The Compleat Sub-Editor

At its best, subbing produces a story which is straightforward, intelligent but not pretentious, with the facts told in the right order and no questions left unanswered. It is not full of unnecessary adjectives or puns. It is stylish but not over-clever or flashy.

Some of this section is more relevant to subs actually working with reporters, but much of it should be useful to solo writers.

  • Adding extra copy: If your story is falling short, it is very unwise to add copy from the cuttings library (if you have one), the internet or a different source of the same story, for instance a news agency, without first checking with the reporter or news desk. They may already know that something is wrong with that copy or version and that is why they have not used it.

  • Minimal subbing: Many believe, wrongly, that it is the duty of the sub-editor to turn every story inside out and rewrite it from top to bottom. On the contrary, the more that can be left alone the better. Every change is another opportunity for an error to creep in. While it is bad for a sub to miss an error in copy, it is a hundred times worse to write one in. Remember that the story goes in under the writer’s name, not yours, and his or her reputation with contacts and readers is on the line.

    One of the main attributes of a good sub is having the wisdom to know when to leave copy alone. Almost every story can be done in a variety of ways, and often one is not much better than any other. It is a waste of time and effort to change one version for another which is no improvement, just different. To sum up: If you cannot improve it, leave it alone.

  • Dirty mind: A sub needs to be able to spot the double meanings which frequently crop up in copy. As I mention in ‘Handle with Care’, dump, head, climax and nuts are among the words that can turn an innocently-intended heading into one they giggle about on the News Quiz. A favourite heading was ‘Girls’ schools still have plenty to offer - head.’

  • Nibs: Do not take the view that shorts and nibs are beneath you. They are the most challenging form of subbing and the best practice. Anyone can tick up a page lead. Boiling the same story down to three paragraphs or even less is a different matter.

  • Writing off: In other words, typing out your own version separate from the original. I strongly counsel against doing this because everyone makes mistakes in typing. Far better is to cut and paste, delete what you don’t want, and type in only what does not exist in the original. And even then you must . . .

  • Spellcheck: Although this cannot pick up incorrectly used words such as ‘there’ instead of ‘their’, it will find an alarming number of wrong spellings and repeated words. You should always use the spellcheck just before sending a story.

    Keep concentrating: Mistakes in copy such as missing words and punctuation tend to be most frequent towards the end of a story, when you start to feel the job is finished. Be aware of this and give your story full attention right to the last word.

  • Headlines in newspapers should not be a condensed version of the intro, or as sometimes happens, a word-for-word copy of the intro. If you need the intro words for the heading, you should change the intro. It is actually very good practice to write the heading before subbing the story. You tend to have a clearer outline of the story in your mind. If at all possible headlines should be in the present tense and the active voice, rather than passive, for example ‘dog bites man’ rather than ‘man bitten by dog’ or ‘dog bit man’. Internet headings are tackled in a different way, to get in relevant words that will be picked up by search engines, so the foregoing advice does not apply.

  • Names should not usually be used in headings or intros unless the person is well known. In other words, don’t write a heading like ‘Mary, 4, passes her third A-level’. It would be better to put ‘Girl, 4, passes her third A-level’.

  • He/But intros: These are sometimes referred to as drop intros, but the classic drop intro story has three or four pars of narrative ending with a twist. This is not the same as the more recently invented ‘He/But’ format which is currently being used ad nauseam. Often it involves excruciating non sequiturs along the lines of: ‘He was one of Britain’s greatest prime ministers. But Winston Churchill had piles.’ On the odd occasion, in a lighter story, there is a place for this. However the temptation to use it on every story that passes through your hands must be resisted. Often some papers have two and three to a page. Any repetitive format becomes a cliche and thoroughly boring, and this is no exception. I have seen a reader’s letter complaining about the formula, and if one has written in you can be sure plenty more have noticed.

