30 April 2008

Errant apostrophes and reporters

(pre-empting this week's media diet entry here)

I've just watched this week's episode of The Apprentice and you will not be surprised to know that a) I was appalled that it took more than 3 hours to figure out the answer to the Great Apostrophe Debate and b) that I wasn't really that stunned that none of them knew the answer apart from Raef.

What was gobsmacking was the decision to ring the subs' desk at the Telegraph. As if the subs would have time to help out someone ringing on the offchance... Michael's team, if they'd had any nous, could have looked on the internet. Googling "apostrophe help" brings up this site at the top of the page. It's not rocket science - either googling or the apostrophe.

Meanwhile, over in Ambridge, how very disappointing to see yet another stereotypical hack being trotted out by the scriptwriters. If you don't listen to The Archers, the short version is Ross Adams, ambitious ace reporter anxious to sell out to Fleet Street, is fishing for the dirt on trendy vicar Alan and his Hindu fiancée Usha who arrived here aged about 3 when her family was expelled from Uganda.

Nancy Banks-Smith at the Guardian has written a short piece on Ross but she is far too sympathetic. Sure, it's a soap and soaps need villains, but it's so tiresome to see (hear?) the scripties take the easy option. Brenderrr Tuckerrr, the Borchester Echo's previous ace reporter, was a far more realistic portrayal of life on a regional paper. Not since the dreadfully crap Polly on EastEnders have I been so incensed about clichéd journalists.

29 April 2008

In praise of subs

The boffins at the University of Manchester have being doing some research into page architecture. Put in simple English, that means they have been analysing page layouts for newspapers. Despite the somewhat negative headline, it's actually a huge thumbs-up for the unsung heroes of the press - the hardworking sub-editors.

The subs' desk is basically where a paper or magazine is put together. All the copy for publication passes through here before the presses roll. The subs don't just clean up journalists' typos, grammar and punctuation. Oh no. The list of tasks is massive:

  • correcting typos, grammar and punctuation
  • fact-checking
  • spellchecking place names, foreign words and people
  • putting copy into house style
  • flagging up copy that might be defamatory or otherwise legally dubious
  • rewriting
  • cutting copy to fit the page (or, conversely, lengthening it if needs be)
  • writing headlines, picture captions and sells/standfirsts (the big paragraph under the title that persuades you to read the article)
  • laying out the pages
And all these tasks are usually done under enormous time pressure...

Page layout is something subs have been doing for years. I used to be a layout sub myself back in the late 80s and early 90s, firstly paper mock-ups then later on-screen in Quark Xpress. There's a certain skill to it, which can be picked up fairly quickly, but you'll never make a good layout sub if you can't do all the other bits of the job. True, the pages are first laid out in templates by the page designers, but the subs themselves will create the live article pages within the confines of the template. It's good to see that recognised.

The other reason that subs are unsung heroes is this - when a sub does their job well, it goes unnoticed. But you can bet the journalist with the byline will be the one to pick up the praise: "Loved your article on tractor mechanics in Albania, fascinating!" Unbeknown to the reader, the article is only fabulous because the sub-editor rewrote the crap copy filed by the hack, which was far too long, had numerous errors and was generally unreadable before being polished for publication. I've lost count of the number of times I've saved some hack's reputation. Naturally, my own copy is always damn near perfect when I file, because I've seen it from both sides. And the proof is the comments I get back thanking me for work that needed very little subbing.

The downside is when a sub fucks up. It happens. Like the time I subbed a 2,000-word feature and wrote all the captions for the pics then was told to cut 500 words as a half-page had been sold to an advertiser. I duly slashed the copy, failing to notice that I'd axed a critical comment I'd pulled out to use as a caption. Needless to say, the company featured in the article was furious, my boss saw red and I got an almighty bollocking, but (fortunately) not the sack. But we won't talk about the downsides...

26 April 2008

Media Diet Weeks 16/17

Press: swanning off to Cyprus in the middle of last week meant I had almost no news between Tuesday 5 April and Thursday 24th. I was given a free copy of the Manchester Evening News at the airport, which I promptly thrust in my hand luggage. It remained unread for 5 days, at which point I discovered Bez from Happy Mondays had made the front page for being made bankrupt again. Er, right. Scintillating stuff. (Not.) Surely a city of Manchester's size and stature could produce a bigger story than that? But apparently not. You can see why I didn't miss the news...

