Crap writers can drive you round the bend. They are so irritating that from time to time editors feel they just have to vent their spleen, says Humphrey Evans.

London: 14 RandomObservationsProduct Details


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.


All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.
 


 


There are good writers who it is a dream to work with. There are co-operative writers who try to make things easy for editors. There are appreciative writers who tell you you have done a good job with their piece. And then there are the others.

 


It's the crap writers who demand final copy approval. Really good writers tend not to because they can't imagine why anybody would want to change a word of what they have written. Crap writers find that everything changes on them and try to fight it - but this wouldn't happen if they weren't such crap writers in the first place.


It's the crap writers who dispute every tiny grammatical, or even spelling, correction. They just don't understand the varieties of English usage and assume that anything different from what they write must be wrong.


It's the crap writers who get stuff in late who are most demanding about having printed exactly what they deliver, even if it is 1500 words arriving on a press day morning and aimed at an 800 word slot.


It's the crap writers who write under pseudonyms and are totally unavailable for any kind of checking procedure because they are tied up with the demands of what they see as their real jobs who complain most vociferously that changes have been made without consulting them.


It's the crap writers who understand least about the production process who are most emphatic that the last-minute changes they want will be no bother at all to carry out, even though you are telling them the editor has already passed the colour proofs.


It's the crap writers who send in revised versions at about 48-hour intervals, without delineating exactly what has changed from one version to the next, who are most insistent that there should be a follow-up corrections panel to explain to the readers exactly what subtleties have been overlooked.


It's the crap writers who don't seem to learn how to do it better from one article to the next.


It's the crap writers who are least aware of their shortcomings who are liable to say, after the piece has been published and, seemingly, without being aware of the editorial changes and improvements you have slaved over: "Gosh, this article reads really well now it is typeset."


And it's the crap writers who ask you why you always sound so irritable when talking to them.

 


Workplace: 34 Revelatories Hewn from the World of Work 


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.


All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.
 


Humphrey Evans
 has put together a number of Kindle eBooks. Quite a lot of the material on this website has gone into two of them, making it available in what you may find a more convenient format. These two are:
Edit: 23 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors
More Edit: 20 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors

Subedit: 25 Instructories for Anyone Who has to Sub 
adds extra materials. If you're starting out as a subeditor or copyeditor, this could be the one for you. 


Other titles on offer include:
Freelance: 24 Pointers Towards Journalism That Pays
London: 14 Random Observations
More London: Another 14 Random Observations
Poems by Post: 22 Ditties, Diatribes and Doggerels
Food: 54 Fairly Funny Facts
Workplace: 34 Revelatories Hewn From the World of Work 
Way to Go: 35 Advisories for Would-Be Travel Writers
Odd Jobs: 15 Involvements with a Range of Occupations
Extra Odd Jobs: 19 More Insights into Unusual Occupations
Britain: 16 Journeyings, Encounters, Experiences



Find out more at 
Humphrey's Kindle list

 


Product Details

 


And if you want to use a photograph taken with a subeditor's sensibilities, go to www.alamy.com and put prettygoodpics into the search box. This cared-for classic wreck in Havana comes up if you put BEP12C in the search box.
 


 


Think better headlines


You can think your way to a better headline if you work out how to nudge your brain into doing what it needs to do to push those words around, says Humphrey Evans.

 


Books about writing headlines will give you plenty of cracking examples to emulate but what you really need is a way of getting your brain into a different kind of gear.


News headlines tell the story, offering up as much information as they can in six or eight words. Feature headlines can be more allusive, aiming to intrigue and titillate. Both require you to push words around, to come up with sharp formulations that nonetheless feel natural and unforced.


Facility with words requires practice. Take short words. Easy mental access to lots and lots of short words helps you construct headlines that fit. So here's an exercise that will force your brain into going looking for short words.

Consider the word "employment". Now write down as many 3-letter words as you can that link to it in some way or another. Job, pay and tax look like three obvious ones - although people doing this exercise often don't come up with all three - but what you're after is the playfulness that opens up less obvious words such as cat and dog, reached through fat cat and top dog.


