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Taking the scenic route to life as a copy-editor

A pile of newspapers - an editor's jobThose of us who choose to work as a professional copy-editor and proofreader often have a previous career history in a variety of fields, such as law, medicine, music or admin. Not everyone comes up through the publishing route (although deep down, I envy those fortunate souls – they already have a head start on the rest of us).

My career began in newspapers, firstly as a reporter and then as a sub-editor. When I started – pre-digital era – instructions for the typesetter were marked up on paper using BSI proofreading marks. I was lucky because, as part of my training, time was set aside each week to teach me and my fellow reporters how to sub-edit. The reasoning behind this was sound – if reporters had the skills to cut out the chaff, their writing would be tighter and more – well – newsy. It was also about training the next generation of sub-editors, a role which has all but disappeared from the newspaper offices I worked in. Their loss.

After five years as a reporter, I decided my future lay in sub-editing and began working as a downtable sub for the Kent Messenger and Kent Evening Post. A sub-editor is pretty much the same as a copy-editor: we root out spelling and grammatical errors; rewrite sentences to make them read well; check facts; ensure consistency (I’ve lost count of the number of times a name has been spelt one way in a caption and another way in the copy).

Among other things, a sub-editor has to know the law relating to all manner of subjects including copyright, defamation, parliamentary privilege, court procedures, how to report on cases, and what you can and can’t report.

Getting it wrong can lead to a giant headache

Here’s an example of how words can say one thing but can be misinterpreted to mean another

Let’s look at the law regarding drink-driving. In England and Wales, the drink-drive limit is 35 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath. Now, there’s a difference between reporting a) that a drink-driver was four times the limit and b) that he was four times over the limit. Yet you often see the two used interchangeably in newspaper reports.

In the first example: four times the limit means 4 x 35mcg, which means the driver’s reading was 140mcg of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath.

But four times over the limit means the driver had not only drunk up to the limit (35mcg) but had gone four times over it (140mcg), so his reading was 175mcg.

Get it wrong, and the newspaper owners could be facing court action.

Good sub-editors, just like good copy-editors and proofreaders, can hone in on factual, grammatical and spelling errors at 200 paces.

We can also do it when we’re tired. Daily newspapers, by their very nature, aim to get the most up-to-date news stories before going to press. This can mean removing and replacing stories at the last minute. With the presses ready to roll and editorial support poised to okay the release of pages, editing has to be done swiftly and accurately. Often, there is barely enough time for more than a cursory proofread afterwards, so we’re often doing on-the-spot proof-editing against the clock … at the end of a shift … just before midnight.

So, as well as keeping our cool when working against deadlines (the flipside being that we are avid subscribers to Parkinson’s Law when no deadline is looming), a sub-editor has many more skills in his or her pencil case.

These include: headline writing; cutting copy from 300 words to 50 yet still retaining the essential details; turning a complicated feature about, say the stock market, into language everyone can understand; cropping pictures to create maximum impact; checking captions and cross-checking that the words and names in the caption marry up with a) the picture and b) the accompanying text; rewriting stories to put the most interesting angle at the top; rewriting stories to make them read well.

Multi-tasking became the norm for newspaper subs

In the early 1990s, when desktop publishing became a thing, sub-editors were trained to lay out pages on-screen – usually using QuarkXPress design software. The demarcation lines between downtable sub (someone who only edits copy and checks page proofs) and layout sub (someone who only draws up news pages) became blurred. Sub-editors were expected to be skilled in all three areas – design, editing and proofreading.

In 1994, I was in at the beginning of the changeover from drawing up pages on paper to designing on-screen. I much preferred the freedom and flexibility of working on a computer – you could call in pictures directly to the page, see immediately if your headline fitted (prior to computers we relied on em rules and character counts), and be more imaginative with cut-outs and colours. There were some howlers in the early days, especially with colour creeping into everything from headings to straplines to body text. I remember a call coming in from the print centre telling me to change my white-on-yellow strapline. “It’s unreadable,” I was told. I think I changed it to magenta. Ho, hum.

Some 15 years later, we moved to a content management system, and we began working with Adobe InDesign, which I still use to this day. Around this time, at the end of 2009, I left full-time employment to go freelance. I wanted more variety. I wrote travel features, business articles, did some training in content marketing and learned the rudiments of working with WordPress.

Two years ago, I joined the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. I had toyed with the idea of becoming a member shortly after I went freelance, but for reasons unknown, I put it off until a couple of years ago.

Thank goodness I did. I now have access to the sum total of members’ knowledge in all areas affecting a freelance copy-editor; I have access to a wealth of training at reduced cost; I have something I can point to that says I have the skills and professionalism to do the job well; and I can offer clients the reassurance that I am bound by the SfEP’s Code of Practice.

Members have a wealth of specialisms, so any business, organisation or individual in need of a professional proofreader or copy-editor, should make the SfEP Directory of Editorial Services their first port of call.

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