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 has had too much experience with clients who don’t understand that they are not the only person in your life – expecting you to be there for them whenever they can get their text to you – and that late arrival impacts 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.

CIEP social media round-up: February and March 2021

Ah, the relief in February and March 2021 as spring approached, and finally, well, sprang. We marked this hopeful period by promoting a new course and guide, and by celebrating significant days and seasons.

In this article, we cover:

  • Word for Practical Editing course
  • promotion of our Going Solo guide
  • BookMachine’s Editorial Season
  • Twitter threads, racism and the media
  • special days and seasons
  • business tips and tricks
  • language love.

Our three-month promotion of the Word for Practical Editing course had a fantastic response across social media, with nearly half a million impressions across our various platforms, and nearly 5,000 click-throughs to the course page. It clearly strikes a chord with budding and more experienced editors alike who want to maximise Microsoft Word’s ability to do the heavy lifting when it comes to routine editing tasks.

We hope you enjoyed watching Sue Littleford, author of our guide Going Solo, spin a wheel of names! The ten lucky winners each received a free copy of the second edition of this popular start-up guide.

Another popular event promoted heavily on social media was BookMachine’s Editorial Season. We ran a special membership-growth campaign, and Advanced Professional Member Kia Thomas featured in one of the Season’s regular Wednesday Wisdom slots. Kia shared her experience and insights into editorial freelancing during a live Q&A that was well attended and very much enjoyed.

We also used Twitter threads to promote Going Solo and a blog post about proofreading as a side hustle. Threading is a useful tool for Twitter promotion that requires more in-depth information than can be squeezed into 280 characters.

The CIEP was especially grateful for this functionality during the controversy that erupted following comments from the Society of Editors’ former executive director, Ian Murray, on racism and the media. Commenting on something as serious and important to our industry via social media needs to be concise and clear but substantive. Threading allowed us to make a statement about the CIEP’s commitment to conscious language, representation and structural barriers, and to continuing to learn and do better. You can find our commitment to anti-racism on the home page of our website.

Special days and seasons

During Covid times there has been a feeling of making the most of special days and other periods of celebration. As we’re wordy people, this usually involves reading the relevant books. February was LGBT+ History Month and we published three articles that explored some great LGBT+ reads: history books; books that celebrate and educate; and 42 LGBTQ books that will change the literary landscape this spring. To mark that special day in mid-February – you know, the one celebrated all over the world – that’s right, National Radio Day on 13 February (why, which mid-February date did you think we meant?) we included a much-admired poem from Brian Bilston re-creating the tuning of a radio. At the beginning of March it was World Book Day, of course, eagerly anticipated as the most popular ever. To celebrate St Patrick’s Day on 17 March we shared an article covering 25 books by Irish authors you should read.

On 8 March it was International Women’s Day, but the articles we posted celebrating women during these two months weren’t confined to a mere day. From women in the OED to a quiz to find out which literary heroine you are, and from what Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s time in lockdown teaches us to how well you know a selection of literary classics by women, quite apart from all of the articles we featured that were written by women, quoted women and built on the work of women – well, it was as if women and girls make up, what, 49.6% of the world’s population or something.

Business tips and tricks

As ever, we posted a good number of articles to help our friends and followers keep ahead in their businesses. The title of ‘Video killed the meeting room star’ was given a thumbs-up by our Facebook audience, but its contents proved equally admirable as it explored the do’s and don’ts of making video calls. Articles on pricing structures, being able to accept feedback and when and how to fire a freelance client offered useful advice, and posts condensing the lessons of decades of non-fiction editing experience and how to edit face to face, as well as a quiz on the anatomy of a book, were useful in a different way. For inspiration (and what business person doesn’t need to be inspired sometimes?) we posted a great article about seven writers who were also editors (and the books they edited), and another about the innovative influencers on TikTok whose book reviews are having a major effect on publishing sales.

Language love

But if you’re an editor or proofreader it’s no use being strong on the business side if you’re not cutting the mustard with your knowledge of language and punctuation. We covered this side of things too, with articles about prefixes, countable nouns, brackets and parentheses and commas between adjectives in creative writing.

