Occupation or vocation?
JUNE 11 — Do you have a friend who is a sub-editor? I do. Maybe you do too.
Your sub-editor friend, or “sub”, is a writer’s safety net. Throw grammar gaffes, knotty sentences, wrong references and potential libel at the sub, and he/she will fix it — all without getting any of the following praise for quality.
Indeed, none is expected. And therein lies the alluring pull for the hidden masochist: Subs are often unsung heroes. It involves being selfless, sacrificing time and effort every day for little more than the personal satisfaction of a day’s job well done. But what many perhaps do not realise is that a sub sacrifices more than just time and effort. Becoming a sub is a lifelong vocation.
To be a good sub, your friend must possess a strong innate desire for correctness. Every sub, in varying measures, is a perfectionist at heart — genuinely wanting language, structure and punctuation to be correct and perfect beyond the call of duty. It is perhaps a habit that is often repressed outside the profession. We all know an insufferable know-it-all who is always pointing out wrongs... who wants to be that person to their friends?
And so the desire shrinks into faint, occasional urges, always ignored when the perceived mistake is insignificant, always diplomatically conveyed only when absolutely necessary. But it is the opposite for the sub.
In this line of work, however, needs necessitate that innate need for correctness. That sense of paranoia is the sub’s main virtue. That often annoying habit of always checking, correcting, is practically a job requirement. For hours, every day, the sub walks into the office armed with suspicion, weighing every word and sentence with eyes of distrust.
And when your job requires your sense of paranoia to be heeded day in, day out, the habit inevitably spills over into your personal life. Clocking out does not mean switching off, even if you want to.
A sub friend once lamented this effect. Reading a novel by his favourite author, the habit quietly snuck up on him… and he started subbing. His eyes and mind left the story, now following the commas and dashes, the apostrophes and full stops.
It was only some paragraphs later that he caught himself. He groaned as he tracked back, trying to find where his reading turned to subbing so he can start over.
And it happened to him quite a few times — with the same novel.
All subs, past and present, everywhere, have the same story to share in one form or another. The habit takes on a life of its own, amplified to terrifying strength by countless hours of determined use. By their own volition, a sub’s eyes notice mistakes and inaccuracies everywhere they look, leading to hours of quiet obsessing afterwards.
As the Internet meme aptly points out, what has been seen cannot be unseen. Especially so if it is an error that cannot be corrected.
For English subs in Malaysia, it is worse. While many Malaysians can speak and understand English, not many are at a level where grammatical errors are rare. Worse still, some do not realise the latter fact. Errors and inaccuracies pervade many aspects of Malaysian day-to-day life, to the woe of the sub.
My former colleagues, all former sub-editors but who have since moved on to other roles, admitted to suffering the same affliction. It takes many forms: excessively proof-reading that email before it’s sent out, accidentally subbing a novel, the list goes on. But the form is irrelevant.
The truth is that once you become a sub, there is no turning back. Once a sub, forever a sub.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.
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