspects of grammar, always curious about why things are done – or not done – in a certain way. It’s a passion. And I think it’s what inspired my editor to make the “subeditors make the best writers” comment. She appreciates the care that subeditors take when they write feature articles.

That isn’t to say we never make mistakes, or never need our own articles subedited – we certainly do. My experience as a writer and a subeditor suggests to me that each task requires a different focus. As a writer, I must focus on the story and, though I do take care with how I tell that story, my eye is on the bigger picture – how to structure and tell the story in a way that I feel invites the reader in and keeps them interested until the end. As a subeditor, however, my eye is on the detail, on the correctness of the facts, the grammar, the style.

Most experienced writers are aware of these two facets of the writing process, I’m sure. What I am curious about, however, is a comment I read on a blog post the other day, which essentially stated that story telling is a talent, but writing can be learned by any intelligent person.

I don’t doubt that story telling is a talent, if by talent we mean ‘natural ability’ (as defined in the Macquarie Dictionary), but isn’t writing a talent, too?

In my first blog post, I made the distinction “between being able to thoughtlessly scribble words on a page and being able to write something that other people want to read. And can read. And enjoy reading.”

And I do think the latter requires talent, along with passion, commitment, and the dedication to learn and practise the craft of writing.

Surely talent is not reserved solely for someone who can tell a good tale, but also for someone who knows how best to use language to tell that tale.

Would love to know your thoughts.

To factcheck or not to factcheck

November 22, 2011

I happened upon this article on Twitter recently, which got me thinking about the future of my profession. Is it long for the modern world?

At first I thought it was a great indicator that my role is safe, but then I realised I work in magazines, not newspapers, and the role of a magazine subeditor is different, in one vital way: we must factcheck.

Colleagues who started out as subeditors on newspapers are often surprised at the intensity of what is involved. Every website, address, phone number, statement and statistic must be verified. However, we usually don’t touch quotes, unless clearly wrong, and then we just leave them out.

Interestingly, I approached @guardianstyle on Twitter – which you must follow if you’re a language lover – great style advice delivered with humour – to find out whether the subs on that newspaper factchecked. “UK newspapers generally regard factchecking as a quaint US thing” was the response, which I feel is probably a similar attitude adopted in Australia. And that may be why it’s more common for newspapers to outsource the role to organisations such as Pagemasters.

So why is it different for magazines? I think there may be a couple of reasons.

1. Longer shelf life. The magazines I’ve worked on are usually monthly or bimonthly, which means, unlike the daily churn out of news – read today, forgotten tomorrow – readers have more time to think about the articles – and find fault with them. And for magazine subeditors, in the constant pursuit of written perfection – our Holy Grail – that can cut deep, though less so the older you get and the more you understand the role. Critical readers usually have no idea about what a subeditor’s job involves: the pressures of deadlines, editors and publishers.

The subeditor is also often the easiest person to blame when a reader complains. Recently, I overheard a managing editor say, “Oh, we’ll just tell them it was the sub’s fault”, when the art director pointed out a potential issue with a layout that readers could complain about. I think it was supposed to be a lighthearted joke. I laughed, but I can’t say that laugh didn’t have a bitter tinge.

2. Use of experts. Magazines often feature experts who, while proficient about certain subjects, can not write well. The relationship between a subeditor and a magazine’s expert ‘writers’ is therefore very important. The expert provides the information, which is well-informed and often unique, and the subeditor spruces it up so it reads well.

The other thing I should mention – as an afterthought and as something I’ve spoken about before – is press releases. PR spin is the way of the modern world, but while some writers may refer to press releases as gospel – how much easier is it to take quotes from a press release rather than seek original ones? – most subeditors approach anything written from a press releases as highly suspect. As one example of many in my 15-year career, a book publisher recently sent out a book with a press release that had the title written out incorrectly.

As a magazine subeditor, it pays to check everything. It’s a role I don’t think is going to die out in the near future.

What do you think? Is factchecking important or a waste of time? I’d love to know what people think in relation to writing fiction, as well.

Whom meets lowbrow

October 4, 2011

“Chris whom served you is a qualified stylist whom has a sixth sense for fashion, and Chris’s only problem is that he is too good at what he does, and as I am sure you are aware, people whom are talented …”

Yes, it is a quote from the GASP exchange that sent snickers and guffaws around the internet last week. In an attempt to win #1 snob of the year, the haughty manager used ‘whom’ when a simple ‘who’ would have been, well, correct.