And then there’s the content we post because of the sheer love of language, which we know our friends and followers share: ‘6 Latin abbreviations you should know’, ‘When repulsive wasn’t disgusting’, ‘Irony and the OED’ and an article on imps and elves, and what they have to do with vaccines. A wealth of etymology and history, all rounded off with a bang-up-to-date short article on whether it’s correct to say O.K., OK, ok or okay. The answer, apparently, is now ‘ok’, with a nod to the fact that ‘maybe mmmkay will achieve formal status one day’. ‘K’, as one of our Facebook followers succinctly said.

In February and March 2021 we showcased CIEP courses and guides, spoke out on important issues, and curated seasonal content and tips to improve your business and language skills. We hope you enjoyed following us as winter turned to spring.

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

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: grass in sunlight by Aniket Bhattacharya; women by Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Exclamation marks: Taming my exclaiming

Do you overuse exclamation marks? Cathy Tingle does! In this article from the archives, she searches her past to discover where she acquired this habit, and consults some language books to learn how the exclamation mark should be used.

Sometimes in life you come to a sudden realisation about your influences – why you do things the way you do. At holiday time, with more opportunity to see your extended family, you might suddenly realise that a characteristic you’d fondly thought of as all your own is in fact your Great Aunt Lottie’s most irritating habit.

And if you’re a wordy type, occasionally you have a blinding flash about what you might call your ‘language heritage’.

From Madame Bovary to …

Although I used to think of my writing style as something sophisticated that emerged from my years as a student of the world’s literature, I recently discovered that there had been a stronger, and more primal, influence. I had flattered myself that my love of sentence fragments was edgy. I had thought that my use of ‘And’ at the beginning of paragraphs was subversive. I had believed that my attraction to parenthetical phrases was clever and, on occasion, witty. And, of course, that every last one of these writing tics was down to my very own style.

But no. It seems that I got them from somewhere else: the Mr Men books, to be precise. Revisiting the oeuvre for the first time since my childhood at my own children’s bedtime, I suddenly realised that all these years what I had been channelling was not Madame Bovary but, in fact, Mr Greedy.

One of the biggest things for which I can thank my unexpected muse, Roger Hargreaves, is a love of exclamation marks. Let’s take a look at these examples, from Mr Grumpy:

Mr Grumpy was at home.
Crosspatch Cottage!

and Mr Silly:

In Nonsenseland the dogs wear hats!
And, do you know how birds fly in Nonsenseland?
No, they don’t fly forwards.
They fly backwards!

Those exclamation marks, I would say, are necessary in the context of a Mr Men book. RL Trask, in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation (1997), advises that you can use an exclamation mark (which also, he notes interestingly, can be called a ‘bang’ or a ‘shriek’) ‘to show that a statement is very surprising’. That’s what’s happening in the Mr Silly example. In Mr Grumpy, Hargreaves is packing in much more energy and emotion (of the ‘Look! How apt!’ variety) than if he had simply written ‘It was called Crosspatch Cottage.’

Laughing at your own joke

I must say that over the years I have found what we might call the ‘Crosspatch Cottage!’ sentence fragment/exclamation mark combo a particularly seductive one. My mistake may have been to put it into copy intended for grown-ups. Not anything too formal, granted, but the sort of chirpy, chatty writing you might find in emails, blogs or social media posts. Copy that’s supposed to raise a smile.

David Marsh observes, ‘When a newspaper employs an exclamation mark in a headline, it invariably means: “Look, we’ve written something funny!”’ (For Who the Bell Tolls, Faber, 2013). David Crystal, in Making a Point (Profile, 2016), adds a quote attributed to F Scott Fitzgerald: including exclamation marks is ‘like laughing at your own joke’. Hm. I do that in real life, too.

Exclamation marks only for exclamations!

So, when should exclamation marks be used? Benjamin Dreyer (in Dreyer’s English, Random House, 2019), after counselling against their frequent use as ‘bossy, hectoring, and, ultimately, wearing’ (oh dear!), does also say:

It would be irresponsible not to properly convey with an exclamation mark the excitement of such as ‘Your hair is on fire!’ The person with the burning head might otherwise not believe you. And the likes of ‘What a lovely day!’ with a full stop rather than a bang, as some people like to call the exclamation point, might seem sarcastic. Or depressed.

