Category Archives: Specialisms

The A to D of writing multiple choice tests

By Julia Sandford-Cooke

Multiple choice tests are hard to get right. And I’m not just thinking of the time I scored 19% in a school physics test – statistically less than if I’d just guessed every answer. It’s actually really tricky to write high-quality questions and answer options that genuinely assess knowledge and understanding. As with a lot of the topics discussed on this blog, it’s a type of writing and editing that seems easy until you try it.

What do I mean by multiple choice (or multi-choice) questions and answers? They’re the ones with a standalone question (the stem) where the correct answer (the key) is hidden among three or four wrong answers (distractors). The people responding (let’s call them students) have to choose one or more answers from the options given. For example:

What noise does a cat make?

      1. Woof
      2. Moo
      3. Meow [key]
      4. Baa

And what do I know about multiple choice questions? Well, quite a bit. I have edited hundreds, maybe thousands, of them for one of the UK’s biggest test providers over the past 15 years. I’ve also written and edited them for, well, multiple other contexts, including textbooks, revision guides, workbooks and online learning materials.

A good multi-choice test is an objective measurement of a student’s knowledge, which can be taken and marked online, with instant feedback. However, from my experience, authors usually don’t know what a good () – or bad ()– multi-choice test looks like. They might be experts in their subject but they’ve never been taught how to actually write a test. And there’s a lot they should know, involving some pretty complex pedagogical concepts. I don’t have space to go into Bloom’s Taxonomy here but the goal is to ensure that the test is an unobtrusive channel for assessing the student’s knowledge.

So here’s a quick primer, covering four common problems.

Problem A: The question doesn’t make sense

The question must be pitched appropriately for who is taking the test. Unless it’s a Key Stage 2 SATs test, the aim is to find out what students know, not how well they can read or understand long words. Clarity is vital. The wording of question and answers should be concise and unambiguous, assessing knowledge, not literacy skills. There is usually no need to fill the question with irrelevant and confusing information:

Pet cats may be kept inside or outside, or be able to move freely between the house and garden. Sometimes neighbouring cats can enter the house in this way but owners can allow only their cat to come in by installing a special cat flap. How?

What type of cat flap prevents the wrong cats from entering the house?

Students shouldn’t have to waste time under exam conditions trying to work out what they are being asked. The question should be self-contained so that it makes sense without the answers.

My cat Pixel is:

      1. tortoiseshell.
      2. black and white. [key]
      3. ginger.
      4. tabby.

What colour is my cat Pixel?

      1. Tortoiseshell
      2. Black and white [key]
      3. Ginger
      4. Tabby

Avoid colloquialisms and unnecessarily complex language. Of course, you might want to find out whether students know a particular technical term, but the structure of the question should make that intention clear and direct.

A cat is a digitigrade. What does this mean?

      1. It has a different number of toes on its front and back paws.
      2. It walks on its toes. [key]
      3. It stands with its toes flat on the ground.
      4. It has claws.

Technical terms applied in the wrong context might also make for credible distractors.

Opinions differ on negatively phrased questions. Some people argue that they’re confusing, while others say they make students read the question more carefully. I think they’re fine under the right circumstances, and as long as the negative word (eg ‘not’) is obvious (eg formatted
in bold).

Problem B: The distractors are too obvious

I see this issue more than any other. The author knows what they want the students to know but struggles to think of plausible distractors.

What is the common name for the species felis catus?

      1. Cat
      2. Dog
      3. Elephant
      4. Human

If the correct answer can be easily guessed without any background knowledge, the question has failed in its purpose. And a test isn’t the time to try to be funny.

If it’s too hard to think of wrong answers, perhaps it’s the wrong question. Try asking it in a way that allows the distractors to be worth considering. They could be frequent misconceptions, commonly asked questions, otherwise true statements or other related terms or concepts that the student might know. For example:

What is the Latin term for the domestic cat?

      1. Felidae [Latin term for the family ‘cat’]
      2. Felis catus [key]
      3. Panthera [the genus of cats that roar]
      4. Felis silvestris [European wild cat]

All the answer options should have a similar sentence structure that follows on logically from the question. It’s the same principle as wording bullet lists to follow platform sentences – errors may unintentionally draw attention to the wrong (or right) answers.

Cats are crepuscular because they:

      1. they like to knead your laps with their paws.
      2. of their rough tongues.
      3. like to go out at dawn and dusk. [key]
      4. prefers to go out during the day.

Option lengths should be consistent – often, the correct answer is obvious because it is much longer or shorter than the distractors, and phrased slightly differently.

Where does Pixel most like to be stroked?

      1. On his back
      2. Around his face, ears, chin and at the base of his tail, where his scent glands are [key]
      3. On his tummy
      4. On his paws

Pixel deep in thought during a maths test

Avoid ‘All of the above’ – it’s a copout. Students only need to realise that more than one answer could be right to reasonably guess that ‘All of the above’ is the correct answer.