Blogs: not much to report here. I logged into Bloglines once while I was away, felt overwhelmed at the sight of 90-odd unread feeds that had clocked up in just a couple of days and promptly logged out again. Sally at Getting Ink wrote a very thoughtful post on the elusive work/life balance. Her post and the subsequent comments apply whether or not you have spawn. I don't, but still struggle to separate work and personal stuff at times and it's a particular issue for freelances. Something to muse on this weekend.

TV/radio: I tuned into Radio 2 bright and early this morning to learn that the great Humphrey Littleton has left us. He always made me cry with laughter on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. I'm sure I'm at the end of a very long queue of people who will miss his splendid wit and musical talent. I didn't miss the TV much while away - it was easy to catch up with EastEnders and The Archers by reading the web synopses and iPlayer will come in handy this afternoon to catch up on last Saturday's Doctor Who episode, the only programme I really felt deprived of. Hotel telly is never much cop. As usual, the main offering was BBC World, which is just about tolerable for global headlines but little else. This channel only seems to produce about one documentary a week, which is then repeated endlessly and plugged even more. I started to go crazy after 2 days of adverts for a programme on trafficked Nepali women, which seemed to be shown every 15 minutes between the headlines and weather. While I feel for the plight of these women, the relentless plugging only served to turn me off watching. Make of that what you will, Aunty...

Books: I just managed to finish Martin Edwards' The Cipher Garden before my trip and am not sure whether to be cross or pleased that he managed to mislead me so wonderfully over the ID of the murderer. I took Tom Reynolds' Blood, Sweat and Tea away with me for a holiday read as it was both light-hearted and thought-provoking. And now I've just started Blitzed! by Steve Strange, for yet another take on the events of my misspent youth.

24 April 2008

Home again

I know I love my job but even I need a break sometimes. So I took a week off and flew to the Med, where I had a splendid time sightseeing, eating, drinking and enjoying some sunshine. It was 7C and hailing when I left. Today, it was around 15C and the bluebells were out here - returning to a lovely spring day after baking in a searing 30C is just the ticket.

I managed to avoid newspapers completely while away. I was not even tempted to buy the Cyprus Weekly. The hotel offered only BBC World, a channel so tedious it's bearable only in 5-minute bursts. I even stayed off the internet, a rare feat for me. I had 2 hour-long stints in a net caff to check mails and make sure I was not missing any important work offerings. And that was that.

The downside was returning to several hundred emails and a mountain of post. I had a leisurely day pottering at my desk before I get stuck in again tomorrow in earnest. Welcome home...

16 April 2008


Your humble wordsmith is taking a short break. Normal service will be resumed asap.

Don't go away now! I'll be back before you know it.

13 April 2008

Media Diet Week 15

Press: it's been a busy week, meaning I've had little time to do more than just skim my papers online over the last 7 days. I've not even opened a magazine, apart from Press Gazette, which arrived late as usual.

Blogs: Roy Greenslade pointed me in the direction of Kristine Lowe, who has an intelligent and thoughtful take on hacking and blogging. Meanwhile, those delightful Churners managed to churn themselves. Foot, mouth, etc... never mind, lads - keep up the good work!

TV/radio: so, farewell Hotel Babylon for another year. You kept me mindlessly entertained for 2 whole months and I shall miss you. And with Torchwood gone for more than a whole week already, my evenings are infinitely duller. Compensation arrived in the form of a new series of Doctor Who, although after a better-than-expected start last week in episode 1, the very annoying Catherine Tate reverted to being Shouty Chav Donna (as in the Xmas special in 2006) in episode 2. Tut. How depressing. If she carries on like this and Tennant goes too, I may skip season 5 altogether. At least the recreation of Pompeii was good and the script was fabulous - I lost track of the number of in-jokes and witty references to other classic TV series. The only redhead more irritating than Tate is, of course, Bianca in EastEnders. My eardrums are still ringing from Friday's slanging match with Riiiiickaaaaaay!

Books: I'm close to finishing Martin Edwards' The Cipher Garden and (for once) I think have worked out whodunnit well ahead of the ending. I will definitely be seeking out the next in the series and also looking out for his Liverpool series of crime fic. I also have the new Val McDermid on my stack to be read. I always love a good rummage in the huge number of charity shops in my vicinity. They are a great place for finding out-of-print titles - this week, I picked up a copy of Gerard Depardieu's cookery book, as well as Claudia Roden's Mediterranean Food. Yes, apart from the ridiculous number of dictionaries and crime novels at Wordsmith Towers, there is a vast collection of cook books....