So their use doesn’t need to be banned completely in writing for adults. Trask adds to Dreyer’s instinct about the ‘What a lovely day!’ statement by formalising it in a rule: ‘Use an exclamation mark after an exclamation, particularly after one beginning with what or how.’

And although I disagree with the first part of what David Marsh says here (for where would the Mr Men books be without their exclamation marks?), he does sum things up nicely:

Exclamation marks are seldom, if ever, obligatory. They can, however, be annoying! And make it look as if your work was written by a 12-year-old!!! So use sparingly.

The cure

But nothing cures a writing tic like recognising your writing style in another writer who irritates you. And in the last few years we’ve had a lot of exclamation marks chucked at us in tweets and newspaper articles, haven’t we? A lot of ‘bossy, hectoring, and, ultimately, wearing’ claims, counter-claims, denials, deflections.

As when witnessing Great Aunt Lottie’s annoying habit, you find yourself saying ‘Am I really like that?’ So there’s my cure, it turns out: the realisation that there’s already quite enough banging and shrieking going on in the world without my adding to the din.

This article was published in the September/October 2019 issue of Editing Matters.

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy TingleCathy Tingle is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP.

Her business, DocEditor, specialises in non-fiction, especially academic, copyediting.

 

 

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: lightning by Leon Contreras; laugh by Tim Mossholder, 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.

A week in the life of a development editor

Harriet Power gives us an insight into her typical working week, with a focus on development editing.

This article covers:

  • what the job of a development editor involves
  • the typical process for a textbook
  • the typical process for a professional development book
  • marketing and professional development.

I began my editorial career in-house, and very much learned how to development edit on the job. I was never given any formal training; instead I learned through a mix of instinct and informal guidance over the course of eight years working for educational publishers like OUP and Pearson. My last in-house position was as a development editor for OUP, where I mainly developed GCSE humanities textbooks.

I went freelance in 2017. Since then most of my work has been for educational publishers, though I’ve also started to work on prescriptive non-fiction over the past year or so.

I really enjoy development editing. I love getting stuck into a manuscript to make sure it really works. I love that combination of creativity and logic needed to solve any problems. I love working closely with authors and feeling like I’ve made a real difference.

What my job involves

For non-fiction, development editing all comes down to the simple question of does this book deliver what the reader wants? In this way I think it’s actually quite objective.

I developed my first book a few months into my first job as an editorial assistant. (This was for a small publisher where editorial assistants basically did everything and you really had to hit the ground running.) I was given minimal guidance and hardly had a clue what I was doing … except instinct meant that I did. Because we all know what makes a good textbook, having relied on them over six or so years of schooling. So I started asking questions like, ‘Does this chapter give enough detail to answer an exam question on this?’, ‘Is this explanation too difficult for GCSE students to understand?’ and ‘Are these checkpoint questions unambiguous and answerable?’

It turns out these were the right sorts of questions to ask, and I still rely on them today.

When a textbook lands on my desk

When I’m asked to develop a textbook manuscript, it typically arrives with a whole host of extra documents: my brief, the author brief, the syllabus, a sample design, a sensitivity checklist, etc. So I spend a bit of time reading through all of this, trying to get the project clear in my head, and then make a list of things I need to check for each chapter (or even each double-page spread). The main purpose of this checklist is to make sure the author’s done what the author brief asks of them. (Which in turn implies the book delivers what the reader wants.)

The checklist might cover things like:

  • word count (is there too much material or not enough?)
  • spec match (does the book cover everything on the syllabus?)
  • features (has the author included the right number of features – like exam tips, discussion points, etc – and are they treated consistently?)
  • activity questions (are they answerable; have answers been provided, and do they actually answer the questions?)
  • artworks/images (are they appropriate, relevant, varied; are there the right number?).

Then I’ll work through each spread or chapter checking everything off. I might also do a fair bit of line editing, particularly where the text is unclear or unobjective. I’ll probably end up doing some fact-checking (even though it’s not an official part of the job), and I’ll keep an eye out for anything that could potentially cause offence and flag this up (even though there might also be a separate sensitivity review).