What is a cat’s favourite pastime?

      1. Sleeping
      2. Being stroked
      3. Sitting on laps
      4. All of the above.

With this example, you could also argue that ‘favourite’ implies a single pastime that the cat enjoys more than any other. ‘All of the above’, therefore, is doubly confusing.

‘None of the above’ is also a meaningless option, as it does not identify whether the student knows the correct answer.

On a related note, avoid acronym questions. Not only could a student successfully argue that a collection of letters stands for anything you want it to, but it’s also hard to write realistic distractors for a specific acronym.

What does RSPCA stand for?

      1. Really Special People’s Cats Association
      2. Royal Society for the Protection of Cats and Animals
      3. Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
      4. Running Short of Possible Cat Answers

If the test isn’t delivered via software that randomises the position of the answers each time it’s administered, vary the placement of the key throughout the test, to avoid any patterns.

Problem C: The questions and/or answers are ambiguous

This is the opposite problem to the obvious distractors. A student may find that more than one option could be correct, but a multi-choice test doesn’t give the opportunity for students to answer ‘it depends’.

What noise does a cat make?

      1. Woof
      2. Moo
      3. Meow [key?]
      4. Purr [key?]

Authors are sometimes advised to ask students to find the ‘best’ answer rather than the ‘correct’ answer but this rather skates over the need for precise wording. In this case, it would be better to ask a more specific question that tests a higher level of understanding:

What noise do cats make to communicate with humans?

      1. Woof
      2. Moo
      3. Meow [key]
      4. Purr

Don’t ask ‘What would you do?’, as the student could easily defend any answer with ‘Well, I would do that!’. Similarly, avoid anything that could be seen as subjective or absolute:

Why are cats so cute?
Why do cats love fish?
Why does Pixel only come into my office when I’m in a Zoom meeting?

But it’s also important not to be too specific. Avoid closed questions – they limit the distractors:

Are whiskers a type of hair?

      1. Yes
      2. No
      3. Sometimes
      4. Meaningless fourth distractor

Problem D: The test isn’t tested

It’s not always possible to try out the questions before using them, but they should at least be run past a colleague. You might know what you mean but other people might not.

As with any edited text, develop a style guide that encompasses any aspects that could be inconsistent – the use of numbers, units and punctuation, for example.

Remember to provide students with clear instructions on how you expect them to take the test. Ensure they know what learning objectives, topics or concepts are being tested, and whether they can refer to notes or use aids such as a calculator.

Tests that are to be administered live (as opposed to being used as self-revision in a textbook) should be kept on a spreadsheet that states clearly when and how the questions have been used.

If possible, keep anonymised data on how students answered each question. There’s quite a bit of analytical science relating to this but, for general tests, all that’s really important is to ask the following:

  • Were there any distractors that nobody chose?
  • Were there any answers that everyone got right?
  • Can variations in students’ results be explained by their different levels of knowledge alone?

Learn from the data and revisit the test to change elements as necessary. Consider, too, whether a multi-choice test format is suitable for assessing everything that needs to be assessed. A bit like this blog post, some topics lend themselves to longer, more evaluative responses, and can’t be properly examined within the constraints of a few options.

But, done right, are multiple choice tests effective tools for assessing learning, useful revision aids and direct channels for measuring knowledge? Well, yes – all of the above …

Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has more than 20 years’ experience of publishing and marketing. When she’s not hanging out with other editors (virtually or otherwise), she writes and edits textbooks, proofreads anything that’s put in front of her and posts short, often grumpy, book reviews on her blog, Ju’s Reviews.

 


Photo credits: multiple cats – The Lucky Neko; hand and paw – Humberto Arellano; whiskers – Kevin Knezic, all 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.

A week in the life of a book indexer

By Paula Clarke Bain

I have been an editorial freelancer for two decades, originally as a proofreader and copyeditor, and now primarily as an indexer, after training with the Society of Indexers (SI). I like being an Advanced Professional Member of both the CIEP and SI. I also love the variety of the job, but here is a glimpse into a typical working week as a book indexer.

Monday

I’m at my desk for 9.30 as I try to keep a working routine of pretty normal office hours. I worked from home already, and luckily that hasn’t had to change much this year.

Today I’m starting a new index. This job is unusual in that I also did the proofread for it, so I have had one good read over it before I start the index. If I come to an index fresh, I tend to do an initial skim-read of the book to begin understanding its content and structure.

Another different aspect is that this job is in InDesign. For a normal back-of-the-book index, I would work from a PDF of the page proofs on the left of my screen, and SKY Index software on the right. However, this publisher prefers an embedded index in InDesign. This has its own indexing facility, but I prefer to work with the Index-Manager program, which imports the InDesign text and allows you to build and edit the index properly while embedding the entries in the text.

