Category Archives: Specialisms

Over the limit: reducing the word count

By Claire Bacon

Most journals impose word limits on the articles they publish. Saying the same thing in fewer words not only increases an article’s chances of being accepted for publication, but also makes it easier to read. In this blog post, I explain how to reduce the word count in a research paper to keep the journal editor and the readers happy.

Wordy phrases

Replace wordy phrases with concise alternatives. For example:

  • Explained instead of accounted for the fact that
  • Now instead of at this point in time
  • Many instead of a large number of
  • Because instead of due to the fact that.

You can also avoid wordiness by choosing the right verbs. For example, the active voice uses fewer words than the passive voice:

The questionnaire was completed by the participants. (passive voice; 7 words)

Participants completed the questionnaire. (active voice, 4 words)

Nominalisation (changing verbs/adjectives into nouns) also introduces unnecessary passive verbs into your sentences. Use verbs that tighten your text:

A positive correlation between drug use and recovery time was observed. (11 words)

Drug use correlated positively with recovery time. (7 words)

This would lead to a reduction in patient mortality. (9 words)

This would reduce patient mortality. (5 words)

Using single verbs instead of phrasal verbs can also reduce the word count. For example:

We cut down on the amount of drug administered over time. (phrasal verb; 11 words)

We reduced the amount of drug administered over time. (single verb; 9 words)

You can cut this down even further by choosing more appropriate words:

We reduced the drug dosage.

The first person

Using first person pronouns (I, we, me, my, mine, us, our) is a great way to emphasise the author’s perspective and engage the reader. But the first person isn’t always suitable. Take a look at the following example:

We discovered that regular exercise reduced stress levels in healthy participants.

This is not an effective use of the first person. Keep the tone objective when describing results – and doing so will use fewer words:

Regular exercise reduced stress levels in healthy participants.

Redundant information

Delete any words that do not contribute important information. Prepositional phrases (groups of words without subjects or verbs) are often redundant and can be deleted without changing the meaning. For example:

  • Large instead of large in size
  • Round instead of round in shape
  • Red instead of red in colour.

Also check whether the modifiers in the article are necessary. For example:

Careful hemodynamic monitoring is necessary to prevent tissue hypoxia during cardiac surgery. (Nobody will infer that careless hemodynamic monitoring is acceptable if you delete careful.)

Extensive inclusion criteria were used to define the target population. (The inclusion criteria will be presented, so no need to tell the reader they are extensive.)

Double negatives are also redundant – and unclear. For example:

Although the difference was small, it was statistically significant

is shorter and clearer than

Although the difference was small, it was not statistically insignificant.

Filler phrases such as it has been shown that, it is widely accepted that, and it should be noted that are often redundant, but can be used sparingly to guide a reader through the author’s evolving argument.

Be specific

Concrete language is often more concise than abstract language. It also makes writing easier to understand. For example:

Patients with pancreatic cancer were examined by oncologists.

is specific and less wordy than

Patients with pancreatic cancer were examined by appropriately qualified medical personnel.

Use tables and figures

Save space by presenting large amounts of data in a table. Remove any redundant information (eg a column headed Sex is not necessary if all participants were female) and put units in the headings or footnotes rather than in each data field.

Don’t repeat yourself

Avoid repetition. Unnecessary adjectives are a common culprit – for example, past history, end result, advance planning, in actual fact, various different. Adverbs can be repetitive too – definitely proved, completely eliminate, may possibly, repeat again. Check whether adjectives and adverbs give new information. If not, delete them.

Do not repeat information from tables and figures in the text. A brief reference to what the figure or table is showing is sufficient. For example:

We collected data on age, sex, BMI, use of hormonal contraceptives, and Becks Depression Inventory score for all patients (Table 1)

is wordy and redundant. Try:

Patient characteristics are presented in Table 1.

Emphasise with care – intensifiers don’t always add meaning: exactly the same, absolutely essential, extremely significant, and very unique are all examples of redundant intensifiers and can be deleted.

Avoid continuous tenses

The continuous tenses indicate that something is ongoing. They are usually best avoided in research papers because they force unnecessary use of the verb to be. For example:

We measured creatinine levels in patient urine (simple past tense)

is concise and easier to read than

We were measuring creatinine levels in patient urine. (past continuous tense)

Abbreviations

Abbreviations can make text concise because they avoid repetition of long words. Many scientific words are better known by their abbreviations, such as DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and PCR (polymerase chain reaction). These abbreviations improve the flow and clarity of the writing and usually do not need to be defined:

Patient DNA was amplified by PCR

will be understood by most readers. However, non-standard abbreviations should be defined when first used:

The SN, SC, and IC are components of the MB

is impossible to understand. The reader needs to know what the abbreviations mean:

The substantia nigra (SN), superior colliculus (SC), and inferior colliculus (IC) are part of the midbrain (MB).

Don’t define abbreviations more than once in the main text. Abbreviations will only reduce the word count if they are used consistently after they are defined.

