Today is the last day at ZDNet for super sub Alex Coby, the only man in the office with caffeinated hair. Being young and spiky, he for some reason thinks it's more fun to correct copy about computer games than tweak stories about enterprise storage, so he's off to our forthcoming GameSpot UK site. To mark his passing, here's a cautionary tale from earlier this week about how good subbing is so much more than just annoying the writers and reading to the end of the piece.
A friend of mine lives the life of the English jobbing intellectual — journalism, broadcasting, the occasional book — which in his case involves regular work for the dear old Guardian.
To be good at this life, you must suck voraciously at the scum which forms top and bottom of the pond of culture. Some of this will not agree with you. And, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, that now includes regular doses of some of the more rebarbative right wing beasts from the US.
One of these is called Mark Steyn, who still can't quite make himself come to terms with the massive disappointment that Bill Clinton is no longer in power and can't be blamed for everything. He compensates by advocating a particularly muscular approach to affairs of state — in particular, he gets a froth on about the idea of 'de-nuking' (his word) Iran.
My friend is no subscriber to the Mark Steyn world view.
Now, another part of making a living at thinking aloud is that you have to get what you write into the papers. There are various levels to this, including maintaining a relationship with editors, finding a niche for your particular skills, knowing your market and actually writing the damn stuff. The most mundane and unconsidered part is the business of emailing the stuff in — what can go wrong, these days? Spam filters, that's what.
Ironically, the Guardian prides itself on being unashamed to print things on its front page that makes more brutish papers blush — one of those peculiar bits of class-related inverse snobbery that John Cooper Clarke so precisely pinned in "You'll Never See A Nipple In The Daily Express." So while it is perfectly possible to publish the naughtiest words imaginable, it can be remarkably difficult to get them past the spam filters to the editors. Like many such humourless robots — the filters, not the editors — they're set to stun anything that might offend the most easily scandalised. The fact that the recipients of email are battle-hardened hacks who know no fear has not sunk in.
This means that my friend's copy is frequently mauled — not because he is particularly filthy, although he can hurl verbal poo as elegantly as anyone should occasion demand, but because he of necessity sometimes writes about grown-up things. He has a code for such occasions, where he uses a waspish synonym in [[double brackets]] that the sub-editors will see and substitute the obvious.
Normally, this works well.
Not this time. He wanted to refer to a particular very well known stage show by Eve Ensler, which is noted for having actresses get up on stage and talk frankly about one aspect of their anatomy. He knew that the key word, although precise, descriptive and in no way obscene, would be eagerly swallowed by the autoprude. In that, he was correct. He thought he knew that the subs would do their thing. In that, he was wrong.
And that, oh best beloved, is why I am anxiously awaiting the Corrections and Clarifications entry that explains to the Guardian's bemused readership exactly what was meant by the mysterious reference in print to "The [[Mark Steyn]] Monologues"