Category Archives: Editorial Excellence

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.

Freelance editing and COVID-19

By Liz Jones

As editors, we’re used to seeing the big picture as well as the small details, moving effortlessly between the two states of looking in the course of a project, or within a single page, often from one minute to the next. Our editorial eye shifts and refocuses, shifts and refocuses, until the job is complete. We are sometimes mistaken for perfectionists, but in reality we are bound by schedules and budgets, depending on pragmatism to guide us in our interpretation of the brief. We can only do what we can do. As professionals with a strong urge to make everything right, still we must accept that not everything is within our control.

Editors have been discussing these limits to what they can and can’t control in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in the CIEP forums. As business owners we are encouraged – we encourage each other – to believe that we have autonomy. This is why we are freelance: it gives us the theoretical freedom to shape our working lives. To those who argue that it’s hard to wait for a reliable workstream to build up, we answer ‘put yourself out there, do more marketing’. To those who cite the seeming avalanche of competition for high-quality work, we reply ‘train harder, make yourself stand out’. We revere proactivity – and usually, this is reasonable. One of the measures of a successful freelancer is an ability to keep going through difficult times: to bounce back, to persist, to prevail.

But perhaps there are some crises in the face of which no amount of imagination, energy or tenacity will enable a coherent or effective response. And perhaps the social, emotional and economic shock we’re currently enduring is one of them. When asked about the effects the pandemic was having on their businesses, editors duly reported on the relatively ‘small’ details: loss of work, financial uncertainty, effect on mental health, juggling childcare/schooling, support from industry contacts, the (UK) government’s support package for workers. These are all things we can observe and measure, if not necessarily control, and people were thoughtful and generous in the responses they shared.

Loss of work

Work lost so far varies between individuals and by sector – and as some pointed out, it depends on how much work particular editors had in the first place. Some members have reported a complete loss of all work. Most had noticed a slowdown in new enquiries, especially from businesses and individuals such as self-publishing authors or academics, and many reported that projects had been delayed or cancelled. Not everyone has lost work, however. Those working in medical editing have reported more work than usual relating to the current situation, along with those working in educational publishing, as the need for teaching resources surges. Some publishing clients have been open with their freelance editors about their schedules, especially where they remain unchanged for now. Others have gone very quiet, especially when pushed to pay outstanding invoices.

Financial uncertainty

Of course, freelance work entails living with financial uncertainty at the best of times. We’re always expendable, vulnerable to the changing fortunes of our clients. But editors discussed the expectation of needing to depend on savings and investments in the coming months, if they have them, or of having to rely on a partner’s salary for support – again, if they have one. Even for those continuing to take on work, there’s more concern than usual that invoices will not be paid. (This might be a good time to start invoicing for at least part of the work upfront, for all clients, where usually we might be happier to work to 30-day terms for publishers and similar organisations.) People reported some immediate hardship, and the threat of more the longer this situation goes on.

Mental health

Most editors who answered reported that their mental health was OK – for now. Some acknowledged that it could be fragile, though, and needed monitoring. People were finding it hard to be physically separated from friends and loved ones. In terms of managing mental health, a few alluded to the medicinal properties of wine, while conceding that this could be a false friend. They also mentioned continued physical exercise, exposure to the outside world where possible, music, yoga and meditation, and pets as being beneficial. Perhaps freelance editors have an advantage when it comes to dealing with relative isolation. We are already used to working alone for long periods, and finding ways to restore our sanity and feelings of connection. People thanked the CIEP for continuing to support meetings between groups of editors via Zoom – an option increasingly taken up by various local groups. It’s possible that the immediate flurry of trying to reorganise our lives around the sudden restrictions has distracted us to the point of deferring a collective mental health crisis, but it was good to read that people are coping so far and have strategies to fall back on.

Caring responsibilities and school closures

Many of the editors who responded had caring responsibilities, including for school-aged children currently at home (and in need of some sort of schooling). This was affecting people’s working hours and causing some stress as a result. Of course many of us are fortunate in that we have relatively flexible work – but the days still have the same number of hours … and trying to look after children, provide them with some form of ongoing education and get some meaningful work done is exhausting, especially for those with younger children. Again, the restrictions on what can be done with children outside the home make things extra difficult. It may prove impossible to do anything other than the bare minimum of work in these conditions, meaning that regular activities essential to the growth of a business, such as marketing, are sidelined. It’s early days, but these challenges are only likely to increase, with no fixed end in sight. A few editors commented on the effects of having a partner working from home (where this was not usual), which can disrupt routines and put extra pressure on space.

