for proofreading, copy-editing, copywriting

Remembering hot wax and scalpels

My introduction to the publishing world came about when I started writing articles for sailing magazines in the 1970s. I ended up working for a water sports magazine group in London where I went by the title of layout artist/floor sweeper/proofreader and general assistant. These were pre-computer days and a man called Keith, who was quite mad, worked in a room on his own with a large, mysterious looking machine that did all the typesetting. What emerged at intervals were galley proofs – pages of photographic paper with columns of print, ready to be put into the page layout.

Okay, so what was so hard? Stick the galley down on the outline of the page, and Bob’s your uncle. Well, no. The galley proof text ran on without line breaks from start to finish. There were usually photos to put in, which had to be screened then physically produced to the right size, captions for same, maybe a heading or two. Putting the page together was a cut and paste job which had a similar meaning to that understood today but there the resemblance ended. My job was to cut the galley up carefully with a scalpel and glue it down on a special layout template, which had pale blue tramlines on it to guide me where the columns were to go. I marked positions for photos and stuck down captions in their final position.

It was a jigsaw puzzle that often had too many pieces and as well as a scalpel, it involved Cow gum or hot wax, a good eye and a very steady hand. Cow gum was a potent rubber solution which gave the department a superb feel-good factor after a good session that even coffee couldn’t compete with. I’m surprised I didn’t get hooked. You could rub disgusting-looking dried bits of it into balls which eventually grew big enough to be usable as a gum eraser and if it got really big, you could vent your frustrations by throwing it against the wall and watching it bounce like silly putty. The hot wax machine was a great improvement but often produced shrieks if (a) nobody had remembered to switch it on and (b) someone got their fingers in the molten wax. It was a lot easier to peel a length of galley off though and stick it a few hair’s breadths the other way so the print appeared left justified – as long as you hadn’t applied the burnisher over it. Getting the wax to the correct temperature was a black art.

Copyright:  / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo

When it came to headings, these were done by hand using Letraset®, the dry transfer lettering. Each letter of every word had to be accurately placed by eye with appropriate spacing and rubbed on to the paper without damaging it. The production department had every possible font, size and style which was just as well sometimes. I remember one girl showing me her heading with great pride, until I said ” doesn’t that word have a double ‘e’ in it?” In the bin it went amid much chuntering, and the job was started again. Just the thing when you are up against a deadline.

Inevitably, typos appeared even at this late stage which meant creeping into the typesetter’s den and begging for a line to be redone. Heaven help you if the correction affected more than one line, although several lines were far easier to replace. It wasn’t a case of sticking it over the previous text either – the rogue text had to be cut out with the scalpel, old Cow gum or wax removed, and the new text cut into exactly the same shape and size so it slotted in perfectly. After waxing it, of course. Many a one-liner disappeared into the wax machine never to surface again, much to the amusement of colleagues and caustic comments from the production manager. The person who clocked up the most offences ended up pasting the classifieds for practice the following week.

I became very good at the classifieds …


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