Tag Archives: editing

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.

Inclusive language – and inclusive editing

By Sarah Grey

At the SfEP’s wonderful 2018 conference in Lancaster, I had the privilege of speaking with attendees about inclusive language. It’s strange, leaving the United States to talk about this topic at a time when inclusion and kindness seem to be very low on my country’s agenda – yet I am convinced that the stakes for inclusive and ethical editing are higher than ever.

Three people sat on bench in front of a wall of photo portraitsEditors have a long tradition of defending accuracy and fairness. We want to do right by our clients and by readers. We value inclusivity. We want to be on the right side of history. Almost all social justice movements, whatever their focus, take up questions of language as part of the struggle for equality and freedom. When that happens, language change, which is usually a very gradual process, becomes conscious, deliberate, and much, much faster. Language and politics are forever catching up to one another, pushing and pulling against one another. Our job as editors is to help language catch up.

There’s no one authority on inclusive language. We all have our own biases and knowledge gaps, and we can’t know what other people’s lives are like. People identify ways where language leaves them out or gets them wrong, and they speak up about it and start getting creative about alternatives and trying new things to see what catches on. It’s important for me to add here that there are debates about many of these things (such as people-first language in discussions of disability), so it’s important to stay up to speed on the debates that affect topics you edit.

Language changes because old words haven’t kept up with new realities, or realities that are newly being confronted. When you have the power of naming, you can frame how other people see you. You are literally setting the terms of the discussion. And that, in turn, allows you to put forward what you need in very material and tangible ways.

Etiquette

My grandmother always taught me that the goal of etiquette is to make sure every guest feels welcome and included. As editors it’s our job to see things from the reader’s point of view, not just our own or the author’s – and to welcome readers into the text and keep them reading. So editing for inclusive language is about understanding where language leaves some readers out and finding ways to invite them in.

But there’s a basic principle that underlies the idea of etiquette, of making people feel welcome, and it works very well when editing: treat people like they’re people. Don’t treat them like they’re lesser, like they’re unintelligent, like they don’t exist or don’t matter.

One way of doing this is othering: calling attention to someone’s differences from the unstated idea of ‘normal’: for example, referring to the Asian doctor or the trans librarian when ethnicity and gender aren’t relevant to the story, or dividing a catalogue page into ‘laptop bags’ and ‘women’s laptop bags’. This treats people from the othered group like a special exception whose identity has to revolve around their difference, or like they simply don’t exist, except perhaps in relation to someone more important.

For example, the Guardian recently tweeted the shortlist for the New Academy literary prize with the headline ‘Neil Gaiman and Haruki Muramaki up for alternative Nobel literature prize’. Only seven paragraphs in did the article mention that ‘the shortlist is completed with two female writers’, Maryse Condé and Kim Thúy.

Silhouttes of people standing, their reflections on the floorSo this is something we can watch for as we edit – is everyone identified equally? Do the women have names? Does the interview ask everyone about their child-care arrangements, or only the women? It’s also common to see men’s names given with a full title and women’s titles omitted, as well as surnames for men and first names for women.

Do these slights in themselves hurt anyone? Yes and no. Small instances that might seem innocuous enough pile up. If you’re labelled as other, these microaggressions, as they’re called, happen over and over, and in patterns and in partnership with more violent incidents. Experience that enough and you begin to see how one feeds into the other.

Ethics

That brings us to ethics – because the way we as editors use language has serious consequences in the real world.

Our decisions can influence what the boundaries of normal, legitimate discourse are. Granted, when someone like Donald Trump is in power, those boundaries are pushed further and further out into the realm of the bizarre, but here we are. The boundaries of legitimate discourse can, depending on where we as a society place them, contribute to or even provide justification for physical violence. And while our decisions can’t shape the course of language change, we do have some influence over how language changes. And in that respect, the decisions we make truly do matter.

In the news media it’s especially noticeable when different words are used to describe the same things done by different people. Words carry assumptions and judgements: Are you a protestor or a rioter? Are you assertive or abrasive? Is your government an administration or a regime? The specifics of these terms vary from place to place depending on who has power. They also function as ‘dog whistles’, political code. When these saturate the media and find their way into people’s worldviews, that can have real consequences, including violence.

There are always competing narratives about any conflict, so when you’re editing material that deals with one, whether it’s intended to be neutral or takes a specific stance, you need to do your research and understand which terms are used by whom and whether terms imply a specific stance or are relatively neutral.

The term illegal alien, for example, sounds like it should refer to Klingons or Time Lords, but it’s been used since the 1990s to describe people arriving at the US–Mexico border from Central and South America. It has largely fallen out of mainstream use over the last decade or two, as human rights activists have pointed out that it is blatantly dehumanising. The AP Stylebook, the New York Times, and the American Library Association dropped the term, with the latter noting that it is ‘increasingly associated with nativist and racist sentiments’. Avoiding such inflammatory terms isn’t euphemism; it’s accuracy.

