Proof-Reading in the 21st Century…

I love the flexibility of blogging.

Back when I was a 19-year-old trainee page editor on a newspaper in Glasgow, Scotland (in the days when men were men, and dinosaurs roamed the Earth) I used to be in charge of a busy news page which I had to re-do completely five times during the course of my 12-hour shift, since the different editions went to different localities and that page was aimed at giving it a local flavor.

We went to a lot of effort to try to get the text right. The raw copy was typed up in a few cases by a professional typist from a story phoned in by a correspondent, but most of it was typed up by reporters like me – terrible typists; copy full of erasures, corrections, typing mistakes which they hadn’t spotted, etc.

First job was to decide how much space in the page that story merited. Once you’d decided that, you knew how much you’d have to cut. Then it was down to editing to tighten it up, correcting mistakes as you went.

In those days, because it was a hot-metal printing operation, the copy was typed up on small pages (about half the size of regular US Letter paper, used in landscape mode). Each page was numbered and had the same tagline.

Reason for this was the typesetting operation. A Linotype or Monotype casting machine works pretty slowly. The operator typed out the letters. Each letter typed caused a brass mold to fall into the right place in the line-holder. Once he had input enough to almost fill a line of the newspaper column, it would be justified. Today a computer does this by inserting fractional spaces between the characters in its memory. But in those days it was mechanical – a set of wedges came down to force the letters apart. Then the typesetting operator hit the control which injected molten printers’ metal – from a vat at the back of the machine – and the line of type was ready. Linotype, Line-o-Type: that says it all.

The setting machines were marvels of Victorian mechanical ingenuity. Operating one was like playing a church organ…The process was so slow that even a 300-word story on, say, five small pages, might be parcelled out to three or four different operators. There might be 30 or 40 of these machines all running simultaneously in a busy caseroom. With 40 vats of molten metal, printer’s ink which got everywhere, and 40 guys cooped up in the same stifling atmosphere, it was a job for RightGard, Industrial Strength. To say nothing of the amount of lead dust flying around all the time…

The linotype machine, invented in 1885 by Ottmar Mergenthaler, was a hot-metal typesetting device that cast entire lines of type at one time. The typesetter used a keyboard to direct copper casts of letters and punctuation into place. A quickly-cooling molten alloy was poured into the casts and formed the line of type. The linotype machine became universally popular and was used by newspapers around the world for many years.
Hulton Deutsch (
Picture and caption courtesy MSN Encarta)

It was someone’s job to do the dividing up, and to recombine the lines from different operators back into a single story which would be stacked in a “galley”. They’d run a roller of ink over it, take an impression on paper, and send that back up to me to check. A Galley Proof.

As you can imagine, there were lots of opportunities for mistakes. Typos, transposed lines, sections in the wrong order, etc.

Once I’d signed off on the galley proofs, it was time to build the page. A compositor would try to assemble all the stories and pictures in a “forme” or holder. You could never be sure stuff would fit. The worst problem was to find out right at the last possible minute that you didn’t have enough copy set to fill the page, so you always kept some extra stuff around. Sometimes a story would have to be cut to fit. If the reporter and editor had done their jobs right, the news story would be written in “pyramidal” style – with the least-vital information at the end, so it could be cut from the bottom up.

Of course, lines sometimes got transposed (or even lost) during this complex process. So the compositor would take a page proof,which you again had to read and sign off before the page went to the mat press, then the stereo department to be cast into curved metal plates, then to the main newspaper printing press.

Despite all this care, mistakes happened all the time; typos got through the net, and papers shipped out containing errors. Not hard to understand, when you’re all working at high speed to meet the page deadline (and you all wanted the chance to get down to the pub before the next page deadline). But once the page had gone, there was no chance of fixing it.

And that’s why I love blogging. I write the posts, proof-read and correct them a few times, but still I often fail to catch the mistakes. It’s not so easy when you’re typing them in a fairly primitive edit window.

So I’ll Publish the post, and read it. And almost always spot something that slipped through. Go back, fix that, Publish again, read it again, maybe find something else (repeat until it’s right).

If you do spot a typo on this blog, please tell me about it. I’ll always go back and fix it. Sometimes you just get a subconscious block, and fail to see an error someone else spots immediately.

Isn’t blogging great?


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