Rantings of a sub-editor

April 23, 2010

Spatial awareness training

Filed under: spatial awareness,Substuff says... — substuff @ 9:10 am
Tags: , ,

Sometimes headlines need to be changed. The existing one may be repeating a previous headline, focusing on not quite the right angle, or just plain wrong. And sometimes copy needs to be changed after it has been subbed. I fully understand this.

However, I would like to point out the following to all editorial staff who change headlines or subbed copy:

  • If you ask for five words to be removed and eighteen added, there might be a little issue with copy fit.
  • If you remove “profits have risen 2%” from a headline and replace it with “profits have increased 2%”, guess what? It ain’t gonna fit.
  • If you add a sentence to a story without removing anything to make space, the sub is going to have to do it for you and, if he/she is conscientious, show you again. Some may argue that on press day, this could fall under the definition of “an unwise use of time”.

I should probably point out that at our magazine, the pages go out to the section editors on paper after they have been subbed. The section editors give them back to the subs with changes marked on page in pen. The subs put the changes in and issue a new proof, which goes to the editor or deputy editor, who marks their changes on the page and gives it back to the subs again. And sometimes, again and again and again.

So, on a regular basis, the subs find themselves trying to bash the proverbial square peg into a round hole. But, worry not! I have come up with a solution.

All editorial staff who want to change subbed copy should undertake one hour of training a day on this spatial awareness device (pictured right), until they can correctly answer the following three questions:

Are the bricks:
a) all exactly the same size
b) of varying size and shape
c) simply in need of a good telling off

When selecting a brick to put into a hole, should you:
a) rely on pure fanciful whimsy
b) close your eyes, reach out a hand and jab wildly
c) have a look at the size and shape of both the brick and the hole

Which of the following is true?
a) the square brick fits in the square hole and only the square hole
b) if the square shape won’t fit in the round hole, the sub-editor is shit
c) the shapes can be kerned to fit any hole, can’t they?



  1. Many years ago on a trade press title focusing on the PR industry (oh, go on – it’s not hard to guess), I used to have to sub the profile of the week page. The writer regularly over-wrote by some margin, and I dutifully cut the copy back, focusing the cuts on the general introduction, and leaving most of the material on the person profiled (quotes, career etc). Which seemed to make sense to me.

    Inevitably the proof would come back with a whole lot of instructions to reinstate the precious cut copy – but with no indication of equivalent cuts to make the thing fit. My protestations to this effect were met by a stare of incomprehension and hostility…

    Comment by Freelance Unbound — April 23, 2010 @ 10:25 am | Reply

  2. The problem has been totally eradicated in the regional press since nobody has time to check anything any more. There was a time though when news editors had time on their hands to fiddle with copy.
    Our ingenious solution was to redesign the page to accommodate all the surplus copy. This of course could only be managed by use of fold out leaves on the side of each of the pages with too much material to squeeze in.
    Everybody was happy and news editors stopped asking to a quart in a pint pot.

    Comment by Director of Studies, Canterbury Media School — April 23, 2010 @ 1:42 pm | Reply

    • Fold-out leaves? Really? That IS ingenious. I’m struggling to picture it!

      Comment by substuff — April 24, 2010 @ 8:47 am | Reply

  3. The web makes everyone happier still, as now you don’t have to cut to fit at all!

    Comment by Freelance Unbound — April 23, 2010 @ 3:13 pm | Reply

  4. By the way, this spelling of ‘spatial’ is really bothering me. ‘Spacial’ looks wrong too, although the OED says both are fine.

    Okay, I need to get a life.

    Comment by substuff — April 23, 2010 @ 7:58 pm | Reply

  5. At least in days gone by every journalist (reporter or sub) understood that if you put something in, you had to take something out. People were also taught how to mark proofs accordingly. Does anybody know how to do this now without the liberal use of emoticons? A smiley face, for example, means “Put all this stuff in and I haven’t bothered to cut anything out” as far as I can tell.

    God forbid there was even a system for headlines. All letters (bar flitj and mw) had a character count of 1 based on the standard width of a character. Flitj letters counted for a half with m or w counting for one-and-a-half. You could then write a headline that fitted the space you were given before it even hit the page. Simple really.

    But now we have computers it is so much easier. We now just rewrite headlines on screen about eight times because no one has any idea about how many characters will fit a given space. Progress indeed.

    Therein ends my rant . . . but I understand your frustration.

    But the answer, I suspect, is a relatively simple one. How many of your editorial staff have had training on correcting proofs etc?

    Is it zero by any chance?

    Comment by Vice-Chancellor — April 23, 2010 @ 10:04 pm | Reply

    • You do speak an awful lot of sense sometimes. I didn’t actually know the flitj,mw rule, but I think I kinda unofficially knew it. It’s so simple!

      Most of the editorial staff know some proofing marks, although usually it’s an own-interpretation version. But one person is SO bad that no-one but the subs’ desk can actually decipher what he/she has written – and even then, not always. Tramlines central. I did try providing a proof marks sheet, but the hint was not taken.