But this July, the federal Department of Justice sent an email to all US attorneys’ offices instructing them never to use the term ‘undocumented immigrants’ and instead refer only to ‘illegal aliens’. In the context of thousands of immigrant children under the age of five being separated from their parents and detained literally in cages, the federal government is taking steps to ensure that only the most dehumanising possible term is used. That’s not a coincidence.Barbed wireWe see similar dehumanisation of migrants across Europe. Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Institute describes this as ‘a conscious policy to reintroduce language that was previously not acceptable in debate’. Obviously we can’t control what the politicians do, but we can push back when we see that sort of language being treated as normal discourse in the texts we edit.

Customer service

As editors, it’s our job to help our clients convey a message to an audience and to remove anything that gets in the way of that message, like unintended sexual connotations or grammatical mistakes. That includes protecting them from making gaffes or inadvertently causing offence. Often these mistakes come from ignorance or thoughtlessness.

There are also times where the author might not actually be flat-out wrong, but still manages to distract the reader. (This is why I advise writers to stay away from the word niggardly, even though its etymological origins have nothing to do with the racial slur.)

This doesn’t mean that you have to make your clients’ writing bland or inoffensive. Nor does it mean that you should shrug off or ignore or cover up writing that’s problematic. What it means is that if your author is going to offend anyone, you want that to be intentional. As an editor I’m a proxy for the reader, and if something causes a strong reaction in me, I want to be absolutely sure that it’s the reaction the author was going for.

We also have a responsibility to keep our authors up to date. Just as we would correct them if they used outdated tech terms, we can do the same when it comes to social issues. We’re not here to shame our authors or tell them they’re doing it all wrong. We’re here to make the finished product better, so a little tact can go a long way.

I try to assume the best of intentions on the author’s part and start from there. Most of the time it will end with the client thanking you.

Tools

If you’re writing about a specific community, check for style guides published by advocacy groups. If you find yourself working a lot on a specific issue, consider compiling your own stylesheet to help you keep things straight.

If you’re still not clear on certain terms or ideas, though, don’t just ignore them: make the effort to learn. Read books, articles and blogs by prominent members of the community you want to learn more about, consume their art, follow them on social media, or talk to them in person. If you do more listening than talking, you’ll pick up on a lot, not just about what terms people are using but also how people in that community are affected as human beings by language. And if you really need in-depth information you can’t find on your own, consider hiring one of the many people who offer consulting on these issues.

What if you screw up? Try not to get defensive or make it about yourself; listen and try to understand it from the reader’s perspective. Speaking up about oppressive language can be stressful, so the person taking the risk of pointing out your error is doing you a favour. Respect that, learn from it and try to do better. It gets easier with practice.

The bottom line is that if you’re editing only the words on the page, you’re not being thorough. We also have to read – and edit – what’s between the lines. That’s what inclusive editing is all about.

Sarah GreySarah Grey is a freelance editor and writer at Grey Editing LLC in Philadelphia, USA, and the 2016 recipient of the American Copy Editors Society’s Robinson Prize for Excellence in Copyediting. Before becoming a full-time freelancer, Sarah spent several years in the translation industry, where she learned the importance of cultural sensitivity and of understanding a text’s audience. She specialises in academic nonfiction, social justice, and food writing.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Why should editors pay any attention to readability metrics?

By Howard Walwyn

Like other things that are not universally loved but keep coming back – general elections, Christmas, the X Factor – readability metrics don’t seem to be going away.

There are people out there who like general elections, Christmas and the X Factor. And there are people out there who like readability metrics. But many who don’t.

“I thought that [setting readability targets] … had long since fallen out of fashion. It’s not a reliable tool, and it’s not appropriate in many circumstances.” (SfEP Forum contributor, August 2018)

This view is by no means isolated and is very defensible. Far better to write like a human than to be constrained by over-simple metrics, which don’t capture nonsensical meaning and can be outright misleading about how ‘good’ – clear, simple or ‘readable’ – a piece of prose is.

Young shocked boy holding open book

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

What are they?

A quick reminder of what the measures are, pretty much in two classes.

Flesch-type: Simple arithmetic measures of two elements: (i) the ratio of words to sentences and (ii) the ratio of syllables to words. In essence, shorter words and sentences translate to better readability scores.

Other: Widely used by Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) tools, a separate but related class of measures looks at frequency: how often something occurs and whether it is above or below a given threshold. For example if the number of sentences with a passive verb exceeds 10% the prose will be marked down on this metric. Similarly, the number of ‘long’ sentences as defined (20 words, since you ask) shouldn’t exceed 25%. And the number of sentences including a so-called ‘transition word’ should exceed 30%.

Why use them?

Why would any editor in their right mind pay attention to such simplistic notions?

Well, for two main reasons.

