Customer service: it’s all about imagination

By Sue Littleford

Towards the end of April, Cathy Tingle wrote an excellent post here on customer service. A bit of chat on the SfEP forums resulted in Cathy suggesting I write a follow-up, so here we are!

True story: I recently had to chase a client for payment. The due date was missed, so I emailed. I was told the same day that the project manager had emailed their manager and accountant to find out what was going on and to chase payment. Six days later I email again. That email is ignored. I wait five more days and email a third time, adding ‘3rd reminder’ to the subject line.
The manager hadn’t authorised my payment before going on a business trip to China, and his staff were having difficulty reaching him. Someone else in the company would now be responsible for pursuing this. Sorry. And that was it. I wasn’t told how long it would be before the manager was back in the UK, or at least in a country where they could expect to reach him. I wasn’t told how soon after the payment was authorised that I could expect the money to land in my bank account. It had taken nearly two weeks to get this far, which, as far as customer service goes, is pretty sucky (happy ending – I was paid three days later).

I’ve worked in customer service, one way or another, since I was 14 (and that’s a loooong time). I’ve handled complaints from the public, from colleagues, from MPs. I’ve held senior customer-facing posts in a major government department, and in the private sector. I’ve handled complaints face-to-face over a counter, in writing, by phone, in large meetings and by parliamentary question. And here’s what I’ve learned.

In a nutshell, good customer service comes down to an active imagination. Imagine – if I were the customer, what would I want? And then do that.

Easy? It can be, although some customers are just going to be a nightmare – keep those antennae attuned to your red flags and hope you sidestep all such folks. Assuming you’ve got a regular person for your customer, here are a few elements, unpacked.

1. Manage customer expectation

This is something my client signally failed to do. What does this mean? Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Remember Kipling’s The Elephant’s Child? Set out your who, how, what, why, when and where. That should be in your contract, and it should be in your email or phone communication. Don’t be above issuing a gentle reminder on due dates, both yours and theirs, for things like sending out and getting back author queries. Talk to your client!

2. Make sure you’re on the same page as your client

Ensure they understand precisely what they’re paying for – what you won’t do as well as what you will. Make sure they understand how well you will do the work, when you’ll do it by, and how many rounds of editing that can involve for the price. Novice indie clients may need a lot more hand-holding with regard to the terminology of editing – we’ve all had people say they want a proofread when they need a developmental edit. On the other hand, publisher clients will occasionally call things by weird names. If in doubt, ask. Ensure you understand precisely what you’re being paid for.

3. Under promise and over deliver

But don’t be too far out of whack or your customer will think you’re either taking the mickey or are really, really bad at estimating.

Well, my client had managed to under promise by one definition, but that’s not what I mean. If they’d said ‘We’re so sorry about that; there was an internal breakdown in communication. But you’ll be paid by next Thursday’ and then paid me on Tuesday, that’s under promising and over delivering. There’s another aspect of this I’d like to sound a dire warning about: I just wish we could ban editorial folks from claiming to ‘perfect’ text. Some people even have it in their business name! With so much of English being subjective, how can you ever deliver perfection? Your perfect may not be your client’s perfect. But with some folks persisting in waving their ‘perfection’ banner, it makes clients think you’ve messed up even when you really, really haven’t.

If you do these three things, and the quality of your work is up to snuff, then you’re unlikely to get caught up in a complaint. But it can happen – maybe you messed up, maybe your client did (inaccurate or ambiguous brief, anyone?). Either way, your client isn’t happy with you or your work. What next?

1. Don’t ignore the complaint

Here be dragons. Pretending the complaint didn’t happen is truly awful customer service, and quite foolish since social media happened. Get a quick holding reply out – apologise without accepting responsibility (initially). ‘I’m so sorry to hear this. Let me take a look at it and get back to you. I hope to be able to do that [by when].’ That gives you time to check the brief/contract/your files and work out how valid the complaint is. If it is down to you, even in part, you’ll say so and apologise properly soon enough. A little tip – if the complaint comes in while you’re between jobs, and you have acres of time right now, still do the holding reply. Don’t rush your analysis of the complaint, and don’t rush your response. Complaints are emotional things, whether you’re in the right or in the wrong. Give yourself time to calm down.

2. Don’t reference satisfied customers as the norm

NEVER tell a customer that all your other customers are perfectly satisfied, even if it’s true, because if you’ve messed up for that client, your failure rate is 100% as far as they’re concerned. I’ve had this happen to me, and it just got my dander up. You don’t want to rile an already annoyed client. Don’t compare them with your other, perfectly content, customers – it can be read as a form of victim-blaming.

3. Put a lot of effort into responding to complaints

Make sure you’ve addressed each issue the customer has raised, even if you think it’s utter garbage; address each issue in full, anticipating as many rebuttals as you can; check and recheck and rerecheck your reply before sending it out. Again, use your imagination – put yourself in your customer’s position and craft the kind of response you’d want to receive; keep your zingers to yourself and don’t reply until you are perfectly calm. If you fail to do any of this, I can pretty much guarantee that the correspondence will continue to suck time out of your life, complaints will get escalated, perhaps to the SfEP complaints panel, and the complainant will tell all their friends that you are useless. Or they’ll use social media to tell the world that you’re useless.

4. Keep full records of the complaint and your response

Some complainants simply don’t know when to let something go, so you’ll want to have everything at your fingertips should they re-erupt. If your red-flag-o-meter didn’t go off and you have got a nightmare client, remember some people nurse their grudges and are quite happy to keep the complaint going as long as they can. That is taking up your working time, or your private time. Either way, the job is now earning you less and less per hour.

5. Know when enough’s enough

Some clients simply don’t know when to let go. If you’ve responded in detail to their complaint, and you consider you weren’t at fault, but the client keeps coming back, perhaps demanding a refund you know isn’t justified, there’ll come a time when you simply have to tell the client that you won’t engage in any further correspondence. Similarly, if you realise you were at fault, and you’ve rectified your mistake and/or made a partial refund, you may have a client who decides they want your work free of charge and keep nagging for a total refund. You’ll have to decide for yourself when the time has come to put an end to the exchanges. Nowadays, that does involve the risk of being attacked on social media, sadly, but you can’t be held hostage. This is why it’s more important than ever to ensure you and your client understand each other, and understand what each side’s responsibilities are in your transaction.


We’re all human, which means we all make mistakes. It’s how we deal with those mistakes that spells out the quality of our customer service. And how we avoid them in the first place.

I’ll finish up with a favourite quote from Henry Ford, who knew a thing or two about customer service. When checking the exact wording, I was delighted to see it included the I-word!

‘The man who will use his skill and constructive imagination to see how much he can give for a dollar, instead of how little he can give for a dollar, is bound to succeed.’