10 April 2008

More payment woes

This seems to have been the week for payment problems among quite a few freelance friends. On quite a few of the forums/email groups I use, it has been a hot topic of late. For me, this was the week that I finally saw clearance of a payment that was due to me at the start of March. That particular client has now been dropped, even though I was offered a regular contract.

My payment terms are a bog-standard 30 days and I apply this to all clients for whom I edit, proofread or do commercial writing. It's rather different when it comes to journalism - often it's payment on publication, which might be weeks away. Some papers pay at the end of the following the month of publication, which is even worse. There are some good payers around, including a national that pays within 30 days of the date on the invoice, and some small magazines that do actually understand that freelances need to eat and pay bills.

This particular client has a policy of 42 days from commission. I agreed to these terms because it all seemed very straightforward and there was plenty of work on offer. And the publisher was what you might call an international institution. So I grafted and filed and waited. And waited. And waited. And 17 days after my money was due, I was still waiting. So I sent an email asking why I hadn't been paid as promised. Back came the reply apologising for the delaying and saying my invoices had been prioritised. This was followed by the offer of a contract.

A fortnight later I was still waiting, so I fired off a polite but angry mail saying how very disappointed I was to still be awaiting payment (and rejecting the contract). This being an overseas client, I next received notice of an e-cheque being paid into my PayPal account. The cheque took 6 days to clear, bringing my wait for payment to a grand total of 13 weeks. Worse, as well as the small fee PayPal took for allowing me to receive funds, the publisher charged me a fee to get paid, which was subtracted from the cheque. It wasn't a huge amount but I find the notion of being charged an admin fee to be paid highly objectionable. And it's not as if this international institution couldn't afford a few dollars.

You can see why I dropped this client.

Bad payment practices are rife in this industry, which is why I post about them so often. I've been fortunate in not having any clients who didn't pay at all. I'm ruthless about dropping clients who think it's fine to delay payment for as long as they can get away with it - I will never work for them again once payment has finally cleared. And I'm wary of new clients too - for commercial writing work I almost always ask for a deposit upfront.

It's awful to have to be so suspicious of clients because I want to be able to trust them. Experience shows, though, freelances need to have their radar on constantly.

07 April 2008

The typo trippers

Craig McGinty drew my attention to the typo road-trippers earlier today, knowing full well I'd love the story. These guys are heroes.

I confess I am of the same ilk. I carry a red pen in my bag and embarrass my companions when I start correcting menus in cafés. I take photos of misspelt signage. And I have no shame in pointing out (loudly) people's errors on their documents ("Did you know you've got two ells in 'apollogise'?") In short, I happily do gratis for some what I charge others for. Simply because I can't stand typos. And I care.

Jeff and Benjamin are in another league - they make me look like a lightweight. I am, compared to them. I don't think I'd have the bottle to take on an entire nation. And besides, I'd probably get nicked for vandalism here!

It speaks volumes about educational standards today, though, that such errors are so routine and widespread that two young men feel compelled to cross an entire country tippexing as they go. We need more Jeffs and Benjamins.

06 April 2008

What punctuation am I?

You Are a Colon

You are very orderly and fact driven.

You aren't concerned much with theories or dreams... only what's true or untrue.

You are brilliant and incredibly learned. Anything you know is well researched.

You like to make lists and sort through things step by step. You aren't subject to whim or emotions.

Your friends see you as a constant source of knowledge and advice.

(But they are a little sick of you being right all of the time!)

You excel in: Leadership positions

You get along best with: The Semi-Colon

05 April 2008

Media Diet Week 14

Press: once again I found myself buying the Guardian and the Sun to read on a train. I'm so used to reading online editions now that hard copies just feel, well, odd. The main plus is that I get to do the sudoku and crossword. I'm starting to like Look. I mean, what's not to like? It's a quid. It rounds up the best high street fashion each week. And it has short and snappy sleb features such as "Amy Winehouse: why I can't give up drugs". I bought another issue this week and feel drawn in. I tell ya, it'll be downhill from here on in.

Blogs: the hot tip right now is The Churner Prize. Sheer brilliance. As a hack who deplores churnalism, this blog really nails the culprits. Name and shame is my motto (well, one of them, anyway) and this does it admirably.

TV/radio: I've had a crazy busy week, leaving little time for much viewing and listening, but it has to be said, dahlinks, that this week when it came to TV, the star of the show was me. I got to sit in Jeremy Paxman's chair and be quizzed by the inestimable Race Noddy and, and, AND win the debate on points. What could be better? And thank gawd yet again for iPlayer, which will allow me to catch up on the Apprentice, EastEnders and owt else I've missed due to illness and propping up Aunty single-handedly. I did catch the finale of Torchwood - suffice to say I was shocked that Owen and Tosh got killed off. I guess they had better offers before season 3.