As a benchmark

In their own limited way – not sufficient, not even necessary, but still useful – these metrics support intuition surprisingly well. A postgraduate thesis will score around 30 on the Flesch Reading Ease measure. This is one version of the simple ratios mentioned above, scaled into an index which can be then attributed to different reading levels. 30 is hard to read. 60 is plain English. 100 is readable by an eight-year-old child.

I think of them as no more than benchmarks: background data in the back of my mind which helps me judge (1) the level of reader who find might this piece easily readable – which may be very different to who it is aimed at; and (2) how a piece compares before and after editing or compares to work by a similar but different author.

I emphasise that I fully understand the technical limitations. I wouldn’t judge a piece based solely on the metrics. But I do find the information they give me is valuable in its own terms as part of my assessment of the piece.

You can’t drive a car based solely on the speedo. You don’t even really need it that much if you’re an experienced driver. But it’s still a useful part of your armoury at the wheel.

Because clients do

This is perhaps the main reason in practice we, as editors, should be paying more attention even if we have to hold our noses while doing so.

Increasingly – perhaps reflecting the more general drive towards plain English standards in corporate and official life – non-publishing clients are using Flesch and other metrics explicitly as in-house writing targets. A couple of examples came up in a recent SfEP Forum thread on this topic.

“I do some work for a government department … their reports must have readability scores of between 40 and 60, varying according to their intended recipients.” (SfEP Forum contributor, August 2018)

I can vouch for this. One of my clients in the finance sector has set external and internal Flesch readability targets for its comms department and its policy gurus respectively. The arguments are as follows:

  1. On the external (comms) side, they want to communicate in plain English and a Flesch measure is an objective way of at least encouraging that.
  2. On the internal (policy) side they want to improve their management decision-making, and clearer internal writing – which they think is at least partially evidenced by a ‘good’ Flesch score – is part of that determination.

We can help

On this basis it is pragmatic and sensible for us, as editors, to develop some expertise in the tools; while not losing any scepticism we may have for them. We can add value for clients by helping them understand the metrics better, and work with them to help them appreciate the limitations. As Luke Finley said on the SfEP Forum thread I mentioned:

“There’s some evidence applying readability formulas too rigidly can make a text harder to read. To me this is an argument for putting them in the hands of language experts like editors if they’re to be used in a nuanced way.” (August 2018)

In short, keep an open mind. It could help you in your business if you have this expertise. I wouldn’t necessarily suggest volunteering them if the client doesn’t use them. But even that may be apt and valuable for certain types of non-publishing client. And you may help mitigate some of the misapplications that come with limited understanding.

You can even have fun with them. I expose my students’ work to the measures and they are often thrilled or horrified to see how academic (read tortuous) their business writing has become. And often pleased to be set on a path which involves a clear metric (even if a limited one).

Want to know more?

For more information I have published two (yes, two!) blogs on this topic, which I suppose reveals my interest: Flesh of my Flesch and
The Pix Simplicity Measure.

And for a bit of further informative fun, here are the readability metrics for this blog:

  • Flesch Reading Ease 60 (plain English).
  • 24% of sentences are long; 12% are passive; within or close to the guidelines.
  • 34% of sentences with transition words: above the guideline.

In short, I am happy to release this post to the editor in the knowledge that it should be broadly ‘readable’, but you can be the human judge of that!

Howard WalwynHoward Walwyn is a writer, editor, trainer and SfEP Professional Member. After a career in the City, he now helps clients write clear business English and bridge the worlds of language and finance. He is a visiting lecturer in Writing for Business at City, University of London and has degrees in English Language & Literature and Economics. Follow him on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

PerfectIt Cloud: what Mac users have been waiting for

Simone Hutchinson reviews Intelligent Editing’s new PerfectIt Cloud, the first version of the respected consistency and error checker to work on Macs (in Word 2016).

The full version of this review first appeared in the July/August edition of Editing Matters, the SfEP magazine. (Note: Simone was using a beta version so that this review would be ready in time for the official launch of PerfectIt Cloud.)

Introduction

Having been invited to review PerfectIt Cloud for Mac (beta), my main concern was that my relatively meagre experience of using editorial support software would prevent me from making the most of PerfectIt and limit the value of my report. I hope that what follows will help you decide whether to purchase the software; this review should be relevant to Mac users who have not used PerfectIt before.

I tested three different kinds of Microsoft Word document: a US geology article (~2000 words), a non-native English law journal article (~6000 words) and a UK law book (~46,000 words).

Is it easy to use?

Installing and setting up PerfectIt Cloud is straightforward.

If you are using PerfectIt Cloud for the first time, you will be presented with an outline of its features. This start-up introduction to the software emphasises its role as a style sheet and consistency tool. If you are an experienced editor, I think these start-up welcome screens are the only preparation you need before using the tools. PerfectIt is so easy to use that I do not think there is a need for a new user who is an experienced editor to require training on PerfectIt, although watching the demo videos would still be useful as I feel that audio and visual walkthroughs help cement what is learned by trial-and-error practice. However, for editors who are new to the profession, some training in the use of style sheets and consistency checks would be extremely helpful prior to using PerfectIt.

