It’s a common question: what is a sub-editor. The name would suggest that they are somehow linked to the editor, like a mini version of the person in charge of the whole operation. In fact, sub-editors are the defensive unit that makes sure the publication on which they work doesn’t go to the printers riddled with spelling mistakes.
A sub-editor has many roles:
1. Check copy. “Copy” is another word for “text” or “words”. Writers “file copy”, ie “write some words” and hand it over to the sub-editors who will then read through it in order to pick up spelling mistakes, factual inaccuracies and style points.
2. Cut copy. When a magazine or newspaper page is laid out by the design team, chances are that the copy won’t fit on the page. Writers love to write lots of words. Designers prefer to use pictures, so there’s always going to have to be some sort of happy medium, but this usually involves too many words being put on a page. A sub’s primary job in this instance is to “cut” some of the words out whilst retaining the writer’s meaning and style.
3. Write headlines and captions. While a writer might want to call one of their pieces of work “Twenty-five reasons why this summer’s music festivals are going to be amazing”, the design team might only have left you enough room for 10 characters. It is therefore the job of the sub to condense all of that information into a catchy phrase that encapsulates the whole piece. Aside from the writers and designers, picture editors like to throw their spanners into the works by giving designers a range of images to choose from. These get placed on the page and blank captions get put on them. It is the sub’s job to get the right information and then condense it into the 20-word space left for the caption.
4. Ensure pages keep with the publication’s style. Each magazine or newspaper will have a “house style guide” – a set of rules to follow to ensure continuity in their publications. Rules can extend to the way numbers are written (One to nine in words, 10 and above in figures), date formatting, or even the preferred way to spell certain words (such as “yoghurt/yogurt”, both of which are correct). Every page should adhere to these rules and the subs are there to ensure that they do.
5. Flag up any legal issues. Subs are not lawyers, but they need to have a keen eye for what may get a publication into hot water and liaise with the legal team when necessary to ensure no libel action is taken.
6. Chase people. While writers love to write, they seem to hate deadlines. Subs love deadlines. They love order and continuity. Day to day, a sub will have to make sure that writers are getting their words in on time, designers are laying out pages promptly using pictures that have been gathered efficiently. Think of them like attentive parents in this respect.
Subs are by no means infallible, and mistakes still get through (keep an eye out for a “caption here please” or something similar – usually missed by a sub on deadline), but for the most part, a good team of sub-editors will stop the vast majority of errors making it into print.