A guide for writers and reporters in all media
Comprehensive, updated regularly - and free
By Margaret Ashworth
Generations of reporters have filed copy to beat deadlines, safe in the knowledge that every word would be checked for accuracy by sub-editors back in the office. If they were not sure about a fact or a name, all they had to do was put ‘subs pse check’. Subs also cut copy to fit, corrected spelling and punctuation, rewrote copy to improve it or update it, and imparted their own publication’s distinctive style, from the Times to the Daily Sport. They wrote headlines and captions. Often derided as ‘failed reporters’, in fact they had a vitally different attitude to the words on the page. At one remove from the story, they could see more clearly how best to package it and sell it to the reader. They could spot errors and double meanings that the reporter, in his or her haste, had overlooked. It was much easier, as an outsider, to cut words that the writer had sweated blood to create. And there has never been a reporter who was not forced to admit that on occasion subs had improved his copy or picked up an error which could have been costly, if not disastrous.
I was a Daily Mail sub-editor for 39 years, latterly as splash sub. During my career the journalism business saw huge changes, moving from hot metal to new technology and now being well into the age of digital technology, multi-tasking, and news available on demand in any location. Quite recently sub-editors have become a costly luxury. Most regional and provincial newspaper reporters file their copy directly into an allocated space and write their own headlines and captions. National papers have drastically cut their subbing strengths, and much of the present-day sub-editor’s work is concerned with technical matters, such as dragging in adverts, rather than consideration of the words. And of course there are now legions of online reporters, writers and bloggers working on their own.
I put this guide together because sub-editing as I knew and loved it has all but vanished. It has tended to be the older staff who have been culled, and with them has gone the distilled lore that has been passed on down the decades. All sub-editing practices are the result of many years of experience of what works best to enable the reader to get the most from your product, but now almost no one knows what these practices are.
Style Matters aims to help reporters and writers to be their own subs. It sets out some basic elements of grammar, punctuation, and sub-editing practice. It suggests matters to consider, such as whether to insist on calling women ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’, to go for ‘Ms’, or even no title at all. It gives advice on questions of taste and political correctness. It also endeavours to be a quick reference work on all sorts of topics a writer might need to know, such as whether Botox is a trade name (it is) or whether apes and monkeys are the same (they aren’t). Finally there is a list of commonly mis-spelled or confused words.
However, it is only an outline of currently accepted usages and practices. The language is constantly evolving and we should not be hidebound. There are infinite variations of sentences and constructions, and some simply will not conform to the rules without sounding ludicrous.
Armed with this guide, you can make your own style choices and produce clear, accurate and effective copy.
I'd love to hear from anyone with comments or ideas.
Margaret Ashworth (firstname.lastname@example.org)