The sidebar has an intuitive design that presents its information clearly, although there is one minor flaw: the floating ‘i’ icon that appears in the right-hand corner of the PerfectIt panel sometimes obscures the ellipsis button.

Screenshot of PerfectIt Beta information menu

PerfectIt’s information menu

At each stage of the analysis process you are presented with the option to view the location of the suspected error and to fix it. If a long list of locations is offered, you can fix items selectively or have them all done at once. This is particularly useful if your document contains quoted matter (where you don’t want to change the source’s spelling or style). If you accidentally choose ‘Fix’, don’t worry, there’s an Undo button. Being able to review every word that PerfectIt flags up is useful for compiling a word list in your style sheet.

When testing PerfectIt on a legal text (a book on interpreting housing legislation, aimed at the legal practitioner), it helpfully pointed out that the style setting I applied at the start of the analysis (UK spelling) prefers the spelling of judgement with the ‘e’, but that ‘judgment’ may be required in certain legal contexts. Well done, PerfectIt!

Screen shot of PerfectIts hyphenation of phrases section

Option to fix an item or move to the next step

At the end of the process you are able to see a list of the changes that PerfectIt applied, by clicking on the button ‘See what PerfectIt did’. This list has a useful ‘Copy’ option, which means you could maintain change reports for your clients (or your own use). And other reports are offered for viewing at the end of the analysis: ‘Table of Abbreviations’, ‘Summary of Changes’, ‘Text in Comments’.

Screenshot of PerfectIt Cloud's navigation and test page

Click the ellipsis to reveal the full test list.

Will it save me time?

PerfectIt saves time in the workflow by automating a useful range of spelling, punctuation and style checks. It analyses the text to identify inconsistencies in spelling, capitalisation in headings and phrases, hyphenation of phrases and words, abbreviations defined twice or not at all or not used, brackets and quotes left open, and list punctuation.

PerfectIt also lists abbreviations without definitions, which, in a document that contains numerous instances, saves you time by providing you with them all in one list — compared with the process of discovering them manually one by one and adding them to a separate list. You can deal with them all in one go with PerfectIt. However, the ‘Table of Abbreviations’ report option at the end of the process did not work in the Beta version (but should be fixed in the release version).

Without the aid of software automation tools, the time it takes to perform a standard copy-edit on a set length of text will vary from editor to editor. I hope the following timings can be compared with those of your current workflow. The legal book of 46,000 words took me just under one hour to fully check, using every possible test in PerfectIt. The mining article took less than ten minutes. The non-native English law journal article took around 15 minutes. Completion of individual tests can take up to 30 seconds, but on average they took around five seconds.

Will it improve my work?

One of the advantages of PerfectIt is that it trains you to think methodically about your workflow, which in turn helps you become a more efficient editor and writer. After repeated use of its step-by-step approach, combined with clear visual walkthroughs of each step, you will memorise a large part of your editorial checklist and be able to quickly prioritise certain tests according to the kind of document you are working on. While I am not suggesting that this is the death of pen-and-paper checklists, which by the act of writing them provide a similar kind of memory training, there is no doubt that this software helps you to focus more on the work. It does the menial work for you, but makes that menial work visible and requests your approval at each step, so you will not forget essential editorial processes. Consequently, you will spend less time and mental effort on the activity of checking for problems while increasing mental effort on the job from a management perspective. PerfectIt is your editorial assistant and even a bit of a copy-editor. You can become a better editorial project manager by using it.

By saving you time through greatly reducing redundancy in your workflow, PerfectIt also minimises time spent typing. For people with health conditions affecting the hands, this unexpected benefit will be a welcome bonus.

What are my criticisms?

In terms of functional problems with the PerfectIt Cloud, I only noticed some slightly buggy behaviour of the report options and the location of the floating information icon. These should be relatively easy to fix by the time of release, hopefully. A usability improvement might be to move ‘Check Consistency’ from the styles menu to the tests menu.

PerfectIt Cloud is not a comprehensive editor’s toolkit. It does not check footnotes, table or illustration captions and their cross-references, URLs, header or footer matter, or page or section breaks, and does not offer any options to work with Word styles. Neither is it designed to check for inaccuracies in grammar. For editors keen on customisation options, PerfectIt Cloud might seem limited – but this is more of an observation than a criticism (and the developers do promise these are coming in time).

Is it worth upgrading to Word 2016?

You need to have Word 2016 to run PerfectIt Cloud on a Mac. I upgraded from Office 2011 to 2016 this year, and have found there to be a few useful benefits. Importantly for editing, the review panel is better. The redesign of the menus in general improves the logic of menu items as well as their visual presentation (less cluttered now, and simpler). Word 2016 feels lighter, better organised and clearer. These things probably have helped me focus better on projects. With all these benefits, I have found the upgrade worth it.

