Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Had they but one neck, or The Dangers of Promoting a Sub-Editor

A sub-editor in power is a dangerous thing
Angry Sub-Editor has a confession to make: he is not really a sub-editor. All that came to an end in 2003 during a magazine restructuring, when the MD said, "…so that just leaves the senior positions." I allowed a decent pause before saying, "If the editor's job's going, I'll take that." On the way out of the meeting, the Managing Editor said to me in a slightly pained voice, "I didn't know my job was up for grabs." I suggested that Managing Editor and Editor are different jobs, which he grudgingly accepted, and we got on just fine for the next five years (until I did something far more trivial for which he doesn't seem to have forgiven me).

These days I work for a different organisation under the grander title of Editorial Director, but this still means I do a lot of subbing because we don't have the staff and it isn't easy to find a sub who understands our industry or an industry expert who understands publishing.

My gay friends tell me that sexual preference is hard-wired and so corrective therapy is pointless as well as immoral. You can say the same about being a sub-editor. Once you've been a sub-editor for a while, you can never go back. The down side is that there aren't any cool bars where you can go and discuss gerunds and dangling participles, but on the plus side you can still listen to King Crimson and you don't need to have a picture of Audrey Hepburn anywhere in your house.

The down side for everyone else is that, if ever a sub-editor gets promoted to, say, Editorial Director, the organisation finds itself with a Caligula on its hands. Fortunately I don't have a sister to marry and have yet to find a suitable horse to promote, but I do sometimes find myself thinking, "Had they but one neck…"

So today I'm reading a quarterly report and noticing that the regular content (the stuff explaining the methodology and suchlike) is the same as last time. That's as it should be, but the words in front of me are the same as the unedited words I saw three months ago. The dates are in the wrong style. The bullet points have full-stops at the end of the line. There's a lot of crap that I took out because it's so bloody obvious that it's insulting to explain it to our readers. Added to that, they've forgotten to delete the phrase: "if new information comes to light in the first days of the New Year".

Sub-editors get angry about this sort of thing. Editorial Directors get angry too, but they combine the petty small-mindedness of the hardened sub with the power to inflict the sort of agony that ordinary subs only dream about (and they dream about it roughly 95% of the time, trust me).

So, I've taken the last quarter's report and pasted it on top of this quarter's report. It will then go back to the team in India, who will arrive tomorrow morning to find that none of their nicely laid-out pages fit any more, because I cut about 20% out of the previous version. They will then have to check the copy before taking it to the design team, who will then have to lay it out all over again. They will learn that it doesn't do to annoy a sub-editor, and if the design teams I've worked with are anything to go by then they'll learn that annoying designers is even worse.

It's hard on them because I know they didn't write all of it and someone further down the line is more to blame. However, I've always worked on the basis that anything that leaves my desk has my name on it and so should be as close to my standards as I can possibly make it. By the same token, everything that lands on my desk bears the name – and therefore the quality assurance – of whoever gave it to me.

My team will also know that, come 2pm their time, I'll be on the phone asking for the final version, having slept the sort of peaceful sleep that only comes from knowing that I've added a little bit to the misery of the human condition.

Moral: Sub-editors are malicious, vindictive and not to be trusted in positions of authority or in bed


  1. Oh you are a nasty, nasty man. LOVE IT!

  2. I just fell in love with you. After years of editing business publications, I now edit romantic fiction. It is no better, grammatically speaking, but it is frequently hilarious.

  3. @Kid53
    That sounds fun. I don't get to read much romantic fiction, though I recall the winner of a contest for worst opening lines of a novel that contained the words "her love was irrewinnably lost". The Guardian's headline was "Worst writing contest irreloseably won".