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Mother of two, living life in small-town South Africa

The 3 deadly sins of journalistic life

I have started teaching a six-week course on sub-editing to fourth year Journalism and Media Studies students at Rhodes. It’s a small group of women who have chosen to do the course for very different reasons. It’s exciting and nerve-racking at the same time. I know I have as much to learn from them as they do from me.

Sub-editors have always been my favourite people in a newsroom. Generally, they’re quirky, clever, curious and totally unhinged. In preparing for the first session, I spent some time thinking about the role of sub-editors and how that is changing as media consumption patterns and news change. There’s a lot happening out there that challenges my thinking that subs are essential parts of the editorial process. But that’s material for another posting. After working on and off as a sub-editor for 16 years, I like to think that there are some lessons I have learnt along the way.

Clive Lawrance (yes, that is how you spell his surname) co-taught this course with me a few years back. A crusty newsroom curmudgeon who commanded respect and excellence, he liked to warn of three things that stand between a writer and good writing: vanity, fear, laziness. Most of the lessons below fall into one of these categories.

  • There is always someone who knows more than you
    You may be able to fix or improve someone else’s writing, but that doesn’t mean you know more than them. Subs’ rooms and newsrooms are filled with interesting people who know a lot about a lot of things. Learn to listen. And look up whatever you don’t know. There will always be a reader who knows the subject better than you.
  • We all make mistakes
    Sub-editors may be the “unsung heroes of journalism”, but adversarial relationships between writers and sub-editors serve no purpose. While our job is to get it right and make writers look good, it’s worth remembering that subs can also mess up a story. A little humility goes a long way.
  • Read, read and read some more
    Clive used to quote Uys Krige as saying, “To be a great writer, you need to read the great masters. If you’re not reading, then you should be writing. And if you are not writing, you should be thinking about writing.” Make reading a habit. Read newspapers. Read magazines. Read whatever you can lay your hands on. Be curious. Be interested. Be interesting.
  • ‘In order to’ is two words too long
    Teach yourself the rules. You can teach yourself to spell. (And, yes, I still believe spelling is important despite Ken Smith’s call for a spelling amnesty.)
  • Punctuation can fix a lot of wrongs
    Simply punctuating correctly can restore sense to a sentence. It’s not rocket science. Teach yourself how to do it well.
  • Respect a writer’s voice
    Avoid changing anything without a good reason. Fix mistakes, but don’t beat a story into submission. There are many reporters whose first language is not English. Help craft the story, don’t destroy it. Not every story you touch needs to be reworked into your style.
  • If you don’t know, look it up
    “Thou shalt not sub what thou don’t understand,” one of my favourite chief-subs once admonished me. We should always be asking questions because we don’t have all the answers. Use the internet. Don’t leave home without your dictionary. Find out how things work and how to do stuff that will make you a better journalist, like working with pictures and audio, basic HTML. Curiosity is a n essential characteristic for the job.
  • Presentation is (almost) everything
    Know what it’s called. Know the keyboard shortcuts. Work fast. Work neatly. Look like you know what you are doing.
  • Respect your job
    If you don’t like it, leave it. Like what you do. Hell, love what you do. Otherwise no job is worth it. Especially on the nightshift.

Vanity, fear, laziness. Beware the three deadly sins of journalistic life.

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