I can see that using PerfectIt will increase my productivity and reduce the psychological resistance I put up to dull tasks. It will make the physical aspect of editing work easier (less typing). It will help me become a better project manager.

The price of PerfectIt Cloud for SfEP members is $49 per year (available via the SfEP website). I think it is well worth it, especially considering that further features will probably be added.

 

Simone Hutchinson

Simone Hutchinson began freelance editing in 2017 after nine years in editorial support and house editor roles in academic publishing. In February 2018 she set up Orlando Press.

 

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Upgrading your SfEP membership: Advanced Professional

If upgrading your SfEP membership is a career goal for 2018, it can be daunting to begin the application procedure. But members who have successfully upgraded their membership can be a source of valuable advice on how to prepare your application.

To help, the blog team will be publishing a series of posts on applying to upgrade your membership, beginning with advice on achieving Advanced Professional Membership.

Toby Selwyn

My overriding impression of the upgrade process was how incredibly easy it was. In part this was because I had upgraded to Professional Membership around eighteen months before; since the information I provided for that application was transferred directly to this one, there was no need to resupply it. The online system is easy to use, mostly very intuitive, and inputting the new information took less than an hour.

The one unintuitive element of the process was how to indicate that my Professional application needed to be carried forward, as there is no obvious place to include its reference number as requested. An email to the office resolved that quickly, but it would be useful if it could be made clearer within the system itself.

In terms of building up the upgrade requirements, my only concern was the 100 hours of work that need to have been completed with a client for them to be allowed as a referee. As a fiction editor, I work primarily with independent authors, usually on one-off projects; within the last two years, I have only gained 100 hours’ work with one author. Fortunately, I did have enough experience with my few publisher clients to make up for it, but this requirement could be problematic for editors who specialise in working with indies.

Overall, the process was straightforward, and the office staff were very quick to help when needed. I would strongly advise anyone considering upgrading to go for it.

Catherine Hanley

To be honest, I’d always thought of Advanced Professional Membership as some kind of semi-mythical grade that wasn’t for the likes of me. But, I thought, have I reached the stage where I could at least check the requirements?

I’m glad I did: now I knew exactly what I needed to do, and that I wasn’t as far off as I’d feared. And I was reminded that perhaps I hadn’t been quite as assiduous as I could have been in keeping my CPD up to date and in logging all the hours I’d spent on each job. Sure, I’d done some training courses, but how many of them were recent? And yes, of course I’d been sending out invoices, but had I kept a separate record of the hours worked? Ah.

I went back through every filed invoice and every job I’d done professionally, dividing them into ‘work for publishers’ and ‘work for non-publishers’, then started a spreadsheet to log the invoice date, the client and the hours worked. Bingo: I knew I’d done a lot of work over the years, and it turned out I had enough experience. I was then able to email contacts at regular clients with exact figures on the work I’d done for them over the years – would they mind being a referee? They agreed.

Next, training. Not enough in the last three years, but now I knew where the gaps in my work experience were, I could find a relevant course. Living as I do in the middle of nowhere, the variety of online choices was a godsend. I confess I started off with upgrade points in mind, but the course I chose was one I should have done anyway, so I’m glad I had the incentive – and I picked up a number of tips and techniques that have been very helpful in subsequent work.

Finally, after several months, the online SfEP upgrade form. There it was. But it was laid out very logically, and with the correct information to hand, it was easier than I expected to fill in. I was delighted when I was informed that my upgrade had been successful. Tea and new business cards to celebrate!

If I had any tips, they would be: organise your record keeping as you go along, so you don’t have to spend time checking back through everything. Oh, and keep your training up to date, whether you’re applying for an upgrade or not!

Michelle McFadden

I did it. Finally. And it only took me about ten years.

I had been an Entry-Level Member (previously an Associate) of SfEP since the late noughties and my incomplete PTC Basic Proofreading course had been around for almost as long. I would start work on it and then other things would intrude: good things like parenting, holidays and work. I have interspersed freelance work with challenging in-house positions that provided training, structure and collegial feedback. The motivation to finish the course diminished as time went on.

In-house work and freelance editorial project management provided me with all of the hours of experience that I needed to upgrade. The truth is that my in-house training may have been enough for my upgrade application, but I’m too stubborn to have even investigated that possibility.

With the encouragement of my edibuddy accountability group, I finally completed the PTC course to give me those all-important training points. I procrastinated when it came to completing my upgrade application form, but I shouldn’t have; it was easy and straightforward and took a surprisingly short amount of time.

So now I have the assurance that my years of experience are now complemented by SfEP Advanced Professional status (which can only improve my position when pitching to clients). As the organisation moves towards chartership, I believe that will become increasingly important. I haven’t had my directory entry long enough to have experienced an increase in client approaches, but I do have a deep sense of satisfaction that something that has been on my to-do list for a very long time has now been achieved. And that feels good.