Register that the point of this exercise is the processes you go through, not the absolute number of words you come up with. At times your brain will stop. It will turn to mush. There's nothing there. There are no more 3-letter words in the universe. That is the headline writer's experience.


You have to find out how you get your brain back into motion. Think about a day at work (and day is a 3-letter word). Think about what you like doing at work - fun? tea? Think about the other end of the experience - does P45 count? What you're after is that moment when your brain stops being mush and pops up another word. That's the headline writing moment and you're trying to build the confidence that it will happen.


You can do something similar for feature headlines. A lot of the time you're trying to come up with little phrases that seem to say more than they mean. These free-floating phrases have a lot in common with film titles. So here's an exercise: dream up three titles for films that have yet to be made - which means more than settling for Terminator 4. Here are some that came from a course I recently ran on writing better headlines: Deep Vein, The Other Brother, Twisted Fate, Look Me In The Eyes, All Those Years Ago. I'd like to see some of these films: I could certainly write feature articles that would justify them as headlines.

 


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.


All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.
 



Humphrey Evans
 has put together a number of Kindle eBooks. Quite a lot of the material on this website has gone into two of them, making it available in what you may find a more convenient format. These two are:
Edit: 23 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors
More Edit: 20 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors

Subedit: 25 Instructories for Anyone Who has to Sub 
adds extra materials. If you're starting out as a subeditor or copyeditor, this could be the one for you. 


Other titles on offer include:
Freelance: 24 Pointers Towards Journalism That Pays
London: 14 Random Observations
Poems by Post: 22 Ditties, Diatribes and Doggerels
Food: 54 Fairly Funny Facts
Workplace: 34 Revelatories Hewn From the World of Work 
Way to Go: 35 Advisories for Would-Be Travel Writers
Odd Jobs: 15 Involvements with a Range of Occupations
Extra Odd Jobs: 19 More Insights into Unusual Occupations
Britain: 16 Journeyings, Encounters, Experiences


Find out more at 
Humphrey's Kindle list

 


Product DetailsProduct Details

 

 


Check out those spelling rules


Spelling underpins everything subeditors do, so it helps if you build up your awareness of the ways the rules of English spelling work, says Humphrey Evans.

 


Here is a bit of a puzzle - what do the words one, two, said, was, eye and gone have in common? The answer is that, although they don't look at all challenging, there's no real way to tell their pronunciation from their spelling. You just have to have learnt at some point that each is spelt and pronounced the way it is.


A lot of the spelling rules in English - perhaps regularities would be a better word - don't have much to do with pronunciation. One of the strongest, for instance, is that when we bring in a word from a foreign language we try to preserve the original spelling.


English, for instance, doesn't like having a lone "v" at the end of a written word, which explains the conflicting pronunciations in "I live to feel alive". On the other hand, it happily accepts "molotov cocktail".


Presumably, in another instance, we picked up the spelling of "colonel" from the French - the word still resonates in my mind since it threw me sideways in a reading test at infant school. Actually, the Spanish spell it "coronel", which suggests that Europeans have, at times, had as much difficulty differentiating "l" and "r" as do the Japanese, and may explain our own "kernel" pronunciation - who were our allies during the Peninsular War?


Perhaps the prime example is the "p" in "psychology". French, Italian and Spanish have all got that "p" and, in their case, it seems that they do pronounce it. There's just a slight plosive difference between the "ps" and a pure "s". I doubt that written English will ever drop the "p" (although Welsh has, to give "seicoleg") because we like the link back to the original Greek word "psyche" or soul. It's the Greek letter psi which firmly puts that "p" into play, and it's the Greek link, too, which presents the "k" sound as "ch".


Links between spelling and pronunciation are important, but the real aim with spelling in journalism is making sure everything is spelt right according to some standard. That guarantees people can look up words they have problems with in dictionaries.

