‘Pedantry is not a good look’: the radical message of English Grammar Day

By Julia Sandford-Cooke

So, when I told another SfEP member that I was going to English Grammar Day at the British Library, he was like, ‘I hope it doesn’t just involve complaining about Americanisms and overworked shop assistants writing “Out off order” signs’. Well, I was kind of expecting it would be just that – but, you know, it actually turned out to be kind of a subversive celebration of language change. And, yes, it also acknowledged the numerous linguistic tics I’ve already used in this opening paragraph. I suspect that prescriptively inclined delegates went home despairing of the deteriorating state of the English language. But, if they did, they weren’t paying attention.

Editors tend to be descriptive, not prescriptive, in their approach

For me, the day raised the issue of how we, as editors, can balance the prescriptive and descriptive elements of language use. It’s all very well for academics to shrug their shoulders and agree that things change, but where do we stand when our job is to ensure that text in the public domain is correct?

Or is that our job? Perhaps we should regard our work more as facilitating communication. Most modern editors would probably agree that it is. SfEP members formed a good proportion of the audience and I didn’t hear any of them grinding their teeth (except when it was suggested that nobody would miss the possessive apostrophe). In fact, most of us nodded at Rob Drummond’s graph indicating that pedantry decreases as language knowledge increases.

When people criticise the language of others, it’s almost always about more than language

Take Zwicky’s bias warnings, quoted by David Denison:

  • The recency illusion – a belief that things you notice recently are recent.
  • The frequency illusion – once you’ve noticed something, you see it everywhere but that doesn’t mean it happens all the time.

We all have our tics and bugbears. I hate constructions like ‘We were sat on the bench’ and ‘Come with’ (it’s ‘come with ME’, dammit!) and would correct these in written text without a second thought. On the other hand, I am aware that all my conversations are peppered with the oft-despised ‘like’. As Rob Drummond said in his talk, ‘standard’ English is an arbitrary accident of history, reflecting the balance of power and personal choices that may, or may not, have gained wider traction. The speech of those who decry ‘like’ or the exclamatory ‘so’ almost certainly features other discourse markers that nobody seems to mind – ‘kind of’, ‘well’, ‘you know’, ‘I mean’, ‘actually’. Your ‘overuse’ of linguistic tics may be someone else’s normal. They’re not necessarily devoid of meaning, either – it was pointed out that certain academics’ use of ‘as it were’ could imply that the speaker feels that ordinary words are not adequate to express the brilliance of their insight!

There is evidently a difference between what people say and what people think they said, and, frankly white, middle-aged, middle-class men – those with the power – receive less linguistic criticism than other groups in society. Everyone has preferences but when these become judgements and prejudices, these preferences are problematic. The use of ‘he’ as a singular generic pronoun has, thankfully, fallen out of favour but the lack of an alternative term raises new issues. Charlotte Brewer analysed actor James Woods’ recent tweet complaining about the singular ‘they’, taken by many to be transphobic. Dictionaries tend to avoid the matter, as well as failing to reflect new definitions of other gendered words – ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, for example. Do dictionaries record or sanction use – or neither? A woman may have a wife, whether or not the dictionary says it’s possible.

Non-standard may become standard but, even if it doesn’t, non-standard does not mean sub-standard. In fact, it often does a better job of communicating than standard forms. A good example is the sophistication and eloquence of much grime music and rap. Check out The Hip-hop Shakespeare Company for more evidence.

To misquote Taylor Swift: ‘Hey, kids! Grammar is fun!’

Grammar is often taught in primary schools by those who are not confident in describing the technical details. To be honest, many editors make a good living without knowing what a modal verb is, or caring about the difference between ‘which is better?’ and ‘which is best?’. Does it matter? Probably not, if the aim is to pass Key Stage SATs or to make a passage of text easier to understand. But English Grammar Day showed that grammar is about much more than whether fronted adverbials improve a piece of prose.

Editors normally work with the written word. Most users of English differentiate between writing and speaking modes, but younger people often blend the two. Electronic forms of communication (texting, for example) may reflect spoken language written down, but we don’t yet have the terminology to grammatically assess it.