The development edits I do for publishers always include querying the author and taking in their revisions as part of the job. On some days, it feels like quite a lot of my time is spent wording diplomatic queries. Sometimes I have to ask an author to do a lot of work (without the publisher paying them any more for it), and they can’t simply say ‘no thank you I’d rather not’ in the same way an indie client can.

So even though it slows me down, I’m always careful in explaining why a major edit is important. I try to provide solutions/suggested rewrites, because I know the authors are busy (most of them are practising teachers). And the more help and direction I give, the more likely the author won’t go off-piste. That’s important when I have to take in their responses. I’ve found over the years that being really clear about what you want, and giving specific examples of what’s needed, helps to mean the revisions you get back are more likely to be on target.

One thing I really enjoy about development editing textbooks is trying to make sure controversial topics are covered in a balanced, objective way. This might mean being very careful over the wording of a spread on euthanasia, for example. So even though development editing is largely about ‘bigger picture’ stuff, I still have to focus on individual sentences or even words. For example, to make sure the wording of a list of arguments for and against euthanasia doesn’t accidentally make it look as if we’re favouring one side over the other.

When a professional development book lands on my desk

Another week, one of my publishers might hand me a professional development book where the brief is much less detailed (often amounting to little more than ‘can you edit this one please?’). This might easily turn into a combined development edit and copyedit. Basically, I’ll do a copyedit but if a manuscript has bigger issues then I’ll also point these out and help the author to fix them. So here I don’t have a prescribed checklist, as such, but I’ll ask questions like:

  • Is there enough detail to be able to take this advice away and act on it yourself? (One book I worked on almost doubled in size to make sure we’d answered that question.)
  • Does the book answer the question it sets out to solve? (One book ended up with a different title as a result.)
  • Does this book explain everything in a way that a beginner can understand?
  • Is the overall argument logical and persuasive?

I find development editing to be the most ‘thinky’ work that I do. You have to hold the whole book in your head in a way that isn’t so necessary with copyediting or proofreading. Edits can be more complex (and explaining why they’re so necessary can require careful thought). So I’m happy when I get weeks where I can switch it up with a bit of copyediting or proofreading or something else for light relief.

Marketing and professional development

Until the pandemic hit, I’m ashamed to say I put minimal effort into marketing and not much more into professional development. But that’s changed over the past six months or so. Now I try to set aside an hour a day for one or the other.

Last year I decided it might be a good idea to do some proper training in development editing (better late than never, right?). I couldn’t find much on offer but did sign up to EFA’s 8-week course on non-fiction development editing, which was really great. I also bought Scott Norton’s classic, Developmental Editing (which I still need to finish).

This year I’ve been working my way through a small pile of craft books on how to write non-fiction. I’d definitely recommend reading craft books if you want to get into development editing – they really help you to understand how good books work and what they should contain. Three I’d particularly recommend for non-fiction are:

  • Rob Fitzpatrick’s Write Useful Books. (This really changed my mindset on how to write great prescriptive non-fiction, and I’ve got quite evangelical about it.)
  • Ginny Carter’s Your Business, Your Book. (This’ll give you a really solid grounding in the elements that make up a strong professional development book.)
  • Susan Rabiner and Alfred Fortunato’s Thinking Like Your Editor. (Twenty years old but full of interesting, still relevant ‘insider’ advice on what publishers are looking for from ‘serious’ trade non-fiction.)

Summing up

This article has covered:

  • training and career paths to development editing
  • typical working processes
  • marketing and professional development for development editors.

About Harriet Power

Harriet Power is an education and non-fiction editor, a Professional Member of the CIEP, and co-author of four GCSE Religious Studies revision guides (this last one was a surprise even to her). She worked in-house for eight years before going freelance in 2017.

 

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: handdrawn lightbulb by Mark Fletcher-Brown; Together, we create! by “My Life Through A Lens”, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

What’s e-new? How to be your own IT department

This article by Andy Coulson, for the regular What’s e-new? column in members’ newsletter The Edit, looks at how to cope when things go wrong with your technical set-up, from initial troubleshooting to simple fixes, and where to look for more help and advice.

The article covers:

  • Backing up before you start
  • Being methodical
  • The power of the off button
  • Diagnostic tools.

