Editors know a thing or two about style.
I’m not talking about the chunky cardigans, furry slippers and fingerless gloves that some of us put on when the weather turns cool.
This is about an editor’s work. Here, style is about making sure the text is appropriate for its intended audience, consistently applying a client’s style preferences, and – where possible – preserving an author’s voice.
This year’s Mediterranean Editors and Translators online conference was entitled ‘The Style Issue’, and there was plenty to interest me in the programme. In this blog post, I’ve summarised three of the sessions that I found particularly useful:
Editors’ Café: one text, two editors, endless talking points
In this session, two editors – Alan Lounds and Theresa Truax-Gischler – had a friendly discussion on how they would each tackle the same piece of text. The idea was to get ‘under the hood’ of the editing process from two different perspectives.
The text was the abstract and introduction of an article written by an author whose first language isn’t English. The paper was to be submitted to an international interdisciplinary journal on Romani studies. Alan and Theresa also had access to the full article to assist them in their editing task. Both are experienced editors who are accustomed to working with academic authors, although the article was outside their respective subject specialisms.
Points to note:
I found this discussion fascinating, as I often edit academic papers in English for multi-language authors. Here are the main points that Alan and Theresa covered.
First impressions – Both editors agreed that the paper was nowhere near ready for submission, in terms of either content or style.
Context – The author mentioned ‘securitisation’ in the abstract but didn’t define this concept or explain its relevance. This lack of context was a serious issue.
Background information – Much of the data given in the introduction was from general sources such as newspapers and non-academic websites, and lacked academic focus.
First or third person – Alan preferred first-person writing (‘I studied…’), while Theresa retained the third-person perspective. The two editors discussed the trend towards publishers accepting first-person writing, including the fact that this often depends on the academic subject. As an aside, they noted that Spanish authors (for example) sometimes resist writing in the first person in English because this doesn’t come naturally in their first language.
Following a thorough discussion of the two editors’ approaches to the text, several questions from the audience were addressed.
Q: Should the abstract be edited first or last?
A: Probably last. However, when writing an article, Theresa felt it was useful to start with the abstract because it helps the author to formulate the structure of the paper.
Q: What is the role of a developmental editor?
A: Their role is to look at ‘big picture’ issues, including the structure and argument of the text. Ideally, copyeditors and language editors should have some basic training in developmental editing so that they can see whether a text is ready to be edited.
It was so interesting to see how Alan and Theresa tackled the same piece of text. While there were similarities in their approaches, there were also differences in emphasis. It was proof, if proof were needed, that there’s often no single ‘right’ way to edit a piece of writing.
An overview of institutional styles: from excellent tips to the downright weird
Timothy Barton’s presentation was a treat for anyone who – like me – often has to switch between different organisational style guides. Timothy took us on a whistle-stop tour of various guides, including those of the United Nations, the European Commission and the World Intellectual Property Organization.
The list of topics covered will be familiar to most editors:
Timothy then mentioned a few style points that seemed open to debate:
Some other great tips emerged:
I found this a fascinating presentation that highlighted the sometimes surprising differences between well-established style guides.
Research writing in English: a stylistic conundrum
In this presentation, John Bates considered advice on academic writing, drawing out similarities and potential discrepancies between the different sources.
John looked at the definitions of research writing and came up with three key characteristics. The text should be:
John considered various aspects of research writing that could in many cases be improved, in line with these three principles.
Use words with care
Nouns and noun phrases
Noun phrases can often be a source of confusion for readers. Take the example ‘infant observation’: does that mean ‘observation of infants’ or ‘observation by infants’? Longer noun strings can raise even more issues, especially if they’re used to mean different things in the same piece of writing.
Subjects and verbs
In most cases, these should be as close to the start of the sentence as possible. Long introductory phrases mean that readers have to keep a lot in their heads before they reach the subject.
Rounding off his presentation, John – referring to comments by Thomas Spratt in 1667 – pointed out that criticism of academic writing goes back a long way. From George Orwell and Michael Crichton to contemporary authors such as Michael Billig (Learn to Write Badly) and Helen Sword (Stylish Academic Writing), plenty of people have had plenty to say on how researchers should communicate their findings. Have things have improved over the years? John feels they haven’t!