    The format should almost never be used on a serious story. Here is a genuine example of its misuse: ‘He stood accused of plotting to frame his mistress’s husband for arson. But yesterday Chief Superintendent Jim Trotman put his arm around his 41-year-old lover and savoured his freedom after being cleared.’ The reader’s very reasonable reaction would be: ‘What on earth is all that about?’ Here we have a rather complex story made far worse. The way to handle it is ‘A police chief who was accused of plotting to frame his mistress’s husband for arson was cleared yesterday. Chief Superintendent Jim Trotman put his arm round his 41-year-old lover Karin Gray as he left court.’ To add insult to injury, a sidebar used exactly the same construction.

    This is another example from January 2012: ‘She grew up on a council estate and left school with no A-levels. But Christie Watson has just won one of the country’s most prestigious literary prizes.’ Far better, surely, would be the straight intro: ‘A nurse who left school at 16 has won a coveted literary prize’. (Note: ‘coveted’ is preferred in this case to the overworked ‘prestigious’.)

    I don’t think He/But (or its variants, such as She/Now, It/So etc) should be used on nibs where the limited space can be put to better use by including a few more facts. That leaves us with the occasional light top or page lead. We used to be able to vary the structure of stories and it is surely time to rediscover the skill.

  • Geography: With very rare exceptions, you do not put the geography in the intro, but don’t leave it too far down. The third par is usually the first point at which you can introduce it, and normally it shouldn’t be much later than the fifth or sixth par. Having established a county where the action is taking place, don’t keep repeating it for every different place name unless the county changes. You should almost never need to use geography in a heading on a story about Britain. If a reader living in Southend sees a heading about Inverness, he is likely to turn the page.

  • Weather stories: You may be enjoying glorious sunshine in London but remember that the country as a whole can have very varied weather on any given day. I can tell you that it is maddening to be in Lancashire in July with the central heating on and to be told that ‘Britain’ is having a heatwave. This reinforces the perception of many readers that the media is entirely focused on London.

  • Attribution: If you are quoting from another media source, it is wise to attribute it. That way you do not run into breach of copyright issues, and if it is wrong the source gets the blame.

  • Adjectives: Do not feel compelled to add an adjective to every noun. Do it only if the adjective adds something useful. For example, ‘her colourful dress’ means little, but ‘her red dress’ conveys something. The same applies to adverbs.

  • ‘You/your’: Remember that readers are male and female. What do you think men would make of this heading: ‘Stress may stop you breastfeeding’? Usually you can get away without ‘you’ or ‘your’.

  • Do not patronise the reader: One of the arts of subbing is to prevent readers having to ask questions, but without patronising them by suggesting that they are ignorant. So you don’t say ‘Kate Winslet, the actress’. You assume the reader knows who Miss Winslet is, but just in case, you put in the next par ‘The actress was . . .’ You need to introduce information in the right order so that the reader is led along a pathway. So in a story about research carried out in, for example, Philadelphia, don’t say ‘researchers in Philadelphia, America’. In one par say ‘American researchers’ and in a later one say ‘the scientists in Philadelphia’.

  • Gaping holes: If a story mentions, for example, ‘Britain’s second most expensive bank account’ (July 18, 2012), the obvious question is ‘So what is the most expensive?’ The sub should have made inquiries of the news desk or reporter and written in the answer. Time and again such glaring holes are left. Never let the reader ask a question that is not answered. This is another example from the Daily Telegraph, June 8, 2015. A couple were robbed of sheep worth £50,000 and said their livelihood had been destroyed. Readers were left shouting (this reader anyway): ‘How many sheep were stolen?’

  • Statements of the obvious (1): For example ‘Surgeons planning the first double leg transplant will use limbs from a dead donor’. So they aren’t going to lop the legs off some passer-by. You need to get round this by saying something like ‘The operation will take place in the summer subject to a suitable donor becoming available’.

  • Statements of the obvious (2): ‘Little did he know’. Over and over again reporters will write about murder victims who failed to see what was going to happen years ahead. Let’s all accept that we cannot see into the future.

  • Statements of the obvious (3): Avoid this kind of thing: ‘Chewing on their bamboo shoots, these pandas do not realise that they are making history’ or ‘Safe in his mother’s arms, two-day-old Nigel is oblivious to the controversy surrounding his birth'.