Be ruthless with your red pen

Authors are often reluctant to delete the words they have taken so much time to write. But cutting unnecessary information from a paper will draw attention to the important content. If time allows, put an article to one side for a while before deciding what to delete. This will make awkward phrases and irrelevant information easier to spot. Following the tips outlined in this article will help you decide what needs to go to get the word count under the journal’s limit.

 

Claire Bacon is a former research scientist and an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. She edits manuscripts for non-native English-speaking scientists and works as a copyeditor for The Canadian Journal of Anesthesia.

This article was published on Claire’s blog on 23 October 2019. Many thanks to Claire for granting permission to amend and republish it.


If you’re interested in learning more about helping authors to make their writing more clear and concise, then consider taking the SfEP’s Plain English for Editors course.


Photo credits: You choose your words – Brett Jordan on Unsplash; Books – Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

Proofread and posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Editing memoir, life writing and creative non-fiction

At this year’s SfEP conference, writer Emma Darwin led a workshop that was mainly focused on non-fiction authors, but the many questions discussed are relevant to both authors and editors. Loulou Brown summarises Emma’s key things to consider when working through a text.

Creative life-writing/creative non-fiction uses the techniques of fiction to write real, non-fictional stories. Non-fiction work presents real life. It informs, summarises and reports, and separates facts from inferences and guesses. It is explicitly factually ‘true’, including uncertainties and gaps, and it acknowledges influences and assumptions.

The author should consider why they want to write about a particular subject, and what is at stake. It is then necessary to think about the project to be worked on.

  • What is important?
  • What will the project contain?
  • Whose story is it?
  • Who are the important people?
  • Where are the important places?
  • When do the important historical events take place?
  • What gets told and how?
  • Is there more than one story; if so, how are they related?
  • What might the ‘spine’ or ‘backbone’ of the narrative be?
  • What will the ‘vertebrae’ be?
  • Where does the author start?
  • Where does the author finish?

The author needs to decide the following:

  • What will their personal rule-book be for when to do what?
  • How will fictional techniques help to make the non-fiction material compelling?
  • Where are the gaps and ‘awkwardnesses’: in facts, causes and motivation; in thoughts, feelings and physical experiences? How will these be filled or bridged?
  • How will discrepancies be acknowledged and resolved, or discrepancies be acknowledged and left to lie?
  • How will explicit inferences, guesses and explanations be made?
  • How will they imagine, reinvent or alter?

The narrative is very important and the following issues need to be considered:

  • Who is doing the narrating?
  • How will the narrative put flesh on the spine?
  • Who or what is the narrative centred on?
  • How will the narrator draw the reader along the spine?
  • Where is the narrator ‘standing’, relative to the events?
  • What will the narrative evoke, dramatise, show?
  • Where will the narrative inform, summarise, tell?

Narrative techniques:

  • Using a narrator or storyteller and actors in the story.
  • Interweaving different timelines.
  • Working with point-of-view.
  • Showing versus telling (evoking/telling the reader; informing/explaining).
  • Working with voice and tone.
  • Working with psychic distance.

The author needs to think about his or her readers and consider the following questions:

  • Who is going to read what is written?
  • Will the journey be worth the reader’s time and money?
  • What is at stake for the reader?
  • How will the writer engage the reader?
  • Why should the reader care?
  • How is the reader convinced by what the writer is saying?

Emma listed a number of features that can go wrong with the manuscript. Editors should carefully take note of these potential problems.

  • The voice is not compelling enough.
  • The reader doesn’t care about what is being said.
  • The text is confusing, irritating, or too quiet, too noisy, too slow, too long, or too short, or too rushed.
  • The storytelling is jerky.
  • There is a ‘soggy’ middle.
  • The story fizzles out.
  • Although competent, the story is dull.
  • The text is over-written.
  • The text is under-written.
  • There are repetitions.
  • There is too much description.
  • There is too much introspection.

Emma ended her workshop with a list of potential problems that might arise between authors and publishers.

  • The publisher says that the author’s voice is dull and clunky.
  • The publisher gets frustrated because the author cannot remember what the publisher considers to be important incidents.
  • The publisher is irritated that the author won’t tell the ‘best’ bits.
  • The publisher is annoyed that the author finds it very difficult to write about important incidents.
  • The publisher is bored because the author feels it necessary to write about incidents in great detail.
  • The publisher is cross because the author over-explains events.
  • The publisher is peeved because the author doesn’t put in enough detail.
  • The publisher is upset because the author resists any restructuring.
  • The publisher is furious because the author balks at fairly drastic changes.
  • The publisher gives up when the author resists all changes to the text.
  • The author becomes paranoid when the publisher wants the text to be sexier.
  • The author is upset that the publisher does not appear to understand what they are writing about, given the changes the publisher wants to make to the text.
  • The author hates major restructuring of the text that they have worked on for years.
  • The author is disgusted that the publisher appears to be interested only in how much money the book will make and does not appear to be interested in the content of what has been written.
  • The author has a seizure when the publisher pushes hard for delivery of the text.

