Crafty editors: Part I

On the CIEP forums, we recently asked members if they’d like to share their crafting skills, and had a fabulous response – this is Part I of our crafty editors series!

Sarah Perkins

Here is Pugin, my firescreen.

I saw a beautiful glass peacock firescreen. I loved it, but it was far too small and delicate for my fireplace, and very expensive. It got me thinking that I could make something three dimensional, so I didn’t need the traditional frame to make it stand upright. Apart from the peacock blue felt, he was made from various scraps, in different techniques so I didn’t get bored or run out of a material I couldn’t find again. There’s knitting, patchwork, quilting, drawn thread work, crewel embroidery, ribbon weaving, needle lace, felting, machine embroidery, and even a bit of fair trade raffia.  You wouldn’t believe how many people have asked me why I don’t call him Penelope. Because he is a peacock. Ah!

Nicholas Taylor

This is my latest line of handmade cards, combining my love of maps and all things outdoors and the joy of sending cards. I haven’t been able to get out as much recently but this has just given me more chance to cut up a lot of old OS maps!

 

 

 

 

 

Catherine Dunn

I studied fine art at Loughborough University and graduated in 2001 with a BA in painting. Since then, I’ve continued to draw and paint as a hobby. I find it helps me zone out and relax. Due to space constraints, these days I keep it fairly small. This piece is in watercolour pencils and ink. I enjoy working in a wide range of media, but I always keep things mainly in two dimensions. I’ve recently started experimenting with ProCreate Pocket on my iPhone, which is opening up new avenues to me.

Joanna Porter

I make lace, mainly bookmarks because they are relatively simple to do and still work even if the lace is not 100% perfect. I find it therapeutic as it is not that complicated to do but does require total concentration. Part of the pleasure also comes from using my grandmother’s bobbins. I hope to add a lace bookmark to the raffle at the 2021 CIEP conference.

Elaine Monaghan

Silk satin; pre-print dip in logwood dyebath; bramble, oak and coreopsis

I enjoy making botanical contact prints (sometimes known as ecoprints), mostly using leaves from my garden, or collected while on a walk. It’s a very personal way of making a permanent record of a moment in time. I generally print on protein fibres (silk, wool), which take prints well; cellulose fibres (cotton, linen, bamboo, etc.), including paper, can be trickier. The photos show two examples of printing on silk. The technique has great potential for upcycling favourite old garments that need a new look, and I’m working on incorporating prints into conventional garments (such as on a silk lining for a jacket).

Habotai silk; sumach and oxeye daisy; post-print dip in madder dyebath

One of the attractions of the technique is that each print is unique: the result of printing a leaf from an individual tree may vary, depending upon the season, and if weather conditions change. It’s encouraging that even the most experienced printers get unexpected results!

 

 

 

Caroline Petherick

After a rather long break, I took up knitting again and kicked off with a nice warm woolly for winter.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paul Sensecall

In my spare time, I produce abstract works on canvas using natural coloured mica pigments mixed with resin and hardener. The resin sets to a hard clear vitreous finish, giving interesting light-diffracting qualities to the pigments on the canvas. I use a mixture of techniques to add and disperse the pigments and resin across the canvas and to introduce cells and lacing effects.

 


Proofread by Joanne Heath, Professional Member.

Stitched together and posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

 

A Finer Point: The sic of ‘sick’

Riffat Yusuf explores our editorial role in styling informal youth language.

I was 18 years old the first time I heard wicked used as a compliment. (Why, thank you, homie.) I did a double take, but it had more to do with the pronunciation than the application – brown kids in West London trying to sound, well, browner. The second-generation aspiration of better Englishness than our parents was thrown into question by that mid-eighties neologism, and it rattled. We might not have looked the part, but the English we wrote or spoke didn’t need to be ‘exotically’ accented, did it?

If ever there was a boomer

I actively snob-distanced from ‘youth language’. When I wasn’t being Brideshead Revisited, I was grimacing in sympathy with older people at all the yo-ing and sick-ing hurled about in public. Now I see that the volume would have been more objectionable than the vocabulary – notable exceptions being anything ending in ‘claat’ (which won’t appear in this article’s selected glossary – you’ll have to look that up yourself).

Neither I nor probably any of the people on whose behalf I tutted were aware, or cared, that ‘proper’ English was already awash with old words for new, contracted phrases and repurposed expressions. As long as it sounded English, it was acceptable. The wotcha, bagsy and faynights of the seventies were perfectly cushty, but not the sick, innit or wappnin’ of my peers in the eighties.

(Little did I know that a different set of peers had been gnashing their gums at wholly English-sounding neologisms. Where better than the House of Lords to shake a stick at ‘hopefully’?)

Life went on without my absurd loftiness. The Queen kept her English, my friends kept theirs, and I piped down. In the nineties, I came to admire a new generation of teens who refused to anglicise their conversations: why not answer your mum in the language she taught you and so what if people on the bus stared? Young people from minority communities went on to share language with friends from outside their ascribed ethnicities and were unfazed by the mutterings of well-intended purists, or worse, older imitators. Big up Gen Z!

Using words to make connections, rather than to mark differences, is an approach exemplified by linguist Rob Drummond. His research finds that the modern language usage of young people isn’t defined by or limited to a specific ethnicity. I’ve seen how this translates in real life and I’m intrigued. Young children (English, Eastern European, Korean, it makes no difference) can be heard insisting that their friends say ‘wallahi’. That’s an Arabic phrase, introduced to playgrounds by Somali children, and uttered by any child holding another to account. In my day, it was ‘swear on your mum’s life’.

MUBE it

Youth language, argot, ghetto grammar, Jafakin, call it what you will for now, has been documented, translated and commented on by enough (never young) people that we editors and proofreaders should have material aplenty to do what we do best: reserve non-editorial judgement and style-guide it to consistency.

But before we strike out in red and blue, what do we even call Multicultural Urban British English? (Great, that’ll do – thank you, Rob Drummond.) Be conscious, however, of ‘the responsibilities that come with naming varieties, especially as the terms are picked up by non-professionals and used in ways that might not correspond to their original denotation’. That’s also from Drummond, the boss of non-standard. Ponder, though, for the time it takes to say no, whether anybody young enough to speak Multicultural Urban British English calls it that.

Word up

MUBE is more than a lexicon. (Strictly speaking, it’s the initialism of a bank employees’ union in Malta …) It’s not news to us that language isn’t just about words and definitions, yet we flit like outsiders to Urban Dictionary, seldom looking past the written meaning. Perhaps it’s understandable that we treat youth language as we would any other jargon we come across when editing. I have spent more time thinking about the verb/pronoun choice and stress exercised by young people than I have about the significance, for those same people, of identity markers drawn from cultures I just don’t get: cf. ‘allow it’ (put a stop to it) and ‘allow that’ (don’t do it in the first place).

