Understanding the role of the sub-editor
A sub-editor is happiest when given copy that reads well and needs little rewriting. A writer or reporter is happiest when their copy is printed with the fewest changes to their original.
It follows, then, that writers may achieve happiness only when they understand the role of a sub-editor and strive to make that task as easy as possible.
To understand the role of a sub, it helps to step back further and ask the question, "What is the main aim of a newspaper (or magazine)?"
Image courtesy of Vin Crosbie and released under Creative Commons
Worthy aims and reality checks
Worthy aims are to inform readers by reporting events fully and accurately, to represent the public interest by watching those in positions of power and responsibility, or even privilege and influence, whether conferred by class, status or popularity. (Remember, though, that celebrity is largely a function of fashion.)
Newspapers should also aim to give readers information of relevance to them and, when necessary, authoritative advice.
The main aim, though, is to make money for the proprietor and/or shareholders. (Exceptions to this may be found in publications that exist to serve an owner’s political agenda or social pretensions.) This is the bottom line; it pays your wages. If you can’t accept that, find another job.
Newspapers make money by attracting and retaining readers; circulation/readership figures determine advertising rates and so overall financial performance. Advertising revenue, not cover price, is what satisfies the bottom line.
Knowing what the audience wants
Every publication has its target market and succeeds only by giving that potential audience what it wants to read. Niche publications, in the scientific, medical, industry, hobbyist or other fields, are fortunate in that their readers’ interests are relatively easily served because they are focused, bounded and transparent.
This is not the case with mass-market newspapers or general-interest magazines. These sell copies by making the readers feel good about themselves, by pandering to their prejudices and so providing affirmation for their lifestyle and opinions.
(To satisfy readers’ appetites, many titles must increasingly blur the distinction between entertainment, gossip and news.)
No matter what the subject or event reported or analysed, the publication must anticipate its readers’ opinion of or reaction to it and reflect the same in its coverage.
Again: if you can’t accept that, get another job - or write for a publication that chimes with your own world view; this will help you to overlook your hypocrisy.
All this may sound cynical, but it is the nature of the business in which you have chosen to work.
Pleasing the subs in style
The people who ensure that the readers get what they want are the sub-editors. They understand this agenda and process copy to serve it.
They do this by conforming to an overarching and prescribed writing tone; from vocabulary to grammar, from humour to pathos, from approval to condemnation.
This tone differs from publication to publication - as determined by its readership.
Your aim as a reporter or writer should be to give the subs what they want. This is determined by two things: the style guide and common sense.
The style guide is the subs’ bible; it exists to ensure conformity and subs will be taken to task if they deviate from it. Learn the style guide and keep a copy handy for reference.
Attention to detail
Common sense is to write copy that covers basic points of who, when, where, how and even why.
Make sure that names and ages are checked, and mark them as such. Make sure that quotes are accurate and correctly attributed.
Understand your publication well enough to judge the likely interest or relevance of your report to the readers and so its probable assigned length on the page.
Tell the gist of the story in the first paragraph, get all the facts to support it in the next few and order the rest of your copy by diminishing importance.
Make it easy for the sub to cut from the bottom, rather than have to rewrite and précis to tell your story in the space allocated to it.
Your job does not end with your copy deadline. You should be available for queries from the newsdesk or the subs until the edition deadline.
Write your contact details, especially a phone number, on every piece you submit.
Above all, read the published copy and compare it with what you submitted.
See where corrections have been made to conform with style and make a note not to repeat such mistakes.
If at all possible, work some shifts as a sub-editor on the publication for which you write, or for one of its competitors. You will find this invaluable.
You will learn that the job of a sub is fraught with difficult choices and that there is nothing personal about it when they edit your copy.
You will realise that subs derive satisfaction from a job well done when the copy they process tells the story clearly, accurately and in a way that readers appreciate.
Subs are happy when invisible and anonymous; it is a shame that so many writers and reporters rarely share these attributes.
Too often, they allow their personalities or affectations to colour their copy, and so do themselves and their readers a disservice. They also annoy the subs.
Vince Ryan has worked as a news sub-editor on national UK papers and as deputy editor at The Telegraph online and Al Jazeera English. He has also worked as a media strategist, introducing efficient workflows and content management systems for news output.