 


Workplace: 34 Revelatories Hewn from the World of Work 

 


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.


All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.
 


 


A brief history of type sizes


Points and picas keep us in touch with earlier modes of production - before the days of computers - and are quite fun to know about, says subbing tutor Humphrey Evans.

 


Pop stars confronted by those trivia quizzes happily tell interviewers their favourite number. Mine, if asked, would be 72.27000072. It's the number of printer's points to an inch.


Actually, this is a conscious archaicism as most computers, following on from the Postscript page description language, plump for a rounded-off 72 points to an inch. If you find yourself using TeX, however, which is particularly good for setting scientific formulae and the like, you can pride yourself on knowing that its designer, mathematician Donald Knuth, clung on to the slightly more esoteric 72.27 points to an inch.


As it happens, fixing the size of the original point seems to have been more of a pragmatic affair than a theoretical stance. The French started it, defining their point, the Didot, at 72 to the Royal inch, with 12 Didot points making a Cicero. This Didot point is about 10 per cent larger than the Anglo-American one.


When the Americans and then the Brits followed suit, they settled on Pica type as being equivalent to the French Cicero. Before the point system, type sizes were known by names - Minion was roughly 7 point, Bourgeois 9 point, Pica 12.


In 1886, the United States Typefounders' Association settled on the present points and picas system, standardising their pica on the one that happened to be used by the country's oldest type foundry, McKellar, Smiths and Jordan of Philadelphia. That's the pragmatism - and the explanation, presumably, of the startlingly weird relationship to the inch. Just possibly, in a flurried fusion of measurement systems, they had in mind the notion that 83 picas would exactly equal 35 centimetres.


Even now, with computers handling virtually all the type production going, and websites operating without the stuff having any corporeal presence, we're still looking back at the physicality of lead. Point sizes can't be measured directly. They define the body of the type, the height of the now imaginary metal slug each letter sits on. So a type's point size is just a smidgeon more than the distance from the tops of the ascenders to the bottom of the descenders, while the only place it's truly recorded is within the output device's software.


You can find more in Type & typography (lower case correct) by Phil Baines and Andrew Haslam.

 


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.


All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.
 


Humphrey Evans
 has put together a number of Kindle eBooks. Quite a lot of the material on this website has gone into two of them, making it available in what you may find a more convenient format. These two are:
Edit: 23 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors
More Edit: 20 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors


Subedit: 25 Instructories for Anyone Who has to Sub 
adds extra materials. If you're starting out as a subeditor or copyeditor, this could be the one for you. 


Other titles on offer include:
Freelance: 24 Pointers Towards Journalism That Pays
London: 14 Random Observations
Poems by Post: 22 Ditties, Diatribes and Doggerels
Food: 54 Fairly Funny Facts
Workplace: 34 Revelatories Hewn From the World of Work

Way to Go: 35 Advisories for Would-Be Travel Writers


Find out more at 
Humphrey's Kindle list

 

 

 

 


Subedit for slickness


Run sentences together while moving words into the most appropriate places and you can massively improve the reader's experience, says subbing tutor Humphrey Evans.

 


Writers and reporters are often in a hurry, banging down what is in their notebooks as quickly as possible so as to get on with the next round of telephone calls and interviews or seeking out extreme experiences. Subs exist to turn the resulting jumble into something easy for readers to assimilate.


So, subs need to be aware of the kind of things that go wrong when people are writing under pressure.


Have a look at this example which comes from a story I was presented with in one of my first jobs as a freelance subeditor some years ago: "Access starts a new campaign this week. It costs £6 million."


The information is there but presented to the reader with a lazy indifference that takes four words in a separate sentence to impart two words of information. Ultra-short sentences draw attention to themselves, so reserve them for ultra-significant facts or comments.


On top of that, you can drop the word new - so much more an advertiser's word than a journalistic one - and remember to remind the reader of just what kind of firm Access is (or was). Now you have something the reader will find altogether more accessible: "Credit card operator Access starts a £6 million campaign this week."