An audience member asked about respecting the author’s voice when editing academic writing, especially when that voice is rather ‘flowery’. John acknowledged that this could be a problem. The editor often has more leeway if the text is written by an author whose first language isn’t English, because there’s an expectation that the editor will amend the language to make it clearer and more concise. And if the author’s first language tends towards more elaborate constructions, that could well be mirrored in the English version.
There was so much more to METM21 than I’ve summarised here, and I’ve yet to catch up with the recordings of the sessions I wasn’t able to attend in real time. The hope is that next year’s conference will take place in person, in San Sebastián, Spain. And if that’s the case, I’m hoping I won’t need to pack my fingerless gloves.
I’ve been a big fan of Bradford Literature Festival for a number of years. It’s a bright spot in Bradford’s cultural calendar and I’ve written in the past about why I love it.
In previous years I’ve usually attended a fair few sessions during the annual festival. I’ve loved the variety of subjects on offer, the chance to hear interesting (and well-known) speakers in some marvellous venues, and the opportunity to listen, learn and reflect – and often to be challenged.
This year – as a result of the general uncertainty and a lack of organisation on my part – I attended only two events. But what this year’s festival lacked (from my point of view) in quantity, it certainly made up for in quality.
As a trailblazer – a South Asian woman in a predominately white male industry – Anita talked about the difficulty of negotiating various ‘spaces’ and having to curb aspects of her personality to meet certain expectations. She has clearly thought long and hard about the privileged position in which she now finds herself, about how she could – or should – use that position to carve a path for others, and about her regrets for not speaking out on particular occasions.
Many of Anita’s reflections also touched on the personal sphere. She talked about food, family and weddings. She talked about how South Asian girls were mostly not encouraged to speak up, except on the topic of beauty. And she wondered how much the lives of women (particularly those from South Asian backgrounds) have changed since she was growing up.
This was an entertaining and thought-provoking discussion. Anita’s book is now on my reading list.
Rev. Richard Coles and Arifa Akba
The setting for Sunday evening’s event was the magnificent ballroom at Bradford’s Midland Hotel. The topic – grief – was a more sombre one than Saturday’s, although there was plenty of light on hand, not least from the amazing chandelier that graces the venue.
Rev. Richard Coles and Arifa Akba were interviewed by Peg Alexander. These were two quite different stories, with some common threads. Richard Coles’ husband, David, died in December 2019 as a result of addiction to alcohol. Arifa Akbar’s sister, Fauzia, died in 2016 from undiagnosed tuberculosis. Both deaths were a shock, yet in some ways not really a shock, perhaps complicating the grief that these two authors have felt since.
There were other common observations – and ones that anyone who has ever been bereaved will recognise. For instance, when someone dies there is a huge amount of ‘admin’ to deal with, sometimes lasting many weeks (or even months). This can, in one sense, be welcomed as something practical to focus on, but it can also be exhausting. Another aspect of grief is the baffling realisation that everyone else is carrying on as normal with their everyday lives, while you’re still dealing with the enormity of your bereavement.
Richard and Arifa each reflected on what had helped them to deal with the grief they felt. As a widow, Richard didn’t appreciate being told by others how he should be feeling and behaving, but did value conversations with other widows who told him how they themselves had felt/behaved, without giving advice. Meanwhile, Arifa noted that the loss of a sibling isn’t as widely recognised as the loss of a spouse is, something that left her feeling rather adrift. Coincidentally, two of her close friends had also lost siblings, so Arifa was able to discuss her feelings with them.
The two authors also discussed addiction and attitudes to it. David’s alcoholism wasn’t public knowledge, so many were shocked by his death. Richard described the strain of living with and caring for an addict: he often went without sleep so that he could make sure David was safe. Arifa described the complex issues associated with her sister’s eating disorder – a type of addiction – including the shocking negative comments made by a member of medical staff.
Arifa and Richard touched on the way in which grief had affected their relationship with art and music, respectively. Fauzia was an artist who had created striking paintings and embroidered art. She had been deeply affected and inspired by the Sistine Chapel, leading Arifa to visit the Vatican after her sister’s death to share that experience and feel a connection with Fauzia. Richard and David had played music together, so Richard had avoided revisiting their shared music after David’s death because it was just too painful. Instead, he had decided to learn to play a new instrument: the accordion.