Loulou Brown is a professional member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. She has an MA in women’s studies and an MA in English literature. She specialises in editing academic work in the humanities and social sciences and has also edited a lot of biographies and autobiographies. Her major interest is in editing fiction and she has recently become an associate editor at Bloodhound Books, a crime fiction publisher.

Emma Darwin has published four books: two novels, The Mathematics of Love, and A Secret Alchemy; and a ‘how to’ manual, Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. Her latest work, published this year, is a memoir about her family: This Is Not a Book about Charles Darwin. She has an MPhil in writing at the University of South Wales and has completed a PhD in creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London.


Read more conference session summaries in the November/December edition of Editing Matters (free to members).


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.

Photo credits: Light bulbs  Skye Studios on Unsplash; Pen on book Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

The right tone: how to edit writing about classical music

By Paul Kilbey

Editing classical music text is much like editing anything else, except that the text continually reminds you that the subject matter is a whole language of its own, but one that resists all attempts at translation or explication. True, classical music has its own vocabulary, but it is insufficient for many reasons: it’s horribly technical, it relies on huge amounts of background knowledge, and half of it is basically Italian. It’s difficult – and that’s an understatement – to capture in writing the essence of how the music feels, to hint at what it really seems to mean.

Try and describe what’s actually going on in a piece of music, and you will either get ludicrously specific very fast, or stay almost hopelessly vague. One of the first questions an editor has to ask is who the text is for: text for academics or knowledgeable classical music fans is quite different from text for newcomers, to the extent that specialist text can feel like its own dialect, much like legalese. Tell a newcomer, for instance, that the major-key exposition’s second subject is in the mediant, and they’ll look at you blankly – and quite right too. Tell an aficionado, and they’ll say, ‘Goodness gracious! You mean it isn’t in the dominant?’

While this is an issue when editing work on any topic, with classical music it is particularly acute. It’s vital to make sure that writers speak consistently in the right register (to borrow a musical term): to put yourself in the shoes of a reader with whatever level of musical knowledge, and make sure that the text will sound right to them. There’s a perpetual debate in classical music concerning elitism: an art form with wealthy patrons and connotations of high culture has to take special care not to appear cut off from society at large. Getting the tone of the text right is therefore a very delicate balance: newbies have to be welcomed with open arms, while connoisseurs must be treated unpatronisingly.

Having a decent knowledge of classical music isn’t a prerequisite for this sort of editorial work, but it’s certainly a great advantage. I studied music at university, and am thrilled to have found one of the few careers (outside actually performing or writing music) in which my knowledge of fugue terminology, Schoenberg opus numbers and the libretto to The Rake’s Progress has been genuinely helpful, rather than something to be irritatingly shown off at bad parties. It’s unpredictable which areas of knowledge will be called upon for a given editing task, but as well as understanding the full gamut of technical terms, from squillo to Personenregie, it’s important to have familiarity with the basics of not just Italian but also German and French. It doesn’t hurt to know how accents work in Hungarian, too. Plus, on occasion, you’ll need to navigate musical scores, to confirm tempo markings or texts or instrumentations. And of course, it helps to know what all the works you’re reading about actually sound like.

All that said, as an editor (and writer), I sometimes regret not studying English – I regretted this even during my degree, in fact, and still treasure the English faculty library pencil I plucked up the courage to buy in my fourth year. But studying music hasn’t just given me an editorial specialism: it’s also given me a different perspective from which to think about language in general. I often find myself reading text out loud, whether I’m editing it or not, because I want to hear how it sounds. I want to hear how the rhythms flow, how the vowels and the consonants arrange themselves as I say them. I listen to the cadences – a precise, analytical term in music, but beautifully ambiguous in language.

That’s why I take such joy in editing, I think: I like to make words sing. With just the smallest changes made, so much text can instantly become so sonorous. You can think of grammar, punctuation and syntax conventions as rigid rules, but I like to think of them as tools with which language can be made to sound as elegant as a song, as enthralling as a symphony, as dramatic as an opera.

None of this helps with the basic problem of how to effectively talk about music using language. That’s a problem that may not have a solution at all. But still, if we can never do justice to music through writing, the least we can do is use musical words.

Paul Kilbey is a freelance writer and editor who mainly works on classical music text. He is a Professional Member of the SfEP and lives in Munich.

 

 


Editorial Excellence is the SfEP’s e-newsletter; it aims to spread awareness of and encourage good practice in copyediting and proofreading.


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Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

Photo credits: music stand – Andrey Konstantinov on Unsplash; sheet music Marius Masalar on Unsplash.

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.

 


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

Editing translated or non-native English

By Allison Turner
Large, flat stone with an engraving that says 'A translation from one language to another'

I like to think of editing as bridging the gap between what the writer wants to communicate and what the reader actually understands. If the writing has been translated or written in a language other than the writer’s native one, that gap is typically wider. That’s why an editor of translated or non-native English has a few extra points technical and stylistic to look out for.

