It pays to stay on the right side of the subs

The much-maligned sub-editor has been in the news a lot lately, after David Montgomery’s remarks that he sees far less need for them.

As a journalist who once worked in a bustling Fleet Street features department and often dealt with its large team of features subs, I know how important it is for writers and subs to have a good working relationship.

Apart from anything else, if a sub takes against you for some reason, they can really sabotage your golden prose. Like most writers, I have my tales of pieces spoilt by careless subs who have created non sequiturs, left out a vital punchline, put erroneous captions with pictures, and so on.

At worst, they can turn your silk purse into a sow’s ear. But when you consider the intense pressure they are under on a national daily, that shouldn’t be too surprising. On the whole, they do a good job, very fast.

Subs vary greatly in their capabilities. While some are mediocre drudges (as in any occupation), the best are technical wizards, sensitive and intelligent in their handling of your copy, and veritable walking encyclopaedias. They should be held in the highest regard.

Alas, some arrogant feature writers treat all subs with disdain, as though they are mere lackeys.I recall that one in particular, who was notorious for failing to check her own spelling (as well as a lot of her facts), used to pronounce: ‘That’s what the subs are for.’The subs loathed her and found their own, subtle ways of getting back at her.

There are a few simple rules which feature writers should follow if they wish to get on with subs. Firstly, don’t be too lazy to check your copy for spelling and factual accuracy. Some mistakes may slip through and should get picked up – that really is part of the sub’s job – but don’t take this service for granted.

Secondly, bear in mind that feature writers are generally highly privileged folk – they get to buzz around on interesting assignments, interview celebrities, travel abroad on freebies. And they get expenses. It’s as well not to flaunt these perks in front of subs, who enjoy none of that glamour. I know of one thoughtless writer who actually asked a sub to fill out a blank taxi receipt for his expenses. He was sent away with a flea in his ear.

Finally, don’t complain about every minor subbing offence, or you’ll get a reputation as a whinger. Save it for the big cock-up, which is mercifully rare. And even then, try not to lose your decorum, for as a veteran hack once told me: ‘Hey, that’s showbiz.”

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