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford was a career civil servant before being forcibly outsourced. That was such fun she changed tack altogether and has been a freelance copy-editor since 2007, working mostly on postgraduate social sciences textbooks plus the occasional horseracing thriller. She is on Facebook and Twitter from time to time.

 


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Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.
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The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

 

 

 

Wise owls: the best CPD I’ve ever done

The wise owls are soaring into summer with some reflections on the best continuous professional development (CPD) they have undertaken.

Melanie Thompson reading the SfEP guide 'Pricing your project'Melanie Thompson

About 25 years ago my employer sent me on a three-day training course called ‘Selling for non-sales staff’ (or some such title). The underlying ethos of the course was that people buy from people and that it’s best to engage potential clients in conversations to try to find out their aims and needs rather than to deluge them with a list of your (your company’s/product’s) ‘features and benefits’. It all seems rather obvious, once you pause to think of it, and it’s something I’ve tried to remember ever since.

But I learned a much more important lesson during the role play (two words that fill many freelancers with dread); namely that it’s important to ask open questions. At that point, with only a few years’ work experience under my belt I’d never even heard of the concept of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ questions. That was one of the most valuable lessons I have ever been given – of benefit for both business and personal interactions.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford

I’ve done plenty of CPD as a copy-editor, but the best was probably a one-day business finance course I did yonks ago. From that course I picked up two nuggets, both of which I’m apt to trot out at the least provocation: (1) it’s easier to save money than to make money (as I said last time) and (2) cashflow is even more important than profit.

Cashflow is simply having enough money coming in to cover your commitments: enough to pay your mortgage or rent, fuel and power, tax bill and internet connection, and still put food on the table. But freelancing doesn’t lend itself particularly easily to smooth cashflow. This is why budgeting is so important – you need to understand how much money you need to make and when your invoices are likely to be paid, follow up late payment quickly and often, and price your work correctly. It’s also vital to do all you can to build up a cushion to tide you over the lean months. With many business clients paying on a 30-, 45- or even 60-day cycle, you can find yourself with loads of cash one month and almost nothing the next, even if you’ve been working steadily. Calculate what you need and make it a priority to save enough in the bank so that you can still pay your bills – and replenish what you spend. Then squirrel away a bit more to help you should a client suddenly go bust. After that, you can go and whoop it up in the fat months!

Liz Jones

I’ve undertaken plenty of CPD in the decade I’ve been freelance, including attending various SfEP courses and five conferences. They’ve all helped me a lot in terms of teaching me new things, giving me more confidence to run my business, and helping me access a wonderful international community of editorial professionals. Perhaps the thing that has been best for my own learning, though, has been teaching other editors via the SfEP’s mentoring programme.

Helping others learn how to do things has compelled me to examine my own practice, and improve it. It’s been necessary for me to find out more about how to do things myself to be able to explain to others how to do them. I’ve been amazed by the high standard of many of the people I have mentored over the years, in copy-editing and proofreading – and inspired to up my game as a result.

Nik ProwseNik Prowse

I was lucky when I started in publishing that I found an employer willing to train me, fresh from my PhD, in copy-editing and proofreading. Those classroom courses at Book House in London – three days of copy-editing and one of proofreading, run by the Publishing Training Centre – were the most valuable of my career as they set me up in what I was going to do, every day, working in-house. The experience I gained on the job after that had a firm bedrock on which it could be built. But is that CPD? I’d only just started so it was more like IPD – initial professional development.

But since being freelance it’s harder to point to any one day or piece of CPD and say ‘yes, that’s the best bit’ because CPD builds you incrementally into the publishing professional you are at any point. Once you have done the basic training the continuation and building of a career is less about huge leaps in knowledge and more about little nuggets of information and wisdom that change one’s practice and allow you to make small improvements in the services that you provide. On reflection, in recent years my most inspiring piece of CPD in terms of the renewed enthusiasm that it gave me was the SfEP’s Education Day in London in early 2018. It featured a day of speakers who weren’t so much teaching as giving a state of the industry, a snapshot of the state of affairs for editors. After that event I wanted to improve the service I give to educational publishers, as it’s an aspect of my work that I hugely enjoy but which is also challenging too, at times. That day was less about learning something new and more about garnering a new resolve for the work that I do.

Margaret HunterMargaret Hunter

The best CPD I’ve ever done is undoubtedly all the opportunities I’ve had for learning on the job. I love how pondering the different writing styles (and quirks) of different authors makes me question my assumptions. If something’s not written the way I would do it, is it wrong, or do I need to broaden my editorial horizons?

I’ve been editing for a long time but I still get stopped in my tracks and have to look things up, and I think that’s no bad thing. It also makes me think about how much (or how little) to change and how to let the author’s style through, rather than my own preferences. (But I do love a job where the author doesn’t care and is happy for me to preference away!)

Sometimes an author does something ‘odd’ so consistently that I begin to doubt myself, and often the more I look at it the more odd it looks! It’s a great opportunity to look up various style guides, consult the reference books or ask on the SfEP forum. It’s great revision, or it’s a great revelation. In any event, it’s great CPD.

LLouise Bolotinouise Bolotin

Back in 2001, I joined the editorial team at a large investment bank in the Netherlands where I worked on a huge range of equity analysis reports. I had only a lay knowledge of stocks, shares and the markets when I took the job. My boss sent me to London for a week to learn how to analyse and value a company. I didn’t quite manage to complete the final tasks on the last day – they required too much algebra, but I learned so much anyway. I’d never thought myself very numerate, despite being able to tot up Scrabble scores in my head and check a restaurant bill is correct. The course proved otherwise – I am. And I can read balance sheets, profit and loss accounts and more like a pro. I can skim a financial report and instantly understand the underlying issues. I can scan financial tables and errors leap out at me. Best of all, I gained confidence in my ability to handle figures. And while I still edit financial materials of all sorts, I can apply what I learned on the course to all kinds of other things I edit (annual reports a speciality). So thank you, Frans!


The SfEP’s parliament of wise owls started sharing wisdom and experiences back in 2016. All of the wise owls are Advanced Professional Members, with many years of experience and thousands of hours of CPD between them.


Proofread by Emma Easy, Entry-Level Member.
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The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

 

My first steps into proofreading made me fit!

By Carolyn Clarke

Yes, it’s true, but allow me to start at the beginning.

I wanted to use another of my hobbies as a way of making a living. Two of my loves are plants and words. The former I had transformed into a successful gardening business over the last seven years. The latter started when I was a child, spending my pocket money in the local bookshop.

I love my gardening work but as a 50-something I realised that this amount of physical hard work could not go on for ever.

Enter my love of words. I was aware that I spotted mistakes easily. I liked consistency, tidiness and balance: proofreading was the way to go. And I knew that the outdoor physical could dovetail nicely with the indoor cerebral – Yin and Yang.