The first aspects to be aware of are the technical ones arising from the differences between the source language of the translation or the writer’s best language, as the case may be, and English. An obvious example is false friends – words that look very similar in the two languages but have different meanings. For example, several European languages have a word similar to ‘eventually’ that, instead of meaning ‘at some point in the distant future’, means ‘possibly’.

At the next level up, the sentence level, it helps to know how the grammar of the writer’s language differs from English grammar. For example, Italian rarely uses subject pronouns and Russian has no articles, so writers from those language backgrounds may have trouble with these issues. I have an Italian client whose English is great, but she occasionally misses the ‘there’ in a sentence like ‘There are many reasons.’ Not surprising, since its purpose is purely grammatical rather than meaningful – but it can be confusing if you don’t expect it (especially when the sentence is more complicated than that).

I see this type of editing as a kind of word puzzle, especially if I know the writer’s native language at least a little. ‘What word could they have mistranslated into this one?’ or ‘How would this sentence likely have been written?’ German – which I can confidently say I know at least a little – is particularly fun for this, as it has some word order rules entirely different from English ones.

Scattered Scrabble letter tiles

A professional translator will know how to avoid these technical traps, but there are stylistic issues to be aware of that apply to translations as well as non-native writing. One of these is words that are not so much false friends as fair-weather friends. These have quite similar denotations but a different connotation or tone. For example, a Portuguese speaker might use ‘foment’ to describe creating something positive, but that would sound odd to English ears. Or a French speaker may use a word that is more recherché than the tone of the text calls for, because the French cognate is much less obscure.

It’s a good idea to clarify the connotations are correct. For example, I might say ‘This sounds harsh (or flippant, or negative) – is it meant to?’ Of course this is true of all editing, but I think it’s more likely that a non-native writer will not realise how they are coming across.

On a more general level, different languages have different ideas of style. My grammar teacher put it this way: ‘English likes verbs, French likes nouns.’ So a sentence that sounds good in French could sound quite stuffy in English, simply because it has too many abstract nouns that could easily have been verbs. Or a writer who speaks Arabic, which tends to be more flowery than English, might in English come across as excessively wordy.

The last thing to think about – and arguably the most important – is the author’s voice. If the author’s English isn’t great or is non-existent, what we want is not quite their own voice, but more like an idealised version of it. I speak French and German regularly, but I know I’m not as smart in French or as funny in German as I am in English. I don’t edit fiction, and I’m sure there are additional considerations for those who do, but every piece of writing expresses something about the writer – whether they want to show themselves to be knowledgeable, or approachable, or empathic, or witty, or all of the above. A good editor can help with this.

I need to conclude by admitting that sometimes I really don’t know what the writer means. In such a case, I still almost always offer one or more suggestions. Even if I’m way off, in most cases the user can tell from my guess what went wrong, and eventually (in the English sense!) together we come to the best way of expressing it. One of my favourite clients said it best: ‘You think with and for me.’

Allison TurnerAllison Turner is a textual healer and a Professional Member of the SfEP. A Canadian who lives in Switzerland and a former ESL teacher, she edits almost exclusively non-native and translated English, mainly for academics and entrepreneurs.

 

 

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.

Plain English: ‘Be short, be simple, be human’

By Laura Ripper and Luke Finley

Ever had to deal with text that makes you feel alienated, inadequate or frustrated? We’ve all had that experience – of struggling to make sense of writing that’s pretentious and showy, filled with jargon and buzzwords, or simply badly planned and confusing.

Sometimes you might long for the writing to be as poetic as Shakespeare, as gripping as Stephen King or as much fun to read as JK Rowling. But when you need information quickly, you just want it to tell you, without all the frills, what you need to know.

In other words, you want it in plain English.

Water ripples above book pagesWhat is plain English?

Plain English is about communicating with people in writing as clearly as possible.

George Orwell and Ernest Gowers, writing in the 1940s, were among the first to encourage writers to use plain English: ‘Be short, be simple, be human,’ wrote Gowers in his guide Plain Words. There’s no one accepted definition today, but the International Plain Language Federation sums it up nicely:

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information. [our emphasis]

It’s about putting the reader’s needs first, even above the writer’s preferences, when it comes to deciding how to word and organise a text. This doesn’t ignore the writer’s priorities – quite the opposite! What’s your main aim as a writer, if not to communicate clearly with your readers?

What is it for?

You can use plain English to:

  • make information accessible to people who aren’t specialists in your area (whether that’s about health, money, research, government policy or something else)
  • share essential information (on safety or the law)
  • give people the chance to have a say on things that affect them, or to use services they’re entitled to
  • build a reputation for putting customers first
  • build a good relationship with readers
  • save time and money (on clarifying misunderstandings, reprinting documents).

So you can use it for ethical and economic reasons. By making letters, reports, policies, articles and application forms easier for people they affect to read and understand, you’re making a difference to those people. You’re also making savings for your organisation, and helping to achieve its marketing aims.