Have a look at another example where a writer has started a short piece with two clunky sentences, undercut even further by depending on the weakest of verbs: "Cindy Van Dover is an oceanographer. She is pilot of a research submersible."


Put the description in front of the name and you emphasise that it is her role that is important. Run these two sentences together and you can slide on easily into a third that has her actually doing something: "Oceanographer Cindy Van Dover, pilot of a research submersible, has discovered a species of shrimp that manages to survive around hot springs that well from clefts in the ocean floor."


That version slickly leads the reader in so as to set up the kicker in the second half of the squib: "In the interests of science, Cindy cooked and ate a few. She reports that they don't turn pink when cooked but stay an unattractive grey. Also, they taste horrible."


In this case that short sentence at the end is doing everything a short sentence should do: drawing attention to an unpalatable fact.

 


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.


All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.
 



London: 14 RandomObservations 

 


Sub out wasteful words


If you want to keep going, here's another article about another aspect of subediting in which Humphrey Evans shows how c
areful subbing of wordy copy can cut wasteful words and squeeze in more information.

 


Rule 1 when handling any kind of article is to hold the readers' interest. Even the most promising material can go to waste if you let its appeal dribble away in lacklustre language or a welter of verbiage that adds little to the meaning.


Aim to get down to the fewest possible words. Perhaps you feel it doesn't matter if you've got a paragraph of 50 words and you can leave it at that, even if a bit of work might bring it down to 40, or 30, or even 25. Readers, you might think, will get the point, because the information does come across.


But readers may also take to skipping through the piece, without paying much attention, because they realise so much of it is just moving the grammar along without adding to the content.


Words like is and was can act as signals to start revising. Some people write things like "It was in 1998 that . . ." Changing that (unless it's referring back to something) to "In 1998 . . ." doesn't just lose two little words; it moves the sentence along more quickly. "Over the loudspeaker it was announced . . ." shrinks to "A loudspeaker announced . . ." and saves three words as well as shifting from passive to active mood.


Remember that readers like new paragraphs. Those little indentations seem to pull their eyes down the page. But they also like new words, new concepts and new content. Avoid starting paragraphs with dead constructions such as "There are a number of reasons . . ." Give them something lively.


Cut down on padding. This is from an interview with a footballer. "He tells me a little of his footballing history, his face animated all the time he is speaking to me." That last phrase can go, saving five swords, because it's implied in what comes before.


All this has an extra benefit: save one word here, a couple there, half a dozen in every paragraph and you can push in much more information. Do it to a 300-word piece and you can squeeze in another paragraph, making an extra separate point and bumping up the real content by 20 per cent.


Anyone who has ever said "I had so much good material but I couldn't get it into the space" will appreciate how good that feels.

 


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.


All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.
 


Humphrey Evans
 has put together a number of Kindle eBooks. Quite a lot of the material on this website has gone into two of them, making it available in what you may find a more convenient format. These two are:
Edit: 23 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors
More Edit: 20 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors


Subedit: 25 Instructories for Anyone Who has to Sub 
adds extra materials. If you're starting out as a subeditor or copyeditor, this could be the one for you. 




 Product Details

 


Apostles meet apostrophes

Names that end in S can do funny things around apostrophes. Humphrey Evans investigates.

 


Southwark Cathedral, seat of the bishop of Southwark, houses a memorial to two young surgeons who died tending to the British sick and wounded in the Crimea. The tablet was erected, it says, by "the Governors of St Thomas's Hospital".


St Thomas's. Now there's a thing. Anybody who has anything to do with writings about the health service gets quickly dinned into them an awareness that the place has to be referred to as St Thomas' Hospital because that's the way it presents itself. It's there in letters six feet high along the top storey of the building. It's like that in all the public notices about the Guy's and St Thomas' Hospital NHS Trust. Just never mind the fact that even the people who work there, like everyone else, actually talk about St Thomas's - Tommy's to real insiders.


