Category Archives: Working practices

Authenticity reading. Part 2: Becoming an authenticity reader

In Part 1 of this two-part series, Crystal Shelley explained what authenticity reading is and isn’t, why it’s important and how editors can help their clients by recommending it when relevant. In Part 2, she shares how professional editors can add authenticity reading to their services.

Here’s what will be discussed in this post:

  • Decisions to sort out first
  • The process of doing the job
  • Where to find clients

Offering authenticity reading as a service

If you’re passionate about assessing writing related to your identities or lived experiences, you may consider adding authenticity reading to your services. After all, many professional editors are in a prime position to do this because working with clients, assessing writing and crafting feedback are all muscles that are flexed daily. Let’s take a look at some of the key aspects to consider when deciding to become an authenticity reader.

Preliminary decisions

Before you dive right into calling yourself an authenticity reader, there are some considerations to work through first.

Topics

One of the first decisions you have to make is what topics you’ll read for. What social identities do you hold that writers might hire you to assess? What unique experiences have you had? Think about the representation you’ve read that’s made you angry because it was inaccurate or harmful based on what you know or have experienced. That might be a topic you can read for.

Training

There’s no formal training that qualifies you to become an authenticity reader. That said, resources exist to provide information on what you need to know to offer this service, such as a recorded webinar and booklet from the Editorial Freelancers Association. Before I started offering authenticity reading, I also scoured the internet for articles and discussions about it, especially from the perspectives of authenticity readers.

Pricing

As with editing, there are no set prices for authenticity reading, so you’ll have to decide what to charge. I’ve seen fees ranging from £0.004 to £0.015 per word. You won’t be making direct interventions to the text but will instead be leaving feedback, so your working pace will likely be faster than it is while editing. At the same time, consider what you’re being asked to do. There is often emotional labour involved in authenticity reading, and you may be reading text that is harmful or even traumatising.

Your limits

Know what you are and are not willing to read. Many of the topics that authenticity readers assess are related to personal identity or lived experience, and there’s a chance that the writing might include representations of hate, bias, microaggressions or past traumas. If there are certain topics you won’t read, screen potential clients for this type of content before you agree to a project. There’s nothing wrong with setting boundaries and taking care of yourself, especially when you’re often being asked to approach writing from a place of vulnerability.

Doing the job

Once you’ve worked through the preliminary decisions, you have to be prepared to do the job. Your task is to use your lived experience or expert knowledge to provide feedback to the client, but what does that actually look like? Every authenticity reader has their own process, but these are the steps I go through for each project:

Set expectations from the get-go

In Part 1 of this series on authenticity reading, I outlined several common misconceptions about authenticity reading. In the proposals I send to potential clients, I dispel these myths right away because I want the client to know what they can and should not expect from authenticity reading.

Clarify what the client wants you to focus on

Some clients will simply say that they want a general read, whereas others have specifics they’re concerned about. I always check if there are certain areas the client wants me to pay attention to, such as terminology, whether an experience is accurate, or if a character is stereotyped.

Read the manuscript

I read the entire manuscript once, and I make notes of what works well and what should be reconsidered.

Leave comments in the manuscript

As I’m reading, I also leave comments in the manuscript, as I would in an edit. I want the client to know my impressions, and I leave feedback on specific elements of the writing. I’ll write a comment if a word gets misused, if a character’s description is problematic, or if I have a positive or negative reaction to something specific.

Write a report summarising feedback

I turn the notes I took while reading through the manuscript into a report. Because I mainly work on fiction, my report is usually broken down into sections on plot, characterisation, dialogue and behaviours, cultural elements and settings, and conscious language. If I have resources to share that will reinforce my feedback, I’ll include those as well.

Answer the client’s questions and concerns

Once I deliver the marked manuscript and report, I’ll answer whatever questions or concerns the client has about my feedback. This is usually done through email, but I also do phone or video calls if requested.

Finding clients

Once you’re ready to do the job, it’s time to find clients. There are many avenues through which to reach potential clients, and these are a few ideas to try:

Business website

Add authenticity reading to your website as an offered service. Be sure to list which topic(s) you read for.

Social media

Talk about authenticity reading on social media so that your followers know that you’re offering the service. I’ve also seen tweets when indie authors or publishers are looking for readers – you never know what’ll pop up. You can also join the Binders Full of Sensitivity Readers group on Facebook. (Please note that this group is for readers of marginalised genders only.)

Directories and databases

If you’re an editor of colour, join the Editors of Color database and sign up for the job list. Add authenticity reading (or sensitivity reading) to your CIEP Directory entry so you’ll pop up when prospective clients do a keyword search.

Publishers

Many book publishers and presses hire authenticity readers and maintain databases of freelancers. Consider contacting publishers to let them know you offer this service and what topics you read for.

Final thoughts

Authenticity reading is an important and rewarding part of publishing that you may want to consider dipping your toe into. Even if editors don’t formally offer it as a separate service, we can still leave feedback for writers based on our identities and lived experiences – to help writers avoid doing unintentional harm, and to help readers see more authentic representations of themselves and their experiences in writing.

Are you interested in becoming an authenticity reader? Let us know in the comments!

 

About Crystal Shelley

Crystal Shelley is a licensed clinical social worker and the owner of Rabbit with a Red Pen, where she provides editing and authenticity reading services to fiction authors. She is the creator of the Conscious Language Toolkit for Editors and serves on the Executive Committee of ACES: The Society for Editing.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: Hours of happiness by Jr Korpa; Read by Ishaq Robin, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Authenticity reading. Part 1: What editors need to know

Authenticity reading, often called sensitivity reading, is a service that all editors should know about, because it plays a valuable role in the publishing process. In the first part of this two-part series, Crystal Shelley explains what authenticity reading is and isn’t, why it’s important and how editors can help their clients by recommending it when relevant.

Here’s what this post will cover:

  • Authenticity reading at a glance
  • Topics that authenticity readers assess
  • Common misconceptions
  • The value of authenticity reading
  • Recommending this service to clients

Authenticity reading at a glance

People want to see themselves, their identities and their experiences reflected accurately in media, but too often the representation on screen or in writing is problematic. One way in which writers can craft stories or text that’s accurate, respectful and validating to those being represented is to hire authenticity readers.

Authenticity readers, commonly called sensitivity readers, evaluate the way an identity or experience is portrayed in writing. They’re usually hired when a writer is writing about topics outside their lived experiences, where it’s easy to get things wrong.

For example, an author may write a story that features a character who has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and if the author does not have OCD, then their portrayal may be inaccurate, stereotyped or harmful. They can work with an authenticity reader who has OCD to evaluate the story and characterisation, similar to how one might consult a subject-matter expert.

Topics that authenticity readers assess

Many people have the impression that authenticity reading is only used for assessing race and cultures, but there are a variety of topics that can be reviewed:

  • Social identities, such as race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, spirituality, disability, body size, socioeconomic status and neurodiversity. Authenticity reading is especially important when evaluating marginalised groups.
  • Experiences that are difficult to capture without having gone through them first-hand, such as being a family caregiver, going through the adoption process or working as a sex worker.
  • Subcultures that often require in-group knowledge to portray convincingly, such as military, gaming or fandom culture.

Common misconceptions

Those unfamiliar with authenticity reading often misunderstand what it is and what its intent is. Here are just a few of the common misconceptions I see:

Misconception #1: Authenticity readers seek to censor writers

This is by far the most widespread and damaging criticism of the service, and it’s also untrue. Authenticity readers provide feedback on representation, which allows writers to make informed decisions on how to proceed. A reader may recommend that the writer seriously reconsider elements of their story – or not tell it at all – but that’s out of concern for the harm that may result from the writing. Ultimately, writers aren’t forced to make a change, no matter how egregious their portrayals may be.

Misconception #2: One reader can represent everyone within a demographic

An authenticity reader can only critique based on their own opinions and experiences, and they do not act as a spokesperson for an entire group.