What can using plain English do for me?

Writing in plain English can help your organisation:

  • make the text more effective (informing, selling to or empowering the reader, or appealing to more readers)
  • market itself (by strengthening your reputation, building trust and loyalty, and attracting customers, staff and suppliers)
  • achieve its business aims (eg increasing profit by saving time and money)
  • fulfil its purpose (providing a public service, raising awareness of an important issue).

Open book with letters flying outHow can an editor help?

Editors offering plain English services can help by making text clearer and easier to read. Many of them can suggest ways to improve its structure and layout too.

According to the Oxford Guide to Plain English, the average UK adult has a reading age of just 13. They’re also busy – they don’t have time to read insurance policies for pleasure. So in a plain English edit, an editor aims to make the writing as easy as possible for the average person to read.

To do this, editors follow established guidelines, such as those in the Oxford Guide. ‘Translating’ a piece of writing into plain English isn’t a mechanical exercise, though – a trained editor considers the reader’s level of knowledge and what will be clearest for them.

Some editors can also help by:

  • giving training about using plain English
  • completely re-writing a document, or writing a plain English summary
  • designing templates and style guides that follow plain English principles.

What else can I do?

  • Keep the reader in mind when you’re planning, writing and designing the text – think about what will be clearest and most logical for them.
  • Make sure you’ve included all the information the reader needs – don’t assume they know as much about your subject as you do.
  • Learn about the principles of plain English (by doing training and using resources, such as those available from the National Adult Literacy Agency in Ireland).
  • Test the text on real readers to see if they understand it quickly and easily.
  • Get feedback from readers on documents you’ve already published and make improvements.

If you write in simple, direct language, readers are more likely to respect and value what you have to say. And this will make as much of a difference to you, and your priorities, as it will to your readers.

Laura RipperLaura Ripper began her career in 2004 at Plain English Campaign, where she translated all sorts of documents into plain language. In 2008 she moved to a wider editorial and communications role, which included raising awareness of the UK’s switch to digital TV. Laura set up her proofreading and editing business in 2012 to concentrate on the aspects of her job that she loves best. She still specialises in plain English, and has found these skills useful for every type of document – from journal articles to board game rules. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. When she isn’t at her desk, Laura loves walking in the hills. She has two feline assistants.

Luke FinleyLuke Finley set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013 and is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. He briefly worked in publishing in the 1990s, but most of his working life has been spent in the voluntary and public sectors, in social policy development and implementation. His experience of local government gave him a keen interest in plain English and trying (sometimes in vain) to persuade people to communicate more clearly.  Luke will edit or proofread anything from academic books to charities’ annual reports to travel agents’ websites, but mostly works on social policy and politics texts.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Project fear: fiction editing

By Gale Winskill

With apologies to Jane Austen, ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that most editors enjoy reading’. I say ‘most’, as there will undoubtedly be an exception somewhere – and when you find them, please let me know! Of those who read for pleasure, I would hazard a guess that the vast majority probably opt for some sort of fiction, although again, a small percentage will not.

Drawing of a book with a visualisation of a story coming from its pagesBut those who don’t will quite possibly enjoy memoirs or biographies that share many narrative traits with fiction, as ultimately they encompass a good ‘story’, and require pace and drama.
Fast-forward then to the surprising number of editors who recoil in horror at the thought of actually editing fiction, preferring the relative order of non-fiction subject specialities, academic guidelines and referencing systems over the perceived unwieldiness of fiction.

Spot the difference

And yet, is non-fiction/academic editing really so different from fiction editing?

We all pass an unconscious critical eye over our reading material, of whatever ilk – newspaper articles, web text, books… And how often have we come to the end of a novel only to wonder what happened to a particular character who inexplicably disappeared from view at some point, or to query why an author suddenly switched to American idiom for a protagonist previously noted for their ‘West Country vernacular’?

Is this really so different from spotting in a work of non-fiction that the Russian Revolution occurred momentarily in 1817 rather than 1917, or that Reggio Calabria had transformed into Reggio Emilia, which is at the opposite end of Italy? Leaving incorrect or inconsistent facts in any type of text can lead to unnecessary reader confusion.

But what about all that dialogue and jargon? How is an editor supposed to ensure conformity in a text written in teenage slang, for example? Well, for those of you with teenagers in the house, a quick question in this regard will not only engender a snort of derision, but will also provide the necessary clarification if required. Even if you don’t have direct access to this subspecies of the human race, there are wonderful online resources to keep you up to date, just as there are helpful organisations to keep you abreast of changing terminology and ethical considerations in other areas of your editing life.

‘But there are no rules to fiction,’ I hear you cry. Well, that’s not entirely true, is it? The basic conventions of grammar, punctuation, tense agreement, spelling and so on still apply … just not always with the same regularity as in other texts. The key is to find the pattern and then impose consistency. Think of it as a challenge, a puzzle to unravel. Patrick Ness’s phonetic transcription of language in his Chaos Walking trilogy isn’t unintelligible; it’s innovative, consistent and apt. It’s completely sensible to expect that a teenage protagonist with no formal education might write ‘station’ as ‘stayshun’. In non-fiction or academia, the word ‘anxiolytic’ might have more resonance for its target audience than the term ‘anxiety-reducing’. Ultimately, it’s a matter of context … and uniformity.