Hugh Jackson

Over my two and a half years as a member of the SfEP, I’ve now done the full circuit of the four main membership grades, and thus done the upgrade procedure three times. My latest upgrade was in June 2017 to Advanced Professional Membership, giving me a shiny gold badge on my directory entry and an @sfep.net email address.

Upgrading is so much easier with careful record-keeping. Right from the start I’ve kept a spreadsheet of everything I edit, even the tiniest project. As well as being invaluable for performance reviews and marketing, this record made the process much easier. My records told me to the minute how much relevant experience I had for each membership grade, along with the dates and lengths of each project and whether they were copy-editing or proofreading, all things that are necessary for the experience section of the upgrade form. Because it was all there, I simply deleted unnecessary columns and uploaded the spreadsheet with my upgrade form.

I also had PDF copies of CPD certificates saved on my computer that I could upload for the training requirement, and I asked my favourite clients whether they’d be able to give a reference (as one referee was a non-publisher, I also had to do the Basic Editorial Test).

The process is really straightforward and far quicker than expected: mine took just three days from application to approval. When I had a question (whether a reference from a previous update could be used for this one – it can), the office staff were quick and helpful as always. Remember, if you’ve upgraded in the past, you’ll have been emailed a copy of your last upgrade application, so you can copy bits from that.

John Espirian

I suspect most people who are asked about upgrading to Advanced Professional Membership will say the same thing:

“I wish I’d done it sooner.”

“The process was much easier than I thought it would be.”

“Don’t delay.”

All of the above are true for me. I delayed my upgrade attempt for well over a year, always putting it off with thoughts about not having enough upgrade points or not having enough time to get through pages and pages of the application process.

Eventually, I decided to sit down one afternoon to draw together all of the sources that would contribute to my upgrade application and then to make a start on the upgrade form. I thought if I could put in a couple of hours, that would at least break the ice and I’d be more likely to get the whole thing done sooner or later.

Needless to say, I was kicking myself when after a couple of hours I’d done all the data gathering AND completed the upgrade form in its entirety. It was all so quick that I had to double-check that I hadn’t missed something major. Why hadn’t I done it earlier?

I was impressed at how efficient the office were in processing my application, and the good news about my APM status was confirmed within three weeks.

I’d encourage anyone on the fence about upgrading to set aside a few hours and get it done. It’s really not as scary as you might think.

A word about anonymity

To ensure complete fairness, all upgrades are completely anonymous. After being processed by the staff in the office to remove all identifying information, they are passed to the Admissions Panel, whose identities are also secret – not known even to Council members. In order to maintain this anonymity,  we ask you not to discuss your upgrade application in places where members of the Panel might see it. In practice this means on the forums, in local groups and on social media. We are of course always delighted to see members taking their professional development seriously, so by all means celebrate your success in those channels once it has been confirmed. We share your excitement and sense of achievement.

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

Mediterranean Editors and Translators: All About Editing

First, a bit about me

As a ‘re-emerging’ translator, I have been attending METM conferences as another stop on the road to reconnecting with a profession I fell into years ago and laid aside due to personal circumstances. As a bit of an outlier, I justify my presence by moderating the ‘off-METM’ Translation Slam. A few weeks before the conference, I sent two ‘volunteer’ MET members a short text to translate from Spanish to English, and during the slam we discussed the choices they made (word choices, but also punctuation choices!). I mention this as it has a great deal to do with my experience of the METM16 conference, which this year was all about editing.

Wait, what is MET?

MET (Mediterranean Editors and Translators) is an association of translators and editors whose main language is English, whose objective is peer training, and whose founders thought Mediterranean sounded sexier than European.

Based in Barcelona, MET holds workshops two or three times a year, but the big bash is the annual conference in mid-to-late October. Following an afternoon and morning of workshops as warm-up, the day-and-a-half-long conference is filled with panel discussions, lectures, interactive sessions, and presentations set two or three to a timeslot, except for the two keynote or plenary talks.

metm16-cloister-lunch-sfep-cescanadon

This year’s conference, ‘Raising standards through knowledge sharing and peer training’, was held at Tarragona’s Centre Tarraconense ‘el Seminari’. The cathedral-ceilinged auditorium filtered the sunlight through its stunning stained-glass windows onto keynote speakers Margaret Cargill, in from Australia, and Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s ‘Comma Queen’. Jealous yet?

Workshops and conference sessions

As I said, it was all about editing for me this year. I attended Joy Burrough-Boenisch’s fantastic three-hour Friday-morning workshop, Editing theses and dissertations written by non-native speakers of English, where I also learned about a series of online proofreading and editing guidelines. In the afternoon, John Linnegar taught me the difference between light, medium, and heavy editing; I was impressed by Kate McIntyre and Jackie Senior’s work as in-house academic editors in the Netherlands (and also made a note to look at SENSE’s guidelines); and Valerie Matarese talked about author editing. After a panel discussion on interventionism as an editor/proofreader of academic papers, I learned about ITI from Sarah Griffin-Mason, about the social science genre from Susan M DiGiacomo, about translating and editing titles from Mary Ellen Kerans, misused English in EU publications from Jeremy Gardner, and disability-related terms from Mary Fons i Fleming.