As self-employed professionals, we have to wear a number of hats. One of the least popular and worst fitting is the IT hat. Let’s face it, for most of us faced with IT problems the challenge is avoiding a rapid descent into playing laptop frisbee. But there is a lot you can do to resolve IT problems for yourself and build your confidence and skills in tackling those in future.

Before you start

If you read no further, please, please, please take this one thing on board. Back up all your important files regularly. Also, do it before you try making changes to your system. If you have Microsoft 365 and Windows 10 this should be automatic for a lot of your documents, but here’s how to do it: https://support.microsoft.com/en-us/office/back-up-your-documents-pictures-and-desktop-folders-with-onedrive-d61a7930-a6fb-4b95-b28a-6552e77c3057. If you use a Mac, it is a little more complex: https://techcommunity.microsoft.com/t5/office-for-mac/how-to-use-onedrive-for-backup-on-mac/m-p/29589. Both Mac (Time Machine) and Windows (Backup/File history in settings) have good internal backup systems that also back up the Windows or MacOS. Take a little time to learn how to use them, buy an external disk drive and set them to automatically back up on a regular basis.

When you have a problem with IT there are typically three areas: simple hardware, like a loose plug, covered below in ‘Be methodical’; simple (often inexplicable!) software issues, covered in ‘The power of the off button’; and more complex problems, covered in ‘IT A&E’.

1. Be methodical

When a problem occurs, you need to step away for a moment and be really methodical about it. Say your printer isn’t working. The first port of call in the absence of any other clues (such as a message on screen) is to check physical things: Is it switched on? Is the power plugged in? If it uses a cable to connect to the computer, is that plugged in? At both ends? You don’t need to know much about computers to check these things – you need to look carefully, wiggle plugs to make sure they are fully pushed in, and follow cables to make sure the right ones are plugged in. But the point is to be methodical and thorough.

2. The power of the off button

If a program appears not to be working then closing and restarting it is a good starting point. If the program has frozen, then in Windows, press Ctrl, Shift and Esc at the same time. This causes Task Manager to pop up, and from here you can right-click on the frozen application and select ‘End task’ to close it. On a Mac you use the Option, Command and Esc keys, select the app in the Force Quit Applications window, and then click on ‘Force Quit’. If you then reopen the application, it should run normally.

If this doesn’t work then try restarting the computer. I’m always slightly concerned by how often turning something off and back on is a solution to software issues, but it is nevertheless a fairly reliable method. This can cure some apparently serious issues. For example, if I try and do a reboot on my laptop, I get an alarming-looking blue screen saying ‘Do you want to start Windows in Safe Mode?’ when it restarts after shutting down. With a little help from Google I quickly realised a) this was not a drastic problem, and b) I couldn’t fix it easily, and if I simply used the power button to switch off and then start up again all was OK.

A related solution worth trying if you are having Word issues in Microsoft 365 is to use the repair function. In Windows 10 if you go to ‘Settings’, then ‘Apps’ and find Microsoft 365, click on ‘Modify’ and you will get a pop-up that prompts for a ‘Quick repair’ or ‘Online repair’. Try a Quick repair, and if this doesn’t work run the Online repair (but be prepared to be patient).

3. IT A&E

If you have an error message or make no headway with the earlier fixes, then you need to try some diagnostics to get to the bottom of things.

Google is one of the simplest diagnostic tools to use. If you have an error message, search for the text and any error number in Google. For Windows and Word issues it will often have answers from Microsoft’s knowledge base near the top. These can sometimes be a bit techy, but they are generally accurate and safe. As you get away from Microsoft and Apple’s pages be prepared to be cynical and critical about where the information comes from, as there are bad sites out there. (For example, I would trust a reputable technology site or magazines like Tech Republic or ComputerWorld over a random post on Reddit.)

Device drivers (the software that speaks to the hardware) have a reputation for being a source of problems. With Windows 10 these are generally updated automatically, but occasionally a manual install can resolve a problem. This windowscentral.com article – windowscentral.com/how-properly-update-device-drivers-windows-10#page1 – can guide you through the various options in the order in which you should use them. If you can use the first method, it will be the safest as it uses drivers that Microsoft has tested.