Genres, interest and expertise

But that still doesn’t address the elephant in the room – the huge array of genres: thrillers, young adult, erotica, crime, romance, fantasy, science fiction, children’s, and so on. How can an editor possibly deal with all of that?

Well, most fiction editors don’t. Generally, our editing specialities reflect our reading preferences, in the same way that many non-fiction editors focus on their own areas of general interest or academic expertise. We all have our comfort zones. After all, if you read a lot of crime fiction, you are more likely to spot a glaring narrative discrepancy in a similar work – especially if the ‘error’ concerns the plausibility of that one vital piece of information on which the entire plot hinges – than if you usually read magic realism.

And if erotica or science fiction are not your bag – as self-help, politics or Celtic religion might not be someone else’s – then why would you even consider working on them? It’s not compulsory. The beauty of fiction is that there is such a range to choose from that there really is something for everyone. And nowhere does it state that you have to edit fiction to the exclusion of other types of work.

Bookshelves with clouds and birds aboveNovel impact

At the recent 2018 SfEP conference, I attended two excellent sessions on very different aspects of fiction editing. Although some might think that I had little to learn, given that I have been editing fiction in one form or another for a very long time, I would beg to differ, as I always discover fresh ways of looking at old topics. The sessions brought together newbies and veterans, and each had as much to offer to the discussion as the other. One thing that emerged was that everyone could cite novels that had had an impact on them at some point, and were able to verbalise the reasons why. The same applied to their responses to the various exercise texts.

And if you can articulate your reaction to a piece of narrative prose, you can edit fiction!
Fiction is uniquely subjective and everyone has a different – and equally valid – opinion of what works and what doesn’t, and it is this existence of ‘no right answer’ that scares those who avoid it.

It is true that no two fiction editors will ever highlight exactly the same things in the same narrative, although there will be commonalities. Things that bother me may not bother you, and at the end of the day who’s to say that I’m right and you’re wrong, or vice versa? We can posit an opinion, but what the author does with that information is up to them – as with non-fiction editing.

Fiction editors provide authors with an invaluable service. Not only do they tidy up a text, and ensure that plot details tally, the text is reasonably clean, pace is maintained and the chosen spelling conventions are consistent, but they also stand in for the final reader – the book buyer! They let the author know what works and what doesn’t, and so help them to avoid those often minor, yet erroneous details mentioned above, which can ultimately detract from an otherwise great story.

And next…

So, if you are now thinking that fiction editing may not be quite as scary – or as alien – as you first thought and might like to give it a go, or if you have members of staff who would benefit from an overview of how to get started and what to consider, perhaps you should contemplate the SfEP’s online Introduction to Fiction Editing course.

Written by a variety of experienced fiction editors, it offers a broad overview of the basic things to look out for when copy-editing a work of fiction. There are no fixed ‘rules’ as such, but you will hopefully discover that fiction editing is not quite as lawless or ‘unquantifiable’ as you envisage.

Above all, the course provides ample reassurance that, as long as you can justify your opinion in the context of the novel, your very own ‘no right answer’ might actually be correct. But there’s only one way to know if I’m telling the truth, so why not confront your demons and learn how to kill those darlings?

Gale WinksillGale Winskill is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP who enjoys a challenge. She co-wrote the SfEP’s online Introduction to Fiction Editing course.

 

 

The SfEP also publishes a guide to Getting started in fiction editing, written by Kat Trail.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Is medical editing for you?

By Catherine Booth

Who can be a medical editor?

Medical editors need all of the usual editorial skills of proofreading and copyediting, combined with some knowledge of medicine, research or biology and an ability to work to tight deadlines. While medical editors come from all walks of life, a scientific degree or practical experience in medicine – perhaps as a nurse, pharmacist or research scientist – is a must.

Although some scientific or medical knowledge is important for a medical editor, it isn’t necessary to be a subject-matter expert. While it is often useful to have a background in the specific area at hand (eg cardiology), this isn’t always practical; as a medical editor, you might be asked to work on a journal article about diabetes one day and another on spinal surgery the next. But you are not writing the material – that is the job of the author, who should be a true subject-matter expert. You are the editor.

Pile of medical booksSo what is medical editing?

Medical editing involves applying standard editorial skills to medical subject matter, but also has some characteristics of its own. Medical editing projects often involve multiple authors, complex sign-off procedures, tight deadlines, exacting house style guides, many (often complex) figures and tables, and heavy referencing.

It is common to work with authors who have English as a second language. Medical editors should feel confident in asking authors for clarification, while acknowledging their expertise. You work as a team with the author: He or she is the expert in the medical subject matter, while you are the expert at getting across a particular message with clarity and accuracy.