Help from the industry

It was generally agreed that industry contacts can best support freelancers in this situation by being as open as they can about the impact of the crisis on schedules and workflows; keeping lines of communication open. This should apply in less extreme circumstances, too, but it’s especially important now. And arranging to pay freelancers on time for their work, and early if possible, is crucial. Perhaps it should go without saying, but it bears reiterating, that project managers (in-house or freelance) should only commission editorial work they can be confident of having sufficient cashflow to pay for.

Government support

At the time of writing, the UK government had offered a support package to self-employed people which should enable them to receive a grant of 80% of their average income for the past three tax years – three months’ pay up to a maximum of £2500 per month, in one lump sum. This was broadly welcomed by those it would help (though the money is not likely to be available until at least June) but, as many pointed out, it does leave key groups of freelance editors without access to adequate support or compensation. People who operate limited companies are not covered, and it also neglects people who have only recently become self-employed. The offer of support has also been made in such a way as to entrench the widespread (and unhelpful) perception that self-employed people habitually pay less tax than employees.

That’s a brief overview of what editorial freelancing in the current climate looks like, for now – the detail of our working lives in lockdown. People remain as positive as they can, but I think we should acknowledge that it is scary, and certain things do look really grim. Global events continue to unfold at a speed we’ve never really witnessed; by next week this article could look quite quaint. And as for that bigger picture – the long-term outlook, the landscape we’ll all be navigating once the crisis has passed? That remains to be seen.

Liz Jones is one of the editors on the CIEP’s information team.


CIEP members can keep in touch on the forums.

Follow your government’s coronavirus guidance (the UK’s is here).

If you are self-employed and eligible for a grant from the UK government, HMRC will be in touch.

IPSE is providing regular updates on support for the self-employed and limited companies during the pandemic.


Photo credits: Stay home Mohammad Fahim; Child and dog on laptop – Charles Deluvio, both on Unsplash.

Proofread and posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Problem solving

By Alison Shakspeare

This article is based on responses from clients asked to describe what problem an editor had solved for them. Given the multitude of clients who use editing services it is no surprise that the problems that need solving are as legion, but a common theme across them all is trust: ‘I do feel that for any problems to be solved the writer has to trust the editor’; ‘if they are lucky, editor and author will grow to trust each other, and even achieve a mutual admiration’.

‘We were up against a tight deadline’

Business clients are driven strongly by time constraints, so a freelance editor’s flexibility and the speed with which they can do a job (given their knowledge and their use of handy tools that speed up mundane tasks) help clients achieve ‘a very tight turnaround with limited time for our internal quality checks to be implemented’ (in this case a market research report that had to conform to the client’s style sheet).

Time pressures have a habit of cascading down the workstream, as acknowledged by a design company:

As such a significant part of our schedule is devoted to an ongoing series of projects which come either on a drip feed or as a gushing torrent, it can be problematic for us to manage the annual schedule. The ability of freelance editors to promptly react to changing circumstances and lack of warning on our part about upcoming projects is vital to the smooth running of our business.

Time can also chase more traditional academic tomes, particularly those with multiple authors:

Having an editor on board taking care of the copyediting not only ensured we met the deadline with a clean manuscript but it also created vital headspace for us to keep the overall intellectual project in sight, and spend time finessing.

Lumberjack or editor?

Business clients often have to deal with a logjam caused by a range of internal viewpoints. Access to a trusted freelancer ‘meant the job got done, when it otherwise would have just sat there until an entire team had the time to agree on what wording to use’ (where a company needed all their communications to be in plain English to help their clients understand the complexities of owning and leasing property).

But not all organisations are aware of how their language obfuscates their message (in a multinational world where English is the main common language, but in which many writers are not native English speakers, I might suggest using obscures). There is a trick to making a document ‘stand out, but yet be easily comprehensible to the target audience of people with English as a second language’. Many an EU department uses ‘a fresh, outsider’s look – not just at the use of words and their context but also at the layout’. This same client pointed out:

I suggest that often clients are not fully aware of how much an editor can do for them … A good editor working closely with their client can really add value – and at reasonable cost.

‘An editor carries a first-time author across the threshold from school-taught theory to book-form execution.’