      It’s dangerous, because if you are not 100% alert, 100% of the time, you can end up putting in the word the scribble looks most like, rather than the word that was intended. In my first couple of months there, I copied in the word ‘poised’ as ‘paid’. “[Smith] is paid to…” rather than “[Smith] is poised to…” That didn’t go down very well at all, with Smith or the editor, and I was devastated to have put in such a boob. Obviously I am more vigilant now.

      As Alanis Morissette should have sung: You live, you learn, you question every unintelligible scribble.

      Comment by substuff — April 24, 2010 @ 6:36 am | Reply

      • Thanks for the qualifier: “You do speak an awful lot of sense sometimes.”

        “You do speak an awful lot of sense” would have sufficed.

        But then I guess I probably deserved it after the student union comment.

        The new site looks great. So apologies if that didn’t come across. It was, very much so, meant as a compliment.

        Paddy (below) has hit the nail on the head though here. If we did each other’s jobs even for a short period, life would be an awful lot easier.

        The answer: training. Unfortunately, it is often the first thing that goes out of the the window in a recession. And, ironically, it is often the thing that is needed the most.

        Why don’t you offer to do a half-hour course on proof correction in your office? Just the basics: put stuff in, take stuff out etc.

        That’s not beyond your capabilities as far as I can see.

        As the Stones said (although I don’t mind Alanis Morissette)

        You can’t always get what you want
        But if you try sometimes, you just might find
        You get what you need


        Comment by Vice-Chancellor — April 25, 2010 @ 12:58 am | Reply

  6. All reporters should be made to sub for a few shifts every once in a while. It will make them more aware of how to write concisely and accurately (it certainly has helped me) and will give them a good laugh at the quality of their colleagues’ unsubbed copy.

    Comment by Paddy — April 24, 2010 @ 10:58 am | Reply

  7. My very first job, many moons ago, was as an audio typist for a solicitor in probate. One of my responsibilities was to type wills and codicils on foolscap parchment and probate accounts on double foolscap using an ancient typwriter which had a roller wide enough to hold this unwieldly expensive paper. About an inch (that’s 2.5cm to you younguns) from the top, bottom and sides was drawn a double red line and my copy had to be within these lines fully justified. I had to know exactly how many letter spaces would fit on each line, count the number of letters and spaces of what I was going to type and make it fit. No mistakes were tolerated, no eraser or the newly invented strips of paper Tippex could be used. With the accounts I had to manually adjust the umpteen tabs that were needed. Nobody taught me how to do all this – at the age of 16 these tasks were handed to me and I had to ‘make it all fit’ or I was out of a job.
    So, going back to your point regarding spatial awareness – I guess some people have it (subs?) and some people would definitely benefit from playing with the kiddie toy pictured above until they ‘got it’ ….

    Comment by Stefmez — April 24, 2010 @ 9:56 pm | Reply

    • Thank goodness someone invented the delete key (oh yeah, and computers and all that jazz)!

      Comment by substuff — April 25, 2010 @ 7:45 am | Reply

  8. Vice Chancellor,

    (I’m not allowed any more reply space, apparently, so here I am.)

    As for the ‘sometimes’, well let’s not forget that you once corrected my mother’s spelling, so it can’t be assumed that you are always in full possession of good sense.

    I did take your comment about the site as a compliment, but I’m afraid I can’t really take too much credit because (psst) it is mostly a ready-made theme. I’ve added bits and moved bits around, but I’m not sure I deserve too much in the way of congratulations!

    A half-hour course is a good idea. There are, however, reasons why it would not have the desired effect – but discretion is the better part of valour, etc.

    Comment by substuff — April 25, 2010 @ 7:55 am | Reply

    • I guess, reading between the lines, that you have at least one “lost cause” in your office. If that’s the case, I’m not sure you can do anything about people who don’t want to learn. Luckily, in my experience, those people are few and far between. But don’t let that put you off. If it’s a big problem for you and your colleagues suggest to your editor that the productivity of the magazine would be greatly improved if you could do a half-hour class on marking up proofs. And perhaps some other members of the team could offer a similar service. Often in a busy environment people are simply unaware of other people’s problems. It might cut out the lion’s share of the difficulties you are experiencing. You can then just drop in something along the lines of: “Oh, by the way, when you are correcting proofs it’s really important to remember that if you add two paragraphs to a story, you need to delete a similar amount elsewhere.”

      Somehow we’ve gone from Alanis Morissette, to the Stones to Karl Marx: “Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point however is to change it”.

      In other words, don’t accept the status quo.

      PS Your mother still hasn’t invited me for tea.

      Comment by Vice-Chancellor — April 25, 2010 @ 11:03 pm | Reply

  9. I just want to say what a great site I think this is. I gave up subbing two years ago (to write novels) but I still find the debates here gripping and I read it almost every day. Keep up the good work, Substuff; The Grocer should be proud to have you on their staff! Best wishes, Angus

    Comment by Angus Donald — April 25, 2010 @ 8:12 am | Reply

    • Why thank you so much! I’m very glad you think so. I blush.

      Comment by substuff — April 25, 2010 @ 8:15 am | Reply

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