Having children old enough to use youth language doesn’t qualify me to speak authoritatively about the social or cultural influences behind their bantsing. (See? And I tried really hard not to mis-gerund.) It’s a good job we have Rob Drummond to make sense for us. His ‘(Mis)interpreting urban youth language: white kids sounding black?’ looks closely at how young people use ethnolects (language and dialect associated with specific ethnicities) in ways that are overlooked, parodied or misinterpreted by most mainstream media.

Drummond’s research introduces us to contemporary insights on MUBE. By contemporary, I mean also the voices of young people themselves – it’s the first time I’ve read what young people have to say about their own language usage.

But we are time-pressed (I’m hoping you read this after the worst of coronavirus has passed and you are inundated with deadlines), so let’s start with something more breezy. Andrew Osmond’s blog is a light-hearted explanation of multicultural London English. And there’s a style-over-spellcheck treat, too – more of this to come.

Standard bearing

If I’m going to attempt a broader representation of what is said or written about MUBE, I have to slide way over to David Starkey in 2011. While I disagree with his stance on acceptable sociolects and question his take on linguistics, I will defend his right to being favourably edited even if the Guardian rendered his views verbatim: ‘This language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has been intruded in England and that is why so many of us have this sense of literally of a foreign country.’

Marginally more instructive are online articles about urban language workshops for the police. Perhaps I’m reading too much into the ‘jolly japes’ tone of such reporting, but I feel it plays to a mindset that reifies youth language as a gang-related acquisition. It leaves Disgruntled of Middlesex indifferent to the code-shifting (adjusting language to suit an audience) that their own children are doing like a pro. You might not be able to tell grunge idioms from grime and it’s safe (hint: safe) to assume you’re not sure which adjectives also serve as affirmatives, but your children fluently navigate languages they weren’t taught at school. Oh, go on then, google ‘police beef ting’.

Once you’ve bare embarrassed yourself saying peng and wagwan out loud, and done that Westside hand gesture, please read anything by language expert David Shariatmadari to reassure yourself that the linguistic habits and word choices favoured by young people (aks instead of ask, and like with everything) are examples of processes native to standard English. Actually, his work deserves more than a passing reference; please buy Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language.

Word count

Of course we understand how language works – we’re editors and proofreaders – can we just get on with attending to the words? So where, if its usage is so prolific, is all the MUBE content?

What are young people reading these days? That’s where all the editing contracts should be. My convoluted internet searches suggest publications like Nylon. But I couldn’t find any youthy words in the issues I looked at. Ditto for Accent and LADbible. I found a mandem and a few droppings elsewhere, but so far, so sparse. And then I asked a young person.

Write, right, rite

Young people are their own authors. I think they might even be curators. The provenance of their language isn’t up to them, but they own the rendering of their words in a way we mostly do not (I dare you to defy punctuation). And they don’t care or ask for our intervention. The content that they upload, even if the bulk of it seems to be captured on a phone in front of a mirror, is written up, or at the very least captioned. And boy is there some idiolect happening!

Even I’ve heard of Instagram, but rinsta and finsta? Do you know which one is interchangeable with sinsta? I’m quite impressed with the audacious exclusivity of young people’s usage. If you need a word spelled out, if you’re querying camel hump compounds, you’re not the target audience. The most recent article I could find on sta-breviation uses initial caps but is almost a year old; maybe it’s no longer a thingsta.

But how did it all go #?

Writing, says linguist Gretchen McCulloch, ‘has become a vital, conversational part of our ordinary lives’. Online writing is still edited but, as she observes in Because Internet, we are now reading words that were once only spoken.

McCulloch sees patterns in ‘beautifully mundane’ online language that can tell us more about language in general and how new words enter usage. From how we punctuate emails and texts differently (yes, I know you don’t) to keysmash (try it, I got: ajndasj.lbndf.as) to the melodic evolution of ‘mm-hm-mm’ for ‘I dunno’, this book will take you closer to understanding internet linguistics and its designated drivers: young people.

But still …

We seek order. The lens through which we look at non-standard text is held by a standard-steadied hand. For every new project, we sift through for common usage, consistency and clarity, don’t we?

Granted, when young people write for other young people, they don’t need our editorial expertise, but what about when we, #genfogey, write about young people? For each writer I’ve mentioned, I’ve triple-checked their youth language styling and I still can’t find agreed usage: is the film called Adulthood or AdULTHOOD; is galdem/gyaldem/gyal dem a nuance thing? How many ‘r’s and ‘p’s in brrupp? D’you get me, blud or blad?

Resourcelessness

Browser beware: Urban Dictionary takes you to definitions you didn’t think could exist while Oxford English Dictionary is as useful as consulting your grandmother. Wiktionary contributors may supply you with interesting but unhelpful tangents which you then have to chase up on the British Library’s website, whose advanced search options are set up for people who have the time to go to an actual library. Thankfully, we have the estimable Jonathan Green who is hundo p the authority on rude/youth words. His website, Green’s Dictionary of Slang, is a regularly updated trove of expressions with timelines and etymologies that go back centuries.

There is some guidance for editors of the future; they will benefit from OED’s appeal, which should provide an authoritative spellcheck of ‘distinctive words that shape the language’. If you are interested in how new words are added to the dictionary, this article explains.

For now and the foreseeable future, we are left with the chicken-and-eggness of New Hart’s Rules’ advice on lexical variants (youth language per se is not included in 21.7, but …): ‘it is essential to have specific guidance in the form of a dictionary and a style document to ensure consistency’. That, as the young people probably no longer say, is peak.

Glossary

bagsy    a verb, often used by children, to declare a right to something before somebody else makes the same claim
bants    short for ‘banter’
blad/blud    from ‘blood’, a noun used to address a male – often a friend
braap/brrupp/brup    an exclamation to show agreement or approval by imitating the sound of gunfire
dropping    making something available (to buy, watch or listen to), usually on the internet
faynights    an exclamation called out during a game to assert exclusion from the rules, or protection from disqualification
finsta    a ‘fake’ Instagram account, where people often upload more private posts
galdem/gyaldem/gyal dem    girls
homie/homey    from ‘homeboy’ – a good friend
hundo p     hundred per cent, in complete agreement
innit    an elision of ‘isn’t it’, an often meaningless rhetorical marker
mandem    men, or people in general
peak    bad luck, unfortunate
peng    attractive (used for people), nice (used for things)
rinsta    a ‘real’ (public) Instagram account
safe    good or cool, also signifies agreement
sick    cool, awfully good
sinsta    a secondary Instagram account, see also finsta
wagwan    a greeting, an elision of ‘what’s going on?’
wappnin’    a greeting, an elision of ‘what’s happening?’
wicked    attractive, excellent, wonderful
wotcha/wotcher    a greeting, an elision of ‘what cheer’
yo    a greeting, agreement (yes) and a way of addressing somebody

Riffat Yusuf is a West London-based proofreader and copyeditor, and a content editor for a small structural engineering company. She has been editing since 2018, and before that she taught ESOL for 10 years and brought up her family. In the dim and distant past she was employed in journalism, radio and television. In the future, she’d like to work on ELT resources.