Misconception #3: Authenticity reading can serve as a shield from criticism

Some writers hire an authenticity reader in the belief that their work will become immune to negative reviews or publicity, which is not how it works. First, as mentioned, an authenticity reader does not represent everyone, so they can’t guarantee that another person won’t take issue with what’s written. Second, the writer doesn’t have to do anything with the authenticity reader’s feedback, so just because an authenticity reader has worked on a project doesn’t mean they approve of its contents. Writers should hire authenticity readers because they want to write respectful, accurate representation – not because they want a pass.

Misconception #4: Authenticity reading is used only for fiction

Authenticity reading can be useful for any type of writing, not just for fiction. Whenever a writer is writing about topics or experiences outside what they know, especially those that should be handled with nuance or sensitivity, an authenticity read may be beneficial. I’ve read textbook passages and non-fiction guides as an authenticity reader.

The value of authenticity reading

Developmental editing, copyediting, proofreading, formatting, indexing – all of these have their place in the publishing process. While they each serve a different function, they all work towards the same goal: giving readers the best experience possible. Authenticity reading also plays its part, and these are only a few reasons why it’s a valuable service:

When writers write outside what they know, there’s room for error

And when those errors result in misrepresenting, stereotyping or erasing the identities and experiences of communities – especially those that are marginalised – harm can result. Authenticity readers can help minimise that harm.

Research can only go so far

Even if writers do their due diligence by seeking resources to help them understand the unfamiliar, they may not be able to capture it accurately or authentically. Authenticity readers can help fill in writers’ knowledge-gaps and strengthen the work.

Harmful representation can lead to damaging consequences for writers

When representation is poor or harmful, readers might leave negative reviews, critics might blast writers on social media or publishers might cancel contracts. These can all lead to financial losses for writers. Authenticity readers can help writers avoid the mistakes that lead to outcry before publishing.

Recommending this service to clients

Editors are educators who talk with clients about various stages in the publishing process, such as developmental editing, proofreading, indexing and book design. Authenticity reading is a service that editors can talk with clients about too.

We are usually among the first people to read a piece of writing, so we’re often asked for our impressions of the text or the story. If we’re working on a project that we think may benefit from an authenticity read, we can check with the client about whether they plan to work with someone who has first-hand experience of the topics being covered.

If you want to recommend that a client hire an authenticity reader, here are a few options you can suggest for their search:

Wrapping up

Authenticity reading has been around for many years, and it’s only now becoming more understood – and used – as editors, writers and publishers witness the harm that can be done by inauthentic or problematic representation. Editors who recognise the value of this service and who know how to talk to clients about it can be part of the process of doing good. In part 2, I share what you need to know to become an authenticity reader.

About Crystal Shelley

Crystal Shelley is a licensed clinical social worker and the owner of Rabbit with a Red Pen, where she provides editing and authenticity reading services to fiction authors. She is the creator of the Conscious Language Toolkit for Editors and serves on the Executive Committee of ACES: The Society for Editing.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: waves by Joshua Oluwagbemiga; book shelves by CHUTTERSNAP, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

What are queries, and how should an author respond?

Publishing can be a mysterious process to a first-time author. Philippa Tomlinson looks at what is expected of an author at the copyediting and proofreading stages of the editorial workflow: specifically, receiving and responding to queries.

    • What are author queries, and when are they raised?
    • What might a copyeditor/proofreader ask?
    • How should an author respond to queries?

*This post assumes there is a publisher, and that the copyeditor and proofreader are independent professionals commissioned by the publisher but familiar with the publisher’s house style etc. However, much the same will apply to an independent author employing a professional copyeditor
or proofreader.

What are author queries, and when are they raised?

Having submitted the final draft of their manuscript, a first-time author might think their work is done. But hold on, who are these new emails from and why all these questions? And what does AQ mean anyway?

Author queries (AQs) form an essential part of the editorial process and, as the name implies, require the active participation of the author. Yet it is a stage that often takes a first-time author by surprise.

The bulk of AQs will be raised at copyediting stage, but there will be another round at
proof stage.

The CIEP’s fact sheet on the publishing workflow explains where the copyediting and proofreading stages fit in.

Download The publishing workflow fact sheet

Queries at the copyediting stage

The copyeditor will be the first person to go through the manuscript in really close detail. They will be interrogating the text with a critical eye: not in the negative sense of finding fault or pointing out mistakes, but with the aim of making the text the best possible version of itself.

And this involves asking questions of the author – AQs or author queries – on anything the copyeditor can’t resolve themselves or on any changes they have made which need the author’s approval or confirmation.

A copyeditor will usually contact the author not long after they receive the manuscript, introducing themselves and explaining briefly what their role is. They may send a set of initial general queries. They will also give the author an idea of when to expect further detailed queries and when to send responses.

Queries at the proofreading stage

Once a text reaches proof stage, it’s looking pretty much like the final product. A first-time author might be tempted either to just admire the clean pages or, seeing their text in this new presentation, to embark on a series of changes.

But no, their role is to read and check, and to respond to another set of AQs, this time from the proofreader, who will be reading the proofs with a fresh and critical eye.

Again, the proofreader will make an initial contact with the author, introducing themselves, alerting the author to expect queries and giving a deadline for the author’s responses.

*Note that although we have assumed direct communication between the author and the copyeditor/proofreader, it may be that a project manager or desk editor is the point of contact between the parties during the editing and proofreading stages.

What might a copyeditor/proofreader ask?

Copyeditor

A copyeditor’s initial general queries may be establishing whether to refer to the main sections as chapters or units; asking the author to supply, say, missing concluding paragraphs to chapters X and Y; checking the author is happy for ‘data’ to be changed from singular (in the original manuscript) to plural (house style).

No two copyeditors will come up with the same list of queries on a given text. Typically, though, as they work through the text in more detail they will query if they:

  • think something needs more explanation
  • suspect something may be missing
  • consider the text may be assuming too much knowledge on the part of the reader
  • believe something could be better presented in a different way, such as a table or
    a diagram
  • genuinely don’t understand what the author is trying to say
  • spot inconsistencies or ambiguities
  • identify any inherent contradiction
  • want advice on preferred context if there is repetition.

All the time, the copyeditor will be putting themselves in the place of the reader,
anticipating anything that might diminish the usefulness, accuracy or enjoyment factor
of the published text.

The copyeditor will also decide what not to query and will use their skills and expertise to make small-scale, non-contentious changes or corrections to spelling, grammar, punctuation, facts such as dates and so on themselves – guided by the five ‘c’s of copyediting to make the text as clear, consistent, correct, concise and comprehensive as possible.

Here are some examples of a copyeditor’s AQs:

  • ‘Mouth movements’ and ‘Handwriting’ are now subheadings under ‘Movement’. Are you happy with this?
  • Robertson 2019 isn’t included in the references, but there is a Robertson 2018 listed. Please check dates/details and let me know any changes required.
  • The table isn’t mentioned in the text – where would it be appropriate to add ‘(see Table 1.1)’ (or similar)?
  • NICE guideline CG23 has been superseded by CG90 – please review and update this paragraph.
  • You use ‘mute’ here – do you mean ‘moot’?
  • ‘There are six variables taken into consideration’: only five variables are listed/explained. Please check/revise to include the sixth.

Proofreader

The proofreader will be picking up on anything that was missed at the copyediting stage (assuming there was one) or perhaps on some unforeseen knock-on effects of solutions to earlier AQs.

They may also be querying a puzzling cross-reference, a mismatch between the wording of a chapter heading on the contents page and at the top of the chapter opener page, or perhaps suggesting a solution to an awkward page break or an overlong page.

Here are some examples of AQs on a set of first proofs:

  • ‘More recent proposals to make divorce easier would also not be concerning to the New Right’ – is this as you intended? Why the ‘not’?
  • Please add in the AO marks breakdown as necessary (cf. Book 2).
  • Date of the presidential election was given as 1 November 2020. I’ve changed this to 3 November – please check/confirm.