  • Statements of the obvious (4): ‘They look like any other father and daughter but hours later he was to kill her’ or ‘It looks like any other house but it is a bomb factory’. Sometimes you can’t avoid this kind of intro but bear in mind that bomb factories and would-be murderers do not carry signs.

  • Killing the story in the intro: As in ‘A man who was knocked over by a police car was recovering in hospital last night’. Readers may well think there is no point in carrying on if they know the chap survived. It should begin on the lines of ‘A man was knocked over by a speeding police car as he walked home from church’, etc. An exception would be if the survival is the point of the story, rather than the incident itself, eg ‘A skydiver who plunged 10,000 ft without a parachute bounced on landing and walked away without a scratch.’

  • Wide-eyed: One type of story which is really wearisome revolves around a candid snap of some actress going shopping. The reporter is invariably amazed that she is not in full slap or period costume as per her latest role. Sadly this is often the angle expected by executives, but do try to keep the surprise to a minimum. When you think about it, the real story would be if the actress did go shopping dressed as a Regency harlot or whatever. This is a genuine example about Colin Firth from 2015: ‘With a plastic bag hung over the handlebars, he wore ankle reflectors, running shoes and flashy cycling glasses as he pedalled along the streets. It is all a far cry from the bowler hats, tailored suits and military regalia he was seen wearing in The King’s Speech.’ Another type involves celebrities who have grown older as the years have passed. Recently a picture story expressed astonishment that the Beach Boys, who all are around 70, looked older than when they were in their 20s: ‘The contrast with their Sixties heyday could hardly have been greater. Those fresh faces long gone, there were instead wrinkles and greying hair in various stages of retreat.’ Pop stars age in same way as normal mortals shock! The same week it was revealed that pop star Jessie J did not go around in full stage make-up at the age of 13. Much more subtlety is required with such stories.

  • Inelegant variation, as Keith Waterhouse called it, or straining to avoid repeating a word by casting around for a synonym. Examples that have been seen include ‘ball-like veg’, ‘the culinary under-achiever’ and the ‘once-sidelined green’ for Brussels sprouts (in the same piece of copy! sheer genius!) and ‘long-nosed equine creature’ for a horse. A recent favourite was Marmite – the ‘love-it-or-loathe-it condiment'. These keep the subs amused but should never get into print. There is always a different way to write the sentence to avoid such contortions.

    Actually, it may be worth running through some other examples of misguided ingenuity from recent years:

    the flamboyant bestubbled Portuguese  (Jose Mourinho)

    foreign-bred rodent furballs (hamsters)

    the titular sexual abstinent (Steve Carell’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin)

    shifting follicle cover (John Travolta’s hair)

    cutting-edge valise (a suitcase)

    vociferous Antipodeans (rowdy Aussies)

    this musical mammal of the marine world (a saxophone-playing walrus)

    the luxury fizzy wine (champagne)

    our cosmic sidekick (the moon)

    culinary outlaw (a kebab)

    the bendy yellow fruit (a banana)

    the tasty bread-based snack (a sandwich)

    the dense bread roll with a hole in the centre (a bagel)

    the red leather orb (a cricket ball)

    the little rectangular treasure (a rare stamp)

    the befeathered visitant (a nightingale that strayed to Birkenhead)

    the stringy decay fighter (dental floss)

    the tightly-bound blocks of dried grass (hay bales)

    the eponymous festive miser (Ebenezer Scrooge)

    the seven-figure sum (£1million)

    the blue-oval-badged car-maker (Ford)

    the ombré-locked millennial (Madonna's son Rocco Ritchie)

    the popular green legume (peas)

    the moustachioed megastar (Burt Reynolds, from the Sun, September 2018)

    the allium family vegetable (an onion, Daily Express, November 2018)