Getting started

With this no-brainer decision now made, I bought a new laptop and enrolled on an online proofreading course. It was a toss-up between the two reputable providers, the SfEP and the PTC. I chose the latter’s Basic Proofreading: Editorial Skills One, which took me nearly a year to complete. Before I did the course, I wondered if it was even necessary (I can already spell can’t I?!) but soon realised that, yes, it was very necessary. I didn’t know how much I didn’t know until I started the course.

I enjoyed the course immensely although it was a little biased towards working on paper with BSI marks and less focused on working digitally with Word or PDFs.

From the essential books that a proofreader needs I bought the New Oxford Spelling Dictionary, because it shows word breaks, and Trask’s Penguin Guide to Punctuation. I intended to buy New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide and the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors but realised I could access these online with my library card. Excellent.

I wrote a profile about myself and was proudly listed as a proofreader on the PTC Directory. Competition is tough though, so I knew it was no use just sitting around waiting for possible work to come in: I had to be proactive, but how?

I was allowed to attend three local SfEP group meetings before I joined so I went to two different groups. Arriving early at the first, I was greeted by the one other early SfEP member and received my first gems of advice: read everything by SfEP gurus Louise Harnby and John Espirian, and have you joined findaproofreader.com yet?

I started to read lots online. Everything I read suggested something else that I needed to write or do; I had entered a very enjoyable internet black hole and was rapidly list-making in order to prioritise my tasks.

I created a logo for myself and set up various social media pages on LinkedIn, Facebook, Aboutme and FreeIndex knowing I could always add to them as I gained more experience, work and, importantly, good reviews.

Getting work

Approaching one of my long-time gardening clients, I offered to proofread their business website at a reduced rate. No, they said, we will pay you SfEP rates. I was jumping with joy and raring to go; I could now use my logo-emblazoned invoice created from a Word template. A couple of real clangers stood out: ‘Sometimes a simple and sort video can cut though the fog of technology’, and ‘Sign up our newsletter’. Hilarious. Armed with a review and some experience I logged back on to my social media platforms…

My enthusiasm boosted, I trawled sites online and found a theatre website that was littered with schoolboy (and girl) errors (‘thrown’ instead of ‘throne’, [groan]) and yes, he would be happy for me to proofread it in exchange for some theatre tickets and a review of my work.

Getting fit

I was now spending hours glued to my laptop. Sitting is alien to a gardener so I started to sandwich my computer work with activity: a five-minute plank and ab workout, ten minutes of yoga, a fifteen-minute run/walk and, believe it or not, skipping with a rope! (It is astonishing how tiring it is now compared to when I was a child!) For a longer break, I walk for at least an hour.

I practised working with Word and using Find and Replace to make searching a text quicker. I had read about using Templates and Styles and added them to my To Do list. Macros were new to me but I downloaded Paul Beverley’s Macros for Editors and installed the Macro Starter Pack which I knew at some time in the future would make my proofreading much, much quicker. When I found that Louise Harnby had made a set of BSI stamps available free to use with PDFs, I immediately downloaded a set and had a go; I wanted to practise using the marks I’d spent months learning before I forgot them.

Ten-minute run break…

I had now joined the SfEP and so began my descent into another internet black hole: the SfEP forums. These are online discussions where members can post questions and read about anything to do with proofreading or editing, whether it be a grammar question, finding work or dealing with clients. It is a hugely supportive network of experienced professionals. Another valuable asset is the archive of Editing Matters, the SfEP’s bimonthly magazine which is full of useful articles.

Yoga mat aside, I thought about the need for finding a niche. My specialisms are gardening and horticulture but I am also a trained primary teacher so educational books may be a good way to go. From the library I borrowed the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and noted the contact details of educational publishers and publishers that produce books about horticulture. There is also a section on book packagers, another possible tack that is new to me. My To Do list continues to get longer.

I reach for my skipping rope in between the emailing…

Carolyn Clarke is a bookworm with a sharp eye! She is a freelance proofreader who specialises in horticulture and primary education but will happily proofread a range of fiction and non-fiction. Connect with Carolyn on LinkedIn.

 

 


A longer version of this post is available in the May/June 2019 issue of Editing Matters.

The SfEP has a wide range of courses for new and experienced proofreaders and editors, and SfEP membership benefits include discounts on the ‘must-have’ resources and software.


Proofread by Emma Easy, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Editing technical materials: what you need … and what you don’t

By Liz Jones

I’ve been editing highly technical material for two and a half years, mostly for a local content agency. When the company first approached me, I had little knowledge of the areas they work in, mainly electronics and artificial intelligence. They knew this, but were happy to try me out, and I’ve been editing for them regularly ever since, working on press releases, blogs, white papers and user guides, as well as various other short documents and web content.

Editing technical content is in some ways just like editing anything else … and in a few other ways, it isn’t. Here’s a quick overview of what you need to tackle this kind of work – and also what you don’t.

Willingness to engage beyond your expertise

My degree is in architecture, and my entire subsequent career has been in educational publishing and general non-fiction. But in the past couple of years I’ve come to love the language of electronics and computing, and find in it a certain solace and even – on occasion – poetry. The materials I spend a considerable portion of my working week on bear no relation to any other aspect of my life, but it doesn’t matter. Work is work, and the problems to be grappled with remain the same. Does it make sense? Is it consistent? Will the person reading it be able to understand?

An eye for detail

This is, of course, essential for any editor, whatever field we work in. The difference is that when you’re editing technical content, small inconsistencies in product serial numbers or units of measurement are crucial to the sense of an article. You might not know yourself if a measurement is wrong, but you need to be able to spot if something doesn’t look right and flag it up for someone with the expertise to verify it. 50 mA is very different, for example, from 50 MA.

The ability to live with inelegant language and prioritise clarity

For the client I work with, much of the work I do has been written by people for whom writing is not a vocation, and often English is not their first language. I try to smooth out the expression as far as I can, but at the end of the day what the client cares about is conveying the important information about a product or innovation. Often there is limited time available to work on a document, and in that case it’s more important to focus on accuracy and clarity than on beautiful prose. That said, even small changes can make a big difference to the readability and accessibility of a text, and I do what I can in the time available.

Restraint

Resisting change, unless there is a solid reason for it, is a good approach for any editor, but it’s especially helpful with technical content. Often things are worded in a very particular way for a reason, and even transposing words might completely alter the meaning of a sentence. This always matters, but it matters double when a misunderstanding could cause a short-circuit, for example.

Embracing of camel case

Technical texts reference many brand and product names, platforms and protocols. In these cases, capitalisation matters, and often there will be strange use of cases to contend with and get right. Nobody’s going to die as a result of a brand name being presented inaccurately, but mistakes in this area will reduce credibility and trust, and make a document appear half-finished and messy.