How should an author respond to queries?

There is no set way or format for recording and responding to AQs. The copyeditor/proofreader will describe their (or the publisher’s) preferred system and set out clear instructions about how the author should log their responses. Authors are advised to follow those instructions closely!

The most usual systems are listed below, but as technology evolves so will new and possibly more refined and efficient systems emerge.

An author query in a Microsoft Word comment

  • AQs logged in Word’s Comments in the edited version of the manuscript.
  • AQs embedded in the edited version of the manuscript, formatted in a distinctive style/colour.
  • AQs logged in the Comments bar of a PDF, tagged ‘AQ:’ or ‘Author query:’.
  • Any of the above and a separate Word document with the AQs listed as a table.
  • AQs logged in a spreadsheet.

In each of the above, the author will add their responses as instructed. The author shouldn’t make any ‘silent’ changes to the edited manuscript itself.

Author queries in an Excel spreadsheet

Here is an extract from a table of copyeditor’s AQs, including the author’s response:

ReferenceQuery/SuggestionResponse
Sub-lexical sound–spelling correspondences‘Jolliffe, … agree’: Is this just Jolliffe? (Or ‘Jolliffe et al … agree’?)Could we change the whole line to: ‘Joliffe et al, in their guidance for teaching synthetic phonics in primary schools, agree:’

Here is an extract from a table of proofreader’s AQs, again with the author’s
responses included:

ReferenceQuery/SuggestionResponse
p35 – KTAdd ‘of identity’ after ‘aspects’?Agreed
p35 – summaryTranspose points 6 and 7 to reflect order of content in the main text?Agreed
p41 – topCan this be updated now?Done, on my notes
p43 – ‘Dual-heritage …’ / p24These refs to ‘intermarriage’ and ‘intermarry’ are fine, and tally with the answer to KC3. However, on p24 ‘intermarriage’ is used (I think) in the other (and opposing) sense of the word. This could be confusing. I suggest changing p24 to read ‘marriage within their class/social group’ or similar. Please advise.I agree, change the ref on p24, if anything it should be ‘intramarriage’, but I think your suggestion is clearer.

Authors need to be as clear as possible in their responses. They should also check, double-check and look for any knock-on effects before returning them. Follow-up queries on unclear or problematic responses can add time to what may be a very tight schedule. At proof stage, authors must also be aware of space implications. And, of course, keep to the deadline!

A final word

It can be daunting for an author to receive a list of questions on what they thought was a final version of their text, and especially so if the publisher did not inform them in advance about this stage of the editorial process.

Furthermore, the process of going through the queries one by one can be tedious in the extreme. It can also be time-consuming, so authors are advised to check their own schedules to allow for this.

That said, AQs can be the main form of communication between author and editor, the basis of a fruitful working relationship, and a useful record of decisions made for further down the line. And the end result will most certainly be a more polished version of that final manuscript.

Querying: CIEP resources for editors

About Philippa Tomlinson

Philippa worked in-house as a desk editor and a commissioning editor before going freelance. She has edited and proofread fiction, non-fiction, reference, travel writing and educational materials, now specialising almost exclusively in the latter. She has also worked as a bookseller, a library assistant and a teacher of English as a foreign language. Philippa is a Professional Member of the CIEP.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: letter beads by Linh Pham on Unsplash; question marks by Gerd Altmann
on Pixabay.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

 

What editors need to know when asking authors questions

The Art of Querying, a new CIEP course, is on its way. Its creator, Gerard M-F Hill, gives
us a speedy tour through questions and queries, and what the course offers editors
and proofreaders.

Is the current King of France bald?

Questions are of many kinds, and not all of them are good questions – or even answerable.

Whatever you edit – advert, magazine, novel or research paper – you soon start asking yourself questions. What does this mean? Where did those come from? How am I supposed to know that? Is that all? Or even just: why? Of course queries should be clear and concise, but it’s good to be constructive too. What makes a good query?

Before you fire off a query, ask yourself what the problem is. You need to have a reason for asking, because the author may not think it is a problem at all. You first identify the problem by analysing what is bothering you. As a result, you will craft a better question and often you will identify an answer (or answers); then the author just needs to say yes (or no, not exactly … more like this).

Might I suggest?

As queries take up the author’s time (as well as yours), it is only common courtesy to keep them as few and as short as possible. So you need criteria to decide when to ask a question, and you also need a range of suitable formulas that you can adapt for each situation. Good questions will help to ensure that you get a usable answer.

Queries can be short, but they don’t have to be abrupt. It pays to be diplomatic. There are good ways to approach an author, to frame a question and to follow up an incomplete answer – and there are some even better ways.

Does it match the brief/blurb?

Who is this publication for? What will readers want to know? What will they expect to find? What are they expected to know already? Will they know all these facts, names, words, idioms, allusions or connections? Will they resent the presentation as either patronising or trivialising?

As an editor, you ask yourself such questions because they are a big part of the expertise that you offer and that your client is paying for. A publisher does not wish to hear of such defects from unimpressed reviewers or disenchanted readers.

Does it make sense?

What is the writer trying to say? Are they getting their message across? Does it make sense? Why is this different from that? You ask yourself such questions on behalf of the reader, who should not be left to wonder and has no way of asking the author to explain.

If it doesn’t make sense, if the plot or proposition doesn’t add up, if defective grammar is stuffed with malapropisms or other unsuitable words, the reader will soon drift off and never return. The editor aims to prevent any such crisis by smoothing the reader’s path so they can be informed, educated or entertained without being tripped up, distracted or misled.

Are you happy with this?

Where possible, make it easy for the author by presenting your query as a simple choice: A or B? This, that or the other? Would this [rewritten sentence] represent what you are saying?

Have forgotten something?

It’s easy to see that ‘you’ is missing in that sentence. It’s not so easy to spot when a whole topic or aspect of a piece, or the dénouement of a subplot, has been overlooked. The questioning editor keeps a lookout for content that the reader may be expecting, but which is not there.

Easy questions

Why is water wet? This penetrating question from a thoughtful child nonetheless demonstrates that ‘the greatest fool may ask more than the wisest man can answer’, though children are not fools. The saying is often attributed to King James I and VI.

In checking the reference (as all good authors should) I found to my surprise that the aphorism did not come from the wisest fool in Christendom, but from Charles Caleb Colton’s Lacon, published in 1820. In non-fiction, references – inadequate, unconvincing, mangled or missing – usually generate half your queries.

Here’s the answer!

Between 2010 and 2019 I regularly ran a session at the SfEP conference on The Art of Querying, and since then I have been expanding this workshop into an online course. It begins with the whole question of questions. For a start, what do you need to ask yourself? Can your author query be answered at all? Is there only one way to answer it? Could it be misinterpreted? Does the text assume the answer to an unspoken question?

The course next looks at questions to ask the project manager, with a checklist, and how and when to approach the author, with examples of how to do it and what not to do. This section discusses practicalities, from typefaces to time zones, alongside the principles and professional ethics that underlie all editorial queries. It Looks Funny examines your five options before you ask anything, followed by advice on formulating queries and notes, with six rules to help you.

Readers struggle with four major problems – inconsistency, ambiguity, omission and error – and each of these topics has a whole section of the course to itself. Different types of content have their own pitfalls, so there are sections devoted to prelims, narrative and argument, vocabulary and terminology, references, tables and artwork.

The Art of Querying is meant to be instructive, stimulating and enjoyable while extending your editing knowledge and skills, with lots of questions (and answers), well over a hundred real-life examples, copious but concise study notes and a variety of exercises to let you think through different solutions, along with a decision tool to determine whether and what to query, six rules you can follow and a dozen checklists for you to download and use. The Art of Querying is also (I hope) a good read and good fun!