In other words, a possible guideline to oneself would be to follow what such an institution lays down. But appreciate that there is another guideline lurking - represent in print and writing what people say.


When Canaletto touted his painting of London's Old Horse Guards building - in the Daily Advertiser of 25 July 1749 - he described it as being a view of St James' Park. Going even further, Harry Beck stripped all the apostrophes out of his iconically diagrammatic map of the London Underground when he first developed it, in the early 1930s, to give St James Park.


But people actually say St James's Park. And that is where the Royal Parks website, and the roadsigns and the present London Underground map have ended up. Contrast it, however, with the football stadium where Newcastle play - St James' Park on the club's website, although the local evening paper prefers St James's Park.


This other guideline, therefore, means taking note of how people talk. I say Euripides's plays, as, I imagine, does Cambridge classicist Mary Beard since that is what she had printed in an article about the value of learning Greek and Latin. I refer to Charles Dickens's novels, as does Iain Sinclair's huge collection of fugitive scraps presented in London: City of Disappearances.


But I'm fairly sure that this extra "s" is not always present because I also talk about Sir John Stevens' inquiry into Princess Diana's death and Noel Edmonds' perplexingly popular Deal Or No Deal.


So there you have it: St Thomas' Hospital and St James's Park and St James' Park because the powers that be declare it. But Euripides's, Dickens's, Stevens' and Edmonds' because I say so. Unless, of course, you can gather together enough people who say different to force a change.

 


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.


All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.
 



Poems by Post: 22 Ditties, Diatribes and Doggerels 

 


The good spell guide

Improve your spelling by cranking up some memory hooks and seeking out ways to work with your dictionary, says Humphrey Evans.

 


Here is a tiny puzzle. Write down the word that identifies the shopkeeper who sells you writing materials, paper, envelopes, that kind of thing. He or she is a . . . .


Stationer is the word and I am certain you will have written it with an "e". It's just not possible to put an "a" between the "n" and the "r". Now add a "y" and you have a guaranteed way of spelling "stationery" and, by contrast, the "a" spelling that refers to things not moving. You don't have to grapple with rubrics about "e is for envelopes, a is for automobiles".


You can look for other aids in coping with the vagaries of English spelling. The "rack" in "rack and ruin" doesn't have a "w". It ought to, because it so obviously relates to wrack and wreck and all the other "wr" words that involve twisting and destruction, but somewhere along the line the "w" dropped off. My way of remembering this is to register the double impossibility of "wrack and wruin".


What you are looking for is ways of bringing memory knowingly into play. Even when you think you know a spelling rule - try "i before e, except after c" - you have to remember its limitations. That one doesn't help much with Reich, reign or reignite - and you even have to remember that there is another spelling of rein.


English spelling is memory heavy, which is why even the best spellers still benefit from having a large dictionary to hand.


The American writer John Irving, author of The World According to Garp, suggests treating your dictionary as a working tool. Make notes in it, he says, rather than trying to preserve its pristine pages unsullied. He makes a mark beside any word he looks up, for instance. He knows he's looked up "strictly" 14 times and he knows he's done so because of an urge to spell it "stricktly". He's looked up "ubiquitous" a dozen times simply because he can't remember what it means.


My word would be "eschatological". I'm hoping a writer will use it in an article one day just to drive me into properly looking it up.

 


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.


All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.
 


London: 14 RandomObservations

 


When might is right

May and might can give a bit of trouble over when to use each one, but it is worth sorting out as there is a valuable distinction to be made, says Humphrey Evans.

 


You can say "This might interest you". You can say "This may interest you". You can say "Might this interest you?" But you can't say "May this interest you?"


In the same way you can say "May the force be with you" but you can't say "Might the force be with you" unless you turn it into a question.


What this shows is that there are differences between may and might, difficult though they are to pin down, and that the two are not as totally interchangeable as some people appear to believe.


One difference is to do with levels of probability. Something that may happen is a lot more likely to occur than something that just might happen.