Clearly, he wasn’t up on the latest grammar memo: it’s become quite acceptable to use ‘who’ in place of ‘whom’ these days—Twitter’s ‘Who To Follow’ is an example, but to use ‘whom’ in place of ‘who’ is, frankly, laughable.

I’d never heard of GASP before now, but based on the language used by its staff members, I certainly don’t imagine a high-class fashion house. Anything attached to Kim Kardashian suggests lowbrow to me, and to call someone a “fat bitch” is, frankly, the cheapest and most unimaginative school yard taunt there is.

Ben Pobjie* takes a page out of the GASP book on PR.

*Warning: bloody funny.

Do you know – or care about – the subjunctive?

September 26, 2011

To be honest, I only found out about the subjunctive a few years ago, which means there were many years before that when, as a subeditor, I was blissfully ignorant. But now that I know about the elegant subjunctive, I like to use it. Probably not so much in my spoken communication, or on Facebook, where I tend to adopt a more casual approach to language – the Blue Mountain bogan* lives within, still– but certainly in my professional life.

The subjunctive refers to mood, which appeals to my romantic sensibilities as it belongs to the world of imagination, wishes, what ifs … it’s indicative of the hypothetical, which can, at times, be more appealing than the present. The subjunctive is what dreams are made of. Something my four-year-old daughter delights in, often.

I wish I were a fairy, then I could fly.

If only I were able to fly, then I could play with my friend, the butterfly. 

The softer ‘were’ is much more pleasant to the ear than the clunky ‘was’.

If you, like me, appreciate its subtle beauty, its softness, and would like to use it at times, just remember that a sentence that starts with ‘if’ or ‘I wish’ is likely to be the subjunctive mood.

* Fuckin’ ay!

PS Blog posts shall return to a weekly timetable shortly, after I have completed my tax return for the year. Until then (end of October), I have dropped to fortnightly posts.

Direct address (or Commas III)

September 12, 2011

I received an excellent question from Kirsten yesterday, who wanted to know whether you should put a comma before someone’s name whenever you address them. Kirsten was referring specifically to point number 5 of my first post on commas, and wanted to know if it was wrong to write ‘thanks Sarah’ without the comma.

Essentially, the rule is to always use a comma when directly addressing someone.

Thanks, Kelly.

How are you, Bob?

Where are you going, David?

The rule helps us, as writers, to avoid ambiguity. Take the following sentences, for example. The comma is essential for clarity.

Should we wash up, Frank?

Should we wash up Frank?

Perhaps the rule makes more sense if we put the name first. In these examples, it’s clear a comma is needed, though you probably wouldn’t see sentences written as such—not very elegant. I do so only to highlight the direct address rule.

Kelly, thanks.

Bob, how are you?

David, where are you going?

It is easy to get confused about the direct address rule. I can see two reasons:

1) You’ll often see thanks not used with a comma before the name it’s addressed to, and it doesn’t seem to cause any great confusion. In informal contexts, why not? And now that you know the rule, you can use your better judgement for more formal situations.

2) I’ve noticed some people use ‘thanks’ when they sign off emails. And a comma may follow that ‘thanks’. For example:

Hi Kate,

Just wanted to make sure you’re still on for Friday night.

Thanks,

Sarah

In fact, that was part of the problem Kirsten had with ‘thanks, Sarah’. She thought it read as though she was Sarah, saying ‘thanks’, as indicated in the above example. Personally, I would’ve written the above email to read:

Hi Kate

Just wanted to make sure you’re still on for Friday night.

Thanks, Kate.

Sarah

Even that is awkward with ‘Kate’ repeated so close together. However, I’ve made another ‘mistake’ in the email that I wasn’t even aware of until today. Can you see what it is?

Wait for it.

Are you ready?

Okay, so who knew that there should have been a comma after ‘hi’? Grammar Girl explains why, here.

Standard or not, it’s still English

August 30, 2011

It’s been nearly seven months since I started my Lust For Language blog. I’ve shared a few tricks to help writers avoid common mistakes—which was why I started it in the first place—but over the months, I’ve realised that, ultimately, the person my blog has helped the most is, well, me.

As a subeditor and a writer, I’ve always been clear about how different the roles can be, and I know I’ve mentioned in past posts about how easy it is to see the mistakes in others’ work only to make the very same ones in your own. True, it’s rare for me to mix up ‘your’ and ‘you’re’ or ‘its’ and ‘it’s’, but I can if I’m rushed, and I make many other mistakes. Just recently, for example, I used the word ‘motto’ when I meant ‘moral’: and the ‘motto’ of the story is … oops! And I recently wrote ‘there’ when it should’ve been ‘they’re’, which is of course terribly embarrassing, since I’m trying to establish myself as an authority on language.