 


‘A Finer Point’ was a regular column in the SfEP’s magazine for members, Editing Matters. The column has moved onto the blog until its new home on the CIEP website is ready.

Members can browse the Editing Matters back catalogue through the Members’ Area.


Photo credits: silhouttes by Papaioannou Kostas; selfie by Djamal Akhmad Fahmi, both on Unsplash

Proofread and posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Forum matters

This feature comes from the band of CIEP members who volunteer as forum moderators. Links to the forum threads will only work after you’ve registered for the forums and logged in.

If there is one place worth revisiting often, it’s the CIEP member forums. Some of us swear that access to the forums alone is worth the membership fee – and that’s only a slight exaggeration. In fact, about half the people who have joined the forums have never written a post, but I’m sure they’ve gained plenty from their lurking.

One member has written over 17,000 posts, but then they’ve been signed up for nine years and had plenty of official business to discuss. One per cent have contributed over 1,000 posts, but the majority contribute as and when the fancy takes them. And there’s plenty of variety to suit anybody’s fancy.

All CIEP members have the right to access the forums, but for the moment (until our new website is up and running) you do have to take the positive step of joining. It is a two-stage process, but simple. First you register via the main CIEP website, then your application is approved by a moderator (sometimes this happens in minutes, sometimes in hours; it depends whether the volunteer moderator is online at the time). This process ensures privacy on the forums, because this is a space to share and to vent as well as to pick up useful info. It’s the CIEP water cooler!

Frequent venting, constant support

Plenty of venting does go on: against low pay (Offer from [global company]); against rude clients (Rude email from publisher for asking MS to be in order); and against incomprehensible paperwork (HMRC self-assessment – reporting ‘foreign income’). But it is never allowed to get personal or vindictive. By all accounts, our forums are a much friendlier space than many online. If a thread looks as though it’s going that way, then any member can easily flag up their discomfort by emailing the moderators (forums@ciep.uk). Posts may be deleted, threads removed and, in the worst case, a member can have their access denied (temporarily or permanently). It does happen – but not often. Any vitriol is dealt with swiftly and fairly and in line with the CIEP Dignity Policy. But what usually happens is that a range of viewpoints emerges, putting things in perspective and offering a solution or two.

Many people use the word ‘supportive’ in relation to the forums. It goes without saying that much of that refers to sharing professional knowledge. Knowledge about words and their ‘correct’ use, knowledge about the business of editing/proofreading and acquiring clients, knowledge about hardware and software. But there is other, more nebulous, support that goes on throughout the forums.

On the forums during COVID-19

A case in point has been during the coronavirus lockdown, when the forums have come into their own. Discussions have ranged across:

Collective wisdom

One great virtue of the forums is that the threads automatically become a huge archive, a fount of collective wisdom. The extraordinary thing is how much of this knowledge remains useful year on year, which makes the role of lurker even more valid!

Many questions come up over and over again, particularly from newbies, so the best first step is to use the Search function. Like all search facilities you need to play with the term(s) you input; if, at first, nothing comes up, then try again with a longer or a different word (it needs to be at least four characters long). But please don’t moan if you find you’re sucked into a distracting vortex of posts and you lose an afternoon! We guarantee the forums will distract, entertain and educate you, and it’ll be time well spent.


Photo credit: Kindness by United Nations COVID-19 Response on Unsplash

Proofread by Emma Easy, Intermediate Member.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

A week in the life of a senior editorial manager

By Wendy Shakespeare

I’m the senior editorial manager at Penguin Random House Children’s, having joined Penguin Books as a copyeditor for Puffin in 2006. I’m in what we call the Ed2 team: it’s a term unique to Penguin Books, where the editorial teams were traditionally split into Ed1 (focusing on acquisition and development) and Ed2 (focusing on copyediting and proofreading). Decades ago, Ed2 copyedited and proofread Penguin and Puffin titles, and the marked-up manuscripts and proofs would be reviewed by a managing editor. My team manages the copyediting and proofreading stages of our children’s titles, and we also manage editorial schedules, ensuring that we meet our print deadlines. This means that we regularly liaise with Ed1 editors, Design and Production, as well as with authors and freelance copyeditors and proofreaders. We check everything from the books themselves, including the covers and ebook editions, to material like pitches, the rights catalogues for book fairs, and non-trade publishing such as special Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library editions. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working on titles by such inspirational and brilliant authors as Malorie Blackman, Jeff Kinney, Eoin Colfer, Tom Fletcher and Jill Murphy, and I’ve worked on our bestselling brands, such as our Dahl publishing, Peter Rabbit, the Very Hungry Caterpillar and Spot (yes, we’re still trying to find him!).

My role combines the functions of a desk editor and managing editor, reflecting the two key aspects to my role: editorial standards and editorial processes. I head up a Puffin Ed2 team of four (including me). We’re responsible for checking titles published by Puffin, which spans fiction and non-fiction books for children of all age groups from toddlers to young adults, as well as publishing partnerships with the BBC, V&A Museum and the Imperial War Museum. We also have Ed2 teams for our Ladybird Trade and Licensing and Ladybird educational lists. In any given week, I’ll be working on fiction and non-fiction titles, picture books, illustrated middle-grade novels and Young Adult (YA) novels, and I’ll most likely be involved with conversations for about thirty or so titles. This could include: checking copyedited manuscripts; reviewing ebook editions; completing typesetting briefs; booking copyeditors and proofreaders (and sending them feedback); collating proof corrections; proofreading picture books; checking covers; discussing schedules; liaising with authors to talk them through the editorial process for their titles and to discuss the copyedited and proof corrections; and liaising with Ed1, Design and Production to ensure that titles are running to schedule. In addition, I run a weekly report from our bibliographic system to have an overview of our publishing programme and deadlines.