Ability to work with a number of style guides

Working for an agency can entail editing material for a number of end clients. They will all have their style preferences, and text may be destined for audiences in particular geographic regions. For example, I am frequently called on to anglicise or Americanise text, and to switch between clients who prefer spaces before their SI units and ones who don’t, or clients who favour abbreviations where others might spell out a term (such as Internet of Things) in full. Documents are frequently very short, so I might need to switch between several different style guides in the course of an hour.

Responsiveness

When you’re editing press releases, they often need to be turned around on the same day. This is likely to be the case for a range of business content. It’s not like books, where manuscripts can marinate for weeks or months (even years!). To do this kind of work it therefore helps to keep to fairly regular business hours, and to be able to move work around and handle small requests at very short notice.

In-depth subject knowledge – not needed!

To my surprise, I found it didn’t matter too much that I started out with little to no knowledge of electronics or computing terminology, beyond a rusty grasp of GCSE-level Physics. However, after two years of near-daily exposure, I can now say with some confidence that I know my amperes from my ohms. I’ll never be an expert, but I’ve really enjoyed learning more about a field I’d never otherwise have encountered. My continued education benefits me as well as the client – I’m sure I do a better job now than I did at the beginning, but my position as a reasonably well-informed layperson still grants me a degree of valuable objectivity. All in all, it’s been a joy, and I’m so glad I said yes to editing in a field outside my comfort zone.

Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She edits for a range of publishing and non-publishing clients, specialising in art, architecture, cookery, vocational education, general non-fiction and technical proofreading.

 


SfEP members have a broad range of knowledge and expertise – visit the SfEP directory to discover Professional and Advanced Professional Members’ niches and the services they offer.


Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Six ways an editor can improve your business content

By Mary McCauley

What do you think of when you read the words ‘editor’ or ‘proofreader’? Perhaps if you haven’t used our services before, you might think of us as people who look for spelling and grammar errors? People who check that commas are in the right places? And, yes, you’d be right – we do check these things. But we can also do much more to help you produce content that delivers on its business objective.

Business report on a deskBusiness editors work on a wide range of business content including reports, strategies, policies, newsletters, blog posts, websites, brochures, marketing material, catalogues, manuals, presentations, directories and survey results. Here are six ways an editor can add value to these documents.

1. An editor can make sure your content is clearly written and complete

Often when we are so familiar with or knowledgeable about a topic, we have difficulty explaining it in a way that a non-expert reader can understand. So whether it’s a guide about your services, a marketing material promoting a new product, or a report on a technical examination, an editor can make sure that your intended readers will understand it and take action as you want them to.

An editor can edit and, if necessary, rewrite your content to ensure that:

  • The wording, style and tone are suitable for the target reader.
  • The content flows in a logical order the reader can follow.
  • There is no confusing or misleading content.
  • No important information is missing.
  • No unnecessary information is included.
  • The layout helps guide the reader, eg paragraphs, headings, lists, graphics.
  • The language, spelling and style are consistent.

2. An editor can check that the basic facts in your content are correct

While businesses are responsible for the content they create, editors can help make sure that this content is accurate. We can save you from publishing an embarrassing mistake and the potential customer mistrust that might follow. If, for example, you are writing a business-to-business report, you might include details of your client’s or another company’s name and products. You might refer to relevant legislation or to specific dates. It’s important that these details are correct and that your client can rely on you to get them right.

An editor can check that names are spelled correctly, that you’ve referred to the correct section and year in the legislation and that Thursday 16 November 2018 actually was a Thursday.

3. An editor can rewrite your content into plain English

Writing in plain English is not about ‘dumbing down’ language, nor is it only for target audiences that include people with reading difficulties. Customers are busy and probably prefer not to have to wade through dense, long-winded text to get to the basic information they’re looking for. Writing in plain, simple language can help you deliver your message more successfully. And if your customers understand it, you’ll have fewer queries to deal with.

A plain English editor can help ensure that your content contains:

  • language your target audience will understand
  • positive and active language
  • everyday vocabulary.

And that it avoids:

  • long, meandering sentences
  • problematic jargon and bureaucratic phrasing
  • unnecessary words and phrases
  • unnecessary capital letters.

4. An editor can create a style guide for your organisation’s written content

Does your organisation create a lot of written content? Is it written by two or more people? Is the work subcontracted to copywriters, design companies, printers, etc? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then consider developing your own organisation-specific style guide. Using one means it’s more likely your documents will be consistent in language and style. This in turn helps increase your customers’ confidence in your business.

An editor can create and develop a style guide specifically for your organisation. This will guide the people writing your content on things such as:

  • Capitalisation – chief executive officer or Chief Executive Officer?
  • Numbers and symbols – 20% or 20 per cent?
  • Currency – euros or euro?
  • Lists – full stops, commas or nothing at the end of bullet points?
  • Dates and time – 13 May 2019 or May 13, 2019?
  • Spelling preferences – recognise or recognize?
  • Quotations – double quote marks or single?

An editor can also include an A–Z list of words, terms and abbreviations used regularly in your business and give guidance on the spelling, capitalisation, etc of these.

People sat around a table, discussing a business plan

5. An editor can deliver editing and proofreading training to your staff

If you would like to develop your organisation’s in-house writing and editing expertise, an editor can design and deliver workshops for your staff based on your organisation’s particular needs. This will help your staff to write better business content.

An editor can provide training on:

  • editing and rewriting content
  • writing in plain English
  • using your organisation’s style guide
  • proofreading.

6. An editor can proofread your final designed content before it goes to the printer

Along with all this added value an editor can bring to your business content, we can still help you with that final proofread of your designed and laid-out content. However, this proofread includes so much more than just a check for spelling and grammar errors! Business clients are often amazed by how detailed a final proofread can be and the range of problems it can highlight.

An editor can proofread your final document to check that:

  • A table of contents page matches the actual contents.
  • Headers, footers and page numbers are correct and consistent.
  • The content is laid out correctly and in the right order.
  • Headings and subheadings are correctly and consistently styled.
  • Lists are consistently styled and punctuated.
  • Images and graphics are clear and placed correctly.
  • Tables and figures are numbered, captioned, referenced and styled correctly.
  • Hyperlinks work and are styled consistently.

The above is just a sample list and by no means exhaustive – there are lots of other things we also check for in a final proofread.

Your business content is important, and getting it wrong can be costly and time consuming. An editor can do so much more than just check it for spelling mistakes, so consider contracting a trained professional editor to help you create the best content for your business.

Note: For the record, 16 November 2018 was a Friday and not a Thursday!

Mary McCauley

Mary McCauley is an editor and proofreader specialising in helping business, government and public sector bodies in Ireland and the UK. She has 15 years’ business research and administration experience, mostly in the public sector, and started her editorial business Mary McCauley Proofreading in 2012. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP and a Full Member of the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders and Indexers of Ireland (AFEPI Ireland). Connect with Mary on LinkedIn or on Twitter.