Oh, the humility!

I’ve come to a place now where I think that nothing is actually wrong in language. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to learn about language as a writer; it’s simply a recognition that everyone has the right to express themselves in any way they choose. Even those Facebook friends with atrocious grammar and spelling skills. Is it their fault they weren’t taught correct grammar at school? In Australia, it’s been years since grammar was taught formally—in public schools, at least.

Admittedly, it is frustrating as a subeditor to have to fix up the work of someone who’s been given the title of writer, but clearly hasn’t a clue nor the passion to write well. And I wonder how many people who tell me, “Oh, I want to write a book one day”, even know what that requires. Perhaps what they really mean to say is, “I have a story I’d like to share with the world one day”. Okay, I’m listening.

But as a writer, I feel it’s essential for me to keep my mind open to every person’s way of expression, as it opens me up to the different ways language can be used. For example, I love discovering how the younger generations use language. My seven-year-old son has a tendency to say “freak!” in the same way I would have said “yikes!” in the olden days.

Also, unless I’m paid to do so or someone asks me, I find pointing out other people’s grammar mistakes elitist and arrogant. And a waste of time. (Not that I haven’t done it. I have. Bad me!) It’s passion that drives someone to learn something and that’s what drove me to learn grammar. I wanted to understand how to use the building blocks of language. Many others couldn’t care less, and so they speak and write the way they do and then, before long, language has been re-moulded. Non-standard English—an informal, colloquial English—suddenly becomes standard—a more formal and neutral style. And the distinction between the two can be very blurry, as Sue Butler, publisher of the Macquarie Dictionary, points out.

You see, when you put too many rules and regulations on language, you suffocate it. It can’t breathe. Imagine if James Joyce had never experimented with language? We’d never have groups of highly educated, clever people trying to decipher Finnegans Wake. Then what would they do with their time?

Tenses

August 22, 2011

It was one of my lecturers back in my uni days who first inspired me to better understand grammar, after she told me my tenses were wrong. And last week’s blog post has inspired me to revisit my tenses yet again, specifically in relation to the irregular verb ‘to stand’. It is known as an irregular verb because it doesn’t follow the standard ‘-ed’ verb form. In other words, we say ‘stood’ not ‘standed’.

Present tense: I stand/she stands/we stand/they stand.
Present progressive: I am standing/she is standing/we are standing/they are standing.

Past tense: I stood/she stood/we stood/they stood.
Past progressive: I was standing/she was standing/we were standing/they were standing.

Present perfect: I have stood/she has stood/we have stood/they have stood.
Present perfect progressive: I have been standing/she has been standing/we have been standing/they have been standing.

Past perfect: I had stood/she had stood/we had stood/they had stood.
Past perfect progressive: I had been standing/she had been standing/we had been standing/they had been standing.

Future: I will stand/she will stand/we will stand/they will stand.
Future progressive: I will be standing/she will be standing/we will be standing/they will be standing.

A quick run through of the simple and progressive tenses (present, past, future) illustrates more clearly that ‘was stood’ is non-standard English usage, which has inspired me to write an upcoming blog post that explores the subject of non-standard usage in more detail. Stay tuned.

Make a stand

August 15, 2011

For Sandra

Sandra sent me a question I hadn’t come across in my 15 years as a subeditor, which is always a bit exciting. She asked whether the use of the word ‘stood’ was wrong in these instances:

“she’d only taken half a dozen steps when she realised that all the men – the husbands – were stood around the really big one which had pride of place on the end wall …”

“the low rack of books where he’d been stood”

In the first example, my immediate thoughts were that ‘stood’ should be ‘standing’, unless of course Sandra meant that someone had ‘stood’ the husbands ‘around the really big one’, like you would ‘stand’ a vase on a bookshelf.

Henry stood the vase on the bookshelf next to the photo of his grandfather.

But I doubt that this was what was meant. To clear up any ambiguity, ‘standing’ can be used instead of ‘stood’ or the sentence can be written like this:

“she’d only taken half a dozen steps when she realised that all the men – the husbands – HAD stood around the really big one which had pride of place on the end wall …”

(It’s a great question because it also raises the issue of tense, which I shall write about in more detail in next week’s post.)

In the second example, is the ‘he’ referring to someone/thing that had been ‘stood’ on ‘the low rack of books’, or to someone/thing that was ‘standing’ on ‘the low rack of books’?

When I was researching the question, I discovered this, which probably helps to explain the confusion.