Editorial standards

Not only do I copyedit and proofread text if required (and indeed if I have time to do so) but I also review text copyedited and proofread by our freelancers. However, my aim is not to pick holes in their work but to enrich my own editorial knowledge and to see whether it’s helpful to offer constructive feedback, and if any further guidance might need to be added to our house style guide. I might also see if I can resolve any queries, if appropriate, that they have raised. (While writing this, I’m reminded that I need to also give specific positive feedback more often!) When checking proof corrections, I’m always mindful about what is being corrected and always give consideration to what we might be able to do differently at the copyediting stage to minimise proof corrections. For copyeditors working on a series, I might share the proof corrections as well as the tracked copyedited manuscript (MS) as a reference for when they come to work on the next novel in the series. Thinking about grammar, spelling and punctuation is one of the things I love most about my job, and so what I miss most as a result of working remotely is that I don’t get the chance to have impromptu editorial chats with my team. However, I’m glad that we have a chance to have such conversations as part of the house-style workshops I’ve started running via Zoom.

Editorial processes

We need sensible and clear processes to ensure that everything that needs to be done is carried out correctly and to schedule. Having a strong grasp of the processes also means that we can adapt when the schedule is challenging (in other words, when it’s super tight!). It’s also essential to have this clarity when you’re juggling thirty titles! The processes are ever evolving, but the framework of the processes that we have in place is the result of years of observation and consideration of what needs to be done, and I’m always thinking about what we can do better. These processes are at the forefront of my mind when I have monthly catch-ups with publishers, art directors and the senior production manager, as I talk to them about what’s working and what can be done better or differently – by both my team and theirs. I really enjoy this aspect of my job because I love trouble-shooting and it’s gratifying when things work smoothly.

This current lockdown situation has its ups and downs. Being able to work quietly at home is obviously a bonus. However, this situation has highlighted how important communication is to what we do, because you can no longer pop over to someone’s desk to discuss a project, so it’s necessary to have regular catch-ups over Zoom. I could have between three and fifteen meetings in a week. Here’s a summary of the meetings that I have:

  • Weekly: Puffin Ed2 team (where we run through our workload over the coming week); the wider Children’s Ed2 team (so that we can check in on how everyone is doing, so no one feels isolated); editor and designer for one of our key brands; up to two start-up meetings for new acquisitions, in which key stakeholders from Ed1, Design, Production, Sales, PR, Marketing and Rights discuss what is required for the new title.
  • Fortnightly: direct reports (to check on their wellbeing and to discuss any work issues); WIP (work-in-progress) meeting (Ed1, Design and Production meet to check that everything is running to schedule). Our MD and CEO are also endeavouring to keep us all connected by having regular briefings, to share news and information about the Children’s division and the company.
  • Monthly: line manager; publisher; art director; senior production manager (all catch-ups to discuss any top-line issues that relate to our editorial processes and workflows). I’ve also recently started to run Zoom workshops with the Children’s Ed2 team, to discuss specifics such as queries about house style and editorial processes.

One week

To give you an idea of what I do in a typical week, here’s a snapshot of the first week of June.

  • Assisted an editor by converting a PDF from the 1990s to recognise the text and then exporting it to a Word document so that we can use the text to create a revised edition for younger readers.
  • For a particular frontlist non-fiction title, I had a Zoom call with Ed1 and Design to talk through a tight schedule and to agree what needs to be done; sent MS out for educational and fact checks. I also looked at the proposed text design guide for this title and offered feedback.
  • Had 13 meetings ranging from individual, team and project catch-ups to a briefing from our CEO.
  • Led a one-hour workshop on our house style for our Children’s Ed2 team (so it included Ladybird Ed2). We discussed chapter headings (spelt out or numerals), widows and orphans (when to fix and when to stet), hyphenation, capitalisation and numbers. Essentially we follow New Hart’s Rules, but there are always going to be grey areas and it’s great to have a space and time to discuss these details, and share our thoughts and experiences in order to strengthen our own editorial knowledge. There will be further workshops as we work our way through our house style guide, with the aim of having an updated guide later this year.
  • Liaised with a US editor to approve text changes for the UK edition.
  • Liaised with editors for 16 different titles. Tasks included: confirming schedule dates; checking proofreading deadlines for picture books; suggesting the ideal editorial process for new titles; reviewing illustration briefs and layouts for illustrated titles.
  • Liaised with three different authors to talk through key dates and the editorial process for the titles.
  • Proofread a 176-page non-fiction title and sent a summary of my notes to the editor for review (to decide whether anything needs to be stetted).
  • Reviewed invoices from freelance copyeditors and proofreaders.
  • Reviewed an editorial process for marketing proofs.
  • Sent proofs for five titles to respective authors and proofreaders.

The variety of the books that I work on and the different tasks that need to be done mean that my working week is never dull. I’m generally rather busy, but I love all the books we publish and I couldn’t ask for better colleagues and authors.

Wendy Shakespeare is a senior editorial manager at Penguin Random House Children’s. She works on Puffin titles, which range from short picture books to YA novels. She has been in the industry since 2001, and joined Penguin in 2006 as a copyeditor for Puffin Books, which became part of Penguin Random House Children’s seven years later.

 


Earlier in the year, Lorraine Beck shared a week in her life as a picture researcher.


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

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

 

 

 

What’s e-new?

By Andy Coulson

Microsoft Editor

By now many of you who use Word 365 will have noticed the new Editor pane that handles spelling and grammar checking. Microsoft describes this as an ‘intelligent writing assistant’, as it also brings in ‘Refinements’ – looking at, and suggesting alternatives for, things such as conciseness and clarity. Editor uses artificial intelligence (AI) to analyse the language used, and suggests amendments to improve the overall readability of the text.

So, the big question is: ‘Is it any good for editors?’ Well, that’s a very mixed answer, as a lot depends on personal taste. For instance, Editor opens in a bar at the right of the screen. I like this presentation, as it is clear and makes good use of white space around the text, making it easy to read, often in comparison to densely packed manuscripts. However, Paul Beverley makes a very good point in ‘Taming Word 365’ that this takes a lot of screen area, which is true. As an aside, Paul is developing a macro that will work like the old spellchecker. Your set-up and preferences, such as the type of screen(s) you use, may colour your view of this. I suspect it will end up being a very Marmite (for non-UK readers, a love-it-or-hate-it) type of feature.

Personally, I’m not sure how much the underlying spellchecker and grammar checker have changed. They can work with multiple languages (provided those are selected in the document). The defaults are broadly sensible and reflect good practice – for example, double spaces at the start of sentences are now flagged. Both give you alternatives and suggestions about changing the flagged word or phrase. The new sidebar allows you to review and amend things in a much more intuitive way than the right-click menu options (which I must admit to a particular dislike of). The options against each of the choices are also kept to a short list and are, broadly, sensibly chosen. One interesting feature is that there are Read Aloud and Spell Out options, and while I’m not sure how useful these are to me, I can see where they might be a help.