A good start is made, considering that the first day is always slowest. To index, I start at page 1, line 1, and read and input entries as I go along. (Yes, we do have to read the whole book.) I consider the readers’ needs as I do this and the ‘aboutness’ of the book. What is this chapter/page/paragraph about? I add possible subheadings to large entries that will need breaking down further. The software sorts all this into alphabetical order as I input. I do not add page numbers for an embedded index, as these are automatically generated by anchoring entries at the correct point in the text.

In the afternoon, I hear back from another indexing job. The typesetter had a few minor queries for the author, which they check with me. I soon resolve these and that index goes to print. I am often commissioned by authors and I think this can work better than the traditional publishing scenario where indexer and author have no contact.

I down tools at a reasonable hour and assess how much I’ve done so far, and how long it might take to finish. This book is a history of liberal thought. I’ve input entries for the introduction and first two chapters today and I’m only up to the end of the English Civil War. It’s going to be a long week.

Tuesday

An early start for a full day of inputting entries. I want to get another four chapters done today so I need to focus.

I make sure to take regular breaks. I use an online Pomodoro timer, so focus for 25 minutes, take a five-minute break, and repeat, with a longer break every two hours. In my breaks, I might go on Twitter, which is my preferred social network. There are many indexers, editors, authors and publishers on there, and I have sometimes got indexing work directly through Twitter contacts. I’ll either peruse some tweets or look at the CIEP or SI forums for some freelance chat.

I receive an email offer of a future indexing job, but it’s for a busy time and it pays a poor rate, so I don’t pursue this further. I stay on some of these freelance lists as a cushion if nothing else turns up, but something invariably does.

It’s a day of revolutions in the reading: Glorious, American and French. Lots of names for sorting out, and a couple of love stories too: between Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël (quite an eye-opener), and between John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor. Some of these entries will need to be like mini-biographies in themselves, covering early life, relationships, theories, works, etc. I’ll reconsider these at editing stage.

I’ve done the four chapters as planned and I’m on track. Hoping for similar tomorrow.

Using Index-Manager

Wednesday

Onwards with more of the same. Having already proofread the book, I know that there is some difficult material coming up, though, including world wars and the Holocaust. It’s all written well, and so important to include, but the content is obviously horrific. I index this as professionally as I can, but I’m relieved to finish those chapters. I take a good break after this and head out for a walk.

On return, I am offered a job by a regular client to update a previous index I did for them. The author has written some additional chapters, so I will need to proofread this material, index the extra chapters and incorporate the new entries into the index (much easier with proper indexing software). I’m happy to do this, the publisher is pleased (as it’s less time and less money than a full index), and I agree to take it on.

The afternoon indexing is an easier session – on post-war rebuilding, including the theories of Hayek and Keynes; quite a lot on national identity, particularly seen through Isaiah Berlin and George Orwell; the Cold War, Thatcher and Reagan; and general post-war economics, up to the 2007/08 financial crisis. It’s a wide-ranging book, this.

Another four complete chapters done today: good. Ten down, four to go.

Thursday

I aim to reach the end of the inputting today and make a start on the editing. During the day, my reading covers, among other things, identity politics, cancel culture, migrant boats, Brexit and Trump. Quite a combination.

I do finish inputting early in the afternoon. The last indexable page occurs earlier than the last proofreadable page, as we don’t generally index the acknowledgements or references/bibliography sections, and endnotes are only indexed if they contain significant information.

And so the editing stage begins. I generate the index in a copy of the InDesign file and put it into the desired format (usually two columns in a smaller font than the main text). I can then see how long the ‘raw’ index is, and how much editing I have to do. The unedited index is 40 pages, and the publisher wants it to be 20 pages maximum. This should be fine. I go back into Index-Manager, as its editing facilities are superior.

I pick out some easy edits today – mainly removing unnecessary subheadings where the main entry only has about six page numbers. This starts saving a lot of space, as an entry with subentries over several lines can be quickly made into a main entry of one or two lines.

As I’m where I wanted to be, I decide to clock off and tackle the editing with fresh eyes and a rebooted brain in the morning.

Friday

Up with the lark and raring to go. The editing stage is when the index properly takes shape and where a lot of the thinking work is done. On this pass, I start from the ‘A’ section and look at each entry, considering whether it should stay in (if not, out it goes, or it’s marked as a potential deletion) and if it is correct or needs some work.

I made some notes to self while inputting – marking with tags such as ‘??’ when there’s something to look at again. At the end, I search for these to make sure I have resolved them all.

I see some unusual entries, which I try to retain, as it makes for a more interesting index. Here are entries such as ‘sans-culottes’ and ‘shit lists’. The former will stay. The latter could come out, but as this author is renowned for their colourful language, I feel it’s fair game. I’m also keeping ‘Cecil the lion’, because he’s worth it.

