Writers versus Editors: The Case of Giles Coren and the Sunday Times Sub-Editors

05Aug08

Many years ago, my boss at the newspaper, a man long experienced in the ways of the world, gave me some sound advice: When you’re angry and bashing out one of those long, aggrieved, abusive, sarcastic missives to some fool who’s annoyed you, before you hit Send take a walk outside for ten minutes. Then, upon your return, delete what you’ve typed and write in its place a cool, calm, and collected letter. (An alternative is to just not send the original, angry letter, but then you end up like this guy. The Onion, as always, gets it right.)

Giles Coren, a restaurant critic who writes for the Sunday Times in Britain, could have done with such sage advice. Copyeditors (called subs, or sub-editors, over there) had the temerity to change a single word in his column and Coren went absolutely berserk. His furious, rabid email to the hapless subs was, of course, leaked, and resulted in their replying to him in — yes — a cool, calm, and collected manner. It all adds up to one of the more entertaining exchanges of recent years, a genuine comic classic of the journalistic trade. (I still refuse to count hackery as a “profession.”)

I can see both sides’ point of view on this one, having been both a writer and an editor. Certainly, writers have to fight to keep certain favored phrases and words from the editorial chopping-block; generally, if I write something then that’s what I intended to say, so please don’t start fiddling with it. In one of my books, I referred to a particular eighteenth-century comedy as a “frothy farce.” I’ve never understood why, but my editor hated the phrase. Hated it, hated it, hated it. He deleted it and told me so. On the next pass, I added it back in. He took it out, again telling me what he had done and not listening to my entreaties. So I put it back. He took it out. So I let him think that he had won by not telling him that I had quietly reinserted it into the final draft for the printer. It’s still in there.

On the other hand, everyone’s writing can use a touch of editing. Judging by his email, Coren’s certainly could. When I was editing copy for a newspaper and later a magazine, I would be amazed by how incompetent and sloppy some (very well-known) writers were. Others were simply thoughtless: There was one, a fellow of a Washington, D.C. think-tank who would always send his copy in some weird text-format — despite repeated requests not to. It would then take us a tedious half an hour to reformat it, and that was before we could even begin subbing it. Did we ever receive a “thank you” for all this hard work, from any of these guys we had labored to make sound smart and stylish? No. 

Occasionally, I’d get writers who really knew the business. These were pleasures to work with because they took care with their copy and didn’t leave it to the copyeditors to tidy it up for them. One, for instance, would submit 2,000 words on pension reform or something, I’d read it through, and find a single instance where a word-change might be in order. He’d take a look and say OK and we were done. 

As for me, I don’t know what I would do without the oft-unsung skills of the newspaper’s and publisher’s subs and proofers. They catch grammatical errors, typos, punctuation problems, and the like with amazing proficiency. Stuff you don’t even know about they catch. They even clear up inconsistencies and stylistic infelicities.

In Coren’s case, the copyeditors were wrong to have excised the word, but what I find incredible is that only now is he asking for proofs of the edited copy so that he can approve their corrections and alterations before publication. This implies that what he was doing before was submitting his piece and trusting the subs to not make a hash of it. This is a remarkably foolish thing to do, for journalists and historians alike. If they’re your words, you have a responsibility to make sure they stay yours, even if it means rereading the entire text four or five times line-by-line, word-by-word. (Much to my editor’s annoyance, for instance, I insist on seeing the second passthrough of manuscript drafts so that I can quadruple-check photo captions and other little bits-‘n’-pieces.)

Still, this Coren thing is pretty funny. 

Posted by Alexander Rose, www.alexrose.com



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