There were some interesting questions from the audience. Had Arifa considered taking legal action for her sister’s undiagnosed fatal illness? She’d certainly discussed the possibility with a lawyer she knew, but decided not to pursue it in the end because of the time, effort, stress – and money – involved. Did the two authors feel that David and Fauzia had experienced a ‘good death’? Perhaps surprisingly, given the circumstances, both Richard and Arifa said they did. As it happened, this was the final question, and it was a positive note on which to end the discussion.
And so ended my Bradford Literature Festival 2021. It was brief, it was bright, it was brilliant. I can’t wait for next year…
When you’re building a career as a freelance editor or proofreader, it’s good to seek advice, right?
The trouble is that, as with many situations in life, there’s no single ‘right’ way of doing things.
A while ago I read a tongue-in-cheek blog post summarising conflicting advice on how to be a successful academic. It inspired me to think about the nuggets of wisdom that are often presented as undisputed truths to those seeking guidance about running an editorial business. Here’s my summary.
1. Devote plenty of time and effort to social media – but also don’t
✅ Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram can be great for raising your profile, engaging with potential clients and building relationships with colleagues.
❌ But social media can be a real drain on your time and energy. How does it fit into your overall marketing strategy? Would your efforts be better directed elsewhere?
2. Rely on word of mouth to gain new clients – but also don’t
✅ If people pass your name on to others, that’s great! It involves little effort on your part – other than ensuring you’re always providing an excellent service, of course.
❌ But it can be risky to rely on this as a strategy for finding work. What if the referrals dry up? How will you find new clients (or how will new clients find you)?
👉 Further reading: https://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/blog/word-of-mouth-marketing-for-editorial-freelancers-and-why-it-wont-work-if-youre-a-passive-marketer
3. Always charge an hourly rate rather than a rate per 1,000 words – but also don’t
✅ With an hourly rate, you should – in theory – be paid for the time you put in.
❌ But a rate per 1,000 words (or per project) rewards the efficient editor who uses time-saving tools and techniques. It also means the client knows in advance how much the work will cost.
👉 Further reading: https://aceseditors.org/news/2021/what-type-of-pricing-structure-should-freelance-editors-use
4. Refuse to edit in anything other than Microsoft Word – but also don’t
✅ If you’re skilled in using Word, it makes sense to focus on clients who use it.
❌ But you might be missing out on some interesting projects. Could you extend your skills into new areas [Google Docs, Excel, PowerPoint] to tap into different markets?
5. Refuse to work for free – but also don’t
✅ Working for free – often on the promise of exposure or further work, or for a client pleading poverty – is a mug’s game to be avoided at all costs.
❌ But if you’re looking for experience and the chance to practise your skills, perhaps for a worthwhile cause, you might gain as much as you ‘lose’ by volunteering your services.
👉 Further reading: https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2018/05/14/when-should-you-work-for-free/?sh=7a229d58f556
👉 Also see this handy flowchart by typographer, graphic designer and lettering artist Jessica Hische: http://www.shouldiworkforfree.com
6. Always stick to your desired rates – but also don’t
✅ Accepting low-paid work can leave you caught in a trap of working for less than you’d like.
❌ But a low-paid project can sometimes have other benefits (raising your profile, giving you experience, providing at least some income), so it could pay off. And a big project with a lower rate might prove more profitable than several smaller ones with higher rates, as there’s less admin and set-up time involved.
7. Only work on material within your own subject area – but also don’t
✅ It’s great to carve out a specialist niche where you can apply your skills and expertise and feel comfortable with the subject matter. You can also market yourself as an expert.
❌ But restricting yourself to a niche can leave you high and dry if that market collapses. You’re also cutting yourself off from other subject areas and new types of work. And sometimes your perspective as a non-specialist can be valuable to the client, especially if the target audience aren’t experts either.
👉 Further reading: https://northerneditorial.co.uk/2016/03/25/to-specialise-or-not/
8. Find your own clients rather than working through an intermediary – but also don’t
✅ Working directly for your own clients allows you to quote the rates you want, set your own timescales and establish yourself as an independent professional.
❌ But you have to find these clients yourself. Working for an intermediary (such as an agency) takes the pressure off, marketing-wise, and can often provide a steady flow of work.
👉 Further reading: https://www.louiseharnbyproofreader.com/blog/who-finds-your-editing-and-proofreading-clients-for-you
9. Avoid showing your personality in the work environment – but also don’t
✅ It’s important to present yourself as a serious professional who can be trusted to do an excellent job. Clients aren’t interested in your personality.