The grammar checker is very customisable, with simple descriptions in the options backed up by more comprehensive descriptions in the options (even via the dreaded right-click), perhaps backed with examples so you can decide whether or not to use the option. I noticed that it doesn’t, for example, check for the use of ‘which’ versus ‘that’, so it is not necessarily comprehensive or foolproof. There is still plenty of room for judgement, experience and author voice.

The big addition is the Refinements section that gives suggestions under the headings of Clarity, Conciseness, Formality, Inclusiveness, Punctuation Conventions and Vocabulary. These are all quite configurable through the options. I’m not a heavy user of this, so I don’t know whether the AI will improve the results, but my initial use left me underwhelmed. In some areas it was, to my mind, overly prescriptive and in others (eg Inclusiveness) it does not pick up very real problems. Again, I think the options could be better explained to give a sense of what the broader intention of the check is, allowing the user to make a more informed choice.

My main conclusion is that this feature is not aimed at editors, but at writers. The clue is in the name – it is targeted at being an editor replacement. At present I’m not overly worried about my job, but it is certainly a useful complement to a human editor. Compared with PerfectIt or Paul Beverley’s macros, it is clearly quite a blunt instrument. However, I don’t think that is an entirely fair comparison. Looking at it as a language professional perhaps misses the point of it. PerfectIt and macros allow you to focus in at a much more detailed level and adapt what you do to suit different clients. This is a level of depth that I’m not sure many writers will go to, particularly if they know the text will be further reviewed or edited. Editor will help many writers but tends towards homogenised text. This still leaves plenty of room for human editors to bring out the nuance and texture in the writing, and also to deal with the narrative thread through a piece of writing.

Andy Coulson is a reformed engineer and primary teacher, and a Professional Member of CIEP. He is a copyeditor and proofreader specialising In STEM subjects and odd formats like LaTeX.

 

 


‘What’s e-new?’ was a regular column in the SfEP’s magazine for members, Editing Matters. The column has moved onto the blog until its new home on the CIEP website is ready.

Members can browse the Editing Matters back catalogue through the Members’ Area.


Photo credits: Windows monitor – Johny vino on Unsplash

Proofread by Andrew Macdonald Powney, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

CIEP social media round-up: April and May 2020

Two of the strangest months in memory, recorded through our social media accounts

Times such as these are tricky for a social media team whose focus is on publishing and freelancing. As with pretty much everything right now, long term we don’t know what COVID-19 might mean for publishing, the book industry, or editors and proofreaders. We entered April 2020 wondering what we could communicate to our audiences on a day-to-day basis. Too much doom would be unhelpful. Too much levity would be unwelcome. What to do? Like so many others, we took each day at a time.

Silver linings

But heartening developments emerged, at least where publishing was concerned: increased book buying during lockdown, and the appearance of online book festivals and other events, with the Hay Festival, from 18 to 31 May, presenting an impressive array of personalities including our own honorary president, David Crystal. (David also starred in Mark Allen’s new podcast, That Word Chat, on 11 May.) Online events, by their nature, could include many more people than would have attended physically. ACES, the society for editing in the US (@copyeditors), took its conference online with #ACES2020Online on 1 May, and we were promised great things by SENSE, the Society of English-language professionals in the Netherlands (@SENSEtheSociety), whose online conference was to take place in early June.

Revising our lexicon

We covered the updating of dictionaries that the coming of COVID-19 required, so that editors and proofreaders were informed about how to refer to the virus. We posted articles about new terms such as quarantini and coronacoaster, and terms that were gaining popularity such as infodemic, as well as whether we were using older terms differently now. We reminded our followers of the differences between similar terms we were now using a lot, such as hoard and horde (‘There are hordes of people hoarding toilet paper’, one Facebook follower observed).

Keeping up with tech

Video conferencing packages are now part of our lives in a way they never were before. We covered Zoom in various ways, from why Zoom makes you tired to sports commentator Andrew Cotter’s Zoom meeting with his two Labradors: a treat. Meanwhile, Cambridge Dictionaries introduced us to new video conferencing terms like zoombombing, zumping and teletherapy. Merriam-Webster noted the coining of two news-and-phone-related phrases: doomsurfing and doomscrolling.

Shelf isolation

More attention is being paid to bookshelves in these Zoom days (see ‘Bookcase Credibility’, @BCredibility, an account launched in April that comments on the bookshelves of various public figures). Of course, at CIEP we appreciate a good bookshelf (and a good book nook, a scene or figure that can be placed between shelved books). On 25 March we had proved ourselves ahead of the curve by asking our Twitter followers to #ShowUsYourShelves. To fill these shelves still further, during April and May there were a number of articles and postings about the books we could read in lockdown, to comfort us, return us to our childhoods, inspire, uplift or offer us escape, or simply to get us through. We enjoyed artist Phil Shaw’s ordering of books to tell a story with their titles, something that Orkney Library (@OrkneyLibrary), now temporarily closed, had often done for its 70K followers. And, remaining with libraries, the true story about the cleaner who rearranged the books in a library in size order – oh, horror! – inspired sympathy and hilarity in many.

Actors available

Suddenly, actors and other artists had time on their hands and were doing impromptu readings and recitals. Jennifer Ehle, Elizabeth Bennet in the famous BBC 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, read the novel chapter by chapter, and we shared this on Twitter on 6 April. Andy Serkis read The Hobbit online for charity. @SirPatStew (Sir Patrick Stewart) read a Shakespeare sonnet every day until 22 May. Our post announcing this got 83 likes and 33 shares from our delighted Facebook followers.

Home comforts

Of course, we editors and proofreaders are, for the most part, well used to all aspects of working from home, from furry assistants to endless tea or coffee drinking. And, alas, with beverages occasionally comes spillage. One of our most popular posts on Twitter was about an artist who made coffee stains into illustrations of monsters. There were a lot of them. Boy, was he unlucky with his coffee.

Funnies, Friday or otherwise

If you’re a devotee of the CIEP Facebook page, you’ll know that there’s a Friday Funny at about 4pm every week to send everyone off into the weekend with a smile. These are often comic strips by book-appreciating illustrators such as John Atkinson or authors who understand the trials of working from home such as Adrienne Hedger. When we’re very lucky, the legendary Brian Bilston releases a poem. His ‘Comparative Guidance for Social Distancing’ got 160 likes and 105 shares on our Facebook page, and it wasn’t even posted on a Friday. Sometimes the stars align and there’s a cat-and-books story we can post at the end of the week. Such an event took place on 22 May, when we enjoyed Horatio, a cat who wears (or, really, bears) costumes to promote his local library. As one Facebook user commented, ‘That is a patient cat.’ Truth.

