Subbing the copy-editors

The New York Times recently ran this little elegy for what US papers call ‘copy-editors’ (we'd call them ‘sub-editors’). Mind you, it seem copy-editors proper are an endangered species, if D. D. Guttenplan’s recent review of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman and this subsequent letter in the TLS is correct:

‘It seems ironic for so many blemishes to have slipped into a book about craftsmanship. Could these slips represent an almost intentional statement that surface perfection is not the essential feature of true craft or even that imperfections add lustre to an artefact?

‘Could the embarrassment of errors also embody the need just to get the work out rather than fretting over every detail? As Sennett asserts, “the writer will deliver on time, no matter that every comma is in place, the point of writing being to be read”. Similarly, “to the practitioner, obsession with perfection seems a prescription for failure”. Obsessive perfectionism is identified as detrimental to craftsmanship – such a criticism cannot be levelled at The Craftsman.’

Do you agree with the point Matt Chappel is making (albeit tongue-in-cheek) here? I'm not sure I do. While it may be the duty of the author to write ‘on time’, and not part of their craftsmanship to ensure consistency, ‘surface perfection’, etc, then surely it is part of the craft of editing, of designing, and of typesetting to achieve those things.

One such craftsman was John Whale, who died recently. The Church Times obituary describes his vision of how the newspaper should be produced, and the challenges he faced in the early period of direct-entry typesetting by journalists:

‘Together with the change in the way the paper was produced — a result of the changing economics of newspaper production, and the expiry of the lease on 7 Portugal Street — [John Whale] was responsible for a comprehensive change in the appearance, tone, and content of the Church Times. His vision was of a tabloid paper produced to broadsheet standards.

‘During his first months on the paper there was a revolution not only in the way in which staff and contributors were expected to write, but in the range of figures who contributed. New reviewers were immediately brought in for books, broadcasting, and the arts — many of them people he had come into contact with through his previous work — and the contributors of general opinion articles also increased in number. …

‘Most adjectives and other value-added words were zealously excised from news items and many features. One of John’s first acts as editor was to distribute copies of the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, whose rulings on matters of style were generally to be regarded as Holy Writ. As an assistant editor at the Sunday Times, he had drawn up its style book. A fastidious prose-writer, he required conscientious punctuation, and adhered to the old-fashioned rule that reporters were in the business of telling the truth, which was not the same as airing their opinions. …

‘Oscar Turnill, a sub-editor and layout man who had redesigned The Times for Harold Evans, was drafted in to redesign the paper. His brief was to produce something very like the Independent, with an emphasis on running good pictures larger, and a classical approach to typefaces, though the idea that text should fill every space not used by photos or headlines quickly fell out of fashion.

‘There was no longer a band of hot-metal compositors to make a story fit: the paper was computer-typeset far from the London office at Hadleigh, and then at Colchester, in Essex. At first the new technology gave the staff only a poor idea, before page proof, of how much space the copy would fill. The system made for intensive work, especially at the typesetters on Wednesdays. Judy Whale would often accompany him and proof-read.

‘Later John steered the paper towards in-house computer type-setting, believing this to be in its long-term interests; though he regretted losing his personal contact with the typesetters and printers in Colchester, who regarded with amused interest the gentleman-editor from London who spoke, as one elderly contributor put it, “in the authentic tones of Aldous Huxley”.’

There’s another obituary at the Guardian.