    The Pinner-born music legend and The Candle In The Wind singer (Elton John, both in one piece by Sebastian Shakespeare, Daily Mail, November 2018)

    the well-known despotic figure (Adolf Hitler, Mail Online, March 31, 2019)

    the bespectacled giggle-bringer (Eric Morecambe)

    The Hey Jude hitmaker (Paul McCartney), the Paint It Black hitmakers (Rolling Stones) (both Mail Online, April 2020)

     the tentacled tipster (Paul the psychic octopus)

    And possibly the most determined effort ever (Paul again):

    Who would have predicted it – an international squabble over the death of Paul the psychic octopus? But within hours of the announcement of the death of the remarkable Nostradamus of the deep, a strong whiff of skulduggery yesterday surrounded his demise. For while staff at the German aquarium he called home said the prophetic cephalopod had passed away peacefully on Monday, a Chinese film-maker served up what doubtless will be just the first of a series of conspiracy theories. She said the soccer seer of Sea Life, who caused a worldwide splash with his accurate World Cup predictions in the summer, had actually died three months ago – two days before the final in which British-born Paul once again correctly called the winner to global acclaim. Jiang Xiao accused the Germans of subterfuge in secretly replacing the underwater oracle with a body double.

  • Quotes: Do not start a quote without making it clear who is speaking. On the rare occasions when you feel that doing this makes the story flow better, the quote must be attributed at the end of the first sentence rather than several paragraphs later. If you are not misrepresenting what someone means by running quotes together, do so, because a mass of ‘he added’, ‘he went on’, ‘he continued’ is tiresome to read. Similarly, don’t keep putting quotes round odd words, eg ‘He told the conference it was a “cynical” device’.

    I don’t see any problem with rewriting quotes from an interview to a certain extent if you are sure that you are sticking to what the person intended to say and simply tidying it up a bit. Please do not go the lengths seen in the Sunday Telegraph in November 2015: ‘Asked whether he would be given time to change the team's fortunes, Mourinho said: “Yes, I think [so]”.’

    If it is something that has been on television, stick to the words as spoken. The same applies to previously published quotes.

    If you are quoting from written sources containing errors, make it clear that the errors are in the original and are not yours. Use the word ‘sic’ in square brackets if necessary.

  • Captions: These can be the source of a lot of problems. Obviously, check that the name you have written matches the copy. (Sounds simple, but almost every day there are examples of such errors. Some force seems to compel you to write, for example, ‘Saunders’ when the copy says ‘Sanders’.) Never take the photographer’s caption for granted. If there is a conflict with copy, you must check. Nine times out of ten the picture desk is wrong, but there is always that one time out of ten. Never assume that a picture you have been given is the right one unless the caption is 100 per cent clear.

    Another pitfall is to make the caption unintentionally hilarious. A favourite example was a picture of a middle-aged white man in collar and tie flanked by two naked tribesmen with the caption: ‘Writer Norman Lewis, centre’. Another from January 2012: ‘James Murray, left, and historic Scone Palace, right’. Let’s assume most readers can tell the difference between a man and a building. And a brilliant recent one: ‘Jeremy Clarkson and wife Frances, left’.

    Avoid mixing past and present in captions, as in ‘The Queen arrives at Heathrow yesterday’. You could put ‘The Queen arriving at Heathrow yesterday’ or ‘Home again: The Queen at Heathrow yesterday’. If it is a today or yesterday picture, always say so.

  • The words are paramount: Among the functions of a newspaper sub is to make sure that the page looks good, without widows and jack lines (single words or short lines at the top of a leg). One way to achieve this is to run on paragraphs. However the sense should always take priority over the appearance, and two unrelated paragraphs should not be run on. You must find another way to solve the problem. Similarly with headings: you may feel the need to fill out a line to make it look better, but the words are what are really important. This is an example from quite a while ago, in the days when headlines were a little more lyrical, about a young chap named Julius who found a 5ft puffball mushroom. The sub wrote:

    Julius seizes

    an emperor

    among mushrooms

    Which the stone sub changed to:

    Julius gets his hands

    on an emperor

    among mushrooms

  • Squeezing type: This is a luxury that has come with computer systems. A small amount of squeezing is acceptable on headlines but some subs have taken to squeezing body type as an alternative to cutting copy to fit. Do not do it. It is lazy and incompetent, and it looks awful.