Lockdown LinkedIn

We only started posting our blog-based LinkedIn content regularly last June, and since we passed the 10,000 followers mark last August our followers have increased again by another 8,000. Since lockdown, engagement has reduced as many of our followers seem to be working parents who are grabbing opportunities to work while suddenly morphing into teacher mode. During April and May 2020, posts that proved popular included: Denise Cowle’s week in the life of an editor (more than 8% engagement rate and 45 likes), a post by Intermediate Member Hilary McGrath sharing tips for staying motivated when starting a course (more than 4% engagement rate and 38 likes) and, showing reading-related content is our bread and butter, Abi Saffrey’s post about evaluating her year in books (more than 5% engagement rate, 32 likes and 8 comments).

Rounding up the round-up

During April and May 2020 on the CIEP’s social media, the emphasis was on editors and proofreaders looking after themselves, diverting themselves, keeping informed and looking for light where it could be found. As ever, our social media was overwhelmingly about support. We got a new emoji on Facebook – ‘care’, the usual little yellow head hugging a heart. Gotta tell you, it’s coming in useful.

Don’t miss a thing in editing and proofreading. Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.


Photo credits: wall emojis by George Pagan III; cat by Andrii Ganzevych, both on Unsplash

Proofread by Victoria Hunt, Intermediate Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

What do authors really want from their editors?

By Kasia Trojanowska

What motivates you in your job? What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you open a manuscript you’re about to start working on? When sparring with an author client over points of style or the order of chapters, who or what is at the forefront of your mind? Is it the reader? The text? Is it your professional ego (however unacknowledged)? Or is it, perhaps, the author?

I’m going to be bold here and submit that success of any professional in any job comes down to the success of the relationships they can build. ‘Know your clients’ is being drummed into us as the single most important rule of business. Who are those clients? And what do they really want from editors they invite into their creative process?

Not long ago, I met with one such client group – writers. I asked them about their expectations and worries around working with an editor and, very generously, they responded. There was a lot for me to digest, not least one biting comment from an author feeling like they were just ‘a mark for additional income on the side’. Ouch! I hope none of my clients ever said that about working with me, I thought.

So let’s look at the feedback in a bit more detail. Several themes came through particularly strongly: collaboration, expertise, empathy and trust. Of those, the majority aren’t easily quantifiable. It’s hard to know after just one email exchange what it’s going to be like to collaborate on a book edit, which can take months. But I believe it is worth trying. In the authors’ words: ‘I’ve always wanted a collaborative effort with somebody honest and enthusiastic’; ‘I would prefer to have an active part in all decisions regarding editing’; ‘I would expect a partner’.

An interesting insight for me was that, perhaps contrary to what myriad self-publishing services would have us believe, the traditional publishing route is still the goal for many authors, even those just entering the field. For that, they need to impress the gatekeepers – agents and commissioning editors: ‘Agents can be very picky.’ A helpful steer is what they’d seek from an editor: ‘I would like to work with a well-connected editor who can help me get published’, ‘I think the editor needs to have an in-depth understanding of what agents and publishers require’ and ‘I’d want someone with … an eye on the market to … give [my work] its best chance of publishing success’. This type of service can come in the form of agent introductions, collaborations with various publishers or providing well-researched, well-grounded market advice. What that would mean for an editor is cultivating relationships in the publishing world: networking, learning the ropes (by taking part in seminars, webinars, book launches, author meetings), going to conferences and being aware of the latest publishing trends. It can add another string to your bow and quite an exciting one at that.

Perhaps less surprisingly, authors are also interested in the more down-to-earth editing know-how: ‘guidance on structure and plot’, ‘help [me] polish the work’, ‘make sure that the work is structurally and grammatically correct’, ‘an informed point of view’. These are all skills we learn by taking part in CIEP courses and other editorial training.

Then, there are the concerns of putting their work into the hands of another. These to me centre around that most intangible of qualities, trust. ‘How to find a good editor?’ was a theme that came through a lot in the comments: ‘finding the right chemistry and a mutual respect’, ‘I worry that I might get the wrong editor who won’t see the book the way I do’, ‘[I’d worry] that the working relationship wouldn’t be strong’. I feel these come down to what the artist Louise Bourgeois called ‘the final achievement … communication with a person.’*

When I shared with her that I was working on this blog, writer Lauren McMenemy responded with an elegant reflection:

‘The relationship between author and editor is almost as important as that between the author and their story. The editor is the one that can get the piece polished – not perfected – and ready to set free, which is the author’s goal. The delicate balance between helpful and pushy is one the editor must carefully tread, but we as authors must also be in a mindset to trust our editor and know that we’re both working towards making the piece the best it can be.’

Taking the time to understand our client and their needs, having clear terms of service (so that both sides know what to expect) and making sure they feel they can trust our editorial expertise are all at the heart of a fulfilling relationship with our authors. If you can top that up with advice about what can get an agent interested and what can help an author get a foot in the door and win them a publishing deal, you’re guaranteed a host of satisfied clients. And your professional ego will thank you, too!


*Cited in Siri Hustvedt (2017) A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, London: Sceptre, 27.

I thank Sutton Writers, who hosted me at their meeting in January 2020 and provided invaluable insights which inspired this blog. Lauren McMenemy is one of the group’s coordinators.

If you’re an author worried about finding the right editor for your work, I’ve got some tips on ‘How to find an editor’.

Kasia TrojanowskaKasia Trojanowska is a copy-editor, proofreader and text designer, an Advanced Professional Member of CIEP. She’s incurably curious about the world of publishing and is always looking for ways to be more helpful to the editorial and writer communities. She writes about all things editorial on her website.

 


Searching for an editor? Browse the CIEP’s directory of experienced editors.


Photo credits: Cogs by Bill Oxford; pencils by Joanna Kosinska, both on Unsplash

Proofread by Andrew Macdonald Powney, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

 

Blog post round-up

By Sarah Dronfield

There is a Facebook group for editors, Editors’ Association of Earth, in which I share a weekly round-up of editorial blog posts. If I read articles or listen to podcasts that I think will help editors and proofreaders with their continuing professional development (CPD), then they go into my round-up. They might be aimed at improving editorial skills and knowledge or they might give tips on marketing, for example.

It seems a shame that CIEP members who don’t use Facebook might be missing out on this opportunity for CPD. So, here is a round-up of some of the best posts and podcasts from 2020 so far.

The editor–author relationship

What do you do when you receive a request for proofreading, but it soon becomes apparent that the manuscript will need editing? Richard Bradburn can help you navigate this tricky situation.

