‘I have never ended on an unstressed syllable!’

24 Jul
July 24, 2008

Anyone who has ever worked for a newspaper, which I did a long time ago, has a love/hate relationship with copy editors.  Since we all think that our prose is wonderful, we get upset when even a single word is changed.  Most of the time, we later read the article and realize what a wonderful thing the editor has done.  (Eventually, we forget there ever was an editor and remember the better writing as our own.)

Giles Coren, restaurant reviewer for The Times of London, seems to focus on the hate relationship.  He wrote a blistering email that got published around Fleet Street.  What upset him?  A single letter.  In the last sentence of a review, the editor changed "where to go for a nosh" was changed to "where to go for nosh."
OK — the change does not make sense.  But, neither did Coren’s response.  He wrote a blistering, irate, 1009 words in response. 
Of course, his words were sent around Fleet Street (London’s newspaper section) and, via the Internet, to the world.  If only he had hired a copy editor before sending his email, he might have avoided revealing himself to be arrogant, petulant, pompous and, frankly, the last person you’d want to be stuck in a restaurant with.  (Thanks, David Marsh.)
Fair warning, there is a lot of cursing in the text and a bunch of expletives deleted.  Here it is:

Chaps,

I am mightily pissed off. I have addressed this to Owen, Amanda and Ben because I don’t know who i am supposed to be pissed off with (i’m assuming owen, but i filed to amanda and ben so it’s only fair), and also to Tony, who wasn’t here – if he had been I’m guessing it wouldn’t have happened.

I don’t really like people tinkering with my copy for the sake of tinkering. I do not enjoy the suggestion that you have a better ear or eye for how I want my words to read than I do. Owen, we discussed your turning three of my long sentences into six short ones in a single piece, and how that wasn’t going to happen anymore, so I’m really hoping it wasn’t you that f***** up my review on saturday.

It was the final sentence. Final sentences are very, very important. A piece builds to them, they are the little jingle that the reader takes with him into the weekend.

I wrote: "I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for a nosh."

It appeared as: "I can’t think of a nicer place to sit this spring over a glass of rosé and watch the boys and girls in the street outside smiling gaily to each other, and wondering where to go for nosh."

There is no length issue. This is someone thinking "I’ll just remove this indefinite article because Coren is an illiterate c*** and i know best".

Well, you f****** don’t.

This was s***, s*** sub-editing for three reasons.

1) ‘Nosh’, as I’m sure you fluent Yiddish speakers know, is a noun formed from a bastardisation of the German ‘naschen’. It is a verb, and can be construed into two distinct nouns. One, ‘nosh’, means simply ‘food’. You have decided that this is what i meant and removed the ‘a’. I am insulted enough that you think you have a better ear for English than me. But a better ear for Yiddish? I doubt it. Because the other noun, ‘nosh’ means "a session of eating" – in this sense you might think of its dual valency as being similar to that of ‘scoff’. you can go for a scoff. or you can buy some scoff. the sentence you left me with is s***, and is not what i meant. Why would you change a sentnece aso that it meant something i didn’t mean? I don’t know, but you risk doing it every time you change something. And the way you avoid this kind of f*** up is by not changing a word of my copy without asking me, okay? it’s easy. Not. A. Word. Ever.

2) I will now explain why your error is even more s*** than it looks. You see, i was making a joke. I do that sometimes. I have set up the street as "sexually-charged". I have described the shenanigans across the road at G.A.Y.. I have used the word ‘gaily’ as a gentle nudge. And "looking for a nosh" has a secondary meaning of looking for a blowjob. Not specifically gay, for this is soho, and there are plenty of girls there who take money for noshing boys. "looking for nosh" does not have that ambiguity. the joke is gone. I only wrote that sodding paragraph to make that joke. And you’ve f****** stripped it out like a pissed Irish plasterer restoring a renaissance fresco and thinking jesus looks s*** with a bear so plastering over it. You might as well have removed the whole paragraph. I mean, f****** christ, don’t you read the copy?

3) And worst of all. Dumbest, deafest, s***test of all, you have removed the unstressed ‘a’ so that the stress that should have fallen on "nosh" is lost, and my piece ends on an unstressed syllable. When you’re winding up a piece of prose, metre is crucial. Can’t you hear? Can’t you hear that it is wrong? It’s not f****** rocket science. It’s f****** pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and i have never ended on an unstressed syllable. F***. f***, f***, f***.

I am sorry if this looks petty (last time i mailed a Times sub about the change of a single word i got in all sorts of trouble) but i care deeply about my work and i hate to have it f***ed up by s*** subbing. I have been away, you’ve been subbing joe and hugo and maybe they just file and f*** off and think "hey ho, it’s tomorrow’s fish and chips" – well, not me. I woke up at three in the morning on sunday and f****** lay there, furious, for two hours. weird, maybe. but that’s how it is.

It strips me of all confidence in writing for the magazine. No exaggeration. i’ve got a review to write this morning and i really don’t feel like doing it, for fear that some nuance is going to be removed from the final line, the pay-off, and i’m going to have another weekend ruined for me.

I’ve been writing for The Times for 15 years and i have never asked this before – i have never asked it of anyone i have written for – but I must insist, from now on, that i am sent a proof of every review i do, in pdf format, so i can check it for f***-ups. and i must be sent it in good time in case changes are needed. It is the only way i can carry on in the job.

And, just out of interest, I’d like whoever made that change to email me and tell me why. Tell me the exact reasoning which led you to remove that word from my copy.

Right,

Sorry to go on. Anger, real steaming f****** anger can make a man verbose.

All the best

Giles

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