Essentially, ‘were stood’ or ‘was stood’ can be seen as non-standard (British) English; that is, a conversational English not accepted in the written form.

Grammar rules—or matters of style?

August 8, 2011

No wonder people have such trouble with grammar, or (shock, horror) couldn’t care less about it—it forever changes and just when you feel you’re on top of it, you read somewhere else about how someone else does it differently.

Plural apostrophe
In my post on apostrophes, I wrote about never, ever using an apostrophe with plurals. I still stand by that post and would never use an apostrophe for 1970s, CDs, DVDs, and so on. However, earlier in the year I came upon this article that refers to ‘The plurals apostrophe’ and states that The New York Times uses it in instances such as the 1970’s. So while I can appreciate and have a laugh at this pedant’s crusade, it may be a fight in the name of style rather than grammar.

Which/that
When I was at journo high, a few years back now, my lecturer, an old style newspaper man of the Sir Frank Packer era, recommended The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White. It was my grammar bible for a while, until I discovered that its advice on the use of ‘which’ and ‘that’ was not necessarily correct. According to Strunk and White, “That is the defining, or restrictive pronoun, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive.” In other words:

Michelle ate the chocolate that Cheryl bought last night. (Defines which chocolate, suggesting that there is more than one stash of chocolate.)

Michelle ate the chocolate, which was Cheryl’s, last night. (Explains something about the chocolate, suggesting that there is only one stash of chocolate.)

Strunk and White advise writers to go on a ‘which-hunt’, which I did do for a while. But then I realised that no one in Australia gives two hoots about the rule; they have probably never even heard of it. Unlike these editors, who insist on the distinction. In Australia, ‘which’ and ‘that’ are used interchangeably, and most (all) subeditors wouldn’t blink twice if they saw:

Michelle ate the chocolate which Cheryl bought last night.

And nor do I, unless I have to copy fit text to a page—the smaller  ‘that’ can sometimes give me the space I need.

Collective nouns
I’m a stickler for the singular with collective nouns (the committee/group/company is, not the committee/group/company are), but some think it’s okay to use the plural—and quite readily justify it.

People who/people that
I’m with Grammar Girl when it comes to the use of ‘who’ with people and ‘that’ with things, but even linguists think it’s a non-issue that needn’t be ‘corrected’.

Who/whom
I love to show off my knowledge of language by correctly using ‘who’ and ‘whom’, but only because it took me so damn long to understand the rule. However, according to editor John McIntyre, “whom is well on the way out”, as is the distinction between lie/lay.

Italics with book/film/TV titles
I have never worked on a publication that didn’t insist on the use of italics to highlight the titles of books, films, TV shows, even CDs. I therefore had to read twice the advice from George Bernard Shaw in The Guardian Style Guide (see under ‘italics’), where he suggests that I “write nothing but advertisements for lost dogs or ironmongers’ catalogues …”. Indeed!

Commas II

August 1, 2011

I wrote an extensive post on commas a few months ago, but I feel I need to review one essential point from that post because I’ve noticed that though there are grey areas when it comes to the use of commas, some writers have no idea about the correct use of parenthetical commas.

Parenthetical commas enclose sentence fragments, or word/s, that if removed would not disrupt the flow of the sentence.

Fred’s dog, a German shepherd, liked to chew cushions.

If you removed the sentence fragment ‘a German shepherd’, the sentence would still make sense. In other words, the fragment or word/s within the commas add something to the sentence but are not essential to the sentence.

I’ve often noticed, however, that some writers omit the second comma.

Fred’s dog, a German shepherd liked to chew cushions.

There is no grey there; that is simply wrong.

It’s the same principle for words such as however.

I’ve often noticed, however that some writers omit the second comma.

Yep, wrong. And yet the following sentence is correct because ‘however’ is essential to the sentence; it makes no sense without it.

She was determined to see it through, however difficult it became.

The other important point to remember is that word/s contained within commas can indicate singularity. I took the following sentence from thetelegraph.com.au.

 Her first Honour was born in 2008.

Huh?! Honour, I presume, is the name of Jessica Alba’s first child and not a poetic description of a first child.

Commas, therefore, are necessary to indicate singularity.

Her first, Honour, was born in 2008. 

Again, the name adds something to the sentence but is not essential to the sentence.

And that is the trick to remember.

Oh, and it’s important not to use parenthetical commas in some instances if you don’t want to indicate singularity.

Manager, Howard Kent, invited the staff to lunch.

It’s unlikely that any organisation has only one manager, and if you remove the name from the sentence, it no longer makes any sense.