The SfEP offers bespoke training courses, led by experienced and skilled editorial professionals, suitable for any organisation that wants to produce high quality content.


Proofread by Emma Easy, Entry-Level Member.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

You are not alone: five tips for co-working

By Julia Sandford-Cooke

People are often amazed when I tell them that I work alongside my husband in our home office. ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that,’ they say, ‘We’d chat/argue/get in each other’s way.’ Well, yes, sometimes that does happen – but it also happens with colleagues in a formal office environment, and of course with families at home. But we’re more likely to just get on with what we’re paid to do, comfortable in each other’s company.

Freelancers like me, and home-based employees like my husband, are at risk of loneliness and isolation, even when they’re unsociable introverts like us. Online support, such as via the SfEP forums, accountability groups and social media, is invaluable, but is no replacement for working alongside an actual human being. Of course, pets can provide vital stress relief (and an excuse to get up occasionally) but my feline assistant Pixel has never offered to make me a cup of coffee or provided IT advice.

Your office mate doesn’t have to be another editor. My husband is a computer programmer and I have no idea what he does on a day-to-day basis other than video-conferencing his colleagues about Jenkins testing and bike-shedding and protocol buffers (software jargon is a whole other blog post), which is fine by me, as I’m not distracted from my own muttering.

Janet MacMillan, both an editor in her own right and a member of the collective Editing Globally, co-works reasonably frequently, either with one of her Editing Globally colleagues or with a local SfEP pal. She says: ‘Co-working with an Editing Globally colleague can be particularly useful, both if we are working on different parts of a large project or if we need to discuss future work or marketing. But whoever I am co-working with, it’s nice to be able to ask questions of a trusted colleague.’ I do that too – sometimes running tricky text or an ambiguous comment past my husband to find out how an uninformed reader may react.

Clearly, however, you need to set ground rules for a shared understanding of a successful working environment. These are my top tips, drawn from my own, my husband’s and Janet’s experience – of course, you may work best under different conditions, so the key is to have the confidence to express your own preferences and the self-awareness to recognise whether your chosen co-worker shares them.

1. Make sure you (mostly) get on with your office mate

I get on with my husband because, well, he’s my husband, but your office mate doesn’t have to be your life partner. It could be a friend or ex-colleague – the key is that you feel comfortable spending many hours a day with them, and that they won’t be offended if you ask them to make phone calls in another room or stop randomly reading out snippets from Reddit. In practice, we don’t interact that much – we are working, after all – and my husband says he couldn’t share a space with an extrovert who gains energy from talking all the time. If you’re a nose-picker, knuckle-cracker or serial swearer, is your co-worker likely to accept your habits or nurture a silent resentment?

2. Ensure you can work comfortably in the same space

WJulia's officee work in a converted garage attached to our house. Our desk is a wooden kitchen worktop that lines one wall, facing three large windows. It’s a pleasant environment, when it’s clean. We’re not the tidiest office mates – his desk is covered in glasses wipes, receipts and dirty mugs, while mine is piled with scrap proofs and paperwork – but we’re relaxed enough not to police each other’s desk spaces. Janet is motivated to improve her work space by the prospect of visitors, saying, ‘it does have the added benefit of making me tidy up – and occasionally clean up – my house!’

My husband and I have the same differences over heating that I remember from working with others during in-house jobs. He’s always hot and I’m always cold but we dress accordingly, as we would in a formal office. I have an electric foot-warmer and fingerless gloves for my Reynaud’s syndrome, while he wears shorts all year round.

3. Agree on the level of noise you can tolerate

I’m not the sort of editor who has to work in utter silence, which is just as well when my husband spends the majority of his time on Skype. We use headphones for video conferences, and his side of the conversation tends to wash over me, as I usually don’t understand it. When we’re not talking to people online, we listen to our shared 85-hour Spotify playlist. We tolerate each other’s song choices, and may even sing a little. It fosters a sense of companionship and shared experience. But when we want quiet, we ask for it. If you can’t tolerate any background noise, you might not want an office mate who can only work to the greatest hits of Ed Sheeran. Come to think of it, I wouldn’t want that office mate either.

4. Decide whether you’ll spend breaks together

We both have to make a conscious effort to take a lunch break. We might walk round the block, or to Lidl; sometimes we’ll eat lunch at the dining table. But if the other person has a deadline or just doesn’t feel like stopping, we respect that and eat or exercise separately. We’ve also invested in a coffee machine and make each other drinks. Janet sees this aspect as a major benefit, saying, ‘It’s fun to have someone to share the very important tea-making with!’

5. Keep arrangements flexible

My husband and I have a fairly formal routine – he’s contracted to work from 9 to 5, so I tend to do so as well. However, sometimes he has to travel to the US, and I quite enjoy the novelty of working alone for a week or so. As well as co-working at her house, Janet has also co-worked with colleagues in cafés, which she says can be an occasional pleasant change of scenery. Other people may temporarily hire a serviced office in a town or industrial estate to cover a short-term group project. If you’ve never worked with your proposed colleague before, it’s a good idea to agree to try it for a few days before committing yourselves – and being honest and receptive about your experience.

So whether you want to test the waters or make it a permanent arrangement, I’d recommend finding your perfect partner and giving it a go. As Janet says, ‘Co-working is both a pleasure and an aid to concentration and buckling down to work.’ After all, it’s the small pleasures of being brought a coffee or sharing a laugh that can change a routine working day to a productive one.

Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has 20 years’ experience of publishing and marketing. She has written and edited numerous textbooks, specialising in vocational education, media studies, construction, health and safety, and travel. Check out her micro book reviews on Ju’s Reviews. If you’re sharing an office with her, she likes her coffee strong.

 


Proofread by Emma Easy, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Editors and social media: Facebook

In the fourth instalment of our series about how editors use social media for their businesses, Sarah Dronfield talks about what Facebook has brought to her editorial life.

Facebook logo

Why and when did you start?

When I started my editing and proofreading business in 2016, I already had a personal Facebook profile so, because it was easy (and free) to do, one of the first things I did was to set up a business page linked to that account. I didn’t know whether I would find clients via the page, and to be honest I’m not sure I ever have, but I do know that it drives traffic to my website.

I soon discovered, however, that Facebook could benefit my business in lots of other ways. Early on, I found out about a group called Editors’ Association of Earth (EAE): a place for ‘editors from anywhere to meet, have fun together, and talk about the issues and challenges that all editors share’. There and in similar groups, I learned a lot about editing in ways that aren’t possible from a book or a course. This was mostly from reading advice from or having conversations with people who have been editing for decades, but also from reading the many blog posts that were shared. In fact, there were so many great blog posts around, I thought it would be useful to have somewhere they could be ‘stored’ and easily found, so early in 2017 I suggested to the EAE admins that I start a weekly thread in the group, where the latest blog posts could be shared, with hashtags so that older threads could be found again quickly.