An entry with many subheadings will take the longest time to sort. Are all the subheadings needed? Can some be combined with others? The main characters in the book are in this category. The same goes for concepts (eg doubt, freedom, identity, liberty, truth, will) and ‘-isms’ – communism, fascism, individualism, nationalism, socialism, etc. This is the bulk of what the book is ‘about’, so it’s important that these work.

I often leave the ‘metatopic’ entry – the subject of the whole book – till the end. Some say that this should not have an entry at all, as everything relates to it, but I do tend to include one as a basic overview. The metatopic here is ‘liberalism’, so I deal with this entry last.

After working through the entries from A to Z, I regenerate the index in InDesign to check for length. It’s 18 pages, so I’m happy with that. I now print out the index for a final proofread (using proper proofreading marks). I spot different things on hard copy, and it gives me a better feel of the reader experience of the index.

I make any tweaks and generate the final index. One last check and I submit the whole proofread and indexed InDesign file to the publisher, with index entries embedded in the text and a generated index list at the end.

Then I await index approval before submitting my invoice. An author may request minor changes, which the indexer should amend, as they understand the index structure and how other entries might be affected. In this case, I’m glad to hear that author and publisher are happy with the index, and off the book goes to press.

So, there is a fairly typical week in the life of this book indexer. I love my job and I feel lucky that I can disappear into a good book every working day. I have seen the joy of indexing being compared to a word game or jigsaw. It is most satisfying to figure out the best index solution for each book. Next week will be a different puzzle again.

Paula Clarke Bain is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society of Indexers and the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading. She tweets as @PC_Bain and her website (with comedy book indexes blog) is www.baindex.org. Find the Society of Indexers on Twitter @indexers and www.indexers.org.uk.

 


Photo credit: calendar – Emma Matthews Digital Content Production 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.

From desktop to publication

Averill Buchanan works primarily as a fiction editor, but it’s not the only way she helps self-publishing authors. Here she talks about her background in graphic design and explains how it has enabled her to offer book production services as well.

From Word document to InDesign to printers’ proofs to finished book

I’ve been working as an editor now for 14 years, specialising in fiction, but it isn’t the only aspect of the publishing process I can help with. I started my working life as a graphic artist, serving my time as an apprentice at a printers before moving on to run my own design consultancy. Twenty odd years later, the advent of self-publishing has drawn me back to my first career, and nowadays I also provide a range of book production services – typesetting and design for print, as well as ebook conversion.

Transferable skills

The graphic design industry has transformed since I left it in the mid 1990s to study English at university as a mature student. Computers and desktop design software have replaced Letraset and SprayMount, and designing for the web is a new area of expertise. But the thing about graphic design is that regardless of the tools you use, you never lose your aesthetic sensibilities, your feel for what works visually, or your tendency to volunteer an opinion of a book cover or logo even when you haven’t been asked. Once a graphic designer, always a graphic designer, I add by way of apology.

Me as a graphic designer in 1990

Self-publishing

I joined the editing profession at just the right time. Around 2009, technology was making self-publishing available and accessible to anyone who had a computer – no design ability required. It didn’t take me long to realise how useful I could be to many of my editing clients – self-publishing authors who just wanted to write but didn’t have the design nous or patience to teach themselves how to produce good-looking books.

When I first offered book layout services, I used Word to create the interior of books destined to be printed through CreateSpace, Amazon’s old Print-On-Demand (POD) service. But I’ve since taught myself to use professional design software, notably Adobe Creative Suite, and now do all my typesetting and layout work in InDesign. It was a steep learning curve, but well worth it. Among other things, InDesign gives you superb control of text, pagination and layout, and I’ve been able to progress from producing text-only novels to full-colour coffee table books.

I’ve also taught myself how to make ebooks, thanks to extensive on-the-job training in xml encoding and html during a stint as an academic research assistant. I use Jutoh software to convert well-formatted Word documents, with or without images, into epubs and mobis (Kindle’s proprietary ebook format).

I tend not to offer cover design unless the client is publishing for friends and family only or is on a very tight budget. I prefer to send clients with commercial aspirations to a professional cover designer. It’s quite a specialised field and I don’t have the Photoshop skills (yet!) to make covers that can compete with trade-published books.

Hand-holding

Many authors find the online world challenging and it seems a shame to allow that to get in the way of them pursuing their life-long dream. So in addition to actually making the books, I also offer a hand-holding service to shepherd nervous authors through the online publishing process.

For instance, using screen-sharing software, I can sit with the client online as they set up their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) account and upload their book(s), or I can record a short video of me doing it on their behalf, which I later email to them. Some authors just want it all done for them, leaving them to log in to their dashboards to check sales figures.