But the real killer app, to borrow some computer jargon, comes when you use might, not may, to refer to a situation that cannot be: "Captain Scott might have reached the South Pole first - and survived the trip - if he had used dogs to pull the sleighs."


Now that looks like a really useful thing to be able to do, to indicate to readers that you are speculating about what might have been, rather than what actually was. Yet, for some people, might is apparently dropping out, leaving just may and, thereby, losing this distinction.


Here are some examples that have made it into print:


"Some of the Dutch still believe that if Johan Cruyff had played in the 1978 World Cup finals, Holland may have come home with the trophy."


"More than one rapist has said to his victim, without any irony, 'You should be more careful because someone nasty may have attacked you'."


"If it had not been for the submarine crew's outstanding efforts, the consequences may have been much worse."


With all of these, my nerve ends tingle. I just want those "mays" to be "mights". I'd like to be able to ring the writers up to ask them what meaning they thought they were conveying with their "mays". If I were subbing the pieces, I'd be begging them to let me turn them into "mights". But what if I am watching the language change in front of my eyes? Might may be the future - or may might yet prevail?

 

 


Words are all we have

Look out for new words so as to best present them to your readers, says Humphrey Evans.

 


Couch potatoes first thrust themselves into my consciousness about halfway through subbing one of those "Letter from New York" articles back in the mid-1980s. What a concept, I thought, and happily slammed it into the headline.


Half an hour later, the deputy editor on the magazine came over and unslammed it. "The readers won't understand," he said. The readers won't understand? What kind of idiot can't see that the thing is self-explanatory - couch potatoes are people who sit on couches like, well, potatoes.


Readers, to my mind, pick up new words and phrases really easily and, in fact, quite gleefully. English is particularly good at pushing two words together in new combinations, as with couch potatoes, and dictionary makers do slide into referring to these doublets as words.


Credit crunch, extraordinary rendition, postcode lottery and carbon footprint somehow come into being with their meaning almost transparently flagged up. However, one dictionary has found it necessary to define "extreme ironing", where people photograph themselves deploying board and iron in unlikely locations such as mountain tops and even underwater.


Single words seem more likely to need a bit of explanation, at least at first. Podcasting, metrosexual and phishing do now seem to be out there unassisted. But I'd be wary, in a general publication, of mentee, someone who is mentored, and obesogenic, tending to cause obesity. And I just couldn't face locavore, apparently someone who eats only food grown within a hundred miles of where they live.


I quite enjoy the playfulness involved in presenting readers with really unlikely words. The Guardian managed it nicely with a piece about a scientific study of nosepicking among teenagers, featuring the unadulterated term "rhinotillexomania".


If you do find a strange word forcing its way into a piece, aim to tag on an explanation as gracefully as possible. Suze Rotolo handled this beautifully in an interview she gave to the Guardian - she's the woman in a green coat snuggled up against Bob Dylan in the iconic photograph on the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Her 28-year-old son, she said, is a luthier: "Only four people in New York know what that means. He makes guitars."

 


Humphrey Evans teaches subediting and has been involved with the National Union of Journalists Getting Started as a Freelance course since its inception.


All material on this website is copyright © Humphrey Evans.
 

Humphrey Evans has put together a number of Kindle eBooks. Quite a lot of the material on this website has gone into two of them, making it available in what you may find a more convenient format. These two are:
Edit: 23 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors
More Edit: 20 Guidances for Editors, Subeditors, Copyeditors


Subedit: 25 Instructories for Anyone Who has to Sub 
adds extra materials. If you're starting out as a subeditor or copyeditor, this could be the one for you. 


Other titles on offer include:
Freelance: 24 Pointers Towards Journalism That Pays
London: 14 Random Observations
Poems by Post: 22 Ditties, Diatribes and Doggerels
Food: 54 Fairly Funny Facts
Workplace: 34 Revelatories Hewn From the World of Work

Way to Go: 35 Advisories for Would-Be Travel Writers


Find out more at 
Humphrey's Kindle list