From International Viewpoints (IVy) Issue 12 - July 1993
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Write On...

How I Mangle Manuscripts

by Terry E. Scott, England

I'd like to talk a bit about one of my professional hats: sub-editor.
I've been subbing in this lifetime for decades and doing some of the
subbing in IVy (when articles need it). What I am about to
write applies to sub-editors generally and how they process an
author's work.

Here's an R-factor: A good sub-editor walks a tight-rope
between writer and reader. But the balance favors the reader -
and let's not forget the publisher, who is kept in business by the
reader's applause.

A 'sub' processes an author's article to make it ready for
printing. In olden days, meaning earlier than 1985-90, 'subbing'
included scribbling marks on a manuscript (MS) to tell the printer
what kind of type face and type size to use. Wiggly lines indicated
bold type, an underline meant italics, and so on. Today,
a sub is just as likely to do the job on screen, for many publishers
and printers work with word-processors and computers. IVy
is happy with articles either typed on paper (double-spacing
is helpful but not vital) or recorded on computer diskette (ASCII
save, with carriage return at the ends of paragraphs if possible).

A sub, reading the article, picks up any speling errers and
mistakes and currects 'em. Cleans up any curiosities in the author's
punctuation, too; commas and semi-colons and what-have-yous
are signposts that help the reader smoothly along. They also help
prevent ambiguities. And the sub tackles archaic Oddities of upper
Case, but puts in a capital where one should exist.

He's a goody-two-shoes, but is not seen that way by all authors.
Justifiably so, in some cases, for some subs do a pretty poor job.

A bad sub overdoes things. A good 'un works sympathetically and
yet that could be five minutes' work on one article, fifty-five
on another.

The good sub duplicates the author's work and its essential style,
and passes it towards the reader as purely as feasible. He has a duty
to the reader to make things easy to read, clear. Yet subs aren't
paragons of virtue, and are apt to make a mess now and again, needing
forgiveness every bit as much as some authors. Hint: a good sub is
likely to be a writer too, under another hat.

I've invented an example of a subbed paragraph:

The air was soft, not too warm. Clarissa felt a hint of a breeze
touch her golden hair delicately. She thrilled inwardly as she reached
the top of the hill, looking about her quickly. This was the place!
At last! She recognized the subtle coloration of the River Kreeg in
the distance.

Let's pretend this was the original:

The air was soft. It wasn't too warm, though. Clarissa could feel
on her golden, silken, lovely Hair a hint of a breeze from the Wind
as it touched her lovely hair so delicately. Clarissa thrilled inside
as she reached the top of the sloping hill, and looked around quickly.
This was the place, Clarissa thought. It had been a long time, but
now she was back. She knew it was the right place, because she could
recognise the subtle colouration of the river Kreeg, which was a long
way away.

Look, the author should have written the thing more tightly in the
first place. Some authors don't have a Department of Review.

The most important thing the sub does is: to duplicate the flow that
the author is attempting. Or to create one harmoniously if the author
hasn't quite made it. The sub, and his Editor, want the reader to
go speedily through the thing, not hit a pothole every sentence.

How far should the sub go? Oh, what a joy it is to find a piece from
an author that needs practically no work! Just mark it up for the
printer and pay an early visit to the coffee machine. Oh, bliss.

Otherwise, the question is: where to stop subbing? Beyond a certain
point, one is into a re-write. Beyond much of that, the author
should surely be given back the manuscript or floppy diskette and
asked to do his own rewrite.

None of this should discourage anyone from writing for this magazine.
Few are professional writers, but many have something well worth
But, if an author writes, oh, six sentences in a row beginning 'The
thing is this...', he should not be surprised to find it changed
gently in print. And unlike many journalists, Antony lets you see
a proof of your article prior to going to press.

Readers' letters? That's a different story, with subbing at an
minimum, although a friendly sub will pick up basics such as spelling

That's about it: I wanted to give some of my viewpoints on what I
do and why. Hope it doesn't sound authoritarian.

Tue Jul 11 20:08:21 EDT 2006