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Sub-editing

The editorial function of any publication – whether website, newsletter, newspaper or magazine – has three main elements:

  • Writing
    Which can be divided into “reporting”- or writing of news items – feature and comment writing.  Understanding the different techniques can be helpful and important.
  • Sub-editing
    The checking, editing and improvement of what has been written
  • Layout and design
    The typefaces to be used; and how the material to be used on a page (words and pictures) is to be displayed.

This page focusses on the second of these: sub-editing

The role of the sub-editor – or ‘Sub’

As one of journalism’s ‘greats’, Allen Hutt, put it in his book ‘Newspaper Design’:

“The Sub’s job is to check and edit stories for publication, (aiming to) improve them, to make them more readable, to get rid of useless wordage, and to reshape the story if necessary so that it becomes a lively, interesting news item capable of being easily understood and followed by anyone who may read it.”

Allen Hutt
'Newspaper Design'

The qualities needed for sub-editing

A variety of knowledge and these skills are required so that the sub-editor can help every reader of the publication to understand quickly and easily what a story is about.

The sub-editor is in the middle between the reporter or writer and the reader and if he is uncertain as to what the story means you can be sure that the reader will be too.

A sub-editor needs to have:

  • a very good command of English and spelling, and the ability to write clearly
  • an obsession with accuracy
  • a wide general knowledge
  • an orderly mind
  • a good working knowledge of typography and newspaper production
  • the ability to work accurately at speed and under pressure
  • respect for the writer/reporter
  • a good knowledge of the law affecting publications
  • the ability to visualise
  • a sense of humour

Making sense

The first task is to check the story for accuracy and to ensure that it makes sense.

  • All names, dates, titles, figures, place names or any suspect point must be checked against the many sources of reference available; and of course spelling.
  • Stories which have been well written will require only the minimum of attention: it is no part of the sub-editor’s job to re-write a story which does not require that kind of treatment; apart from the effect it will have on the writer who will quite rightly query why his style is not acceptable.
  • If the story is all right, leave well alone.

Headline rules

The next job for the sub is to write a headline – those vital words that attract the reader’s attention to the story.

It is a skill which requires some understanding of typography – the choice and use of typefaces.

The main purpose of a headline is to make the reader want to read the story.

Remembering these rules can help:

  • Use active verbs – don’t write labels
  • Ensure the headline is legally safe
  • Beware of double meanings
  • Avoid jargon
  • Phrase line by line
  • The headline must make sense
  • Make every word pay
  • Make sure the headline fits the allotted space

Pictures

Sub-editing also involves responsibility for the use of pictures on pages.

  • It would be difficult to over-estimate the value of pictures – or the skill required to use them to their best advantage.
  • As one newspaperman famously put it:  “a picture is worth a thousand words…”
  • It’s only worth including them if they are relevant, well chosen and appropriately displayed.
  • Here we can only suggest looking at professional newspapers and magazines, analysing how they have used pictures – and drawing your own conclusions for your publication.

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