There is always an element of choice in how we use language. Non-standard grammar can both reflect, and play a role in, the performance and expression of our identities. Code-switching is not a problem for most speakers if they first recognise the need and then choose to do so. Contrary to rumour, there is apparently no evidence that GCSE and A-Level examiners have come across text-speak – clearly, young people know how to meet the standards appropriate to the situation. The theme of our 2017 SfEP conference was ‘context is key’ – nobody is saying that students shouldn’t use standard grammar in formal essays, but they don’t need to use it in everyday writing and speech, as long as their audience understands them.

Which brings us back to how editors could address these issues. There’s one short answer. Rob Drummond added a coda to his graph that, ‘You can become a pedantic anti-pedant and that’s unattractive as well.’ Our job, as those with the language knowledge, is to educate pedants. And, sometimes, our job is to recognise that we are those same pedants.

With thanks to the day’s speakers, who provided the springboard for my thoughts in this blog post and to whom I apologise for any inadvertent plagiarism: Charlotte Brewer, Jon Hutchinson, David Denison, Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Barbara Bleiman, Rob Drummond and John Mullan.

And with apologies to my proofreader for the first few sentences.

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. Don’t ask her to explain what a modal verb is.

 


You can brush up your grammar with the SfEP’s online course.


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.

Customer service: a cautionary tale of red flags and safety nets

By Vanessa Plaister

In their recent contributions to the SfEP blog, Cathy Tingle and Sue Littleford focused on how editors can keep customers sweet and distinguish themselves professionally. Each offered insights into how to handle complaints: for Cathy, the key is ‘to really listen to your customer’; for Sue, ‘it’s all about imagination’.

So what might happen in practice should things turn sour?

Let me take a deep breath and reflect candidly on a recent experience, laying bare what I learned …

Setting up the safety nets

I’ve long known that one of the most effective safety nets an editor can set up is the sample.
By this, I don’t mean the sort of sample for which some authors ask before placing a project; rather, I mean early submission of an edited chapter or two, so that a client can check the level of intervention and feed back to an editor should their work not quite meet the brief.

For many clients, particularly in publishing, such a sample is a contractual requirement. This project was one of those instances and the production editor approved my samples, noting nothing more than that the work was ‘great’.

But what of the author?

Sometimes, a publisher will send the sample on to the author for their review. Others will ask the copy-editor to liaise directly with the author and specify nothing more about how they’re to do so.

Whatever the publisher’s preference and faced with ever-shorter schedules, I standardly practise a lean (vs linear) workflow. In other words, immediately I’ve completed holistic work (general clean-up, formatting, house style, etc) and I’m engaging with the text at a substantive line level, I start to send edited chapters to the author(s) for their review and amendment. This allows us to explore at an early stage any editorial interventions with which the author(s) may be uncomfortable and these conversations can inform the ongoing edit.

In this way, I try to position myself at the outset as the author’s ally – sometimes even their advocate, should they vehemently and for good reason disagree with a matter of house style – and it allows me to build a solid professional relationship with both publisher and author that’s rooted in confidence and trust.

What’s more, not only does this protect me against the reputational risk of authors first encountering edits only at proof stage and perhaps being unhappy, but also it minimises likely amendment at proof stage, with all of the associated time and cost savings for the publisher.

So when the publisher told me that this author had said no, she would look at the edit only once I’d completed the whole (some 325,000 words), this was the red flag that should have stopped me in my tracks.

Reading the red flags

When I first contacted the author, then, it was not to deliver the first one or two chapters, but to deliver 15 files in one fell swoop.

I’ve been asking the publisher for some time when this would arrive, she replied. Had she known, she could have met our deadline, but it was now unlikely that she’d be able to find the time.

Some red flags are subtle.

When the files came back, they were unmarked other than to resolve direct queries. Had she read through at least two of the chapters in full, as I’d asked?

I didn’t, no.

And why would she, when she had imagined that my intervention could extend no further than correcting typos? When substantive amendments for reasons of stylistic consistency were simply the tail wagging the dog?

I warned the production editor immediately I suspected that the situation might escalate – and my fears were soon confirmed.

Caution: here be dragons …

The complaint was presented to me, in the first instance, in general terms.

The author was alarmed.

The author had concerns.