This brings me to self-publishers, particularly first-time authors who discover that the main benefit of using a professional editor is clearing the fog of ignorance:

First-time authors, until then, have read as consumers, oblivious to the conventions of publishing. Who had noticed that the first paragraph of a chapter is not indented, or that century is not capitalised? Who knew the flexibilities of convention? What first-time author comes with a clear idea of their own style sheet?

An editor can be pretty useful quite early in the writing journey to help a writer see the wood through the forest of their plot:

The developmental edit helped me to grow the important characters and see how the whole story fitted together. This then led me to evolve the story and complete the jigsaw.

Even when the bones of the story have been fleshed out there is usually plenty for an editor to sort out so that the author can present as coherent and publication-ready a manuscript as possible.

Avoiding problems

A good editor also knows how to avoid problems through ‘diplomacy and tact’ by ‘inviting me to consider what might be expressed better and bringing sense to some of my more chaotic ideas’. And not only for first-time authors:

I’ve always believed that every book should benefit from a professional edit. Sadly, this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule in these times of self-publishing and print-on-demand.

Finally, proper preparation for self-publishing is another area where editors can help avoid problems, or present solutions:

solving all the finicky problems associated with formatting, design, registry, accounts, etc., that I am either too busy, too confused, or too lazy to do myself.

 

Alison Shakspeare came to editing after a career in arts marketing and research for leading national and regional organisations. Her client base has expanded as her skillset has grown from basic copy editing to offering design and layout services. She truly enjoys the CPD she gains from working with academics, business organisations and a growing number of self-publishing authors.

 


Proofread by Emma Easy, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

Photo credits: jigsaw – Gabriel Crismariu on Unsplash; trees – Sebastian Unrau on Unsplash.

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

 

Proofreading my way around the world

By Christina Petrides

Ever since I was a little girl, I have loved travelling. I don’t know if it’s the actual journey, the destination, the excitement of exploring, or a combination of all three but I know that I’m happiest in an airport, on a plane, arriving in a new country, and taking those first, tentative steps to discovering the culture of a new place.

That desire to travel has followed me my entire life. All through university and into my first job. Onto my second job. And my third. And on it went. My itchy feet syndrome came up regularly in conversation: Have I booked another trip yet? When am I next flying off? What fun stories can I regale them with from my last trip? I would take notes on my travels and dream of writing a book of short stories one day.

I put my wanderlust to the back of my mind as best I could and proceeded to build a career for myself in the environmental industry. That was my second love – the environment. When I graduated with an environmental degree, I got my first lucky break and found a job with the then Department for Environment working in the policy team. The job was interesting, but policy work bored me to tears. Things moved at a glacial speed whereas I thrived on the excitement and fast pace of project work.

Soon enough, I got lucky again. An internal move saw me land a job that allowed me to combine the two: promoting the environmental sector and travelling to Asia to do it. I got the excitement and the travels!

But cutbacks meant it couldn’t last forever, so after a couple of years I moved into environmental exhibitions marketing. That was my first experience of copyediting. In fact, it was probably the first time I’d ever heard the term. I wrote and edited advert copy, worked with designers on banners and flyers, and cut deals with trade magazines on placement and promotion. When the time came to proofread the show catalogue before it went to the printer I relished the detailed work and the opportunity to set things straight. This was other people’s businesses we were dealing with; we had to get it right.

I loved it, but not enough. Exhibitions were fun, but not what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. The environment sector pulled me back in and I settled into consultancy for the next decade. It had everything that I loved: I worked on all sorts of projects, large and small; I managed teams of specialists, juggling information and acting as the liaison between them and clients; I compiled reports from multiple authors, copyediting and proofreading before they went into the public domain; I even got to do a little travelling from time to time to unusual and exciting places.

By now I had hit my forties. Life has a funny way of reminding you what’s important when you get there. Call it a mid-life crisis, call it reality hitting, but a little seed planted itself in my mind and this time it wouldn’t go away – travel. Just get on a plane and go! Before long, that niggling thought became a screaming siren that I could no longer ignore.

I quit my job and booked a one-way ticket to Colombia. I was going to spend four months travelling around South America to get this out of my system and then get back to work. Even if it was only to save enough money for the next adventure. I blogged my way around six countries, documenting the stories that could one day make their way into that book, assuming I ever get around to writing it.

