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The joy of rant

If you haven’t seen it already — it has been in circulation since last week — here’s a link to a rant by Giles Coren, a British writer, complaining about a copy editor (“subeditor “ is the term there) who cut an indefinite article from one of his sentences. Be advised that it incorporates a number of words that you will not see on this blog.

A subsequent riposte by Laura Barton contains a passage that can be quoted here:

There is, it must be said, something of a long-standing tension between writers and subeditors. We writers are rather protective of our words, prone to filing late and flouncing about and are altogether a tad precious. In short, subeditors view us as the Little Lord Fauntleroys of the office, and we in turn view them as our evil nemeses, hellbent on our undoing.

One of my readers, Bob Kirk, has this comment:

Are they both prigs?

Obscured in the food critic's lather is a good point. The sub editor did not need to remove the offending "a". Unless I miss something in British usage ("He's in hospital." rather than "He's in the hospital."), the editing added nothing except an affront to an oversensitive writer. Has the green-eyeshade nothing better to do? You may as well outsurce copy editing to India for spell checking, only.

It’s hard to resist the temptation of a full-throated tirade, whether you are a writer or an editor. After all, you are an embattled, heroic figure, struggling against great odds to achieve a little clarity, a little order in a disorderly world, and with it, a l touch of elegance — this is your craft, and you have expended untold blood, toil, seat and tears in pursuit of it — and now some cretinous, pig-faced little git comes along, without any regard for what you intended and what you accomplished, and this troll does a little tap dance of vanity and smug self-importance on your skull, until you could just REACH INTO HIS GUTS WITH YOUR BARE HANDS AND PULL OUT HIS SPLEEN AND FEED IT TO THE CAT.

There. Much better.

(A regard for strict truth requires me to say that, while copy editors are certainly given to outbursts of exasperation, I have more commonly heard such explosions from reporters. Copy editors are, after all, orderly, decorous, modest and much misunderstood.)

Mr. Kirk has it right. There’s ample blame on both sides, first for a subeditor/copy editor who made the kind of minor, unnecessary change that drives writers nuts, second for a writer who indulged in a hugely disproportionate public display of petulance. Not an edifying spectacle.

Journalism requires people of varying abilities to produce articles quickly while making a multitude of small and great judgments, not all of which turn out to have been well decided. Such an environment offers many opportunities for ranting and very little disincentive.

But I can say this with assurance after more than 28 years in the business: Almost without exception, the best writers have also been on the best terms with the copy desk — collegial, respectful, appreciative, and forgiving about slips and misjudgments. And the writers who have been most defensive about the editing of their work have tended to have the most to be defensive about.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:01 AM | | Comments (8)


We have this problem at my university's paper as well. I really wish my school could require every person wanting to go into writing to spend a semester as a copy editor and one as a reporter.

And we should be doing it in the professional world too. It would let each side know what the other is like. Then there would be at least a little more understanding and less fighting.

But someone should punch that rant writer in the throat.

How does one expend untold seat?

Usually by mistyping.

Well, I do enjoy the alacrity with which our British cousins abuse one another. I especially think the T-shirts are a fine idea.

I enjoyed the writer's insistence that he ALWAYS ENDS ON A STRESSED SYLLABLE. That's nice. That's a fun thing to keep in mind.

In American, there's only "a nosh" or "to nosh" of course, so it fell flat for me regardless of stress or the Joycean subtexts claimed by the writer.

But the subtleties of the local sex trade, I admit, would have gone right past me. Those wacky Brits and their slang !

My favorite part is that, after ALLLLL that, he ends with "All the best, Giles."

I doubt John Cleese would have to change a word (thank goodness!) to use it as a Monty Python sketch.


But...the cat has been outsourced to India, no? So, what, you'll send it FedEx? it won't work as an e-mail attachment.

And it's probably a good thing you outsourced--surely Scout would quit, once faced with that.

There's another abusive e-mail to sub-editors by him here

And a letter to a a fellow/rival food critic here

It was written in response to this accusation of favoritism in the other food critic's column:
"While the Times's restaurant critic, Giles Coren ... was allowed to order off the restaurant's evening-only à la carte menu, unrecognisable me and the rest of the diners were encouraged to stick to the abbreviated list ..."
( )

Coren's a profane and abusive jerk, but in both of these letters, he has a point.

The subeditors did totally unnecessary things. In the letter I posted to above, the subeditor actually introduced an error, and yes, made both the writer and his source look like that couldn't count.

As for the importance of the story's "kicker"--I work in magazines, not newspapers, and I know that you don't mess with those lightly.

For all he knows, a production person accidentally excised the crucial "a" while correcting some other typographical mistake on the page.

In the words of that world-class sage Sponge Bob Square Pants: what a weenie hut.

"------this is your craft, and you have expended untold blood, toil, seat and tears in pursuit of it------" and now some OTHER cretinous pig-faced little git comes along and asks: What the heck is "seat and tears"? Spellcheck? God Help Us!

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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