Find out more about The Art of Querying

About Gerard M-F Hill

After several years teaching and 16 years driving heavy lorries, Gerard retrained as an indexer and copyeditor. Since 1990 he has worked on over 500 books and mentored over 100 proofreaders.

As a director of SfEP (2007–16) he devised the basic editorial test used by CIEP and as chartership adviser (2016–20) he worked with the chair, Sabine Citron, to obtain the institute’s Royal Charter.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: question mark by Emily Morter; Answers 1km by Hadija Saidi, both on Unsplash.

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 an arts, culture and lifestyle editor

Meredith Olson is an arts, culture and lifestyle editor who works in both American English and British English. In this article, she shares how she started her editing career and how a typical week can pan out.

When people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I did not know that the dream of ‘getting paid to read’ was even an option. The other thing I had hoped for, ‘getting paid to sleep’, has still not materialised, but we forge onward.

As a dual US/UK citizen, I work in both American English and British English – doing everything from copyediting and proofreading to copywriting and research – for publishers, websites, individuals and arts/heritage organisations.

The topics I encounter range from notorious serial killers to the world’s rarest plants, stopping to consider arts and crafts based on the music and life of Prince or behind-the-scenes military history along the way. I learn a lot, I get to read all day (albeit carefully and slowly) and with each successive project, I become a far more formidable pub-quiz contestant.

Proof of life

‘Everyone needs good copy.’ It was something I used to say to people at parties or networking events, when they asked about the ins and outs of copyediting, copywriting and proofreading. Banks, start-ups, arts institutions, brands, countless personal websites – someone had to create (and edit) that copy. Why shouldn’t it be error-free and well written, with an eye to marketing, search engine optimisation and the brand’s established tone of voice? I know I’m not the only one who, as a potential customer, went off a company once I’d seen their blatant website typos or redundant, unclever messaging. ‘Hire an editor,’ I used to say, emphatically (and will again, when I return to parties and networking).

In a now-overused line, then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, not everyone needed copy, especially not arts-, culture- and lifestyle-focused entities or publications. Gone were the discretionary budgets for improving the blog, checking the concert programmes or revamping the events guide. Many clients were not only not hiring freelancers, but they were also furloughing, laying off or offering voluntary redundancy to their permanent staff, often in shocking numbers.

Though this feels acutely personal to discuss, I know many people have experienced moments, especially during this pandemic, wherein their livelihood seemed out of their control. I suspect for many of us in the CIEP, the fact that our job is often inextricable from our passion and our skilled trade makes this even tougher.

For the first six weeks of the UK’s March 2020 lockdown, my previously scheduled projects went ahead. After that, the work almost entirely evaporated, along with my understanding of my professional purpose – I always knew I wasn’t curing cancer with my red pen and tracked changes, but I had always felt I was doing my bit to shear an author’s argument of clutter and improve people’s reading experiences. I believed I was bringing readers closer to the joy of the arts or history – or even recipes for homemade cleaning products.

In light of all the terrible things this pandemic had already wrought, it felt trite to worry about losing work. But after a month and a half of no real projects to speak of, panic had started to set in when I heard from one of my editors in non-fiction books. The publisher was seeing more demand but now had fewer staff members, so the editor suddenly had twice the amount of books in her care, meaning a steady schedule of manuscripts that needed a copyeditor or proofreader. I gratefully accepted this work, which kept me sane and financially afloat in some of the hardest moments of the pandemic. I’ve missed the challenge of bouncing from a newsletter to a website revamp to a book to a presentation deck, all with their own styles and demands, and look forward to tackling a variety of mediums once again.

A brief brief

When I graduated from university into the ongoing recession in 2009, publishers in New York City were almost all on a hiring freeze. Eventually, I landed at Condé Nast, working in a small team on special-interest publications that covered a wide swath of the company’s brands and content. Rather than only engaging with one type of content, as at a traditional magazine, I was able to work with, and around, fashion, art, cuisine, living, politics and anything else they decided to turn into a collector’s edition ‘bookazine’ (0/10 for this portmanteau, though).

As the only junior member of this newly established team, I pushed the boundaries of my role, learning on the job from editors, designers and writers who were some of the industry’s best, and had worked at every major publisher in NYC. I started lingering by the copy desk with a million questions on style, which were generously fielded by the patient copy chief. I brandished proofs – these had landed on my desk in what was probably just a nice gesture by the team to include me – that I had marked up in my spare time. The thrill of finding an error and ‘saving’ the proof before it went to print matched my burgeoning interest in the contrasting minutiae of house styles.

A few years later, I returned to London, where I was born, to get a master’s degree in Issues in Modern Culture. As my family had suspected I would, I stayed in the UK after my graduation and later decided to continue my freelance career here, but with more of a focus on copyediting.

It’s been … one week

A week’s work can vary wildly, as can the parameters of ‘a week’. I’m strict about work–life balance, but like many freelancers, I sometimes choose to work evenings or part of the weekend in order to be able to accept and deliver certain projects, and then I take other time off. This week+ involved:

  • copyediting three sets of AI-generated video subtitles for a branded media collaboration
  • working a multi-day contract as marketing editor for an arts centre
  • copyediting the first 20,000 words of a non-fiction book on the history of colours in fashion
  • copyediting an academic paper, about Jewish households in Europe in the 1500s and 1600s, by an author who is not fluent in English.

A week can also include:

  • Americanising a UK manuscript (and vice versa)
  • writing or editing copy for a website, with attendant style and tone-of-voice research
  • copyediting business or brand pitches/decks
  • professional development
  • everyone’s favourites: invoices (and subsequent chasing), upcoming contract paperwork, remittance-notice filing, scouting for new work.

Of course, somewhere in that week it’s likely I will wake at least once in the middle of the night, having copyedited in my sleep (for free!?) or having thought of the perfect word to supplant the slightly off one that’s been giving me trouble in a manuscript; I can also be enticed by larger style questions, endless comparisons of British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) and fact-checking wormholes (though I think I’ll cheekily class these as ‘professional development’).

As a freelancer, I get to dip into many worlds that I might not have been privy to otherwise, and it remains a privilege and delight not only to be continuously learning but also to be a guiding hand helping to get a message across clearly and concisely.

About Meredith Olson

Meredith Olson is a freelance editor and writer covering the arts, culture and lifestyle (and beyond). She is a Professional Member of the CIEP, and a dual US/UK citizen specialis(z)ing in gearing copy towards one or both of those audiences. More information, and a selection of her work, can be found at mereditholson.com.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: open book by Jonas Jacobsson; origami colours by Ice Tea, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

The perfect partnership: the value of editing to an author

Working with an editor can be unlike any previous working relationship for a writer. In this article, Anna Cale explains how she has benefited from having her writing edited for magazines and a book.

As a freelance arts and culture writer, I think I am generally pretty good with words. But I also have to be professional. I always hit my word count, I submit my work to the agreed deadline and, importantly, I am open to feedback. Most of the time, anyway.

I am often too close to my work. I need someone else’s eye for detail, for spotting whether I have gone off track a little. I need a good editor. This is not something that comes easily, but I have always tried to remain open-minded and not too defensive. However, in my experience of writing articles, and then recently my first book, the role of an editor in the process has differed significantly.

Knowing your audience

When writing short-form articles for magazines, my interaction with an editor is quite limited. I pitch an idea in an email to the person who has the power (and budget) to commission. This is usually a hook that sums up the idea, with a short paragraph providing a little bit more detail of how the article would explore the idea. If the editor says yes, then we talk terms. Once the agreed article is written, it is sent to the editor for review, and you work together to form the final piece for publication.

You need to know the publication well before pitching an idea, identifying their style and what they usually commission, to have a chance of having your article idea accepted. It is a fast-paced and competitive environment, and there is some advantage to doing your research. This also really helps when it comes to the editing process, and hopefully shortens it considerably.

Sometimes you build a good working relationship with a particular commissioning editor, and that helps to make the process easier. You can start to second-guess what they want. But turnaround can often be quick, even for monthly magazines, and you don’t actually have much opportunity to build a connection. Both sides want the process to be as quick as possible.