I remember it being a bright afternoon in Cusco, Peru, and I was walking up a cobblestone street filled with tourist shops when I made the decision. I realised that I couldn’t face another job and another decade of living in London, so I had to find a way of working while I travelled. I had met all sorts of people on my journey and one of them was a proofreader. It got me thinking … Don’t I already do that – at least in some form?

On my return, I made a call to the SfEP: What did I need to do to become a proofreader? They recommended the Publishing Training Centre, so I enrolled onto their Basic Proofreading course and studied before and after work. I gave myself a year to complete it, save up enough money and make a start on finding some clients.

It took 18 months. By the time my bags were packed I had a new career as a proofreader and copywriter and had four regular clients: a website designer who needed a proofreader and writer for the sites he built for tradespeople, retail and service providers; an agency that matched proofreaders with dyslexic and disabled students who required proofreading services; a financial services provider who needed a little extra help with their corporate communications; and an existing environmental client who wanted to retain my services as a freelance.

I also had a one-way ticket to Cambodia and a plan to spend the next few months travelling around Asia. After that, who knew?

This month marks two years since I packed up my flat and my bags and I haven’t looked back. Along the way I have spent time in 12 different countries and continued to add new clients to my books.

None of my clients are in the traditional publishing sector; it’s an area I know nothing about and trying to break into it seemed like an exercise in futility. Instead, I focused on what and who I knew. I spread the word about my new career and lifestyle and those that heard it spread it further. I leveraged the work experience I had from my previous careers and used it to demonstrate what I could do.

I still work in the environmental consultancy sector, albeit in a more strategic and reviewing role, and the various parts of my life have begun to overlap. One environmental client recently asked me to proofread a bid they had going out, and the travel blogger I proofread for loves the extra edits and suggestions he gets from me from places I’ve been to that he’s writing about.

I have done some very interesting work and I have done some mind-numbingly boring work. I have written website copy and blogs for accountants, plumbers, personal trainers, and wedding gown retailers – most of which I know nothing about so have had to learn, and fast. I have proofread theses and essays from subjects as varied as ecology, law and socioeconomics, newsletters on financial planning, and website content for restaurants, dentists, and market traders.

But I get to work at my own pace, in a location of my choosing, and without having to sweat my way to work on the tube. I learn something new from each proofreading and writing job that I do, and with each one I realise how much more there is still to learn. And I’ve already got the next exciting venture on the go, bringing it all together: a website for those who want to travel but are afraid to go it alone. If I can do it, you can do it too, whether you want to take your work with you or not.

Not that long ago Christina Petrides packed up her high heels and gave up her London Oyster card to work as a freelance. Having worked in the environmental and marketing sectors for nearly two decades, she now runs her own copywriting, proofreading and environmental consulting business. She is a life-long traveller; and just one of an increasing number of digital nomads making the most of good WiFi and flexible working.


SfEP’s Cloud Club is made up of a number of SfEP members located in countries around the world, together with members who are in far-flung parts of the UK and find it almost impossible to get to local group meetings perfect for digital nomads!


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

Photo credits: Bogota, Colombia – Jorge Gardner on Unsplash;  Krong Siem Reap, Cambodia – Kevin Tomsett on Unsplash.

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

 

The right tone: how to edit writing about classical music

By Paul Kilbey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


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


Proofread by Emma Easy, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

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

Inclusion and diversity

Susie Dent's Wonderful Words

Curiously, the word ‘inclusion’ was once all about shutting someone in as a form of imprisonment. Its beginnings are in the Latin claudere, to shut, which means that ‘include’ and ‘close’ are unlikely siblings. The idea of confinement gradually shifted to mean embracing someone within the boundaries or circle of a group.

That sense of an embrace lies hidden behind some unexpected words in English. At the heart of ‘accolade’, for example, is the Latin ‘col’, meaning ‘neck’. The first accolades were knighthoods given by a monarch to their subjects by means of a royal hug – the recipients were literally ‘collared’. Similarly, to ‘fathom’ once meant to embrace with outstretched arms: the average length of such arms was thought to be around six feet, hence the use of fathom to measure the depth of the water in order to take soundings (when we fathom a situation or fact, we are essentially taking soundings with our minds).

Diversity, like inclusion, is a word with a classical heritage. At its heart is the Latin vertere, to turn, which also produced ‘vertigo’ (‘a whirling around’), ‘advert’ (which makes us ‘turn toward’ something), ‘anniversary’, (the turning of the year), ‘extrovert’, (someone who ‘turns’ outwards), and a whole host of other English words. ‘Diverse’ simply means ‘turned in different directions’ – in other words, embracing all.

Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the Society for Editors and ProofreadersWonderful Words is a regular feature by Susie Dent, honorary vice-president of the SfEP. Susie is a writer and broadcaster on language. She is perhaps best known as the resident word expert on C4’s Countdown.

 

 


The SfEP has undertaken its first equality, diversity and inclusion audit – Vanessa Plaister explains why and how in ‘Taking the SfEP forward into an inclusive future‘.

This Wonderful Words article first appeared in issue 9 of Editorial Excellence,
the SfEP’s e-newsletter.


Proofread by Liz Jones, Advanced Professional Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Taking the SfEP forward into an inclusive future

As the SfEP prepares to report on the findings of its first equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) audit, we interview Vanessa Plaister, community director, and explore what led the SfEP to take this step.

You’re relatively new to the SfEP Council, Vanessa, and you’ve hit the ground running with an equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiative. How did that come about?

It was all a bit of a whirlwind! One minute I was reaching out to Sue [Browning, then community and now membership director] in my capacity as local group coordinator for Mid-Somerset, asking her for a steer towards the SfEP’s equality statement, and the next I found myself co-opted onto the Council, taking the lead on developing just such a statement – and more…
As a member, I’d never considered putting myself forward – but being on the Council has been the challenge I didn’t know I needed and I’m thrilled not only to be part of a vibrant, dynamic team, but also that not one director has questioned why the SfEP needs to be embedding equality, diversity and inclusion across its activities. I think there was Council buy-in on this before I even raised a hand.

It’s clear that EDI issues matter to you and to the Council. Can you tell us why?

Good question. Because these are issues so woven into who I am – who I want to be – stepping back and trying to put the why into words is difficult. For me, I guess, if you’re not concerned about issues of equality, diversity and inclusion in the UK where the wealth gap is ever growing, in which women are raising their voices to call out everyday sexism and in which structural racism is ever more exposed, you’re not listening. I can’t speak for the other directors as to why these and other related issues matter to them, but for me it’s imperative that I do what I can to amplify those voices that are and have historically been less heard and to lift up those folk who are and have historically been ground down.

And although I’m not really on board with the requirement for a business case – a profit motive – to underpin any social good, part of inclusive practice is acknowledging that not everyone thinks quite the same way I do… And some folk need to know that diversity and inclusion are demonstrably good for business. They open up markets and embrace excluded audiences, and they build the bottom line.

And what about the SfEP’s members? Why should equality, diversity and inclusion matter to them?

It’s firmly established within the SfEP standards and editorial syllabus that some general knowledge and awareness of cultural issues is essential if an editor is to practise effectively. Sarah Grey has written on inclusive language for the SfEP blog, and there’ll be a session on editors and inclusivity at the SfEP Conference 2019; Erin Carrie has twice written on the issue of linguistic prejudice, both in theory and in practice, which is something to which it’s all too easy for an editor to fall prey. In publishing on these sorts of issues, the SfEP is clearly positioning itself in opposition to those who misrepresent editors and proofreaders as fusty grammarians, clinging to outdated prescriptions that don’t keep pace with modern communications, which I think couldn’t be further from the truth!

For members, it’s also essential to remember that, as an association of members, the SfEP is its members. From the Council through the local group coordinators, the social media team and the ambassadors, to name but a few, every role is held by a member and every activity is member-led. What this means is that barriers to participation are barriers to the SfEP delivering value to its members. The more diverse and inclusive the SfEP’s activities, the more valuable those activities become.

And that means the SfEP must embed policy that’s not only informed by the shape of our membership now and our goals for the future, but also action-focused to widen participation and meet the needs of our members meaningfully.

You started work on developing that policy by delivering the SfEP’s very first EDI audit to members in late April and early May this year. Tell us a bit about that.

When I joined the Council, I wasn’t interested in drafting a policy that simply paid lip service to the subject, copying and pasting from other organisations’ templates. The SfEP needs a strategic EDI policy – and the first step towards setting out where we need to go is figuring out where we are now.