As well as establishing the level of work required, there are other key questions that we should ask potential clients. Jo Johnston covers them here.

What about once you’ve agreed to work together? In this post, Pádraig Hanratty describes editing as a collaborative process and explores, step by step, how we can establish a good editor–author relationship. And this post, by Aaron Dalton, focuses on how to write effective editorial comments.

Sometimes, no matter how good the relationship, things do go wrong. Liz Jones details strategies that can help us cope with criticism. And here Erin Brenner explains how to write an apology letter to a client that may help regain their trust.

Imposter syndrome

This is something that even affects experienced editors from time to time. It is addressed here by Lisa de Caux. And here, Adrienne Montgomerie lists ten actions to fight it.

Efficiency

Learning to use keyboard shortcuts in Word can save you a lot of time. If, like me, you find that there are some you can never remember, it helps to have a list handy. Louise Harnby has kindly provided this one (for PC).

Editing and inconsistency

When editing, we usually try to ensure consistency; however, when dealing with numbers in creative writing, readability is more important. Carol Saller explains when to break the style rules.

Scams

There are various ways in which scammers target editors. One scam to look out for is the Frankenedit. This is when someone approaches multiple editors asking for a free sample edit of different parts of their manuscript in the hope that they will be able to have their entire manuscript edited for free. One way to combat this is to request the whole manuscript so that you can select the sample material yourself.

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter has a warning about some other scams.

Your website

These days, most of us have our own websites. When did you last check and update yours? Nate Hoffelder suggests some questions to ask yourself when refreshing your editor website.

Running and growing an editing and proofreading business

Denise Cowle and Louise Harnby regularly team up to host The Editing Podcast. They recently asked listeners to submit questions about anything they needed help with. The result was two episodes (around an hour each) packed with useful information and advice. Part 1 also contains a little mystery: what is that creaking sound? Don’t worry, all is revealed in Part 2!

In Part 1 they discuss topics such as contracts, invoicing, networking and marketing, and in Part 2 they answer questions about training, choosing a business name and managing imposter syndrome. Follow the links for the complete list of topics covered, and to listen.

COVID-19

Understandably, many people have been blogging about the pandemic, for example, how it has affected them and their work, and tips on getting through lockdown. Although some countries are beginning to come out of lockdown, we aren’t going to see a return to normality any time soon, so it’s useful to know how others have been coping with the situation.

There has been a certain amount of pressure to be productive in lockdown, but Lisa Cordaro is here to help you weather the silent storm.

Most of us are not new to working from home; however, some of us are now having to cope with sharing our workspace with partners for the first time, and those of us with children need to attempt some form of home schooling. In Part 1 of a blog about lockdown with kids, Claire Bacon shares ways to manage a daily lockdown schedule with children around, and in Part 2 she shares ways to manage stress and look after your mental health as a parent during lockdown. In a recent thread in the CIEP forums, members who are also parents shared the ways in which they are coping, or not; Cathy Tingle summarises that discussion here. (I contributed to that thread; my son is the Captain Underpants fan.)

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter has advice for those who are alone in quarantine times, and she points out that enforced isolation is not the same as isolation by choice.

Whether we live alone or not, no one is experiencing business as usual. Jennifer Lawler has some thoughts on steps we can take to build resilience in our work and our personal lives, and Erin Brenner also has tips on how freelancers can weather the crisis. And, in this episode of her Edit Boost podcast, Malini Devadas talks about managing emotions and a freelance business in uncertain times.

Andy Coulson has compiled a list of technology-based or focused resources that may be of use during this time.

And finally, the CIEP’s wise owls have some advice and thoughts based on their own experiences during the pandemic so far.

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

 


Photo credits: Begin by Danielle MacInnes; desk with headphones by Michael Soledad, both on Unsplash

Proofread by Andrew Macdonald Powney, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Plain English Campaign: from Thatcher to Johnson

By Lee Monks

‘Wit is the alliance of levity and seriousness (by which the seriousness is intensified)’ – TS Eliot

Although officially established in 1979, the Plain English Campaign really started life much earlier. Our roots lie in making life fairer for everyone; the Tuebrook Bugle, founded by Chrissie Maher in early 1960s Liverpudlian slums, was created to bring news to people whose education meant that general news items largely or partially passed them by. They were inadvertently excluded from their community through a combination of poor reading skills and shame. The paper’s language was simple and clear, and meant that many hundreds of locals now felt connected. News items that directly affected them were no longer baffling. Local citizens could claim more knowledge that would not only inform them but empower them too.

Democratising information

The Bugle was a highly popular and unprecedented success. There’d been nothing like it before in the UK. Working-class mums like Chrissie were predominantly responsible for its content, production and delivery (available at a nominal cost; no more than enough to get the paper printed). It was the seed from which the Plain English Campaign would later flourish; it was born out of anger that masses of people were unnecessarily marginalised. It led to revamped local conditions – no more keeping people in the dark about their rights to save money – and the appreciation that the ‘rank and file’ could enforce change, as long as they had access to all necessary facts.

Chrissie eventually moved on to other endeavours, such as the Liverpool News and the Salford Forms Market (enabling poorly educated men and women to claim what they were entitled to by helping them understand horribly written government forms), but the scope for helping people and democratising information ultimately led in one direction: towards the transformation of language and information at the national level.

Enduring change

To think of the Plain English Campaign now – as a force for the democratic good, a bulwark against jargon, legalese, obfuscation and spin – is to forget just how rampantly confusing much of the public domain information was in 1979. The event that heralded the official beginning of the campaign – Chrissie shredding impenetrable government documentation in front of the Houses of Parliament – was a watershed moment. At that point, there had been no real speaking truth to power on the matter. Those on the bottom rung simply accepted their plight. But Chrissie had nearly two decades of fighting their corner under her belt and knew how to bring about enduring change. That symbolic initiation was no gimmick – it was a call to arms. And it brought attention to a campaign that would grow rapidly in the following years.

The first few of those years were about driving home the point that pompous use of language was no longer acceptable. Walls had to be knocked down; an entire philosophy, established over centuries, needed to be replaced. There were two key elements in play, both of which were vitally important to the continued success of the campaign. One was the need to reinforce the idea that polysyllabic words were not only not impressive when it came to public information, but that the use of them was a political matter. Language was a means of shutting out vast numbers of a potential audience; if you couldn’t understand something, the onus was on the reader to parse often labyrinthine tranches of information. Long sentences, Latinate references: this habit of employing words that only a portion of a readership could appreciate needed to become less prevalent.