Becoming a book author

When it came to writing my first book, however, the entire editing process was significantly different. My copyeditor was assigned to me by the publishers once I had submitted my final manuscript. I suspect this varies as each publishing company will work differently, but in my case that meant I had no interaction with an editor until that final stage, over a year after signing my contract to write 70,000 words.

I had done my research before putting together my original proposal for the publisher. Not just on the subject matter, but on the style of book the publishers usually release. I knew I would have to tailor my style a little to their audience, without compromising my own identity as a writer.

I was always going to be very protective of my book. It had been my baby for a long time. Friends had looked at drafts at various points, and my poor husband had read the entire thing twice. There was frustration along the way, as I realised just how much I use certain phrases (I’m looking at you, ‘of course’) or made the decision to alter sections significantly. I knew it was in a decent state at the point of submission, but I still didn’t feel prepared for editing and what that would entail. It was a complete mystery to me.

I was therefore rather apprehensive about the work involved in the editing process, but my editor guided me through it. Receiving a warm and friendly introductory email from her really helped, as she told me what the next steps would be. It felt like a fog had finally lifted. She was in control of the coordination of the various iterations of editing the manuscript, and I had confidence in her approach from the start. For me, as a debut writer, this feeling of trust was invaluable.

Working together

My experience of the editing process was a positive one. It felt like a constructive working relationship built on respect, with a balance of acceptance and compromise to reach a shared goal. We both had the same thing in mind – for me to produce the best book I possibly could.

It was about respecting each other’s knowledge. I was the subject matter expert on the topic, but my editor was the expert on how to present that idea for publication. Any spelling, punctuation, formatting or grammar changes she made were a given for me. I knew my editor would be bang on with that stuff, and I accepted those changes largely unchallenged. Anything more substantial was raised with questions or suggestions. I didn’t always accept those ideas, but did explore them within the context they were given to me.

It was a long process. We navigated the journey from rather long Word document to typeset PDF, with considered discussions over how best to present the appendices, the bibliography and filmography. The index was a pain, and I realised along the way that my grasp of the alphabet was not as hot as I had previously thought.

Respectful cooperation

For me, the main thing was consistent, open dialogue and communication. My editor clearly set out the process for me from the start, but I also felt empowered to approach her with questions or concerns. I finally had someone who was there to help me navigate this strange experience of writing a book when, during the previous months of researching and writing, that link had been sadly missing.

We had a shared willingness to understand each other. I did sometimes push back – our positive and understanding relationship gave me the confidence to do that. I did not feel uncomfortable or threatened by her input. I felt comfortable asking questions when I didn’t understand a comment, and equally, my editor seemed happy asking questions when she wasn’t sure about the subject matter or significance of something. We had respect for each other, the end result was something beautiful, and I feel we created it in partnership.

About Anna Cale

Anna Cale is an arts and culture writer who specialises in classic film and television. She has written for a number of publications and websites, including Little White Lies, Film Stories and the British Film Institute, and has also appeared on Radio 4.

Her writing subjects are wide-ranging, but she has an interest in British cinema of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and in particular, showcasing the role of strong female voices in film culture. Her first book, The Real Diana Dors, will be published on 30 July 2021 with White Owl, a Pen and Sword imprint.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: writer’s desk by Nick Morrison; Together by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

What is subediting?

Louise Bolotin stepped sideways from journalism to subediting, and starting copyediting 16 years ago. In this article, she looks at what subediting entails – and how it is similar to but different from copyediting.

Here’s what I’ll cover in this article:

  • The types of editors involved in periodicals
  • The speed and interventionist nature of subediting
  • Adding headlines and rewriting text
  • The importance of house style, facts and legalities
  • Working as a subeditor
  • Transferring skills and learning new ones
  • The jargon of subediting

I’m often asked what’s the difference between copyediting and subediting: ‘Isn’t it all just editing?’ Well, yes. But also no – there is an overlap between subediting and copyediting, but they’re not the same because they require different skillsets. For one thing, we have legal responsibilities that go far beyond what a book copyeditor may need to flag for a publisher – more on this below.

After ten years as a journalist who writes, I stepped sideways into subbing. The move was almost accidental, but I quickly discovered I’d found my niche. For over three decades I have subedited magazines and newspapers, often in newsrooms but these days largely remotely (even pre-Covid).

Types of editor

A periodical has many staff with the title of editor. The actual editor is the boss of the publication and will have a deputy editor. Commissioning editors don’t edit, but commission features. The picture editor is in charge of selecting images. The production editor oversees the production – page layouts, liaising with the printer, and so on. Subeditors edit the copy and, importantly, we are generally the last line of defence as there are no proofreaders to give everything the final check.

Fast and substantive changes

Subs generally work very fast because deadlines are always on our back. There is no time to dither over where to place a comma or muse on whether a particular paragraph should be moved. We make these decisions at lightning speed. What we do is substantive, but much more than what a copyeditor might consider to be substantive – it is directly interventionist.

Once a journalist has filed their copy, it is out of their hands. I might check with them to clarify something, but beyond that, they have no control over what we do with what they’ve written. They’ll already be busy writing their next piece anyway, but if you want to know what happens when a journalist gets precious about their copy, just google ‘Giles Coren subs’. Subbing can be a thankless task – make an error and you get it in the neck from all sides. Get it right and it’s the journalist who gets the praise, even though you saved their skin by polishing their dreadful prose.

Adding headlines and rewriting

As well as cleaning up spelling, grammar and punctuation, I will write a headline for each story, crossheads and captions if there are photographs, although, unusually, the last paper I worked for carried no standfirsts. Some subs work as layout subs, meaning they will edit within page layout software such as InDesign or QuarkXPress. Subs working on online publications will have a good knowledge of SEO for headlines.

Subbing can involve rewriting lacklustre copy so it has more oomph, and a lot of cutting to fit the allocated column centimetres on the page. I’m a big fan of cutting – I like a lean article in which every word earns its place on the page. I will freely move entire sections around as the opening paragraphs of any news story or feature must involve the five Ws – who, what, when, where and why (plus the occasional H for how).

If it turns out the most interesting angle of the story is three-quarters of the way down, I will renose it and write a new headline. In a newsroom, I may send a story back if it’s not up to scratch and instruct the reporter to redo it quickly.

House style, facts and legalities

I keep the house style guide in my head and only look at the printed copy when absolutely stuck – often it’s quicker to ask a suitable colleague. Fact-checking is a key part of the job – as well as asking the journalist to confirm something, I’ll spend time on the internet scouring Wikipedia or googling, or thumbing the local A-Z. If we receive collects, I check copyright by doing an image search on the internet, as you can’t publish photos lifted off Facebook, for example.

And then there is the legal stuff. Almost all periodicals are signed up to the regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) and its Editors’ Code. The Code covers issues such as accuracy and privacy, intrusion into grief, reporting suicide, reporting anything on children including sexual abuse, reporting crime and criminal trials, and the public interest.

Subeditors must ensure stories comply with the Code. For example, children in sexual abuse cases cannot be identified, so we will remove not only their name and age but anything else relevant, including factors identifying their abuser if those could identify the victim. With crime reporting, we ensure everything committed by a perpetrator is described as ‘alleged‘ and only alleged unless and until they are found guilty at trial. A sub will also have a good head for defamation issues and refer to McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists, our legal bible.

Working as a subeditor

Until recently I worked the freelance shift at a local weekly newspaper as the sole subeditor. My typical day, in an eight-hour shift that generally included a lunchbreak consisting of a sandwich at my desk while I kept working, looked something like this: The paper had four localised editions that carried unique content specific to those locations as well as content common to all editions. On my shift, I would edit four different splashes and four different back pages, around eight pages of local stories for each edition and eight or ten pages of stories for all editions. There were six pages of sports, six pages of readers’ letters and anything else, such as WI reports and church news. On an average shift, I’d edit around 70 pages.