There were two sections to the audit: the first focused on issues of equality and diversity, including protected and other personal characteristics; the second, on indicators of inclusion, such as fairness, belonging and voice. We can benchmark the findings in the first section against the Publishers Association (PA) survey of diversity and inclusion across the publishing industry as a whole,1 and against figures for the UK more widely. We based the questions in the second section on questions developed by data analysts at SurveyMonkey and social scientists at Paradigm, fine-tuning them to allow SfEP members to reflect on their membership experience. We also added questions on participation in each of the SfEP’s shared spaces – local groups, forums, conference – as well as the experience of members as volunteers. And we asked The Diversity Trust to review the audit questions and the accompanying communications because professional standards matter.

Using SurveyMonkey, we conducted the audit anonymously to maximise participation and authenticity, and we assured members that their responses would be held confidentially and accessed only by a single named individual (the community director), with the results to be published in aggregate only.

I think it’s also important to note that we delivered a sequence of communications before and during the audit, including FAQs each time, and that this may have contributed to our remarkably high response rate of 41 per cent.

Since the audit closed, data analysis has been time-consuming – not least because language professionals may be more likely than other respondents to take advantage of free text spaces to add commentary. There’s so much of value in this textual data that I’m consequently still working on the report – but we hope to be in a position to publish it very soon…

Okay. So, you’re still working on the report – but can you give us any sneak peeks into your findings?

[Pauses for thought] I don’t think it would come as any great surprise to anyone if I were to confirm that, of the 883 members who responded, a massive 80 per cent were women, which is considerably higher than the 63.4 per cent of respondents to the PA survey of diversity and inclusion within the publishing industry more broadly and the 52 per cent of women within the UK population.2

Another finding that’s perhaps unsurprising is that while the PA found a significant peak (37.9 per cent) in the age of its respondents at the 25–34 range,3 only 9.6 per cent of respondents to the SfEP’s EDI audit fell within that range, the more prevalent being 45–54 (ie 45–49 plus 50–54, grouped to map onto the PA’s ranges). The Council has long anticipated that a lot of our members may have come to editing and proofreading as a second career or after working in-house for a period of time, and these findings suggest that this may well be the case.

What’s especially interesting to me is the way in which these sorts of findings are intersecting with other factors, such as disability and mental health, or barriers to participation such as childcare or accessibility – but you’ll need to wait for the full report to be published to find out more!

Sounds interesting – and exciting.

It is. It really is.

For me and for the Council, it’s about core values – about signalling what kind of organisation the SfEP is and wants to be, and about embedding those values to take the SfEP forward into an inclusive future. When I work with the SfEP’s social media team and when I follow our members on Twitter, I see language professionals who engage thoughtfully and constructively with progressive ideas, and who know that our work is keenly relevant to equality, diversity and inclusion.

  • We talk about the inclusivity of gender-neutral pronouns and we embrace the long-established singular ‘they’.
  • We talk about the access issues that learners might encounter if their textbooks are taken out of print and available on-screen only.
  • We talk about the physical and mental health of freelancers, and we engage with #StetWalk or establish the SfEP’s Run On Group on Facebook…

This is who we are already.

And I’m so excited to showcase the evidence and take the next steps.

1      The Publishers Association, Publishing Industry Workforce Diversity and Inclusion Survey 2018, available online at https://www.publishers.org.uk/activities/inclusivity/survey-of-the-publishing-workforce/

2      Ibid, p7.

3      Ibid, p6.

Vanessa Plaister is an Advanced Professional Member (APM) who became SfEP community director in September 2018 and is working to bring equality, diversity and inclusion to the fore in all SfEP policy and procedure. She can commonly be found smothered by cats and surrounded by strong coffee or else risking whiplash at the front of a sweaty rock gig – and you can also find her in the SfEP Directory of Editorial Services here.


Proofread by Liz Jones, Advanced Professional Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Editing technical materials: what you need … and what you don’t

By Liz Jones

I’ve been editing highly technical material for two and a half years, mostly for a local content agency. When the company first approached me, I had little knowledge of the areas they work in, mainly electronics and artificial intelligence. They knew this, but were happy to try me out, and I’ve been editing for them regularly ever since, working on press releases, blogs, white papers and user guides, as well as various other short documents and web content.

Editing technical content is in some ways just like editing anything else … and in a few other ways, it isn’t. Here’s a quick overview of what you need to tackle this kind of work – and also what you don’t.

Willingness to engage beyond your expertise

My degree is in architecture, and my entire subsequent career has been in educational publishing and general non-fiction. But in the past couple of years I’ve come to love the language of electronics and computing, and find in it a certain solace and even – on occasion – poetry. The materials I spend a considerable portion of my working week on bear no relation to any other aspect of my life, but it doesn’t matter. Work is work, and the problems to be grappled with remain the same. Does it make sense? Is it consistent? Will the person reading it be able to understand?