Publishing consultancy

As the self-publishing industry has matured and become more professional, the options available can be overwhelming for authors. I can explain things in layman’s terms and offer advice about the route to publication that best suits their needs.

It’s important to establish authors’ objectives at the outset – not everyone wants to be published to make money. Some have written memoirs that are only for family and friends; others want to raise awareness for charities. For many writers it’s simply a personal ambition to get a book published – they don’t want to make a career out of it. At the other end of the spectrum are authors determined to set up their own presses and be as professional and business-like as their budgets will allow.

I advise authors with little to no knowledge of publishing about things like buying ISBNs, setting up their own imprints, the differences between POD and litho printing, and the value of producing ebook editions. I can also help them cost it out. I don’t offer marketing as a service, but it needs to be factored in when offering advice about production. For example, if it’s important to an author that they see their book on the shelves of a high-street bookshop, they need to be aware of how difficult that is to achieve as a self-publisher. Or if an author’s ultimate goal is to give talks and handsell their book at events as well as online, they might want to consider getting, say, 100 copies printed at a printers, in addition to publishing via KDP. My aim is to help authors make the best decision for their circumstances, taking into account their goals and priorities, their budget and how they plan to market their book.

One-stop shop

While some authors prefer to build their own self-publishing teams, hiring different freelancers to handle each aspect of book production, others prefer to work with the same person from start to finish. It’s easier for them to manage the project this way, and as we develop a good working relationship, things go more smoothly. I alert authors to the pitfalls of having the same person edit AND proofread the text, and often, with their permission, I’ll outsource the proofreading. But if they prefer me to do it, for whatever reason, I’m somewhat reassured in the knowledge that other processes, like typesetting or layout further down the line, are another opportunity for me to see the text in a new way; any lingering typos or inconsistencies usually leap out at me later on.

When I quote for large projects that involve several steps, I break the work down into its discrete tasks and agree staged payments with the client in advance. Scope creep is almost inevitable in a big job; the important thing is to keep the author updated and informed of any increased costs.

Some of the books I’ve worked on recently

Book production uses a different part of my brain – I can listen to music while I do design work, whereas I need total silence when I’m editing or proofreading. I enjoy the variety of the work and getting to flex my design skills again. And, of course, there’s a great deal of satisfaction in seeing a publishing project through from the editing stage (sometimes even earlier) to the finished product. But the best reward of all is hearing from an excited author when they see their book for sale on Amazon or when they get to hold a copy in their hands at last.

Averill Buchanan is a recovering graphic designer and fiction editor. She is an Advanced Professional Member of CIEP, a Full Member of AFEPI Ireland and a Partner Member of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). She also runs her own publishing imprint, Herself Press, which aims to (re)publish the work of neglected women writers from the North of Ireland.

 


Over 170 Professional and Advanced Professional CIEP members offer ‘book production‘ as a service.


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.

Manuscript critiques: piecing together the puzzle

By Sophie Playle

When a novel crosses my desk for copyediting but I can see ways beyond the sentence level the book could be improved, it can be frustrating. By that point in the publishing process, though, it’s often not helpful to provide suggestions for large-scale revisions.

Perhaps you’ve been in a similar position. Or perhaps you’ve felt – on an instinctual level – that a manuscript could be better, but you just weren’t sure exactly how.

When an author comes to me for a manuscript critique, it’s my job to figure out how their novel can be improved – and it’s so, so satisfying when that author comes back to me for copyediting, too, because I get to focus on the sentence without that sinking feeling that the manuscript could be so much more.

Developmental editing vs manuscript critiquing

A manuscript critique is a kind of developmental edit. With both services, the editor analyses the manuscript as a whole and suggests how it can be improved. All the big-picture storytelling elements and techniques that go into a novel are considered.

Things like:

  • story
  • plot/structure
  • character
  • tension
  • theme
  • point of view

… and so on. These elements are usually considered in tandem with the novel’s suitability for its target readership and genre, and how publishable and marketable the manuscript is.

A manuscript critique is essentially a developmental edit lite. With a developmental edit, you analyse every scene, every character arc and every plot point in a novel. With a critique, you provide more general analysis that focuses on the main ways an author can improve their book. And instead of showing the author every instance of every problem (as you would with a full developmental edit), the author will comb through their manuscript and find the places they can apply your feedback.

Of course, take my descriptions with a pinch of salt because every editor will work slightly differently.

How the client benefits from a manuscript critique

With fiction, it’s usually the author who hires an editor for a manuscript critique. Fiction publishers look for compelling, effective novels – and competition is high. Because of this, authors need to be able to submit their best work. It’s a similar story for independent (self-publishing) authors. They also need to publish their best work in order to attract readers and good reviews.

A critique provides an author with a professional, objective perspective on their novel – and is more affordable than a full developmental edit. They can use the feedback to strengthen their novel’s foundations, increasing their chances of being published or minimising the risk of poor sales or bad reviews.