Transferring and learning

When I made the partial switch to copyediting books 16 years ago, it was a steep learning curve. I was baffled by a lot of copyediting lingo and spent a lot of time looking up terms such as folio, running head and solidus (what subs call a slash).

Subediting is a highly transferable skill; many of us also work as copyeditors for corporate clients because the skillset is ideal. The bible for subeditors is Subediting and Production for Journalists (2nd edn) by Tim Holmes and a good starting place for copyeditors thinking of taking training in subediting.

Subs’ jargon

Byline – credit for the journalist who wrote the story

Collect – a photograph submitted by a reader or someone in the story, such as a crime victim

Crosshead – a sub-heading

Deck – the number of lines in a headline, rarely more than three

Flatplan – the page plan that shows where every article and advert will go

Go off stone – go to press, also known as putting the paper to bed

NIB – a one-paragraph story, short for news in brief

Overmatter – excess copy that has to be cut

Renosing – rewriting the story because you found a better angle lower down

Sells – very short article descriptions on a magazine cover

Spiked – when a story gets dropped

Splash – front page story

Standfirst – the paragraph under the headline that summarises the story in a longer sentence

Strap(line) – introductory words above the main headline

Summing up

The daily life of a subeditor has a different pace to that of a copyeditor, but requires similar skills, including decision-making and having the right knowledge (or being able to track it down) to make changes where appropriate. Have you moved from one kind of editing to another? Or from working one format to another? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.

About Louise Bolotin

Louise BolotinLouise Bolotin has worked as a subeditor since the late 80s, for household name magazines as well as local newspapers and online publications. Last year she developed a webinar on the basics of subediting and has begun offering bespoke training to niche publications. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP and says there is no truth in the rumour that she trained at the Slash and Burn Academy of Subediting.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: World Business by AbsolutVision on Unsplash; bundled newspapers by Pexels on Pixabay.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Wise owls: how long does it take to edit something?

We asked our parliament of wise owls, all Advanced Professional Members, about editing speeds: how long does it take to edit or proofread something? What’s fast or slow, and is that even the right question?

Hazel Bird

Few topics in the editorial world are more prone to oversimplification than editing speeds. I suspect some of this comes from clients, for whom a supposedly ‘standard’ speed might be either (more positively) a helpful starting point for fee negotiations or (more negatively) a crude tool used to push back against requests for fee increases. The most extreme example of the latter I ever encountered was when years ago, as a very new proofreader struggling with hideously messy proofs, I told the client how quickly I was working – a speed I now know with experience was reasonable – and was informed that they ‘knew children who could read more quickly than that’ (and yes, they did say ‘read’ rather than ‘proofread’). I was far too timid to respond with any fortitude at the time, so please forgive me the self-indulgence of this delayed public catharsis.

So, clients may have an idea of how quickly we should be working, and that idea may or may not be based on sound knowledge of what professional editorial work entails. However, as editors and proofreaders, we care about this too. We naturally want to know how our speed compares to that of our colleagues. And speed = time and time = money, so knowing how quickly we edit is vital to ensuring we are quoting appropriately.

Looking back at my records of over 600 projects, I’ve clocked up editing speeds between 250 words per hour and (very occasionally) 10,000. Clearly, then, it would be nonsensical to refer to ‘my editing speed’ in the singular, but it would also be pointless to think of either extreme as ‘slow’ or ‘fast’. For example, 500 words per hour seems slow on the face of it, but it might be fast for especially complex editing of text by someone writing in their second (or third or fourth) language with structural changes.

Thinking about your editing speed is crucial, but ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ are only relevant as far as you can contextualise them within your own work – its difficulty, detail, workflow and so on. And, equally, before you compare your speed with that of another editor, make sure you understand what you’re comparing yourself against – in essence, what kind of work the other editor does.

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford

There are two ways of looking at speed: how many words per hour you can deal with, and how intensively you can keep going. Do you spread a five-hour job over two days, a week, or get it all done in one day? Nor will your speed be consistent over all the stages of a job. I take longer per word checking and fixing bibliographies than the running text.

My own belief is that the right speed is the fastest speed you can safely go while fulfilling the brief, giving good customer service and maintaining your own equilibrium.

It’s pretty obvious that speed is dependent on four things:

  • the condition of the manuscript
  • what the client wants you to do to it, and how many times
  • your own expertise, and
  • everything else, by which I mean the way that life gets in the way of work and sometimes work gets in the way of other work.

Because of these four factors, it’s not usually sensible to try to compare your speed with other people’s except in the most general way. What you can usefully do, though, is keep records of your own speeds. If you’ll pardon me a plug for the Going Solo Toolkit for CIEP members (you’ll need to be logged in), the Work record spreadsheet helps you to collect all the information about a job that will give you a feel for your range of speeds for a given type of work, as influenced by those four factors.

Finally, don’t be seduced by the idea of an average – my fastest is three times my slowest, so I need to discover factors 1 and 2 in order to be able to give a decent quote.

Liz Jones

In my experience, it’s helpful to be able to think two things at once about editing speeds. First, it is definitely useful to have an idea of how long it takes you to proofread or copyedit a particular number of words. This will be an average figure, depending on the state of the original text, but having such a figure to refer to will help when it comes to quoting for work.

But at the same time as it’s useful to have benchmark figures in mind, it’s also important to remember that they mean nothing. Every project is different, every author is different, every brief is different, every budget is different (unless you’re working on a series of similar documents for the same client). Crucially, every editor is different. Faster editing isn’t necessarily better editing, although very slow editing is likely to cost either your client or you dearly.

When I’m mentoring editors, I tell them that in the beginning, it’s better to focus on accuracy than speed. You don’t ever stop focusing on accuracy, of course, but the speed does improve of its own accord over time – and of course there are all sorts of things we can do to increase it further. But that’s another story.

Louise BolotinLouise Bolotin

Asking how long it will take to edit or proofread a document is akin to asking what it will cost. As with pricing, it depends. I know from experience that my average editing speed is around 2,500 words per hour. If I’m given a text that is very clean, which is to say the writer has already gone through it to check for typos, errors and other possible issues, and for clarity, I could work as fast as 3,000 words per hour.

However, I have a number of clients outside the UK whose first language is not English. I’m likely to receive a file from them that has either been written by them or badly translated. For those clients, I will probably have to do a lot of rewriting and thinking through what they actually mean, and my speed will be more like 1,000 to 1,500 words per hour. And I could be as slow as that even when editing for someone who does speak English as their first language, if the text needs a lot of work, or if there are a lot of tables.

I log all this data on a spreadsheet that also records my time for each client, so I have a good idea of my range of speeds for different proficiency levels in English and the condition of the text. The data acts as a good comparison chart when I’m approached by new clients. I always ask for a sample of the text, as I can assess my likely speed and that will form part of the pricing. My speed includes everything: hours spent on the actual editing or proofreading, plus time reading the style guide if there is one and other prepping, plus all the time taken to administrate the job – that’s the number of words divided by the total time spent on the job.

It depends

As with so many aspects of editorial work, the simplest way to sum up the answer to a question about editing speeds is ‘it depends’. Each editor, client and project combination is different, and thus so is the time the edit or proofread will take.

What are your experiences of editing and proofreading speeds? Do you see yourself as ‘fast’ or ‘slow’, or somewhere in the middle? Let us know in the comments below.

Increasing editing and proofreading efficiency

If you are looking for ways to use your working time more efficiently, there are plenty of CIEP resources to help.

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credit: fast owl in flight by Pete Nuij on Unsplash

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Flying solo: Customer service – being people-centric

This article by Sue Littleford, for our regular Flying Solo column in member newsletter The Edit, looks at a skill you need beyond editing in order to run a successful business: great customer service.