An eye for detail

This is, of course, essential for any editor, whatever field we work in. The difference is that when you’re editing technical content, small inconsistencies in product serial numbers or units of measurement are crucial to the sense of an article. You might not know yourself if a measurement is wrong, but you need to be able to spot if something doesn’t look right and flag it up for someone with the expertise to verify it. 50 mA is very different, for example, from 50 MA.

The ability to live with inelegant language and prioritise clarity

For the client I work with, much of the work I do has been written by people for whom writing is not a vocation, and often English is not their first language. I try to smooth out the expression as far as I can, but at the end of the day what the client cares about is conveying the important information about a product or innovation. Often there is limited time available to work on a document, and in that case it’s more important to focus on accuracy and clarity than on beautiful prose. That said, even small changes can make a big difference to the readability and accessibility of a text, and I do what I can in the time available.

Restraint

Resisting change, unless there is a solid reason for it, is a good approach for any editor, but it’s especially helpful with technical content. Often things are worded in a very particular way for a reason, and even transposing words might completely alter the meaning of a sentence. This always matters, but it matters double when a misunderstanding could cause a short-circuit, for example.

Embracing of camel case

Technical texts reference many brand and product names, platforms and protocols. In these cases, capitalisation matters, and often there will be strange use of cases to contend with and get right. Nobody’s going to die as a result of a brand name being presented inaccurately, but mistakes in this area will reduce credibility and trust, and make a document appear half-finished and messy.

Ability to work with a number of style guides

Working for an agency can entail editing material for a number of end clients. They will all have their style preferences, and text may be destined for audiences in particular geographic regions. For example, I am frequently called on to anglicise or Americanise text, and to switch between clients who prefer spaces before their SI units and ones who don’t, or clients who favour abbreviations where others might spell out a term (such as Internet of Things) in full. Documents are frequently very short, so I might need to switch between several different style guides in the course of an hour.

Responsiveness

When you’re editing press releases, they often need to be turned around on the same day. This is likely to be the case for a range of business content. It’s not like books, where manuscripts can marinate for weeks or months (even years!). To do this kind of work it therefore helps to keep to fairly regular business hours, and to be able to move work around and handle small requests at very short notice.

In-depth subject knowledge – not needed!

To my surprise, I found it didn’t matter too much that I started out with little to no knowledge of electronics or computing terminology, beyond a rusty grasp of GCSE-level Physics. However, after two years of near-daily exposure, I can now say with some confidence that I know my amperes from my ohms. I’ll never be an expert, but I’ve really enjoyed learning more about a field I’d never otherwise have encountered. My continued education benefits me as well as the client – I’m sure I do a better job now than I did at the beginning, but my position as a reasonably well-informed layperson still grants me a degree of valuable objectivity. All in all, it’s been a joy, and I’m so glad I said yes to editing in a field outside my comfort zone.

Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She edits for a range of publishing and non-publishing clients, specialising in art, architecture, cookery, vocational education, general non-fiction and technical proofreading.

 


SfEP members have a broad range of knowledge and expertise – visit the SfEP directory to discover Professional and Advanced Professional Members’ niches and the services they offer.


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

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

Six ways an editor can improve your business content

By Mary McCauley

What do you think of when you read the words ‘editor’ or ‘proofreader’? Perhaps if you haven’t used our services before, you might think of us as people who look for spelling and grammar errors? People who check that commas are in the right places? And, yes, you’d be right – we do check these things. But we can also do much more to help you produce content that delivers on its business objective.

Business report on a deskBusiness editors work on a wide range of business content including reports, strategies, policies, newsletters, blog posts, websites, brochures, marketing material, catalogues, manuals, presentations, directories and survey results. Here are six ways an editor can add value to these documents.

1. An editor can make sure your content is clearly written and complete

Often when we are so familiar with or knowledgeable about a topic, we have difficulty explaining it in a way that a non-expert reader can understand. So whether it’s a guide about your services, a marketing material promoting a new product, or a report on a technical examination, an editor can make sure that your intended readers will understand it and take action as you want them to.

An editor can edit and, if necessary, rewrite your content to ensure that:

  • The wording, style and tone are suitable for the target reader.
  • The content flows in a logical order the reader can follow.
  • There is no confusing or misleading content.
  • No important information is missing.
  • No unnecessary information is included.
  • The layout helps guide the reader, eg paragraphs, headings, lists, graphics.
  • The language, spelling and style are consistent.

