Anyone who has kept a close eye on the challenges experienced by local and regional newspapers over the last five years or so will have little hesitation in nominating the specific job role which appears to have been more vulnerable than all others. The sub-editor.
Once the guardians of the English language, or the ‘grammar police’, the sub-editors were that layer of protection between journalist and editor. Doing the dirty work, as it were. Identifying errors, spelling mistakes, literals; checking facts and references; reducing or increasing word count; re-writing passages of text. The sub-editor was the safety net for the more creative, and sometimes less attentive, colleague.
Increasingly, as staffing models have developed, the sub editor has come under threat. Not entirely extinct, of course: there will always be newspapers, and magazines which have designated sub editors, tasked not with creating copy but ensuring the accuracy and relevance of what is in it. But increasingly, the responsibility is being passed to those who create the material in the first place.
It’s down to the writer, the journalist, the content editor, to stand by the copy they produce.
In the digital world, this close eye for detail is critical. Very often, text – whether that be a guest post, blog, feature or online category content – is created and published almost immediately. Writing a 500-word article for a website, ready and waiting to publish it, can be a one-take deal. It needs to be correct, first time.
At Zazzle Media, what might be called ‘subbing’ or ‘proofing’ is referred to as our QC process. I can’t think of anything more apt than that, for what we do, essentially, it is assess all work and make sure it passes quality control.
The knowledge that yours will be the last pair of eyes to view the content before it’s published should guarantee close attention to detail and a meticulous approach. What follows are a few useful suggestions and guidelines you may find helpful when you’re next in the QC hot seat.
Disclaimer: if you spot any errors in this content, they’ve been inserted deliberately as a test, of course.
The recurring error I read more than anything else, closely followed by ‘you’re v your’ and ‘they’re v there’. It’s maddening because once you understand the distinction, you’ve got it for life – but so many writers are repeat offenders. The official rule is that it’s is a contraction – short for it is – and its is a possessive pronoun. But it’s sometimes simpler to read these out in full as you QC – as in ‘it is obvious’ – which should help to establish which version to use. Eg: ‘please put that book back in it is place’. Clearly its needs to be used in this case. Or ‘get you are coat’ – get your coat is the correct version, not get you’re coat.
Yes, the Spelling and Grammar function available on Word is a neat little tool and, by all means, run it through every piece of copy – but don’t rely on it. It will pick (though I typed pic first as a test and it completely ignored the mistake) up on some errors, but it’s not conclusive. Typically, the tool is set for US English too, so be careful here. It won’t recognise the proper spelling of many place names. And it won’t assist in the quest to distinguish ‘you’re and your’. For example, when I typed in ‘get you are coat’ in the paragraph above and ran the spell checker, Word totally missed it. The tool also won’t notice missing words, either. Use it as a quick initial skim before knuckling down to the hard yards yourself.
A pet hate of mine is the ‘Justify Text’ layout option found on Word. Select it, and your text will spread evenly across the page and remove any dreaded ‘widows’ – the term for lonely letters sitting at the very end of a line, such as ‘A’ at the start of a new sentence. However, it’s the choice of the lazy proofer, in my opinion. Justifying text creates an unnatural range of spacing, and if you add one or two new words into a line it can cause a stretching effect which looks awful on paper and not much better on a website. Don’t select this option, please.
The human eye can’t always pick up on mistakes at a glance and it can be tricked. This is why, despite being the most prominent text in any article, you’ll sometimes see glaring errors in a headline – exposed, to a greater extent, by a larger and bolder font. If needs be, read a header or sub header out in a staccato style, pronouncing each word clearly.
In a 1,500 word article you might have referred to the same place, brand or title several times. Make sure there is consistency in how this is written, so it’s Twitter in the opening paragraph, Twitter midway through the piece and Twitter in the conclusion. Not Twitter, twitter and Twitter.
If you’re working independently as a blogger or freelance writer, there is little option but to read over your own work. But ideally – when part of a wider content team – a fresh pair of eyes will proof an article. When the writer has been so close to a piece of content, he or she might be unable to identify areas of improvement, may have read it once or twice over already and needs to take a step back.
Simple stuff, but never take names at face value. If there’s a guaranteed way of causing offence and upset, it’s to spell someone’s name incorrectly. Always check.
Is it Neil or Neal? Karl or Carl? John or Jon? Matt or Mat? Sarah or Sara? Nikki or Nicky – or Nicki?
Create some proper, clear, time in your working schedule to QC content. It’s not a task to be done while you juggle something else, such as taking a phone call or sitting in a meeting. It needs complete attention and a quiet environment; if you’re in a busy office, plug earphones in and use classical music to block out surrounding sounds.
Importantly, if you do get interrupted midway through proofing an article – if a colleague has an urgent question, for example – don’t pick up where you left off. Start again from the top.
QCing content is not exclusively about spotting errors and mistakes. You should be assessing the quality of the work on the screen in front of you, ensuring the content flows logically with a suitable introduction and concluding paragraph, and that it’s punctuated properly.
Check the pace of every paragraph. Read it out loud. How does it sound? If it’s too long and rambling, and you’re almost in need of pausing for breath partway through, it’s going to be too much for a reader to digest. Break it up with a full stop or a semi-colon to separate the major elements of the sentence.
On the other hand, avoid sentences which are too short and mechanical. Again, use punctuation to extend them and make them flow. The key is not to show off an extensive knowledge of the English language but to make the copy reader-friendly.
Finally, as with most other things in life, practice makes – if not perfect – then something close to it. The more time spent honing your QC skills, the more confident and competent you’ll become. And just as all writers are advised to read widely, do the same. Read extensively, learn from the best – see how the Guardian, for example, presents its content – and build your own understanding and education.