The article covers:

  • What is customer service?
  • Using the resources of the CIEP
  • Why does customer service go wrong?
  • Why you should demystify things for your client
  • Learning to communicate effectively
  • Getting the most out of contracts

For all we talk a lot about your editorial business being a business, it is a people-centric business. It’s not just indie authors – organisations are made up of people. You need people skills as well as word skills (and all the other skills).

Customer service isn’t just about doing a good job. It’s about how you do that job. You can be technically very good (nobody’s perfect, of which more anon) but you won’t get repeat clients if you’re a nightmare to deal with, or even just a bit prickly or offhand. On the other hand, you can be absolutely lovely, saying yes to everything, but fail to deliver on quality or timeliness.

Customer service comes up frequently for discussion. In 2019, Cathy Tingle, then I, then Vanessa Plaister all had something to say on the Institute’s blog. And shortly after I started the first draft of this piece, Cloud Club West started discussing the ethical side of dealing with clients (both clients’ ethics and ours), using the CIEP Code of Practice and Dignity Policy as a springboard. The same day, Hazel Bird published a great blog on being trustworthy. There was something in the air!

What is customer service?

We’ve all been customers ourselves, so it’s no mystery. I want to get what I meant to ask for, on time or a little earlier (so I’m not fretting down to the wire), at what I think of as a fair price. I want to be kept in touch with the process, but not feel I’m doing the job myself. I want to be alerted early of any difficulties. I want your technical competence.

Most of all, I want to feel secure in a safe pair of hands. And I want kindness – especially in a service like ours, where editorial comments and queries can be an endless stream of barbs puncturing the client’s feeling of pride in their work, and even their self-worth.

But if you’ve not been in a customer-facing role before, or not for a while, it can be easy to think about the job only from your own point of view: your own convenience, your own way of working, your own priorities, your own standards.

Remember: customer service is a two-way street, a conversation, an agreement between two parties, and those parties are people.

Using the resources of the CIEP

As ever, the Institute has already covered this ground in the Code of Practice and the model terms and conditions (T&Cs). Note that, at the time of writing, the T&Cs are being revised, but we’re talking principles here, not hard-and-fast wording.

If you’ve not been in a customer-facing role before, the Code of Practice section 3 and section 5 cover what’s required for freelancing copyeditors and proofreaders. If you offer project management, then you also need to read section 6. If you’re in-house, then you want section 4.

The Dignity Policy focuses on how members treat members, but there’s a reminder in the ‘Statement of expectations’ that there’s an overlap with section 3.1 and section 3.3 of the Code of Practice regarding what may be construed as unprofessional conduct.

Why does customer service go wrong?

My opinion is that it’s usually down to a mismatch of expectations. No, a proofread isn’t a development edit. No, a proof-edit isn’t a great way to save money getting your first draft published. No, I can’t rewrite your 10,000-word dissertation over the weekend for you, and I wouldn’t even if I could. No, my schedule isn’t all about you.

No, your first-time author doesn’t understand publishing inside out. No, your novice client doesn’t have a crystal ball to know all the assumptions you’ve made about their experience. No, your client probably has no idea that sending in a novel chapter by chapter is less than helpful, and demanding it back chapter by chapter so they can carry on changing stuff is even less so. Please no Google Docs! Please! You can’t edit or proofread while your impatient author watches you fillet their book, and keeps adding little tweaks while you’re doing that … And remember, your client may not be your ultimate client, especially if you’re working with business materials.

Many clients have no idea what it is they don’t know. You’re in a position of power, here, and you mustn’t misuse or abuse it.

Educating your client well (and nicely) is an opportunity for great customer service.

Why you should demystify things for your client

In my long-ago salaried days, when I moved from central government to the private sector (a move that very much felt like gamekeeper to poacher) one of the buzzwords my new employer used a lot was the need to make my erstwhile department an ‘intelligent customer’.

What that apparently rather insulting phrase actually means is educating your client to understand what’s sensible to ask for, what’s going to be ruinously expensive, how much time things are likely to take and that scope creep is a Bad Thing. I heard it most whenever contracts were being negotiated for new services, the kind of contracts that run into eight figures.

Starting to sound like a useful concept, once the prices are scaled down? Editors dealing with novice clients have to, or ought to, spend a fair bit of time educating those authors about the publishing process insofar as it applies to them.

The bottom line is that it’s worth the effort of ensuring both you and your client understand each other’s needs, wishes and expectations – unless you like tearing your hair out, giving refunds and worrying your reputation is going to be trashed online, of course.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

A year ago, Caroline Petherick was kind enough to share an information sheet that she sends to prospective clients, on the CIEP Forums (thanks to Christina Petrides for reminding me of this, and for finding the link).

Explore what the client wants. Find out what they actually mean by the words they use. We’ve all had a client ask for a ‘proofread’ when they mean a developmental edit and a copyedit or two first. Why should they already know the intricacies of our world?

Explain what you can and can’t do. If the client is a student, you also need to ensure the supervisor has approved outside help, and get hold of the institution’s guidance on what you’re allowed to do and, importantly, what you mustn’t do.

Ask questions – I often ask which draft number the client is on (too low a number and I know it’s not ready for a copyedit quite yet) – and if the client is surprised that the first draft isn’t the one that’s published, you know where you are in terms of what you need to teach the client, if you’re interested in taking on the job.

On the other hand, don’t bury your client under a tidal wave of interrogation that seems very one-way. It’s a conversation, remember.

Perfection, the impossible dream

Do not, under any circumstance, say you’ll make the text ‘perfect’. There is no such thing. Honestly, there isn’t. Language being what it is, how we express ourselves is an art rather than a science. Comma placement, for starters. Your perfect is my ‘I don’t like that’. My perfect is your ‘who on earth does it that way?’ Spelling, hyphenation, what’s italicised … whatever you’d put in a style sheet is a place for your client to say ‘I don’t like that’ or even ‘You’re wrong. When I was seven, Miss told me you do it this way.’

Promising the impossible is not good customer service, and it gives your client an enormous stick to beat you with, because the two of you will have different ideas of what perfection looks like.

Keep it real

Manage your client’s expectations. The standard advice is under-promise and over-deliver. I’d agree with that, but caution you not to take liberties in either direction.

Over-promising is a pretty daft thing to be doing. It may win you the job, but that’s about all – and the downside may just keep on giving. Don’t promise a standard you can’t deliver, a speed you can’t meet or a competence you don’t yet have.

But don’t go so far the other way that your performance overrides the service the client thought they’d agreed to. They may not believe your assertion that you really need four weeks the next time, and insist your deadline is in ten days, ‘because you did it before’. Wild over-delivering is also a pretty daft thing to be doing.

Use your contract for the heavy lifting

Your contract is another good place to start on the route to an intelligent customer, this time on the business aspects of your relationship. I’m happy to recommend Karin Cather and Dick Margulis’s book The Paper It’s Written On as, although the authors are American, the principles apply across jurisdictions. The book takes you through the type of content you may want to include as it sets out the basis of your working relationship with your client. What will you do? When will you do it? What are the client’s obligations to supply original material, on time, in no worse condition than the sample and of the length you quoted for?

What happens if something goes wrong, whether that’s illness, pandemic or some other crisis? Can you or will you be subcontracting the work? What if the client is unhappy with what you’ve done, or wants to cancel before you’ve started? What are the remedies? Anticipate, anticipate, anticipate!

When is it over?

One thing you need to be very clear about is when the job is finished. How many times, or how much later, can a client come back and say they found a missing apostrophe on p 327 and expect you to refund half your fee? When does the hand-holding stop?

This is where all your communication comes into play. From the outset, you must circumscribe the job. It must go in your contract and in your initial emails.

This is also a good defence against scope creep – just a new paragraph, just a new chapter, just this, just that. Remember the old adage: don’t set yourself on fire to keep somebody else warm.

So, what did Cloud Club West talk about?

A lot! (We always do, and I promised them namechecks.)