The idea for the weekly thread was partly inspired by an accountability thread in a closed EAE group – a place for editors to share what they’ve done that week to market their business or advance their professional development. When the person who was managing this thread said they wanted to step down in late 2017, I volunteered to take it on too.

I also set up a Facebook page (and Twitter account) for our SfEP local group back in 2016; I volunteered to do this at my very first local group meeting, and I’ve been managing the page ever since.

What do you share?

On my business page, I mostly share articles and blog posts I think will be of interest to potential and existing clients; I work mainly with Welsh authors of thrillers, historical fiction and children’s books. My pinned post is a glowing testimonial from happy co-author clients, and it’s the first thing new visitors to the page will see. And of course, when I write a blog post of my own (which isn’t often these days) then I share that too. I also share news of upgrades to my SfEP membership or about training courses I’ve taken, for example.

Facebook post on the Sarah Dronfield Proofreader page about booking tickets for the SfEP 2019 conference

On our local group page I share information about group meetings and things that may be of interest to potential clients (about writing and editing generally because between us we provide a wide range of services).

When do you share?

I try to share something to my business page at least once a month so visitors can see the page is active. I avoid posting too often because I don’t want to flood my followers’ news feeds, although I’m sure I could post more often than I do without annoying people.

Our local group page is really just there to send people to the South Wales Editors website, so I only post there very occasionally.

In the EAE groups, I share the blog post round-up every Monday and the accountability thread every Friday.

Why do you do it?

I came for the marketing, but I stayed for the advice, support and camaraderie. I may or may not have gained clients from my business page, but I have had work as a result of networking and making friends with other editors on Facebook.

What about other social media platforms?

In 2016, at the same time as I set up my Facebook business page, I also set up accounts on Twitter and LinkedIn. I rarely visit LinkedIn because I don’t like the platform and I don’t think it’s where my ideal clients are. I do like Twitter though, and I actually post there more often than I do on my Facebook page. But Facebook is definitely my favourite platform because I get so much more out of it. My business simply wouldn’t be where it is today without the huge amount of information, advice and support I have received from colleagues there over the last three years.

Any advice?

Explore the many Facebook groups for editors, spend time in them and find out which ones are most useful to you. There are all kinds of groups: for all things related to editing, groups specifically for academic or fiction editors, groups that focus on business or training, and many more. You can even start your own accountability group – find a few like-minded colleagues who are at a similar stage in their career and set up a secret Facebook group where you can share your problems and successes and help one another keep on top of your weekly tasks.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, never say anything on Facebook – or any social media platform – that you wouldn’t want a client to read, even in a closed group: remain professional at all times. I’m not saying you shouldn’t relax and have a laugh with your colleagues or ask advice on how to deal with a difficult client, but you should avoid criticising clients (or fellow editors) and try not to get into arguments – it’s not a good look. Even if your clients can’t see it (and sometimes they can), don’t forget that colleagues can send work your way too, and they will only do that if they feel you are someone who can be trusted to behave professionally.

Sarah DronfieldSarah Dronfield is an editor specialising in fiction and is based in South Wales. She is a Professional Member of the SfEP. She did many things before finally becoming an editor: office admin, archaeology, travelling. These days, when not editing, she can usually be found reading.

 


If you’re on Facebook, visit the SfEP’s page to keep informed about upcoming events, to discover interesting articles and for the occasional giggle-worthy cartoon.


Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Being a London Book Fair chair

By Katherine Demopoulos

I was asked to chair a panel session at the London Book Fair this year, thanks to my connection with Indonesia, which is the market focus country for 2019. I spent six very happy years working in Jakarta as a journalist and still jump at opportunities to recement the link with my second home.

The panel was called The City and the Sea, and featured two writers from Indonesia – Sheila Rooswitha Putri and Agustinus Wibowo – and a Scottish author, Malachy Tallack. My task was to introduce these brilliant writers, set the scene for a discussion on rural and urban identities, and keep the conversation moving.

Indonesia is incredibly diverse – 17,000 islands, megacities, isolated villages, global faiths and old religions, hundreds of languages, imposed identities, and persecution of minorities – so the theme works well as a way of explaining the country and the work of Agustinus and Sheila. Malachy’s island background in Shetland and his travels were starting points for thinking about links between the writers.

Doing the groundwork

I initially felt it might be a challenge to develop a flow for our hour-long session that would give the authors equal talking time, because their work is so different. Sheila lives in Jakarta and creates funny and clever graphic novels. Agustinus is a travel writer, whose most recent book intersperses travel stories with his mother’s terminal illness and his experiences of persecution as a minority Chinese Indonesian. Malachy’s warm and nurturing first novel, The Valley at the Centre of the World, focuses on life in a small community in Shetland, and follows his non-fiction work on islands that exist only in the imagination, and travels around the sixtieth parallel.

It took some enjoyable research to find ways of moving smoothly from author to author and subject to subject, beginning with the parameters we were given. The British Council, which manages the market focus programme, sent some material but – perhaps I’m an over-preparer – it wasn’t enough to gain a rounded understanding of each writer. I bought Malachy’s two non-fiction books, ordered Sheila’s first from Jakarta, and on YouTube found particularly helpful TV interviews and recordings from literary events.

A few weeks before the event, the British Council introduced the four of us via email, and I sent the writers a suggested plan for our hour. The email conversation was productive; the panel blurb mentioned climate change, but it transpired this wasn’t relevant for all authors. I wanted to make the best use of the hour by bringing up subjects the writers actually wanted to discuss.

Sheila and I met a few days before the event to talk about how the hour would work for her – it’s harder to showcase visual work on a panel session – and I explained my suggested lines of questioning to help her prepare. We talked a lot about Jakarta and Jakartans, and the meeting helped both of us, because I learned more about her work and motivations.

I felt a little out of practice at chairing discussion panels, because the last time I did so was five years ago at an event in Jakarta with the Indonesian defence minister. I’ve also been to discussions with loquacious moderators and know what not to do in a panel session, but felt that I was rusty on what to do.

Fortunately, I decided to go to the opening Indonesia session for the London Book Fair, and I’m very glad I did. It was moderated by the novelist Louise Doughty, and she was marvellous: warm, engaging, focused on the authors and not herself, clear and fluent in her introduction and questioning, and able to gently move on the discussion when necessary. She was a great example of how a moderator should be.

