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Giles Coren gets angry about sub-editing

Some writers get rather upset if sub-editors change their copy, as this sweary rant from Giles Coren demonstrates:

When you’re winding up a piece of prose, metre is crucial. Can’t you hear? Can’t you hear that it is wrong? It’s not fucking rocket science. It’s fucking pre-GCSE scansion.

Then again, Roland White has a different view:

Subeditors are the people who correct our mistakes. All journalism is done in a hurry, so it’s inevitable that mistakes are mad. Subeditors are our safety net. They make sure that copy fits, see that our words make some vague sort of sense and finally they write the headlice.

They are hot stuff on split infinitives, can advise on the correct way to spell Gadaffi and are virtually the only people outside Burkina Faso who care that it used to be known as Upper Volta. Imagine an English teacher with a flick knife and you’ve got the general idea.

I’ve had the odd thing butchered in editing (not by anyone I currently work with, I hasten to add). The worst was a piece for the Sunday Mail where the only original word that survived the sub-editing process was “the”; I’ve had subtle gags ruined by unnecessary exclamation marks; and I’ve been the recipient of sub-editing that takes the same approach to fixing copy as Father Ted did to fixing a little dent in a car.

Generally, though, I’m with A.A. Gill:

The joy of being a hack is that there is a back room of people far cleverer, more experienced and adept than I working to make me look clever, experienced and adept. If on occasion I fail to do so, naturally it’s their fault.

8 replies on “Giles Coren gets angry about sub-editing”

It’s hardly as if I do a lot of journalism (and I’m sure I’d feel differently if I had hundreds of deadlines), but I’m with Coren, ’cause I once had a sub change “anal-retentive” to “anally-retentive”, and I’m still pissed off about it. I mean, why would I accuse someone of not being incontinent? And, if I did, why would I hyphenate an adverb and an adjective together?

Oh, and there has never been a rule of English grammar that forbids split infinities. Ever. They are often even necessary. If anyone ever corrects one of mine, I’ll be seriously angry. See also using “less” of countables.

Tolkien apparently spent hours going through The Lord of the Rings changing back every instance of “try and” that American subs had changed to “try to”. This is fucking Tolkien, and the bloody subs still thought they spoke better English.

Oh, and there has never been a rule of English grammar that forbids split infinities.

On the other hand, there are some people who feel that split infinitives are not a good idea. And there are others who feel that using “less” of countables sounds wrong.

The point is that if you want to work in a field where rules are absolute then you might want to look into mathematics. But writing, especially in English, is subject to aesthetic judgments that, regardless of whether they appear in someone’s rulebook or not, will be made about your writing. And if these judgments are made by people with the authority to enforce changes, then becoming seriously angry is perhaps your only option.

> The point is that if you want to work in a field where rules are absolute then you might want to look into mathematics.

There are plenty of absolute rules in language, which is why “Jumped waterfall salmon up did does” doesn’t make sense and “I will do it tomorrow” can never refer to something I did last week.

> But writing, especially in English, is subject to aesthetic judgments

Yeah, and? Coren’s not complaining about anyone’s aesthetic judgment: I’m sure he knows that not all his readers will get his joke. What he’s complaiing about is having his writing changed by someone who doesn’t understand it and knows demonstrably less than he does about language.

> On the other hand, there are some people who feel that split infinitives are not a good idea. And there are others who feel that using “less” of countables sounds wrong.

Oh, come on, Stephen: you know as well as I do that the people who correct these things do it because they think they breach rules, and most would object to the suggestion that it’s a matter of mere personal preference.

Surely if someone has paid you for a piece of writing, what they make of it is their perogative? Even if it is a hat, a broach, a pterodactyl…

There’s a podcast I listen to by a bloke that’s a technical translator in Japan. He insists that all those manuals are perfect when he’s finished with them, then they let a technical bod with some engrish give it a quick check over.

> Surely if someone has paid you for a piece of writing, what they make of it is their perogative?

To some extent, sure. But, if they lower the quality significantly and leave your byline on it, haven’t you got a case against them for spoiling your reputation? Maybe journalists need an equvalent of Alan Smithie.

> haven’t you got a case against them for spoiling your reputation?

Moral rights? They exist to an extent, but many publishers expect you to waive ’em. It’s the whole “moral right to be identified as the author of this work” stuff.

> Surely if someone has paid you for a piece of writing, what they make of it is their perogative?

If it’s work for hire – that is, you don’t retain the copyright – then yep.

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