The critiquing process

A critique should come before any sentence-level editing. Not every author needs (or wants) a professional critique, but I’m yet to read a manuscript that wasn’t sent to me by a publishing house that wouldn’t have benefited from some larger revisions.

My critiquing process is very straightforward:

  1. I read the manuscript.
  2. I set the manuscript aside for a few days to let my thoughts percolate.
  3. I write up my thoughts and suggestions.

The author can email me with any points they need me to clarify, but then I leave them to make their revisions.

Skills required to offer manuscript critiquing

The skills you need to be able to offer manuscript critiques are the same skills you need to become a developmental editor (of fiction). These include:

  1. Knowledge of writing-craft theory – You need to know what makes a good story, how different writing techniques work, and what makes a novel publishable and compelling. Otherwise, you’ll have no concrete way to back up your suggestions.
  2. Ability to read fast but carefully – To earn a competitive fee, you need to be able to read a manuscript as quickly as possible while still absorbing enough detail to be able to provide your critique.
  3. Objectivity and detachment – You need to be able to keep your preferences out of the equation. You aren’t telling an author how you would have preferred the book to be written, but how changes to the book can best help the author achieve their creative and publishing goals.
  4. Ability to organise and structure your thoughts – A novel is a huge, complex piece of work made up of many overlapping elements. You’ll need to create processes that help you untangle your thoughts and shape them into clear feedback.
  5. Creativity – Even though you need to be objective, you still need to be creative enough to provide the author with suggestions. Suggestions help authors understand your criticisms and demonstrate how the problems with their manuscript can be resolved.

Summing up

It’s really satisfying to be able to help authors improve their novels on a deeper level.

I just love being able to take a novel-in-progress and turn it into a puzzle – seeing which pieces are missing, which bits can be discarded, and which shapes need to be changed in order for the bigger picture to become crystal clear.

Critiquing is both an analytical and a creative challenge – and one that I relish. It’s both my pleasure and my privilege to be able to offer this service to my clients.

Sophie Playle is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP. She’s a specialist fiction editor who provides editorial services to authors (and publishers) – and trains other editors through her online courses, too.

 

 


In the CIEP directory of Professional and Advanced Professional members, 25 listings include ‘manuscript critique‘.


Photo credits: puzzle – Kieran Wood; open book – Kiwihug, both on Unsplash

Proofread by Lynne Baybut, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Editing fiction and non-fiction: can you do both?

By Sara Donaldson

Can you have it all?

When you start out you might want to become a brilliant fiction editor. One who works on amazing stories that make your heart flutter when you spot someone reading them on the train. Or you might want to work on excellent non-fiction that delights and informs those around you. Many editors are drawn to one or the other.

But what if, like me, you love working on both fiction and non-fiction?

When I started out, I moved from indexing to editing and project managing almost in the blink of an eye. While I learned on the job I was also working through editorial training, so it was a natural progression to carry on with non-fiction. But when the opportunity to take part in a fiction editing workshop at a SfEP conference came up, it was too good an opportunity to miss. And the rest, as they say, is history.

It really is history – that’s my speciality. But I’ve worked on general fiction, historical fiction, women’s fiction and lately, one of my favourites, crime fiction. All while editing non-fiction too.

If you want to work on both fiction and non-fiction there are some things that are roughly the same, but there are also some obvious differences. Bear in mind that my experiences may differ from those of other editors – we all have different ways of working and varying backgrounds – but this might help you decide if both are possible for you.

Is it for you?

Dare I say it, but no editor can edit every type of writing. At least not well. You may be great at editing historical fiction, but rubbish at science fiction, and with non-fiction you may need to be a subject specialist. The more subtle editing often needs someone with a deep knowledge of the subject, or a willingness to learn it quickly. As an academic subject librarian I worked closely with law and civil engineering books, but there’s no way I would edit one.

Before jumping into a new type of editing, make sure it’s really for you. Look at what you read and your subject knowledge – if you don’t read fantasy and sci-fi you might find it difficult to come to terms with genre expectations, jargon and world-building. And you might want to steer clear of scientific non-fiction if you don’t know the difference between the types of ion.

Make sure you’re trained for whichever type of editing you want to do, then there’s no reason why you can’t mix and match, and enjoy the variety that brings.

Similarities

There are definitely similarities between both types of editing: the most obvious are the technicalities of how you approach the documents.

Make sure everything is there

When you receive the files, look through them and make sure you have everything you should – is the word count what you expected, is everything there (check chapter headings, sections and any appendices, tables, images, etc), and is there anything you weren’t expecting? Even in fiction, whole sections can be missing or duplicated.

Pre- and post-edits

Generally speaking your checks will be the same whether you’re working on fiction or non-fiction. I tend to create a style sheet, if one hasn’t been provided, through using Paul Beverley’s Docalyse and a few other macros that let me know the author’s preferences. Then a spellcheck and a sweep through with PerfectIt make sure I’m ready to edit.