The second measure, without which the campaign might have taken much longer to become as established, was mockery. It was all right suggesting that people needed to know about local and national government matters and that to deny them was inherently wrong but, as has been shown since, those in power will more often than not wilfully confuse an audience rather than inform it and risk economic loss. The morality of providing clear information – which Margaret Thatcher would support – was one thing; doing the right thing, encouraged by the prime minister, was certainly effective, and the requirement that civil servants communicate clearly got things moving in the right direction. Job centre forms were already much clearer thanks to campaign pressure; medicine labels would soon follow suit.

But once it became not only regrettable but also a matter of ridicule to use poor, pointlessly complex language, things really began to take off.

So plain English became not only the right way to communicate – arguments against it only strengthened its hand in opposing a needlessly stubborn elite – but also the only respectable way. Beyond a certain point in the 1980s there were no longer convincing reasons for doing otherwise. Jargon was no longer confusing; it was laughable, easy to caricature (have a look at our Gobbledygook Generator for proof!). Those employing gobbledygook instead of plain English were not only becoming more and more unfashionable, they were figures of fun.

The game is up for poor communication

As our Foot in Mouth Award best attests: talk nonsense and you’re asking for trouble. To read a jargon-heavy sentence these days is not only to wince with discomfort but also to implicitly understand that the misuse of language is deserving of ridicule. The government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis is deplorably woolly in terms of language, and it has deservedly spawned countless mocking articles, memes and tweets. The odious ‘Stay alert’ rebranding is surely designed to put the onus on a stressed and ambivalent public to make up their own minds about just what it could possibly mean. But as the withering responses – from newspapers to those suffering harrowing loss – show, poor use of language is now not only ‘not on’, it will get the drubbing it deserves. Plain English is the benchmark; the rank and file know full well when they’re being had. For those unwilling to speak and communicate clearly the game is very quickly up.

Lee Monks is the Media and Communications Officer for PEC but has fulfilled many roles for the Campaign over the years.

 

 

 


Photo credits: Blah blah blah by Nick Fewings, and Daffodils at Westminster by Ming Jun Tan, both on Unsplash.

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

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

Stay alert: the importance of plain English in these confusing times

By Claire Beveridge

Presenting scientific data or science-based guidelines can be like walking a tightrope. Lean too far to one side and you risk falling into the trap of using too much jargon and alienating your readers. Shift too much the other way and your message becomes vague and confusing. You need look no further than the messaging from the UK Government for an example of this delicate balancing act. Their initial message ‘Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives’ was simple, direct and clearly conveyed what everyone was supposed to do. Contrast this with its successor ‘Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives’, which was almost immediately met with confusion and parodies on social media such as ‘Be vague. Cover our backs. Shirk responsibility’. What exactly did ‘stay alert’ mean, and what could and couldn’t we do? If only they had used plainer English.

Communication of scientific and medical information is most effective when things are written clearly and simply. Scientific literacy among the general population has been reported to be decreasing, and bad writing that is too complicated makes it increasingly difficult for non-scientists to engage. Add in the pandemic of ‘fake news’ that constantly seems to swirl online and you have a dangerous mix. A BBC team recently reported that the human cost of coronavirus misinformation has included assaults, arson and death, with hundreds dying in Iran as a result of alcohol poisoning following rumours of its curative effects, and others ingesting disinfectant and even fish tank cleaner following some of the daily pronouncements by Donald Trump. The stakes could not be higher. If important information isn’t communicated in a way that people understand, the result can be the unnecessary loss of life.

The ‘dihydrogen monoxide parody’ is a classic example of how using unnecessarily complicated scientific terms and selectively reporting data can lead people to reach misplaced conclusions. It has been deployed several times, and involves water being called by an unfamiliar chemical name and members of the public being presented with a list of its well-known effects that make it sound dangerous (such as that it is used as an additive in junk foods, it is found in tumours of terminal cancer patients and it is the major component of acid rain), followed by people being urged to ‘sign here to join the campaign for it to be banned’.

Science, by its very nature, is full of questions that cannot be answered without an element of doubt. Even if someone can get the same result when they repeat an experiment, it doesn’t ‘prove’ that something is or isn’t true. Results are simply pieces of evidence that support (or refute) a theory; ‘all scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, and nothing is final’ (Kanazawa, 2008). Understandably, this can be a hard concept to grasp, and frustration and mistrust can arise if people feel that they are not being given a ‘proper’ answer. When will we have a vaccine against COVID-19? When will our lives go back to the way they were before the pandemic? No mathematical model can accurately predict the answers to these questions because we have never experienced this situation before. Even if we had, there would be no guarantee that the situation would play out in exactly the same way again; there are simply too many factors involved. When presenting data, writers need to consider people’s expectations and be honest about what is and isn’t known, and why.

The use of plain English is also important when scientists write for other scientists. It is a golden rule of scientific writing that methods must be described so that someone else can repeat experiments, and it is best practice to aim the abstract of a research paper at a level suitable for a non-specialist graduate student. More importantly, English is the global language of science and writers must always remember that many of their readers will not be native English speakers. Reading research papers that are crammed full of acronyms and complicated terminology can feel like wading through treacle, even when the writer works in the same field as you. Imagine how this must feel if English is not your first language. When results and guidelines are published, they are shared globally to spread ideas and new findings as widely as possible, and hopefully stimulate new ideas and collaborations across different disciplines that will advance our understanding. This cannot happen if only experts in a specific field can decode what is being said. Writing in plain English both speeds up the process of sharing new knowledge and increases the chances of new and exciting discoveries being made, something that is particularly useful when confronting a global pandemic caused by a virus that has never been seen before.

Clear communication in these confusing times may also yield another benefit; increasing engagement with science and medicine holds the key to inspiring the next generation of researchers, which will hopefully increase the numbers entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Data from STEM Women show that the split between men and women in terms of studying STEM subjects at university and then going on to pursue a career in STEM is still far from equal. We have a golden opportunity to readjust this balance if we can clearly communicate just how fascinating and rewarding scientific and medical research can be.

I have seen a lot of posts online musing over whether COVID-19 will change the way we live and work forever. If we can increase our use of plain English when communicating scientific data and guidelines, one positive change may be increased engagement.

Claire Beveridge is a CIEP Advanced Professional Member specialising in medicine and the biological sciences. Based near Oxford, she has over 13 years’ experience working with publishers and individual researchers. She has recently developed a worrying fascination with personal finance. Find her on Twitter.

 


If you’re looking for an experienced editor skilled in plain English editing, search for ‘plain English’ in the CIEP Directory.


Photo credits: tightrope by Loic Leray; clear water by Rots Marie-Hélène, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Alice McBrearty, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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