❌ But clients are individuals too. Their purchasing decisions can be influenced by personal factors, so there’s nothing wrong with showing your character if the circumstances are right.
10. Take advice and inspiration from colleagues – but also don’t
✅ The editorial profession is a collegiate one. You should follow every piece of advice to the letter, while closely emulating other editors and proofreaders in running your business.
❌ But this will inevitably lead to frustration and burnout. By all means seek advice and observe how others run their affairs. Keep in mind, though, that not all advice will suit your situation (and a lot of it is contradictory anyway). What works for one person might not work for everyone.
👉 Further reading: Here’s the article that inspired this blog post, 10 steps to Becoming a Successful Academic – the definitive guide.
What conflicting pieces of advice have you been given?
[With thanks to Laura Ripper for comments and proofreading.]
Freelance editors and proofreaders: have you ever felt as though you’re ‘muddling through’ in your professional life? You’re not alone.
The current situation has forced many of us to adjust our plans on a daily (hourly?) basis. But even without a pandemic, freelancers have to adapt to changing circumstances and come up with new plans and different ways of working. I’ve called this ‘muddling through’, but you could also call it flexibility, resourcefulness and ingenuity.
Here are seven areas where this flexibility and resourcefulness will come in handy. It’s not intended to be a list of things to worry about! Instead, it’s a recognition of the creativity and pragmatism that many successful freelancers display.
1. Your initial business idea
Most of us start out with some idea of the work we’d like to do, or for which we’d be most suited. With my NHS background, I thought I’d be the ideal person to work on health- or HR-related material. However, my first publisher client specialised in non-fiction books for the general reader, so that was that – at least initially.
You might have to review your initial business idea in the light of various factors:
If you’re determined to stick to your original vision, that’s fine. But it’s worth keeping an open mind about the direction you’re going to take.
2. Finding work and clients
Ask a group of freelance editors or proofreaders how they find work and you’ll end up with a list as long as your arm.
Some take the direct approach, contacting potential clients with speculative enquiries. Others rely on word of mouth from professional or personal contacts, or repeat business from returning clients. Most find they need to be visible, whether that’s on their own website, through a directory or bidding site, or on social media. Networking can be successful for some. And then there’s the element of luck – the chance encounter with a potential client in an unexpected place (on a train, in the school playground, at a Zoom book club), or simply the ‘you happen to be just what we’re looking for at this moment in time’ scenario.
It’s important to plan for finding work and clients so you can focus your efforts to best effect. But it also pays to be alert, flexible and ready to respond to new opportunities. To quote Louis Pasteur: ‘Chance favours the prepared mind.’
3. Technical issues
Over and above the required editing and proofreading skills, it’s vital that you have a general level of technical proficiency. You never know when you’ll need to adapt. Yes, you might be a whizz with Microsoft Word and all its features and add-ins. But what if a client suddenly wants you to proofread a pdf or a PowerPoint presentation? What if you’re asked to work in Google Docs?
It’s not about being an expert in everything. But it’s useful to be able to use a variety of tools when working on different projects. For example, you might copy text from a pdf into Word so you can use PerfectIt or your favourite macros. Copying a table of figures from Word to Excel can be a quick and accurate way of checking an author’s calculations (if that’s part of your brief). Then there’s ‘Maggying’ a corrupted Word document – copying everything except the final paragraph marker into a new document.
And would you know where on your computer to look if you couldn’t find the document you’d been working on?
It’s impossible to anticipate all possible scenarios and plan for them. But you do need to be able to think laterally if something unexpected happens – and to know when (and where) to seek help from others if you can’t solve the issue yourself.
4. Working hours
Are you a morning person? Or do you do your best work while burning the midnight oil?
It’s great to be able to choose your working times – and to decide how long you’re going to spend at work – but sometimes you might need to adjust things. How do you cope if you need to put in extra hours? Can your working space accommodate changes (for example, if you share the facilities with other family members)? How do you cope physically with doing a ten-hour day instead of your usual five hours?
Again, flexibility is the key. You need to take breaks more frequently if you’re working longer hours. Are there some tasks that don’t require quite the same level of focus as others? If so, could you work on those when your concentration is waning (in the evening, perhaps)? Can you work somewhere else if need be?