Key advice included:

Katherine Kirk reminded us that email etiquette is in the CIEP’s Code of Practice, and sent us to check out Malini Devadas’s podcast on maintaining boundaries.

Alice Yew has a boundary around working on shared documents, whether that’s Overleaf, Google Docs or what have you, but explains to potential clients the adverse impact of an author updating a file that’s being edited or proofread, so that they understand the reason.

Many people reported clients insisting on phone calls (which miraculously take up none of your time and are therefore free, as you aren’t actually editing or proofreading, are you? Katie Ellis reminded us of this recent forum thread on that point), or communicating via WhatsApp at unsocial times (or at all!).

Lisa Davis doesn’t publish her phone number anywhere; Janet MacMillan and several others have language in their contracts that stipulates communication must be by email only, so that both parties have a written record of what’s been said, asked for and agreed.

Laurie Duboucheix-Saunders and I told of technically challenged clients, unable to handle emails or Word documents. If you take on a client like this, your standard contract and up-front emails will need to reflect the different requirements, but be alert to the many ways that people can work around their difficulties with technology (including someone who printed out a PDF, hand-annotated it and sent back photographs of the pages) and make sure that you can either help your client to learn a better way of doing things, or that your contract enables you to increase your time and/or your fee if your client won’t or can’t follow the stipulated communication methods, although Christina Petrides reminded us to be flexible when we can.

Alex Peace’s contract sets out precisely how and in what format files will be exchanged. As she’s mostly an indexer, that’s critical to her.

Laurie Duboucheix-Saunders moved us on to the duty to respond to queries, even if you don’t want to take the job on, and Ayesha Chari advised telling students why you don’t want to take on a job, if their expectations are wide of the mark, and it’s not clear they have supervisor approval.

Sam Kelly reminded us of the importance of educating clients if they’re not yet comfortable with features like Track Changes. One of his rejected all the changes, thinking he’d accepted them, and the journal rejected the article as being in dire need of editorial attention. Cue much angst all round.

Helena Nowak-Smith knows what it’s like to have clients who don’t understand that you may have other projects on the go and that getting their text to you late will impact the delivery date; whereas Marieke Krijnen has encountered more plagiarism than she ever thought possible. Lots of advice followed from Cloud Club West members to include anti-plagiarism language on your website and in your contract as part of your intelligent customer efforts.

Conclusion

If you want your clients to be loyal and to keep coming back with more work, maintaining good customer service is part and parcel of the job. Some clients may forgive the occasional off day. Others won’t. Most won’t forgive multiple off days. Investing time in your clients and building those relationships, within healthy boundaries, is an investment in your business.

When my long-established freelancing brother heard I was throwing in the salaried towel and setting up for myself, too, this is what he drummed into me.

You. Are. Only. As. Good. As. Your. Last. Job.

I agree with him, but would add:

And. The. Way. You. Did. It.

Summing up

  • Customer service is essential.
  • Investing in relationship building is an investment in your business.
  • The standard of work you produce matters, but so does how you do it.

About Sue Littleford

Sue LittlefordSue Littleford is the author of the CIEP guide Going Solo, now in its second edition. She went solo with her own freelance copyediting business, Apt Words, in March 2007 and specialises in scholarly humanities and social sciences. Before that, she had been the payroll manager for a major government department for some 14 years.

Her whole career had been markedly numbers based – both in central government and in the private sector – even though she became the go-to wordsmith everywhere she worked. She eventually switched to words full-time, transferring her skills and experience to hone her business efficiency and effectiveness.

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: boundary by Jan Canty; We hear you by Jon Tyson, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Forum matters: Developing as a professional

This feature comes from the band of CIEP members who volunteer as forum moderators. You will only be able to access links to the posts if you’re a forum user and logged in. Find out how to register.

In this article, one CIEP forum moderator looks at how we can improve our professional practice by:

  • networking
  • learning
  • reading
  • communicating
  • relaxing.

Start with networking

We all know the basic things we need to be an effective editor:

  • Training? Check.
  • Membership of a professional organisation? Check.
  • A sparkling website? Check.
  • Social media profiles? Check.

But there’s another, more nebulous side to improving our professional practice. Learning, reading and communicating are all ways to develop, although they may not be measurable on a balance sheet. The CIEP forums offer various suggestions, once again underlining the value of networking. If you have a question, however obscure it is, post it on the forum. You can bet that someone will know something (while others will offer a different perspective), and you will learn a lot from the helpful, supportive and knowledgeable answers posted by CIEP members.

Learn

You could consider mentoring – see ‘Advice on website and mentoring’. This doesn’t have to be editorial mentoring. Do you want to learn how to raise your rates and have more time to do things other than work, but you’re not sure how to go about it? Then business mentoring could be for you.

Form an accountability group – the blog ‘Accountability groups: What? Where? Why?’ talks about finding like-minded colleagues for support and encouragement.

Take up voluntary work – this could be related to your editing business, but it doesn’t have to be. CIEP members responded to ‘Tell us about your volunteer work!’ with their experiences of a wide range of organisations, including a church, a zoo and a nature reserve. You can make a genuine difference to a charity or not-for-profit organisation by, for example, removing typos, errors or repetition from their website, or by rewriting a funding letter. Volunteering doesn’t just give you a warm, fuzzy feeling; it also helps your communication skills, as you may be working with people who don’t usually use editorial professionals.

Read

I know, right? We spend all day reading other people’s words, but reading is the best way to find out more and to make yourself more attractive to clients (see the suggestions all over the forums).

You can go at your own speed and choose what you want to read. If you’re thinking about branching out into fiction editing, how about How Not to Write a Novel (Mittelmark and Newman, Penguin, 2009) or John Yorke’s Into the Woods (Penguin, 2014)? If you work on children’s books, then how about Cheryl B. Klein’s The Magic Words (W. W. Norton & Co., 2016)? Want to find out about self-editing tools to help your fiction authors? Then Self-editing for Fiction Writers (Browne and King, Harper Resource, 2004) ticks the box. History, with a feminist slant? A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray (Oneworld, 2016). To generally improve your writing style: Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style (Penguin, 2015). Whatever you’d like to know, there will be a book – or hundreds – to help, and I bet that everything you learn will come in handy during editing – one day.

Still on the topic of reading, if you don’t have time for a book, then how about a blog post? Almost a year ago, Melanie Thompson started ‘Blog post corner’, which includes links to some great blogs all about the softer side of professionalism, such as Hazel Bird’s ‘How to be a trustworthy freelancer’. Some of Hazel’s top tips are: ask sensible questions; offer solutions, not problems; admit your fallibility; don’t overreach; anticipate surprises; check in without being asked; and build on the past.

Want to know what the best time-tracking software is? Then read ‘Keeping track of time worked’. Want to make notes and save paper? Check out ‘Paperless notes’.

Communicate

Communication is an essential ‘soft’ skill. Editors are generally good communicators, but lockdown has been stressful for many, perhaps making us a bit snappier than usual, and we should be mindful of this when we’re communicating with clients and other editors. We’d all rather do business with someone who’s pleasant, happy and upbeat than someone who is snappy, rude and downbeat. Perusing the forums is a good lesson in supportive communication (with the odd tutorial in soft diplomacy, if you look carefully enough!).

After all that, relax

Exercise is essential for physical and mental health. If we sit at our desk all day, we get sleepy, cross and lethargic. If we take a break, we return to work invigorated and energised. ‘Self-care ideas’ contains fantastic suggestions to help us wind down and relax, including meditation, mindfulness and getting out in nature. For a virtual breath of fresh air, keep up with the ever-popular ‘Wildlife distraction of the day’.

On that note, I’ve been sitting at my desk all day, the sun is shining and I can hear birds tweeting outside. Time for a walk. It’s good for my professional development.

Networking; learning; reading; communicating; relaxing. What will you try?

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: sunflowers by Roma Kaiuk; Always room to grow by Kyle Glenn, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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