We had to do anything to make the author comfortable.

I asked whether the author could deliver examples and committed to using that evidence to inform an action plan – and I tried to examine that evidence with eyes and heart open to the possibility that I might have got it wrong.

Editing isn’t a competition and, as an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP, I don’t need to prove my credentials. I worked hard for that designation, and it’s indicative of both qualifications and experience, as well as my commitment to a rigorous Code of Practice.

So while I could tell you here that, of x examples given, I found only y of the challenges to be justified (which instances have been valuable reminders that querying the apparently obvious can, paradoxically, save time when working under pressure), I won’t. Because that doesn’t move us forward.

The most helpful thing I can tell you is that a good editor’s first reaction to an allegation of incompetence should not be defensive, but deferential.

What if I did mess up?

The schedule was tight. Super tight. And that meant working long hours.

Was there a chance that those long hours saw me miss more than a reasonable number of errors or ambiguities – or, worse, actually introduce errors?

It’s not easy, being willing to be wrong and when our professional identity is intertwined with our personal identity, a challenge to our work can feel like a personal attack …

Read that again.

When our professional identity is intertwined with our personal identity, a challenge to our work can feel like a personal attack.

While the best authors recognise their editors as their allies, the inexperienced – or perhaps insecure – author experiences editing as an attack. And, sadly, when an author – when anyone – feels under attack, there’s a good chance that trying to reassure them will end only in them doubling down on their defence, hearing not a conciliatory I know what I’m doing and I can help, but a competitive I know more than you.

So while an author and editor should be a collaborative team, working together to win–win, it quickly became clear that there was no win for me here.

Yes, the publisher had approved my work at the sample stage.

Yes, the author had rejected early involvement that would have precluded the stressful situation in which we all now found ourselves.

And yet I was faced with a stark choice:

  • agree to work back through the whole of the book, reversing every edit unless it met a narrow specification, all for a tiny budget uplift that worked out to less than minimum wage; or
  • refuse to bend, risk not being paid at all for that original work and risk losing a long-term client, as well as put my professional reputation in jeopardy.

Should I take a stand against demands I considered to be objectively unreasonable – or did it matter more that I got paid and that I did what I could to keep my client?

Taking a beat before breathing fire

I’m not going to lie: did I shout at my screen as I worked through, reversing sensitive edits and taking in the author’s subsequent revisions and remarks, infuriated when she dismissed or denigrated standard practice or sound advice?

Of course I did.

But, for all that I may have high professional standards, it’s not my name on the book and if an author wants to retain an error or perpetuate ambiguity, whatever their reason, then that’s their prerogative.

And what of my client?

I remembered that when Sue spoke of ‘imagination’, I heard the word empathy, and what I tried very hard to remember is that my production editor was nothing more than the messenger.
I tried to take a beat before breathing fire – to keep my emotional response within these four walls, tempering my frustrations when emailing my client with my eye always on the prize: preserve that relationship.

Office politics aren’t fun and I don’t envy the in-house production editor the tightrope they tread.

We might imagine that employment gives an in-house editor income security and we might privilege our precarious position as freelancers above the risks involved in relying on any single-source income. And, yes, it’s worth reminding our clients that externalising a crisis has consequences for us that are different from the consequences it might have for them – but it’s equally worth us remembering the impact on the in-house editor should that crisis threaten their one job.

So while I don’t know yet what the long-term fallout of this experience will be, I do know that I did all I could to preserve my relationship with a client of 13 years’ standing and that the relationship I think – I hope – I’ve preserved with the production editor means that he’s promised to do all he can to mitigate the impact on my cash flow by expediting payment.

And, most crucially, I know that if any author ever again refuses to review a sample of my work ahead of the whole, I will be hitting pause on the project.

I’ll be hitting it hard.

 

 Vanessa Plaister is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP who accidentally became the SfEP’s community director in September 2018 and is working to bring equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) to the fore in all SfEP policy and procedure. She can commonly be found smothered by cats and surrounded by mugs of strong coffee or else risking whiplash at the front of a sweaty rock venue.


The SfEP upholds editorial excellence. All members sign up to the Code of Practice, which sets out best practice for everyone in editorial work, whether freelance or in-house, and their employers and clients.