Most of us would admit that we take technology and equipment for granted. We carry on with our work routines assuming that everything will run as it should. But if disaster strikes, emergency action might be required.
Saving your work in the cloud is sensible because it means you can access it from another device (if you have something suitable).
If your internet connection goes down, you might have to use your mobile data as a short-term solution. Pre-pandemic, you might have chosen to de-camp to your local coffee shop and use their wi-fi, and we’re all hoping that’ll be possible again before too long.
Home-based freelancers might even have kind neighbours who can help (a spare laptop cable here, some emergency printing there).
While it’s useful to have a back-up plan (an old laptop you could bring back into service if your main computer fails, for example), it’s impossible to prepare for every eventuality. Again, it’s a question of thinking creatively, recognising when and where to ask for help, and knowing at what point to discuss the situation with your client if you’re not going to meet the deadline.
6. Personal or domestic emergencies
A sudden illness, a chronic medical condition, a relative needing help, unexpected childcare demands, not to mention burst water pipes and power cuts … these problems aren’t exclusive to freelancers (nor do they only happen during a pandemic). But if you’re working to a deadline, with no one else who can step in to do your work, situations like these can make things very difficult.
Of course, some people choose freelancing precisely because it enables them to work around their personal circumstances, whether that’s their own health condition or their caring responsibilities for children, elderly relatives – or even pets. It’s when the unexpected happens that additional problems can arise.
Once again, some extra flexibility is the key. Could you take a break from work and make the time up once the situation is resolved? Perhaps you can temporarily rearrange your working hours? Is there anyone who can help with childcare, even if it’s on a video call with your child while you work for a while?
Freelancers often worry about telling their clients about emergencies like this, feeling that it might make them seem unprofessional. I’ve found that clients are usually very understanding about such situations, especially if you can suggest a solution (an alternative deadline, for example). And most clients would rather know you’re struggling, even if you end up not needing extra time to finish the work. After all, they’re human too!
7. Losing a major client
It’s great when you’ve managed to secure plenty of regular, enjoyable work from a client who pays well and is nice to deal with. It’s not so great if that client suddenly disappears for some reason (bankruptcy, merger or takeover, taking the work in-house, etc.) and you’re left with a gaping hole in your work schedule. This is something that’s happened to me on a couple of occasions, and it can certainly feel like the rug has been pulled out from under your feet.
Clearly, you need to respond, but how you respond will depend on your circumstances. Here are a few ideas:
So there we have it – a quick look at how a flexible, responsive approach will help in running your business. Yes, freelancing might sometimes feel like ‘muddling through’, but perhaps we should instead see it as being creative and developing resilience. That sounds much more impressive!
Don't panic! How to stay calm in a crisis - CIEP blog – by Melanie Thomson
Seven things freelancers know about time – by Liz Jones
How freelance editing prepared me for working through the pandemic – and how it didn’t – by Liz Jones
2020: Lessons from the Longest Year – by Crystal Shelley
Buck the trend: strengthening your business during lockdown – by Rachel Gristwood
How to be lucky – by Christian Busch
Many of us have been terribly disappointed over recent months when the inevitable has happened – an in-person event (whether that’s a summer fête, rock concert, conference or networking session) has been cancelled because of the pandemic. The upside is that many events have gone virtual, enabling people to attend events that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to.
And so it was that I signed up for the SENSE 2020 Conference. SENSE is the Society of English-language professionals in the Netherlands, and this year’s event marks the organisation’s 30th anniversary. The plan had been to hold the conference in Maastricht. If that had gone ahead, it’s unlikely that I’d have been able to attend in person. However, when it moved online, taking place over three afternoons in June, I decided to book a place.
As it happened, the conference coincided with a confluence of deadlines in my work, something I’d have taken steps to avoid if I had been travelling to Maastricht for a few days away from my desk. As a consequence, I decided to concentrate on those sessions that seemed most relevant to my work as an editor. In this article I describe just six of those sessions, in an attempt to give a flavour of the conference and to illustrate its relevance to all language professionals.
There are full details of the programme on the SENSE website. I’ve chosen to write up a summary and my impressions of the following sessions:
Be(a)ware of (round) brackets (especially ‘Dutch’ ones)!
We considered the benefits of communicating research to different audiences outside the research community, and the various methods that could be used. Here are some of the key points that came out of the presentation by Research Retold’s founder, Mihaela Gruia, and the discussion that followed.