  • Saturday papers: Many readers take a paper only on Saturdays, because of the TV listings, the promotions or the fact that they do not have time for a paper during the week. Therefore you need to think particularly carefully before treating a story for the Saturday paper as a follow-up. Instead of saying ‘The nurse who killed a patient was jailed for life yesterday’, it might well be better on a Saturday to say ‘A nurse who . . .’ and assume that the reader is coming fresh to the story.

  • Use of the internet: It is important to remember that there is no quality control on the internet so there is no guarantee that material is accurate. Any halfwit can post any old rubbish. For this reason the internet is not ideal for fact checking. However if you are working on your own without access to a reference library, you may have no alternative. In that case, make sure to use reputable sites. Wikipedia must be treated with the utmost caution, especially its biographies, which are notoriously subject to tampering.

  • Get things in the right order: Not like this example from Mail Online, August 2015: 'Cilla Black's family has confirmed that the funeral will be held next Thursday at St Mary's Church, Woolton, where she and husband Bobby Willis married in 1969 after her death on August 1'.

  • Respect: Reporters work very hard and often under pressure subs cannot imagine. They may have been standing on a doorstep in the rain for ten hours trying to get a story, with the newsdesk on to them every ten minutes demanding copy. They may have just landed in a foreign country with half an hour to file. They may have been dealing with a bereaved family who do not want to talk. Specialists, in particular, handle the most testing source material. This is the start of a story filed by a specialist recently:

    SCIENTISTS have found stem cells in the ovaries which produce an ‘unlimited’ supply of eggs, in a breakthrough which they say could revolutionise fertility.

    US doctors were able to isolate these cells in a laboratory where they ‘spontaneously generated’ eggs which they say are capable of being fertilised.

    This is the original report in a scientific journal:

    Germline stem cells that produce oocytes in vitro and fertilization-competent eggs in vivo have been identified in and isolated from adult mouse ovaries. Here we describe and validate a fluorescence-activated cell sorting-based protocol that can be used with adult mouse ovaries and human ovarian cortical tissue to purify rare mitotically active cells that have a gene expression profile that is consistent with primitive germ cells. Once established in vitro, these cells can be expanded for months and can spontaneously generate 35- to 50-μm oocytes, as determined by morphology, gene expression and haploid (1n) status. Injection of the human germline cells, engineered to stably express GFP, into human ovarian cortical biopsies leads to formation of follicles containing GFP-positive oocytes 1–2 weeks after xenotransplantation into immunodeficient female mice. Thus, ovaries of reproductive-age women, similar to adult mice, possess rare mitotically active germ cells that can be propagated in vitro as well as generate oocytes in vitro and in vivo.

    This is typical of the translation job specialist reporters do every day. It is something I could not do given two weeks, let alone two hours. Subs who have not had the experience of being reporters may not always realise what an extremely demanding job it is. In summary, reporters and their words should be treated with respect. And if everything they wrote was perfect, we would not have a job.

    While on the topic of reporters, there is habit among some subs of picking up the phone when they have a query for a reporter. If the reporter is in the office, you should go and speak to him or her in person. This is simple courtesy.

  • Finally, the words most likely to make a chief sub see red are: ‘Well, it says that in the copy’, or ‘I assumed it meant . . .’ Always remember that reporters do not have the same attitude to the facts as subs. They are not given time to do exhaustive checks. They submit copy in the knowledge and expectation that we will be there as a backstop, and this is what we must be. Even when the writer is an expert in his or her field, such as a theatre critic, mistakes are made and we must catch them. The moral is that if you are not a hundred per cent sure about anything in a story, check it. This is the very least we should do as subs. Fine writing and brilliant headlines are a welcome bonus; we should never forget that our priority is to ensure accuracy and if we can’t manage that, we might as well pack up.

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Last updated May 4, 2020