So you think you can be a sub-editor?

by Nigel Bartlett
29 September 2017

I was a chief sub-editor and freelance sub for years, and it sets my teeth on edge when I hear writers saying they’d like to “do a bit of subbing” to earn extra cash.

The first thought that enters my head is, “How do they know they can sub?”

Subbing can seem like the perfect add-on for freelance writers struggling in today’s market. And yes, it can provide a solid income foundation to back up a precarious writing cashflow. If you’ve never subbed before, though, here are a few points to consider.

1. Grammar and style.

Writers are great at grammar, right? Not always. In my experience, there are plenty who don’t understand even the blunter points of grammar, let alone the finer ones.

To be fair, they don’t need to because (guess what) the sub-editors will fix their copy. Once you become a sub, though, the buck will stop with you.

Now, even if you are a grammar Nazi, a magazine’s house style can wipe out everything you thought was true. That means freelance subs also have to be flexible – you’ll have to get to grips with the house style quickly, accept that it uses its own grammar and spelling rules and then apply them rigorously.

So, if a mag writes in teen speak, you’ll need to be a pedant to spot when ‘Euwww!’ is missing that third ‘w’.

2. Laser vision.

It’s a cliché, but do you have an eagle eye? We all hate a greengrocer’s apostrophe, but can you spot when it’s straight instead of curly? (FYI, the curly one is called a ‘typographer’s quote’).

Could you spot when italics have been created by someone hitting ‘command i’ instead of using the specific InDesign keystroke for that font? When would you use a hyphen, an en-dash or an em-dash?

More importantly, do you care? Because you’ll need to.

3. Tech talk.

Speaking of InDesign, are you able to use it? It’s the software most mags and newspaper supplements use, so you’ll have to get to grips with it quickly. Most subs learn it while in full-time jobs – as a freelancer you’ll need to jump on a course or teach yourself somehow.

Can you get by with no InDesign experience? Almost certainly not. Few chief subs have the time to teach you, and most will expect you to hit the ground running.

Having said that, the main sections of newspapers often use other systems, but the same principle applies. You’ll still need to know how to use them.

The good news? For websites, you may only need to sub in Microsoft Word or Google Docs. You might need to use the site’s content management system, but there are so many CMSs out there that whoever hires you will often be happy to show you how to use their system.

4. Getting the details right.

How are you with fact-checking? Subs are nearly always blamed when something is printed incorrectly, even if the writer got it wrong in the first place.

How long did Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston date? Did Malcolm Turnbull set up the Digital Transformation Office when he was prime minister or communications minister? And when did it change its name to the Digital Transformation Agency? You’ll need to make sure all these details are correct.

If you’re asked to sub a three-spread layout on rugs, cushions and throws, you’ll have to check the name, colour, size, fabric, country of origin, price, stockist phone number and website for more than 300 products.

At the end, the only comment you might receive is when the editor demands, “Is that cushion really teal? It looks turquoise to me.”

So, do you really want to be a sub? After all this, you might think subbing isn’t worth the effort. You might be right. If all this sounds too hard, I’d suggest sticking with what you know best – writing.

However, if you care about getting things right, if you’ve ever wondered if you might be OCD (sorry, if you might have OCD) and if you’re prepared to get to grips with the tech demands, subbing is a great way to go.

After all, if being a pedant comes naturally, you might as well be paid for it.

Do you agree with Nigel? Are you a journo who switches between writing and subbing? Are you a sub who’s been affected by the mass layoffs? We’d love to hear your experiences.

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10 responses on "So you think you can be a sub-editor?"

  1. Rachel Smith says:

    At the end, the only comment you might receive is when the editor demands, “Is that cushion really teal? It looks turquoise to me.”

    THIS. This was my life as a sub (except I was subbing baby products!)

  2. Sara says:

    Great piece, Nigel! I think the best writers are often those who start out as subs. But if few writers can sub, is it also true that few subs can write?

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      I actually think subs need both an eagle eye and subbing skillset, and an ability to write as well (mainly because I think subs are some of the cleverest writers I know)! If you can’t write, I don’t know that you’d be a great sub.

      But I do think some subs JUST want to write (I craved writing features when I was subbing other people’s), whereas some people prefer the subbing side, as there can be a real reward in copy-fitting something and making it sound better, writing a fab headline, giving it that polish with clever captions, etc. I did love that side of it. The fact-checking, not so much 🙂

  3. Sean Mooney says:

    Brilliant! Nigel, that is all SO true…

  4. Jac Taylor says:

    Amen! I do remember going into subbing originally, thinking, “I have great spelling and grammar – that’s what it’s all about, right?” Now, after years honing my skills in InDesign, copyfitting, rag-smoothing, voice-adjusting, fact-checking and, yes, writing a crazy amount of in-house, mostly uncredited copy, I know it to be a specialised field indeed. It’s one in which I will never stop perfecting my skills, either. It’s such a shame that subbing is so misunderstood and underrated – it’s the safety net above which writers and editors are constantly making (increasingly rushed) leaps!

  5. Clive Archer says:

    I’ve been a sub-editor and chief sub-editor on magazines and newspapers here and overseas for more than 30 years and I’ve only ever encountered two writers who didn’t need to be subbed.
    While I was working on a magazine overseas, the deputy editor approached the chief sub and asked who he thought was the best writer on the mag.
    “They are,” he replied, pointing at the subs.
    ‘Nuff said.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      I LOVE this Clive! So true.

  6. Adeline Teoh says:

    And weeklies are very hard if you don’t know your celebs!

    Unfortunately subs aren’t valued as they should be because a lot of their value comes from preventing bad writing from being published. Readers only care for the finished product and publishers only seem to notice if something goes wrong.

    1. Rachel Smith says:

      Couldn’t have said it better, Adeline. And isn’t it sad that more publishers just don’t get that and think subs are dispensable. Worst mistake ever.

  7. Susi Banks says:

    Great piece Nigel. It has often amazed me to read or hear senior journalists using ALTERNATE instead of ALTERNATIVE. I’ve also heard “rogue scholar” instead of “Rhodes scholar”.

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