Keynote talks

Friday evening, just before the Clos Montblanc-catered wine reception in the cloister, Margaret Cargill shared with us her studied understanding of ethics and education in academic publishing in relation to editing and translating. The issue of what constitutes teaching, and where the line is drawn at what my professors used to call cheating, are hot topics. Times change, technologies change, the world is changing, and we professionals must keep abreast of how these changes affect the way that we work, whether our field is in academics or technology, business or fiction.

Right before Saturday’s cocktail lunch, also in the cloister, Mary Norris held us captive during her keynote talk, ‘New Yorker style: the major arcana’. Using a few New Yorker cartoons and a piece of fiction, Mary led us through the process of query-editing copy to the characteristically peculiar standards of the famous magazine. She even gave us an example or two of times when she clashed with the ‘artistic vision’ of certain authors. Sometimes she wins, sometimes she loses, she confessed, but she never seems to lose her good cheer or her enthusiasm. What a pleasure it was to have her at the conference, and it was an added pleasure to have both Margaret and Mary among the Sunday-morning post-conference diehards who took a stroll along Tarragona’s Roman amphitheater and beachfront to El Serrallo and a final vermouth among colleagues and friends.

But getting back to me

It turns out that what is showcased in every translation slam – the infinite ways in which a given translation can be resolved – is also true when editing text. The ethics involved in translating a 150-year-old Spanish text into the English of 2016 are as complex as those of editing a non-native-English speaker’s PhD thesis, even though the possible consequences may not be as dire.

Happily, the eternal question remains: How far can you stretch the truth of the original text to make it fit into ‘proper’ English? And what is proper English, anyway? I’m hoping to attend a few more sessions on this very subject a year from now in Brescia, Italy. #METM17

kymm1Born in Boston, Kymm Coveney has lived in Spain since the 1982 World Cup. A former commercial translator, she is currently transitioning to literature (Catalan/Spanish/English). Meanwhile, accounting pays the bills.

Links to poetry, flash fiction and translations are at BetterLies. Glasgow Review of Books showcases her latest poetic translation. She tweets mostly about poetry @KymmInBarcelona.

Photo credit: Cesc Anadón, MET

Posted by Tracey Roberts, SfEP blog coordinator.

Proofread by SfEP Professional Member Tom Hawking.

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

My life in publishing

By Alysoun Owen

‘Publishing a book is like stuffing a note into a bottle and hurling it into the sea.’
Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is expressing her views as an author of course in the above quotation, but it might just as well have been uttered by a publisher or an editor: a variant on the ‘publish and be damned’ theme. A strange maxim on which one’s whole working life has been based! And by one, I mean ME and my living and breathing of all things literary and publishing related for, ahem, the last 25 years. Ah, the wonderfully inexact, mercurial world of publishing, a put-your-finger-in-the-air, test-the-waters, wait-and-see sort of profession.

As we publish the 110th edition of the great red tome, all 816 pages of it, that is the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (on 28th July), I’ve been reflecting on the two strands of my life and career that have led me to my current role as editor of the Yearbook: the love of literature and desire to see the best possible writing made available to the many combined with a need to get things right – to create saleable ‘products’ that are accurate, reliable and economically viable. Writers' and Artists' Yearbook 2017That’s what we hope to achieve with the Yearbook: a successful book that readers, in their tens of thousands, want and need (what Susan Hill calls ‘the writer’s Bible’ and Deborah Levy, who penned this year’s foreword, describes as ‘full of information that all writers need to know’). A book that is full of reliable, factual information: who to contact at a book publisher or literary agency, how to write an agent submission, mastering social media, the dos and don’ts of self-publishing, copyright, tax and other financial advice AND which brings together the words of wisdom of great writers who were once themselves debut novelists, poets, screenwriters, journalists … to inspire each new generation of writers and illustrators who wish to try their luck in the turbulent waters of publishing; hurling their own message in a bottle into the high seas.

