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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.

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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.