A group of people, seated, all facing towards an unseen speaker

Photo by Headway on Unsplash

The main event

On the day of the panel I surprised myself – I’m not a natural public speaker, though I’m learning – by really looking forward to it. I had time to chat to Malachy and Agustinus beforehand, so the discussion itself felt like an interesting conversation among friends – albeit with one quieter one (me as moderator) – and the added bonus of an audience listening and contributing questions.

I introduced the session by highlighting what makes the subject timely: deepening divides between rural and urban populations, the global trend towards urbanisation, and our increasingly city-centric economies. I also questioned whether identity can be broken down between rural and urban populations, and what other ways there are of looking at this question.

The discussion moved from Sheila’s definition of Jakartans as resilient, stubborn and quick to adapt – the qualities necessary to survive in a megacity beset with traffic, pollution and flooding – to Agustinus’s thoughts on minority identities. His book Zero: When the Journey Takes You Home is being made into a film, something he said could not have happened twenty years ago when Indonesia’s messy move from authoritarian rule to democracy was accompanied by anti-Chinese riots.

From Malachy’s travel book Sixty Degrees North, which contains themes of grief and home, I learned that Greenland doesn’t have a concept of land ownership. He and Agustinus talked about identity and relationships to land, and how these relationships manifest themselves and change. Having my well worked-out plan made it easier to respond to new tacks in the conversation. While preparing, I had found more talking points in Sixty Degrees North than in Malachy’s other books, but the conversation was fluid and naturally brought in several characters from his novel.

I really enjoyed the experience, thanks to the authors, the British Council and also to the advice given by a wise friend. ‘Trust your preparation’, she said. To read, research, and discuss ideas with interesting authors is pretty good, and to be able to call that ‘work’ is even better. If you’re asked to participate in a London Book Fair panel – do it. I’ve already volunteered for next year!

Katherine DemopoulosKatherine Demopoulos is a writer and editor with a background in journalism. She works on economics, commodities, fiction, travel and all things Indonesia, and is an Intermediate Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

 

 


SfEP members get the opportunity to represent the Society at the London Book Fair each year, via the Society’s stand in the exhibition hall and by participating in events.


Proofread by Emma Easy, Entry-Level Member.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Customer service: what does it mean for editing professionals?

By Cathy Tingle

Customer service matters in business, everyone knows that. And in editing it’s important, too. We have clients, after all. But, for us, giving too much to customers can be counterproductive. Overwork and we make mistakes. Give too much time to a project and our per-hour fee will reduce such that we question whether it’s worth being in business. I’ve worked in marketing, so I know about the value of customer service; however, moving across to editing this ‘how much is too much?’ question muddied for me what were previously clear waters.

To remind myself of what is important in customer service, and see if it applies to the editorial world as much as to larger business, I headed over to the Institute of Customer Service website.

Cup of coffee on a table next to a stack of coffee shop receipts and a service bell

Photo by Carli Jeen on Unsplash

Which customer service principles apply?

The website’s home page was a big surprise, not so much because of its message but because it shows a video that features my former boss, Jo Causon, who, it turns out, is now the CEO of the Institute of Customer Service. The video seems geared towards big organisations, so I contacted Jo to say ‘hello’ and ask if its ideas about customer service apply to sole traders and small businesses in the editorial field. Jo confirmed they do, saying:

‘Customer service is something that, if done well, is a clear differentiator for an individual or organisation and a clear way of marketing yourself.’

Where might we stand out, then, in terms of customer service? Jo names ‘quality and attention to detail’ as marks of customer service that editorial professionals know all about, plus ‘genuine interest’ and a ‘service ethos’. So far, so good – I don’t know any editors or proofreaders that don’t display these characteristics in spades.

But how relevant to us are the more formal customer service indicators? According to the video, businesses should think about the following five points:

  1. How professional and competent staff are, and how relevant is their knowledge.
  2. How easy they are to do business with.
  3. Whether their product or service does what it says it will.
  4. How they deal with complaints.
  5. Their timeliness and responsiveness.

Let’s look at each in turn.

Competence, knowledge and professionalism

This is a good start. As editing professionals our competence and relevant knowledge is inseparable from our offer, and the fact that we’re SfEP members is a mark of professionalism. Next!

Being easy to do business with

Are we easy to find online (and elsewhere if that’s where our clients will look), and are our services and terms easily understandable? When we’re into an edit, do we make the process easier for others by explaining why we are suggesting a change, or giving useful options to choose from? Are we as clear as possible at all times when communicating with our clients?

These are some questions that could be relevant. You can probably think of more.

Keeping promises

This third point is what you might call ‘hygiene’ (basic stuff – you’ll certainly notice if it’s absent) but actually it’s quite a difficult area. Here we have to do our best to be realistic – firstly, in what we promise to clients. Make sure, in publicity or correspondence, that you never offer more than you can give. Secondly, we must be practical about what’s possible throughout a project. A recent tweet by Christian Wilkie (@CWWilkie), a Minneapolis-based writer and editor, gives an insight into the sort of hard decision we occasionally need to make.

‘Just had to cancel a freelance assignment I’d agreed to, because the materials weren’t supplied to give me enough time before deadline. Sounds clear-cut, but I wanted a good relationship with this agency. The fact is, I can’t do a good job without enough time.’

It’s tricky to know what to do in these situations. However, Christian wisely realised that if he didn’t complete the job to a high standard because of a lack of time his relationship with his client would have suffered in any case.

A tailor's mannequin with a tape measure draped around its neck

Photo by Fancycrave on Unsplash

Dealing with complaints

No matter how hard we try, things can sometimes go wrong. How we react if and when this happens is important. When I worked in marketing (with Jo) the big idea was that a complaining customer can be turned into a loyal ambassador for your business if dealt with correctly.

As with the rest of editing, the key thing is to really listen to your customer – in this case, to their concerns. It’s important to keep calm and share any relevant information, including about how the problem may have occurred. The SfEP receives very few complaints about its members because they sign up to its Code of Practice, but what happens if your client threatens to complain to the SfEP? Over to our standards director, Hugh Jackson:

‘If someone threatens to raise a complaint against you to the SfEP, the first thing to do is not to panic. It can be really unpleasant to have the relationship with your client break down to that extent, but behaving calmly and professionally will go a long way towards defusing a tense situation and making it easier for everyone involved. Signpost your client to the complaints page on the website, where they can read about the process and what’s required of them if they do decide to go in that direction.’

‘As a society, we would always encourage editors and their clients to work together to resolve any disputes by compromise, but we appreciate, inevitably, that sometimes just isn’t possible. The complaints process is specially designed to be even-handed and independent. It’s also strictly confidential: even if the complaint is upheld, in the vast majority of cases your name won’t be broadcast to the membership or in public.’

So, don’t panic. Give your client all the information they need, and have faith in our complaints procedure.