Where could I find work?

Various people and businesses employ medical editors. Individual authors will often approach a medical editor to ‘polish’ their manuscript before submitting it to a journal, while bigger employers can include universities, publishers, medical or scientific societies, research institutions, government departments, medical communication agencies, pharmaceutical companies and patient-support or research-based charities.

All of these organisations have different characteristics, and the materials you will be asked to work on will vary according to the client. Journal publishers will ask you to proof PDFs or edit manuscripts in Word, for example, while medical communication agencies will often ask you to proof conference posters or to edit slide decks in PowerPoint.

With this in mind, you need to have a variety of skills in your toolbox and to be happy with working with a range of programs. In each case, one thing that it is important to understand as a medical editor is the audience for the materials you are working on; the acceptable level of complexity and medical terminology will vary depending on whether the material is aimed at researchers and clinicians or the general public.

What next?

Perhaps you’re already a competent editor with some kind of background in health and/or science and becoming a medical editor sounds like a great idea. Or you’re working within medical publishing and feel that you could do with a bit of training to formalise what you’re doing every day.

The SfEP’s online Medical Editing course aims to give you a general overview of the specialism of medical editing, and the chance to practise some of the key skills that you will need. It includes exercises to hone your skills, plus model answers to check you’re on the right track. You will also have support from an online tutor, so there’s someone available to answer your questions and give advice on next steps.

Could you be a medical editor? The SfEP’s Medical Editing course gives you one way to find out.

Shelf of medical books

Catherine Booth has been a freelance medical editor for more than 15 years, and works with a range of publishers and medcomms agencies. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP and the writer of the organisation’s Medical Editing course.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Building the best team for editorial project management

What is editorial project management?

bringing the pieces together

Editorial project management involves taking a piece of content (primarily words, and related images and figures) from its raw form to its published state – whatever content that may be, and however it is published. Traditional publishing companies have in-house editorial project managers (EPMs), as do many corporations, charities, government bodies, research institutions – any organisation that wants to disseminate information. Those EPMs come with a plethora of job titles: publishing manager, desk editor, content specialist, project coordinator, content lead, development officer. Some organisations use freelance editorial project managers, expanding their publishing team without longer-term overheads.

Editorial project management is, in one way, similar to copy-editing and proofreading: every organisation will do it slightly (or completely) differently. A different workflow, a different content management system, a different scheduling tool, different reporting mechanisms, different responsibilities. Even within one organisation, no two projects will be managed in exactly the same way.

In many other ways, of course, editorial project management is a whole other beast. Whereas copy-editors and proofreaders often work almost in isolation – taking content, doing the necessary task and then returning the content – EPMs have to collaborate with internal stakeholders and external suppliers over schedules that cover a few, or many, months. That collaboration relies on the softer skills: communication, time management, the ability to quickly adapt and learn, cooperation, delegation, networking, organisation, and the ability to prioritise. Technical expertise is less important, but experience and training in other areas of the editorial process can be an advantage when briefing suppliers and checking their work.

Training for editorial project management

A lot of EPMs learn those skills and gain their expertise through on-the-job experience and training. Experience from life outside work – volunteering, running a household, playing an active role in a community – also contributes to building an EPM’s repertoire. To support that knowledge, or to provide a strong foundation on which to build a project management career, the SfEP has launched a new Editorial Project Management course. This online course uses two fictitious projects to guide students through the publishing process and understand what an EPM does. The Publishing Training Centre offers several classroom-based courses covering different aspects of project management.

What does an editorial project manager do?

The actual tasks involved in editorial project management vary depending on an organisation’s needs, but it’s very likely that, over the course of a project, an EPM will need to arrange for the content to be copy-edited, typeset, proofread (at least once) and indexed. That will involve sourcing, briefing and feeding back to the specialists carrying out those tasks. There will be liaison with the author(s) – perhaps also the commissioning team, rights and permissions experts, designers and illustrators. An EPM has to keep all these people and their related tasks (and budgets) on track, being aware of any issues and risks; if issues do arise, they need to be addressed appropriately and quickly so that they don’t snowball into bigger problems.

Building your team

building a team

Freelance EPMs – whether an individual or a company – can be an excellent, flexible resource, enabling organisations to share the workload of a busy team for a specific time period. Those EPMs bring with them a fresh pair of eyes and experiences from other organisations and projects, as well as a network of trusted suppliers. They may also be able to take on other specific tasks in the workflow, such as copy-editing or indexing. Many freelance EPMs are SfEP Advanced Professional and Professional Members and have a listing in the SfEP’s Directory.

A knowledgeable and approachable EPM can make a big difference to a publishing project – getting content out into the wider world requires more than box ticking. The right EPM for a project will not only produce great content but will also build good relationships and unite a team – it is the ultimate exercise in editorial collaboration.

Abi SaffreyAbi Saffrey is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. She project manages, copy-edits and proofreads a cornucopia of fascinating material in her editing shed in Essex. Her office assistant, Gaston the Cat, provides no useful editorial support whatsoever.