Proofread by Victoria Hunt, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

National Freelancers Day 2019

By Abi Saffrey

Over the past five years, IPSE has hosted the ever-expanding National Freelancers Day. A friend joined the IPSE board last year and it prompted me to find out more, and I then bought an early bird ticket to this year’s event (for all of £20). The event was packed with sessions sorted into four streams: Winning Work, Digital, Health & Wellbeing and Finance. The day started with a keynote speech by Pip Jamieson, founder of The Dots, a diverse community of ‘no collar professionals’. No collar professionals are freelancers, or job hoppers, with generally creative-led skills, motivated by purpose. The Dots allows those people to detail projects they have worked on, and credit other contributors – a shift away from the linear career approach of CVs and LinkedIn. The key points I took away from those 45 minutes with Pip were:

  • Free is not always a dirty word.
  • Think laterally: tech and digital pay.
  • You are as good as the networks you build.
  • Work hard and be nice to people: use interpersonal skills and have human relationships.
  • You are the average of the five people you hang out with the most.

Winning work

Following Pip’s keynote, I concentrated on sessions in the Winning Work stream, including one on collaborative working by Hela Wozniak-Kay (share your knowledge, charge for your expertise), a panel discussion with five young entrepreneurs about how to succeed as a freelancer, Erica Wolfe-Murray’s flash talk on understanding your difference (made even faster by the previous speaker overrunning by 10 minutes – each flash talk was due to be 15 minutes long) and Carl Reader’s full-on Q&A session about ‘Building brand YOU’. The key themes in these sessions were:

  • social media, in particular Instagram, and the importance of engaging with followers and commenters
  • coworking spaces, great for networking
  • people do business with people – human to human
  • passion for what you do and how you do it.

Wear clothes

The day finished with another keynote speaker, this time Adam Kay, author of This is Going to Hurt. Adam talked (and made us laugh) about his shift from junior doctor to freelance writer and comedian, and offered his key advice for freelancers:

  • Wear clothes.
  • Wear shoes.
  • Food is fuel, not a distraction.
  • Don’t work on a sofa.
  • Say ‘no’.
  • Do things you’re passionate about even if it doesn’t make you money.

As well as over 20 presentations, workshops and panel discussions, there were also opportunities to talk to companies specialising in insurance, mortgages and bank accounts for freelancers – and to get a free headshot from The Headshot Guy or be drawn by Emmeline Pidgen. I got the photo (see my bio below), but was too slow to sign up for an exclusive original portrait.

Being the only editor

It was a different experience to a publishing or editing networking and professional development event: the sheer number of people meant fewer in-depth conversations, the variety of skills and industries meant a different range of ‘in jokes’, and some of the sessions I attended were city-centric (with limited awareness of how working life in rural areas or small towns is different). The goody bag wasn’t overflowing with pens but did include a fish-eye lens to clip over my phone’s camera lens (which of course will now be used for all photos until I sit on/drop/let the children near it).

I spent most of the day out of my comfort zone, but encountered inspiring people and came home with some ideas about refreshing my business and some ideas about what I don’t want to do. I will go again next year, with an updated elevator pitch and a shorter description on my name badge.

Abi Saffrey is an editorial project manager, copy-editor, proofreader, cat minion, tea drinker, Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP, sunflower grower and walker. She is author of the recently published Editorial Project Management guide and co-author of the SfEP’s Editorial Project Management course. Connect with her on LinkedIn; you can follow her on Twitter too but be prepared for cat pictures and ranting.

 


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.

The SfEP mini-conference: the Newcastle edition

By Annie Deakins

When I heard that the North East Editors were organising a one-day SfEP mini-conference in Newcastle, I was very tempted. The train journey from Essex would be relatively easy, with an overnight stay at the Holiday Inn. On the morning of the conference, I headed to the venue – the stunning Royal Station Hotel – adjacent to the railway station. Victoria Suite was sumptuous and spacious for the 68 delegates.