Both Microsoft and Apple provide inbuilt diagnostic tools that can help to identify issues, particularly in hardware. For example, Windows has a number of these tools:

  • Task Manager – Run this using Ctrl-Shift-Esc to see what software is running and how much memory and CPU effort it is using. This can help you spot programs that are doing something odd (for example using a lot of CPU %).
  • Performance Monitor – This can give you an idea about what might be slowing your PC down. You can find it under the ‘Windows Administrative Tools’ section in the Start menu. You can also see something similar under the Performance tab in Task Manager.
  • Reliability Monitor – This is quite well-hidden, but it allows you to visualise how reliable your system is and get historical access to error messages. The easiest way to find it is to search for ‘Reliability history’ in ‘Settings’.
  • Windows Disk Management – This can flag potential issues with disks. This is under the ‘Windows Administrative Tools’ section in the Start menu.

As you go along, it is worth keeping notes on things you fix, preferably not on the computer. This will help by reminding you of what you have done, so you can fix things that happen again. It’s also a good thing to look back over and realise how much you have learned.

Finally, it is worth finding a local computer repair person and building a relationship with them for the times when you can’t fix it yourself.

Summing up

The article has looked at:

  • The importance of backing up files before performing fixes
  • Where to start with diagnosing and fixing problems
  • Simple fixes
  • Finding out more about problems
  • Where to go for more help

What else is e-new?

Andy has written many articles demystifying software and technology. Check out:

About Andy Coulson

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

 

 

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: dog desktop support by Pavel Herceg; blue screen by Joshua Hoehne, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

How to take care of yourself when you’re your own boss

Even when there isn’t a pandemic, if we run our own business we all need ways to take care of ourselves – mentally, physically and emotionally. In this post, Abi Saffrey brings together some suggestions that have been shared on the CIEP member forums.

CIEP members’ self-care ideas fall into these general categories:

  • time and taking breaks
  • meditation and expressing gratitude
  • food
  • hobbies
  • music
  • friends and partners
  • being outside
  • lockdown clichés

Time and taking breaks

My first thought when it comes to spending the right amount of time on the right things is ‘work–life balance’. I have several issues with that phrase: should there be the same amount of work as life? Surely work is part of life, not opposed to it? (I’m not a fan of the phrase ‘me time’ either.) Anyway, a key element in getting the day-to-day mix of activities ‘right’ is considering time. There is no magic formula, but we can learn by trial and error what works for us.

During the first pandemic lockdown, when my children weren’t able to go to school, I would get up earlier than my family and spend an hour in my office getting to grips with what I needed to do that day so that I could be more focused in the limited working time I would have later on in the day. It also gave me an hour on my own, which turned out to be incredibly important over those three or so months.

Taking regular breaks from work is good for our focus and our eyes, but it’s often easier said than done. One member has alarms set at particular points during the day to remind them to take a 20-minute break; others use the Pomodoro technique.

I force myself to walk away from my desk in the mid-afternoon and read a physical novel for 30 minutes or so for a bit of fun and to give my eyes a break from the screen.

Alarms can be used to force an end to the work day – it’s all too easy to think ‘oh just one more page/section/chapter’. Self-employed editors were well aware of the blurring of the work/home boundary before the pandemic changed office workers’ patterns.

Meditation and expressing gratitude

Several members have mentioned the benefits of meditation and mindfulness to replenish their stores of energy, focus and patience. Some use timers, some apps and others simple breathwork techniques.

One member mentioned spending 15 minutes at the end of the day talking about something positive from the day: it breaks the endless cycle of gloom that comes from the news and ends the day on a high note.

The thing I’ve been doing that has had a huge impact on my positivity is expressing gratitude  … for everything, really: blue skies or rain (we need it!), delicious morning coffee, the roof over our heads, the internet, clean water piped into our homes, electricity, central heating  … the list goes on and on. Even the worst of days has good things in it; you might have to look a little harder. I’ve got very good at finding the silver lining.

Food

Making a meal or baking something can provide focus and pride in the result, as well as the opportunity to share something with others.

Whenever I bake something (which isn’t often), I always give some of it to my elderly neighbour. Gives me an excuse to check in with her, and I always feel so happy that she enjoys my sweet treats!

Planning meals ahead can lessen the daily workload, but can also provide something to look forward to. My family created a four-week rolling menu, which took away the weekly stress of thinking of meals, but with a ‘wildcard’ entry each week there was potential for trying out new recipes (or getting a takeaway).