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

A look at editing romance novels

Romance novels get a bad rap sometimes. They are often viewed as being less deserving of praise – and more deserving of being classed a ‘guilty pleasure’ – than literary fiction or other genres such as crime or science fiction. But I’m an unabashed lover of romance novels and not in the least bit guilty about it. And that love spills over into my professional life, where it’s one of my specialist fields as a fiction editor.

Editing romantic fiction is, in many ways, like editing any book. It’s just as worthy an endeavour as editing literary fiction, and romance novels are just as deserving of good editing as any other book (and believe me, romance readers have extremely high expectations and standards and can be vociferous when something doesn’t meet with their approval). You have the same concerns about consistency, correctness, clarity, and all the other Cs to look out for. But romance novels also have their own set of quirks and genre expectations.

What makes a romance novel?

In order to edit a romance novel, an editor must first understand what a romance novel is and what it is not. It might seem obvious, but a romance novel is not just a piece of writing that contains romantic elements.

A romance novel – as a piece of genre fiction – must have a happy ending to be classed as such (or, as the Romance Writers of America put it, an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending”). Tales of woe where the protagonist dies of some dreadful disease and his soulmate is unable to go on and leaps off a cliff are not romance novels. They may be novels with romantic elements, but they are not, strictly speaking, romance novels. And advertised as such, they can create a quite surprising level of anger and annoyance from readers who have sat down to enjoy a feel-good romance and have been left bereft and confused.

Most romance novels are character-driven as opposed to plot-driven. That means that characters’ interactions with each other and their journey and development are the primary focus of the novel. Compare this with adventure novels, which are usually plot-driven; while there may be elements of character development, the main focus is the twists and turns of the storyline. Romance novels are sometimes criticised for their lack of imagination or formulaic storylines, but the relationships between characters are the real heart of the story.

The big picture: characters and their development

When editing a character-driven story, it’s vital to focus on the believability of the characters and their development. If you’re coming in at a developmental or evaluation stage as opposed to a later copy-editing/proofreading stage, this is where you need to focus your efforts. Are the characters likeable? Are their flaws believable and not too drastic? For example, a bad boy who comes to the defence of the protagonist in a bar fight is fine, but one who beats up the protagonist or cheats on her time and time again? Not fine, and readers will swiftly put the book down, never to return. Is their romance believable? A writer can get away with stretching the boundaries of believability slightly, but readers will be turned off by something that is so far outside the realms of possibility it becomes ridiculous.

What’s the conflict and is it strong enough? Conflict is what drives a novel. Two people meeting and falling in love, with no barrier or obstacles, is not a story. There needs to be something stopping them being together which drives their actions, such as a jealous ex-boyfriend, a protagonist who has vowed never to fall in love again, or the time-honoured favourite of romance novels – the secret baby. When you’re editing a romance novel at a more conceptual stage, these are the big questions you need to ask and examine.

Details: dialogue and consistency

When you reach the copy-editing stage, I’d recommend looking closely at dialogue. Dialogue is super important in romance novels. Sometimes there isn’t a great deal of action going on, so it’s imperative that the dialogue is sparkling enough to carry the story and keep readers’ attention. Romance also suffers from some slightly odd dialogue tags sometimes, and you’ll face a balancing act of changing the most egregious ones (people ‘grinding out’ sentences, perhaps) and leaving some of the others. At times, romance novels almost have their own language, and it’s worth familiarising yourself with it before making sweeping changes. At all times, make sure the dialogue is natural and that there’s enough back and forth between characters. Long soliloquies rarely work. Readers want conversations, not monologues.

Pay close attention to things like changing eye colour and hair colour. These things are usually mentioned quite regularly throughout a romance novel, and you would be amazed how many times someone’s appearance changes over the course of the book. Also, keep an eye out for things like contraception not being mentioned or considered by the characters – modern readers expect things like this to be discussed or at least referred to. Sex scenes in general often require careful editing as many authors struggle to write these – and many editors just skip over them or don’t give them the attention they deserve. Editing romance novels means you sometimes have to put your embarrassment to one side and write some quite unusual author queries from time to time!

Keep careful notes of character backstory. Backstory can often be of immense importance (something the protagonist did ten years ago can come back to haunt her later, for example) and it’s important to make sure it’s consistent. Consider keeping a timeline if there’s a lot of going back and forth. That will also iron out issues such as people going to work for seven days in a row or children going to school on a Saturday.

And if you’re editing a historical romance novel, make sure your author has done their research. Historical romances can be great fun to edit, but one written without proper research can quickly turn into a time sink while you check whether words, phrases, and even concepts were commonplace at the time the book was written.

Katherine TrailKatherine Trail is a former newspaper chief sub-editor who now specialises in fiction. She lives in Aberdeen, and when she isn’t editing she can usually be found tramping through the wilderness with her spaniel, Daisy. KT Editing Services