2. An editor can check that the basic facts in your content are correct

While businesses are responsible for the content they create, editors can help make sure that this content is accurate. We can save you from publishing an embarrassing mistake and the potential customer mistrust that might follow. If, for example, you are writing a business-to-business report, you might include details of your client’s or another company’s name and products. You might refer to relevant legislation or to specific dates. It’s important that these details are correct and that your client can rely on you to get them right.

An editor can check that names are spelled correctly, that you’ve referred to the correct section and year in the legislation and that Thursday 16 November 2018 actually was a Thursday.

3. An editor can rewrite your content into plain English

Writing in plain English is not about ‘dumbing down’ language, nor is it only for target audiences that include people with reading difficulties. Customers are busy and probably prefer not to have to wade through dense, long-winded text to get to the basic information they’re looking for. Writing in plain, simple language can help you deliver your message more successfully. And if your customers understand it, you’ll have fewer queries to deal with.

A plain English editor can help ensure that your content contains:

  • language your target audience will understand
  • positive and active language
  • everyday vocabulary.

And that it avoids:

  • long, meandering sentences
  • problematic jargon and bureaucratic phrasing
  • unnecessary words and phrases
  • unnecessary capital letters.

4. An editor can create a style guide for your organisation’s written content

Does your organisation create a lot of written content? Is it written by two or more people? Is the work subcontracted to copywriters, design companies, printers, etc? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then consider developing your own organisation-specific style guide. Using one means it’s more likely your documents will be consistent in language and style. This in turn helps increase your customers’ confidence in your business.

An editor can create and develop a style guide specifically for your organisation. This will guide the people writing your content on things such as:

  • Capitalisation – chief executive officer or Chief Executive Officer?
  • Numbers and symbols – 20% or 20 per cent?
  • Currency – euros or euro?
  • Lists – full stops, commas or nothing at the end of bullet points?
  • Dates and time – 13 May 2019 or May 13, 2019?
  • Spelling preferences – recognise or recognize?
  • Quotations – double quote marks or single?

An editor can also include an A–Z list of words, terms and abbreviations used regularly in your business and give guidance on the spelling, capitalisation, etc of these.

People sat around a table, discussing a business plan

5. An editor can deliver editing and proofreading training to your staff

If you would like to develop your organisation’s in-house writing and editing expertise, an editor can design and deliver workshops for your staff based on your organisation’s particular needs. This will help your staff to write better business content.

An editor can provide training on:

  • editing and rewriting content
  • writing in plain English
  • using your organisation’s style guide
  • proofreading.

6. An editor can proofread your final designed content before it goes to the printer

Along with all this added value an editor can bring to your business content, we can still help you with that final proofread of your designed and laid-out content. However, this proofread includes so much more than just a check for spelling and grammar errors! Business clients are often amazed by how detailed a final proofread can be and the range of problems it can highlight.

An editor can proofread your final document to check that:

  • A table of contents page matches the actual contents.
  • Headers, footers and page numbers are correct and consistent.
  • The content is laid out correctly and in the right order.
  • Headings and subheadings are correctly and consistently styled.
  • Lists are consistently styled and punctuated.
  • Images and graphics are clear and placed correctly.
  • Tables and figures are numbered, captioned, referenced and styled correctly.
  • Hyperlinks work and are styled consistently.

The above is just a sample list and by no means exhaustive – there are lots of other things we also check for in a final proofread.

Your business content is important, and getting it wrong can be costly and time consuming. An editor can do so much more than just check it for spelling mistakes, so consider contracting a trained professional editor to help you create the best content for your business.

Note: For the record, 16 November 2018 was a Friday and not a Thursday!

Mary McCauley

Mary McCauley is an editor and proofreader specialising in helping business, government and public sector bodies in Ireland and the UK. She has 15 years’ business research and administration experience, mostly in the public sector, and started her editorial business Mary McCauley Proofreading in 2012. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP and a Full Member of the Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders and Indexers of Ireland (AFEPI Ireland). Connect with Mary on LinkedIn or on Twitter.


The SfEP offers bespoke training courses, led by experienced and skilled editorial professionals, suitable for any organisation that wants to produce high quality content.


Proofread by Emma Easy, Entry-Level Member.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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