I started my own publishing life when I was little, making up little books of stories when I was a child. Not very good stories: I was always much better at collating my sister’s efforts and illustrating them into a creative whole than being an author. I was blessed: I lived in a house lined with bookshelves and chatter that was often about books and plays. My mother was an English teacher. My father, now I think about it and fittingly for a blog on the SfEP site (see the BSI symbols for proof-marks), worked for the British Standards Institute (BSI); he was an electrical engineer and concerned himself with international safety standards in that field. Often in the evenings, my mother would be sat marking or editing her pupils’ work at the kitchen table, whilst my father sat at his desk reviewing and revising (i.e. proofing and editing) the latest Standard. You could say it was no real surprise that I would then opt to take a degree in English Language and Literature: a three-year scamper through the literary canon from Beowulf to Woolf (with a smattering of more modern American writings thrown in). From university, I spent six months learning from experts how to print, desk-top publish, take photos, bind books and most relevantly to copy-edit and proofread using the correct marks. Armed with a degree in English, a diploma in Publishing and my trusty red and blue manuscript-correcting biros, I began my career shepherding hundreds of titles for students of literature in Longman’s Higher Education Division. What a delight to actually be working with and editing the texts of former tutors and the writers of edited texts and critical editions that I had relied on so heavily as a student.

Each of my subsequent roles in the industry has contributed to my present position: from Longman I headed to OUP to desk edit and then commission notable reference titles: The Oxford Companion to English Literature, The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, The Oxford Companion to Wine … and one of my proudest and most lucrative (for OUP that is!) commissions, celebrating the magic of words, Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Forays into online publishing at the dawn of a new era of digital publishing, establishing a publishing consultancy and project management company and working with publishers large and small in a new freelance capacity offered me the chance to experience all sorts of editorial and strategic avenues: coming up with new ideas for print and digital propositions, establishing teams of freelance editors, project managers and designers residing in far-flung places, but working collectively to make each print book or ebook or CD or website the best it could be. I love being in charge of my own destiny, professionally speaking, not allied exclusively to any one employer. Yes, freelance life can be precarious, but highly rewarding and flexible. Which takes me back to the Yearbook – which I edit for Bloomsbury from January to June each year with a band of expert editors: as a group we commission, collect and collate the content for each new edition. It reminds me how lucky I am to be working in such a field.

Photography by Paul Wilkinson Photography Ltd.Alysoun Owen is the editor of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and the Children’s Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. She has worked in publishing for 25 years, runs her own publishing consultancy business and is a regular speaker at literary festivals on how to get published. For advice, news, blogs and details of editorial services and events, visit www.writersandartists.co.uk.

 

SfEP members get a discount when buying the WAYB or CWAYB. Click on the book image above or go to benefits in the members’ area of the website.

Posted by Tracey Roberts, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

The hidden art of editing – the 2016 Whitcombe lecture

By Susan Greenberg

When I was first invited to give the keynote Whitcombe lecture at this year’s SfEP conference, they told me about the theme for this year – ‘Let’s talk about text’ – and explained: ‘Our members’ work is very varied, but we are all in the business of improving text.’

I feel a deep affinity with this approach. I have spent the greater part of my life thinking about what it means to improve texts; first as a practitioner, then as an academic.

When I started a PhD to go with this new career, about 10 years ago, I wanted to choose a subject that connected these two different lives. And I chose editing in particular because – like other behind-the-scenes work – it is mostly invisible; a hidden art. It would be interesting to bring it more fully into view.

Right from the start, my instinct was to look at the subject in the round. The analysis had to be comparative; it had to take the long view, and it had to include the insights of practitioners. The comparative aspect is crucial, because we already know how the different kinds of editorial work are different; why not ask how they might be similar?

Z_EditorsCoverSo far, one book has already come out of this research, and work on a second is advanced. In the first book, a set of interviews, we get to hear conversations on a human level about what people do when they are editing and what they think about it. This does three main things:

  1. It teases out the shared concerns of different kinds of editors.
  2. It gives a rough shape of a possible ‘best practice’.
  3. It underlines the extent to which good communication is hard; and so the extent to which people need help.

The second book is based on the idea that to bring this invisible practice into full view, we need not just description and definition, but also a really good theory.

We think of ‘theory’ as something high-minded and abstract, but it can and does affect everyday life. Compared to other cultural practices, publishing is very under-theorised. And this can end up undermining its value or status. The reason is that people need a framework in which they can fit random discoveries; otherwise the things they encounter are not fully noticed or remembered.

So, one needs a theory, but the type of theory makes a difference to visibility as well. Until now, the theorisation of editing often comes under the heading of ‘social constructivism’ and often uses the language of ‘gatekeeping’. This is a useful metaphor, but it can struggle to fit all sizes. And it sometimes makes too many assumptions about its subject. The assumption in the case of editing is usually that the ‘gatekeeper’ is always bad, and is always found only in whatever part of the media that the researcher does not like.

That is why I feel there is a need to define principles for textual work that make more allowances for the messiness of human practice.

Dr Susan Greenberg

Dr Susan Greenberg

Dr Susan L. Greenberg is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton [1], following a long career as journalist and editor. She teaches and offers doctoral supervision in her specialist areas of narrative nonfiction, and publishing. Susan is also the Publisher of the department’s in-house imprint, Fincham Press [2]. Publications include Editors talk about editing: insights for readers, writers and publishers (Peter Lang, 2015) [3]. Visit her blog at Oddfish [4] or follow her on Twitter at @sgediting. [5]