Inside the head of a sub-editor

Posted on: November 18th, 2010

If you’re a freelance writer and thinking about moving into sub-editing, guest writer, James Pringle, explains what subbing work is like and why it’s a vital part of the editorial process.

Aside from the judges on Strictly and the X Factor, most of us exercise tact when talking to people about their talents and tastes, whether it’s performing in amateur dramatics, decorating their home or choosing a partner.

If we find something unsatisfactory, we keep it to ourselves – and that’s why sub-editors are not universally popular among their journalist colleagues. Certainly it was a shock to my system when I joined an agency and started to have my work covered with subs’ marks. It was like being back at school.

Quality control

Soon, however, I came to see the benefits of quality control, with a fresh pair of eyes spotting where hastily written copy might not explain points clearly, elegantly or in a way that risked no legal consequences. No matter how famous they are, writers should stop and think before acting the prima donna and making a fuss about people ‘interfering’ with their contributions.

In these recessionary times, subs are becoming an endangered species in some organisations, but cutting costs by dispensing with them would be a false economy. It would mean a decline in standards, not to mention a loss of hitherto abundant work for freelances. So much for subs’ raison d’être, but what does it feel like to undertake such work?

Methodical and analytical

The satisfaction is that of the craftsman, making the finished product as good as possible. The downside? Apart from ruffling feathers, sub-editing can take the mind into a methodical, analytical mode where – aside from devising witty headlines – the creative urges are put on the back burner.

With a full-time subbing routine, it can feel like a huge gear-shift if the individual also attempts to carry out interviews and to produce lively articles. It’s tricky, but not impossible.


Perhaps more of a bugbear is the way the subbing mentality never quite disappears. Nitpicking newspapers, magazines and news reports is inevitable, but you may find yourself quibbling with the choice of words across all broadcasting.

Worst of all, you can be reading a novel and a voice in your head will grumble: “She shouldn’t have used that word again: it was in the last paragraph. Oh, and that doesn’t need a hyphen. And for heaven’s sake, not ‘focused’ with a double ‘s’. Closer to home, loved ones who present draft formal letters for inspection may not appreciate being offered total rewrites – but somehow I have managed to remain married.

James Pringle is a freelance writer and editor with a background in corporate, consumer and B2B publishing. He works from home on the Kent coast.

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