Logical flow and no plot holes

With both types of editing you have to make sure the narrative is logical and there are no plot holes. Are the chapters coherent, in the right order, and does the narrative flow logically and with ease? You might come across plot holes – or ‘holes in the argument’ or missing information in the case of non-fiction – that you need to sort out.

Differences between fiction and non-fiction

Despite the similarities, there are enough differences to … make a difference.

Plot sheet/character sheet vs chapter diagram/mock-up

When you’re editing fiction it makes sense to have detailed plot and character sheets to make sure that everything flows well and your brown-haired, green-eyed heroine doesn’t change physical characteristics halfway through the book.

However, when you’re editing non-fiction you’re more likely to have a detailed list of the chapters and the information they contain, perhaps with a mock-up of the book’s insides, and lists of tables, images and diagrams. It’s crucial to make sure that nothing’s missing, you know where everything fits in and that the size and density of the chapters reflect the weight of what’s contained in them.

Style guides

Often fiction authors don’t have style sheets or use guides, whereas non-fiction authors may already use them. Academics especially may use a preferred style guide and should be able to access a copy for you; if they’re an independent non-fiction author, without a style guide/sheet, you might have to work closely with them to pinpoint expected conventions.

Plot, characterisation and consistency vs clarity and organisational flow

With all writing the content needs to be easily understood by the target audience.

One common problem with non-fiction is that you might have multiple authors to contend with. It feels like herding cats sometimes, so you must keep everything in check. You have to make sure the terminology is consistent throughout and that everyone is working towards the same clear message.

With a fiction book you usually only have to deal with one author, so plot, characterisation and consistency can be easier to deal with as you get used to their writing tics.

Levels of intervention

These can differ greatly. With fiction editing you can be more hands-on with the structure and development of the book, but non-fiction will often be under the guidance of the author (and/or publisher). You might have to work with facts, references and notes. Ask any editor who has to work with reference lists – they can be a love/hate relationship and can take a LOT of time to go through.

How to switch from one to the other

If you do think you can cope with the complexities of both fiction and non-fiction, you’re going to have to decide how you manage your workload. Personally, I tend to work on only one or two jobs at a time, so I find it easy to switch between the two. As an editor, my brain tends to compartmentalise, so I find it easier to split my day and work on non-fiction in the morning, when my logical brain is more active, then move over to fiction on an afternoon when I’m more relaxed and open to the flow of a narrative. If time allows I might work one whole day on one, then work the next on the other.

How you work will depend on what makes you comfortable, but once the pre-edit is done it makes sense to allow a chunk of time for fiction, to allow you to get into the flow. But you have to be meticulous in all your work – fiction is definitely not an easy option, and non-fiction doesn’t have to be hard.

So can you have it all?

Yes, you can. But respect yourself and your clients – make sure you’re trained and have the expertise to edit to the best of your capability. CIEP has excellent courses, such as Introduction to Fiction Editing, that will make sure you have the skills to build upon.

Sara Donaldson is an Advanced Professional Member of CIEP who works on both fiction and non-fiction, specialising in history and heritage. She’s also a professional genealogist and content writer – when not working she can be found lost in online archives for no reason whatsoever, or in her local theatre.

 


If you want to widen or deepen your editorial skills, have a look at the full range of CIEP courses.


Photo credits: books – Paul Schafer; writing – Priscilla Du Preez, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Kelly Urgan, Entry-Level 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 picture researcher

By Lorraine Beck

Monday

I spent most of my weekend working on what I call the ‘Art Book’ – the history of a well-known art school published by a small university press, featuring photos of works of art by its many successful staff and alumni. Clearing photos of works of art is tricky, as there are twice as many permissions to clear. First you need to obtain a good image of the artwork and clear that, and only then can you apply for permission from the artist or their estate to reproduce the work.

There has been great support for the book with former staff, alumni and their families/estates/galleries all interested and willing to supply images, in many cases for free, with only a relatively small number coming from image libraries.

Today I find myself engaged in a brief email conversation with an artist who has been nothing but helpful – but who was once perceived as a bit of a bad boy of British art – about his memories of his time at the school…

I found out on Friday morning that the deadline for high res photos is tomorrow – so I have been working hard all weekend to tie up as many loose ends as possible, resulting in a huge flurry of emails to answer. I don’t make a habit of weekend working, but this time, I’m happy to put in a few extra hours to finish the job, so as many high res photos as possible can be included in the first proofs, as in the long run, I know this will make my job easier.