An interesting variety of sessions had been planned. They were:

  1. Marketing your editing business, with Denise Cowle
  2. The changing world of academic publishing, with Matt Deacon (from Wearset)
  3. Ministry of (Business) Training (MO(B)T), with Melissa Middleton
  4. Efficient editing – how to make the most of your fee, with Hester Higton
  5. Panel discussion: Navigating a course in publishing, chaired by Luke Finley, with Sarah Wray, Debbie Taylor, Alex Niven.

Eleanor Abraham (@EBAeditorial) wrote excellent summaries in her live tweeting throughout all the sessions. I have relied on some of her tweets for accuracy.

Marketing your editing business

Denise is the SfEP marketing director and she belongs to the Content Marketing Academy. Some of her points included:

  • It’s important to make the shift from ‘freelance’ to ‘business owner’.
  • Have a website. Your website is yours to do with what you want.
  • Be brave and network with colleagues.
  • Like, comment and share content from colleagues.
  • Be helpful and demonstrate your knowledge.
  • Add value. Give away brilliant free stuff on your website (be like Louise Harnby, the room chorused!).

Time for coffee and CAKE!

The changing world of academic publishing

Next, Matt Deacon, the project manager at Wearset (one of the conference sponsors), talked about the pressures that publishers are against. Pressures from profit-driven markets, the internet, expectations on speed of delivery, globalisation and increased competition. He asked if artificial intelligence is going to take our jobs. No. Context, style and subtlety of language need the human element. Automation tools (such as PerfectIt) can carry out mundane tasks and reduce the time taken to edit, leaving us to focus on language and sense. Matt suggested how to future-proof editing: spot change, embrace and innovate, and spearhead development. Another thought was, how can we as editors encourage standardisation of templates among publishers? He suggested that the SfEP has a role to play in encouraging cleaner formats for editing by sharing discussions between publisher and author clients.

Ministry of (Business) Training

The third session, with Melissa Middleton, was lively. She runs Project North East, promoting enterprise. In groups, we listed all the ways we do daily CPD … what? It turns out we do quite a lot, especially if we use the SfEP forums. One activity had us listing our top skill on a sticky note placed on a poster of collective skills, then listing a weakness to improve on another sticky note for a second poster. By the end we had created a ‘Skill Swap Shop’ to be shared. Very simple and effective. Melissa finished by sharing a useful Interactive CPD Toolkit.

Efficient editing

After lunch, Hester’s session was fascinating, if intensive. Our task was to judge what can and can’t be done in a job when clients are cutting costs and driving down schedules. Given non-fiction texts to discuss and prepare for copy-edit, we analysed each brief and project.

Hester’s tips on efficient editing were:

  • What essential work must be done within budget and by the deadline?
  • Know what your key priorities are and stick to them.
  • Use clean-up routines, keep track of the project and analyse when finished for timings and cost.

Navigating a course in publishing

The last session was a panel discussion chaired by Luke Finley. On the panel were Sarah Wray, Debbie Taylor and Alex Niven. Some questions from the delegates for discussion were:

  • How do editors deal with …?
  • How have you tackled a ‘muscular’ (*top* word of the conference) or heavy editing job with an author?
  • When do you get time to work on your own novel when you are an editor and enjoy writing?

All in all

Mini or one-day conferences are valuable for a variety of reasons.

  • Lasting only a day means they are not expensive in terms of time or money.
  • Their location may be nearer to you than the main SfEP annual conference.
  • They present more regular networking opportunities than waiting for the annual conference.
  • Participants are eligible for upgrade points.

After the surprise raffle, the final (unofficial) session headed to a nearby bar for drinks, which I had to miss in order to catch a train. But bravo and cheers to the NE Editors, especially Kia Thomas, for a valuable day!

Annie Deakins was a primary teacher in Essex for 30 years before retraining as a proofreader three years ago. An Intermediate Member of the SfEP, she runs Proofnow Proofreader. Connect with her on LinkedIn. She tutors primary children, edits her local parish magazine and blogs as #TallTartanTells.

 


Check out all the tweets from and about the day: #SfEPNEConf

The annual SfEP Conference takes place in Birmingham this year, on 14–16 September –  booking is still open!

Local SfEP groups organise mini-conferences: the next one, on 6 November, is in Toronto. If you would like to organise a mini-conference close to you, contact the Society’s Community director.


Proofread by Victoria Hunt, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

 

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.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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.