Being timely and responsive

Many of us start our editing careers relying on this differentiator, perhaps in the absence of experience or confidence in our professional abilities. For example, you could make yourself available all day and night and at weekends, and promise to respond to any queries within an hour. However, you then might realise that this involves a cost to you and affects the quality of your work.

Managing expectation is probably a better route. Make clear to your clients the times when you respond to queries and when you don’t. You could do this with a combination of wording in your terms and conditions and an out-of-office response in the evenings and at weekends. During working hours you could send a quick acknowledgement to show you have received an email and are thinking about it, with a general idea of when the customer might hear back more fully.

The central relationship

Those are the five points. What struck me is how they reflect our Code of Practice, which emphasises high standards and clear communication plus the setting of sensible boundaries and rules that serve our clients, and us as suppliers. So the good news is that if you’re an SfEP member you already have a head start in terms of customer service.

But there is one overarching customer service principle at which we editorial professionals excel. In the video, Jo explains that we have moved from a transaction-based economy to a relationship-based one. The word ‘relationship’ is oft used in marketing but as editors it’s our bread and butter. Editing can be very personal – you are handling your author’s strongly held ideas, often the result of years of research and thought, or the fruits of their imagination and experience, and their work is bound up with their ambitions and fears. You need to tread softly in order to make sure you’re giving the author due respect and bringing the best out of their text.

And if we’re thinking of differentiators, the best you can do is to be you, with all your differences as an individual. Work out what you’re great at and make the most of it. Train to fill any gaps and market yourself in an area where you stand out. It will then be you, as you are, that your clients need, trust and return to. Surely there’s no better model of customer service than that.

 

Cathy TingleCathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member, came to freelance copy-editing after a PhD in English, a decade in marketing communications and four years as editor of a parents’ guidebook. Her business, DocEditor, specialises in non-fiction, especially academic, copy-editing. Follow her on Twitter: @thedoceditor

 

Proofread by Joanne Heath, Entry-Level Member.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.

Linguistic prejudice: towards more inclusive editing and proofreading practices

By Erin Carrie

Close up photo of poppy buds, with one starting to open

I recently wrote an SfEP blog post discussing linguistic bias and prejudice, and encouraging editors and proofreaders to reflect on our roles and how our own biases may influence our working practices. In the post, I also highlighted what I consider to be problematic discourse within the profession, which is often reflective of the wider public discourse around language use. As a follow-up, this blog post provides more concrete – and, in many ways, more subtle – examples of linguistic bias and prejudice.

It’s one thing to accept that linguistic bias exists within the editing and proofreading profession and quite another to identify how it manifests itself and the ways in which we might work to prevent it. Once we start checking for unconscious biases in our daily practice, we come to realise that there are no simple do’s and don’ts. But, in my own experience of editing and proofreading (and having my work edited and proofread), I’ve become mindful of various ways in which we might be able to carry out our work in a more sensitive, inclusive and representative fashion.

1. Do encourage the use of sensitive and inclusive language but check that suggestions align with the author’s intention.

By means of example, a proofreader changed every instance of ‘sex’ to ‘gender’ in one of my research papers and, despite being well-intentioned, this change misrepresented which of these factors I’d investigated and how I’d gone about my research.

2. Do respect people’s rights to self-identify and to identify others in a more inclusive manner.

This applies to every aspect of identity but a useful example is that of singular they/them/their used for unknown or non-binary gender identifications. Singular they/them/their has become increasingly common and accepted in usage, especially for generic or indefinite antecedents, and the pronouns have worked to replace he/him/his, often the traditional choices in ‘gender-neutral’ instances. Recent moves have seen singular they/them/their used in a specific and definite sense. Ackerman (2018) writes:

there is prescriptive stigma of they as being necessarily plural … (although this appears to be changing) … this bias feeds the stigma of singular they as a personal pronoun for people who identify as neither male nor female, but instead as nonbinary. I advocate extreme care in using “unacceptable,” … This terminology puts authors in the position of telling nonbinary … readers … that the terminology which the nonbinary community has converged on is unacceptable

For discussion of singular they in editing and proofreading, see this article from The Economist.

3. Do retain regional and non-standard linguistic differences, rather than replacing them with more widespread or standard forms.

A good example of this is the primarily Scottish term ‘outwith’, frequently replaced in academic and other formal types of writing, despite the fact that, as stated in this Twitter thread, ‘it is the opposite of within in a way that without is not’.

4. Do acknowledge variation and remain flexible – opting for consistency rather than imposing rules.

By means of example, while the Modern Humanities Research Association suggests that the possessive of ‘Jesus’ is ‘Jesus’s’, Scientific Style and Format recommends writing it as ‘Jesus’’. This is not to mention the controversy around the use of the Oxford comma or the use of split infinitives, which also vary according to institutional and personal style. The choices that writers make regarding each of these linguistic features will inevitably communicate social meanings (I, for one, have either used or avoided the Oxford comma to achieve different effects), but writers should be entitled to make those choices themselves.Page of printed text with editing mark-up in red pen5. Do respect and nurture the author’s style, voice and identity.

If the author chooses to begin a sentence with a conjunction or end with a preposition, perhaps they want to take a more casual and informal stance to their topic. If, as I often encourage in academic writing, they choose to use a first-person pronoun rather than referring to themselves as ‘the author’ or ‘the researcher’, perhaps they want to assert themselves and claim more ownership over what they’re writing.

6. Do remember that the role of the editor or proofreader is to manage the author’s intentions and the reader’s expectations.

For example, dialect literature serves to celebrate regional and social differences and is intended for readers with sufficient social and cultural knowledge to recognise its forms and its authenticity. As such, non-standard spelling and grammar are not only preferable but, arguably, essential in this sphere – consider, for example, DH Lawrence’s use of third-person singular, past-tense ‘were’ in The Collier’s Wife (my emphasis):

Wheer’s ‘e hurt this time, lad?
– I dunna know
They on’y towd me it wor bad –
It would be so!

Compare this intentional use of non-standard spelling and grammar, where the message is communicated effectively, to Donald Trump’s ‘covfefe’ blunder, where the non-standard spelling was neither intended by him nor expected of someone in the position of POTUS.

In summary, our writing is an expression of who we are. For some writers, it is what makes their work different that makes it so special, authentic and credible (eg dialect literature). Even in other cases, there are nuances to writing styles that go beyond the textual meanings and that communicate social meanings and crucial aspects of the authors’ or characters’ identities. When we edit out these meanings, we risk editing out their voices altogether.

Erin CarrieErin Carrie is a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics at Manchester Metropolitan University. She works at the interface between Sociolinguistics and the Social Psychology of Language, with a particular interest in language variation and change, language attitudes, and folk perceptions of varieties of English. She promotes consciousness-raising activities around language-based bias, prejudice and discrimination. Follow Erin on Twitter.


Manchester Metropolitan University logo

 

Proofread by Emma Easy, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.