Books: I've started The Cipher Garden. So far so good, despite being only 100 pages in. I trust Martin Edwards not to let me down. I like the Daniel Kind and Hannah Scarlett characters, both of whom are developing admirably. Other crime-fic writers should take note. This is an easy, undemanding read yet with a very decent layer of complexity that requires close attention.

04 April 2008

On the telly

Watched the transmission tonight. Ye gods but I sound posh cum estuarine! And what was with all the blinking? Must have been the contact lenses playing up. Actually, I was quite happy with the broadcast edited version. (Must be going soft in my old age, but shsh don't tell anyone!) I think I acquitted myself reasonably well. Now I just need to get myself up on YouTube, which will undoubtedly take me the entire weekend to figure out.

Apart from the health issues, it's been a good week, even though I've only earned about a tenner (and a reputation for being a studio rottweiler).

03 April 2008

A grand day out plus illness

It's been an odd week.

On Tuesday, my legs decided to swell up to unusual and grotesque proportions. A trip to the GP was required next day. The net result was an evening trip to A&E on suspicion of a DVT. Long story short - no DVT but possibly kidney problems.

Despite my crap health, I jumped on a train today as planned and headed to London to do telly. The OH was outraged, as he'd been expecting me to go for a kidney scan today. But you can't keep a good hack down - even though I felt like I might puke at any moment, looked like shit and could barely waddle let alone walk, the story was more important. And this time I was part of it.

Thus it was that I entered the hallowed doors of TV Centre at midday. Only one thing could have excited me more - walking on to the EastEnders set at Elstree. The place is massive - a veritable rabbit warren of corridors populated by blokes with goatees, jeans and trainers. I drank some of the legendary BBC tea, which was bright orange and tasted fucking awful. I heard some very scurrilous gossip about a couple of household names and was disappointed not to spot Jonathan Ross or any other slebs in the bar after filming.

But, I did get to see how news programmes are made, which was interesting although how anyone can watch 30 screens at once in the director's gallery is beyond me. I did the green room for about 10 seconds before filming, had my make-up done and generally managed not to fluff my rant to camera. Afterwards, we retired to the bar for an "editorial meeting" (for which read several rounds of alcohol). As a hack who's only ever worked in print or online, my eyes were seriously opened to TV - the politicking I heard of is unbelievable (it makes print look like a walk in the park), not to mention all the petty budget squabbles and fights over job titles. So - now you know how your licence fee gets spent. To be fair, there are good people employed there who are doing the best they can under difficult circumstances and I was pleased to meet some of them today. The whole experience was a real eye-opener.

After the "hospitality" (cough), it was time to head home. Tomorrow means proper work again (I can't believe I gave up a whole day's work for 4 minutes' airtime, but needs must!). I arrived back to 139 emails, 66 RSS feeds demanding to be read and (eep!) over 200 posts on my favourite forum. And I haven't looked at Facebook yet!

01 April 2008

Check the calendar!

Yup, it's 1 April. And you didn't really think I was about to jack in the job I love for a new life as a grease monkey, did you? You did?

Remember - I'm the ex-sub-editor who worked for well over a year on the pages of one of the UK's biggest-selling weekly car magazines. When I arrived there, I thought a MacPherson Strut was a Scottish country dance until the production editor beat that out of me with a leftover exhaust pipe. And by the time I left, I still hadn't quite figured out what an overhead camshaft is...

And while you're remembering, Kwik-Fit's loss is the reading world's gain.

Time for a change

I had a light bulb moment this morning. I woke shortly after 5am and as I lay there thinking about the working day that lay ahead of me, I suddenly realised "I don't have to do this any more".

I've given 30 years of my life to being a professional wordsmith - from the punk fanzine I was first published in (back in 1978) and the listings mag where I trained at from the age of 16 to my current freelance life of combining writing and editing, via all the staff jobs in between. And I just don't want to do it any longer. I've lost interest.

I still have at least 20 years' working life ahead of me and it's time to pursue new passions. I've always been fascinated by engines. Even though I can no longer drive, I used to love getting my hands dirty under the bonnet of my old Mini. I've decided to retrain as a motor mechanic. The local college is offering courses, so I'm going to sign up. And as soon as I've qualified, it'll be bye bye hacking and hello camshafts!

Am I mad? Possibly. But life's too short and if I don't pursue my dream now, I never will.

Brrrm, brrrm!