Tuesday

Deadline day – a flurry of last-minute approvals, including several for photos I initially thought would be impossible to clear: I need a signed permission form/written agreement from all picture sources and artists before I can supply the high res images. Much of today was spent updating my master spreadsheet to keep track of agreements now in place or still outstanding, plus labelling and filing permission forms and images ready to send to the client. I wrote the image credits, clearly indicating which wording can’t be changed, adding a note to suggest they will need a thorough copyedit. As there are so many different image sources in the book, the credit style varies significantly, but I do my best to make this straightforward for the copyeditor by ensuring details are in a consistent order and with consistent punctuation.

I hit my deadline of 5pm after a brief phone conversation with the author to discuss the two or three images where final permissions have not yet been obtained. An email arrives from an educational publisher I work with regularly asking for a few new images for an ELT workbook.

Wednesday

Catching up with other projects today. I send in a few new images requested for the ELT title – the editorial team are still chasing an unreleased image featuring children that they found online but I’m pretty sure the publisher won’t agree to this, so flag it up as a reminder when I send the new image selections in.

I receive a flurry of email questions about captions and credits from the Art Book publisher. They decided to clear some local archival images themselves, to save costs, but at this late stage realise they need to check some copyright issues and need advice rewriting credits. I direct them to the excellent DACS summary of copyright.

I make a start on a new job – reclearing text permissions for an Italian publisher for three ELT textbooks for which they have bought rights. I recleared some images for them a few years ago and although I work mainly on picture research, I’m happy to clear text permissions if I can fit this in.

Thursday

Continue working on Italian text permissions job. In a world where we face the freelance dilemma of ‘If I say I can’t make the schedule will I lose the job?’ I’m glad I told them when they emailed last week that I wouldn’t be able to turn this around in the week they had originally requested – mostly because I wasn’t free to start work until yesterday, but also because past experience suggests permissions departments for large publishers frequently take longer to reply. Sure enough, today one warns me when I fill in their online form that they can take up to 6 weeks to reply to an initial query. Hopefully it won’t take that long! Two of the permissions are proving to be tricky. They are biographies of well-known children’s authors from websites that have since been updated, rather than extracts from books, which means lots of emails between permissions departments/agents/the authors themselves/the previous publishers to try to obtain permission.

Friday

Unusually I find myself in the car at 7.45am wearing smartish clothes and driving up the A34 to Oxford for my first ELT Freelancers’ Community Awayday. From my initial arrival into a room buzzing with over 150 people, I was made to feel most welcome. The varied programme included presentations from large publishers about how they work with editorial freelancers and an open discussion about rates and fees, as well as a series of springboard talks with the opportunity to discuss issues raised in breakout groups afterwards. Lunch and refreshment breaks provided plenty of opportunities for networking with colleagues and potential new clients, and although some sessions were aimed more at freelance ELT project managers, copyeditors and proofreaders, there was plenty to interest me and the other picture researchers who attended. By the end of the day I was struck by the huge amount of expertise in the room – something it can be easy to lose sight of when you work alone. The day ends with a glass of wine and me agreeing to write a blog post for the CIEP!

Lorraine Beck is an experienced freelancer picture/clip researcher currently working on a variety of schools and ELT titles, but is happy to turn her hand to any subject. She’s a member of the Picture Research Association and listed in the ELT Publishing Professionals Directory.

 


We’re always looking for new contributors and exciting topics for the blog. If you’d like to contribute or wish we’d blog about something in particular, do get in touch!


Photo credits: Hanging photos Brigitta Schneiter; images on shelf Annie Spratt, 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.

Over the limit: reducing the word count

By Claire Bacon

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

Wordy phrases

Replace wordy phrases with concise alternatives. For example:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This would reduce patient mortality. (5 words)

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

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

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

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

We reduced the drug dosage.

The first person

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

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

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

Regular exercise reduced stress levels in healthy participants.

Redundant information

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

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

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

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

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

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

Although the difference was small, it was statistically significant

is shorter and clearer than

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

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

Be specific

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

Patients with pancreatic cancer were examined by oncologists.

is specific and less wordy than

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

Use tables and figures

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

Don’t repeat yourself

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

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

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

is wordy and redundant. Try:

Patient characteristics are presented in Table 1.

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

Avoid continuous tenses

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

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

is concise and easier to read than

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

Abbreviations

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

Patient DNA was amplified by PCR

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

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

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

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

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

Be ruthless with your red pen

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

 

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

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


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


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

Proofread and posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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

Editing memoir, life writing and creative non-fiction

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

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

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

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

The author needs to decide the following:

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

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

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

Narrative techniques:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

The right tone: how to edit writing about classical music

By Paul Kilbey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


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


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.

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

By Liz Jones

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

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

Willingness to engage beyond your expertise

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

An eye for detail

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

The ability to live with inelegant language and prioritise clarity

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

Restraint

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

Embracing of camel case

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

Ability to work with a number of style guides

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

Responsiveness

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

In-depth subject knowledge – not needed!

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

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

 


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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.