Media Types: Hero in the image of Dr Johnson: The sub-editor

THE sub-editor (Spikus vulgaris) is a retiring beast inhabiting the jungle of journalism, writes Robert Richardson. On morning papers, he - the female of the species was not discovered until the Sixties, so the masculine pronoun will suffice - spends his life in the twilight zone, arriving anonymously in the afternoon, ruminating over spelling and syntax as the day dies, and padding softly into the night when all is finished.

For him there are no picture bylines, no glamour of a regular column, no politicians seeking his ear or agents lunching him at Le Gavroche, no encounters with the rich and famous, no lucrative appearances on television chat shows. His gifts are unsung, his merits undervalued, his contribution scorned, his . . . (That's enough poncy phrases. Get on with it - Ed.)

Subs are the people who make sure there is always exactly enough material to fill each day's paper and that it bears some resemblance to sense. Their creative input comes principally in the form of headlines, and any gathering of the tribe eventually lapses into nostalgic recall of classics. One example of this high art must represent all the rest.

Many years ago, the Hollywood actress Gloria Swanson arrived in Southampton on a Monday, after crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary; at her dockside press conference, she complained that it had been an awful voyage and she had been violently seasick. A forgotten sub headlined the story 'Sick transit Gloria, Monday'. That, children, is true genius.

From the reporters' (or writers', as some preciously insist on being called) point of view, the sub is either friend or a tacky form of life that they are faintly surprised to discover has mastered the art of walking upright; it is a relationship now symbiotic, now hostile.

There are writers who consider their prose only slightly below God's on a good day and visibly bristle at the heresy of removing a comma; queries regarding style/ accuracy/ clarity/ sense/ grammar/ are akin to suggesting that their daughters sell their bodies nightly behind King's Cross station.

Others grasp the fact that if the sub does not understand their copy, there is a possibility the reader may not either; that an adjective should not be used as an adverb; that there really is a law of libel; that 58-line paragraphs written all as one sentence take on a certain tedious quality fairly quickly.

One common curse of the sub's life is the writer who inserts some alleged fact, adding the memo 'Subs please check'. By the time his copy reaches the subs, all known sources of checking are unavailable and the writer is in a wine bar without a telephone, surrounded by beautiful women inexplicably impressed by a 12-point byline. Back at the darkened office, the sub vainly consults the library, pores over reference books, and finally tosses a coin in despair. If the published fact is correct, the writer takes the credit; if wrong, it was the sub's fault.

But all this, of course, concerns the Good Sub. There is also the kind of sub who would brutally chop the final couplet off a Milton sonnet or cut the Ten Commandments down to six because they wouldn't fit the space; the kind who can take any well written piece and cold-bloodedly butcher it; who uses 'gilding the lily' in a headline and all the saints since Peter could not persuade him it's a misquotation.

Know him by his markings - shabby sports jacket and pullover, dirty fingernails, overweight, bored, impregnated with the faint odour of a four-ale bar, obsessed with the times of trains that take him home - and avoid him.

As the great Samuel Johnson said dismissively of the compilers of dictionaries, the sub-editor is a harmless drudge.

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
Jonas Gutierrez (r) competes with Yaya Toure (l)

Newcastle winger is in Argentina having chemotherapy

Arts and Entertainment
Blossoming love: Colin Firth as Stanley and Emma Stone as Sophie, in 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Actors star in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
peopleThe Times of India said actress should treat it as a 'compliment'

Watch this commuter wage a one-man war against the Circle Line
We are phenomenally good at recognising faces; the study showed that humans have been selected to be unique and easily recognisable

Human faces unique 'because we don't recognise each other by smell'

Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show?
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
lifeShould we feel guilty about keeping cats inside?
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck

Man's attempt to avoid being impounded heavily criticised

Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama is to offer a BA degree in Performance and Creative Enterprise

Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

Returning to the stage after 20 years makes actress feel 'nauseous'

Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Paid Search Analyst / PPC Analyst

£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...

Head of Marketing - London

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketing Manager / Dig...

Brand Manager / Account Manager

£28 - 36k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Brand Manager / Senior Account Manager is nee...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week