Under the first lockdown, my husband and I invented a lockdown cooking competition – every weekend we each challenge the other to cook something new and out of our comfort zone. It’s been a great way to actually use each of our collections of cookbooks instead of just admiring the lovely photos. We have a whole routine that has become incredibly important for my sanity because it is structured and focused, and gives me something to look forward to as well as be a challenge not just to cook but also source ingredients.

I batch-cook at the weekend so that, no matter how busy things get during the week, I have nice lunches to look forward to.

Hobbies

The pandemic lockdowns have enabled some people to start new hobbies, or spend more time on existing ones.

For the most part of our lockdown we weren’t permitted to travel more than 5 km from home. Some birders on Twitter had the idea of keeping a #Stage4LockdownList. I started noting every species I saw in my 5 km radius. It encouraged me to get exercise, to be in nature, to be mindful and to appreciate things in my local area that I had taken for granted. I hope this is a new habit that I’ll take with me. (I ended up with 27 birds on my list – not bad for a beginner.)

My regular activity is crochet. Almost daily! You could say I’m hooked  … Fortunately, my yarn stash is well stocked. Sometimes my cat tries to ‘help’, but his company is a delight and a guarantee of daily smiles and chortles.

I have enjoyed patchworking for the past few years but thought I would attempt to learn to crochet … I managed one evening of tying my fingers in knots before returning to my craft comfort zone.

Music

Listening and dancing to music can be a great stress reliever and soul lifter. Several members talked about missing live gigs or singing with their choir. I’ve invested in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones so I can get completely absorbed in what I’m listening to.

Music is always part of my day. I actually feel a bit unwell any day I don’t make music – or listen to someone else making music. Covid-19 has put the kibosh on lots of my musical activities. (Who knew that chamber music would become more dangerous than adventure sports?!) So I make sure to listen to great music. Here’s Thelonious Monk playing ‘Tea for Two’. I’ve listened to this four times today. And every time I do, it feels like an act of self-care.

I also find dancing and seeing live music a great stress release, so have missed those a lot. During lockdown, I’ve been going to an online disco on Friday nights (via Zoom) and watching a live DJ on Twitch every lunchtime. (I’ve even put it in my work calendar – although with a cryptic title, just in case I accidentally share it with a client one day!) It has really helped to feel part of those communities, and the music has helped me to process and release lockdown emotions.

Friends and partners

Seeing our friends and family is so important, and that’s been taken away from many of us over the past year. We’ve found new ways of communicating, and made the most of the times when we have been able to go for walks or coffees together.

I’ve been doing a fortnightly quiz with a group of friends. I don’t think we’ve ever seen so much of each other, actually, as we’re so scattered across the country.

Directly messaging particular friends can bring about that personal connection, in a very different way to posting more widely (and more generically) on social media platforms.

I’ve rekindled a friendship with an old friend. We now send each other silly, or supportive, WhatsApp messages almost every day. If either of us has a low moment, or needs to vent, we can reach out and share. We now also occasionally send each other surprise gifts by post (‘I saw this and thought of you’).

Being outside

From birdwatching to long walks, to tending the garden, to looking at the sky – time spent outside is never wasted when it comes to self-care. Even a walk in the pouring rain can bring with it joy (and the delight of dry, warm clothes afterwards).

I love walking anyway but I’ve made a conscious effort when I’m out now to notice something new or curious on each walk. It could be some particularly splendid fungi, or the birds, or a gnarly tree, or going down a different path for a change and seeing where I end up. Some walks have taken rather longer than planned to get me back to my starting point  …

Movement generally is good for our mental and physical health, so adding in the fresh air and maybe even some vitamin D from the sunshine makes getting outside a win–win when trying to look after ourselves. For several years, I have gone to outside bootcamps every week – when restrictions stopped these, the instructor moved online and I took my laptop into the garden (though the Wi-Fi issues and light glare made some sessions more tense than was ideal …)

I live at the bottom of a hill, and the newsagent is at the top. I force myself to walk up there every day to pick up the paper, then I spend half an hour reading it with a cup of coffee before I get back to work.

I check the forecast every morning to work out when the weather looks best, then intentionally structure my day around that. The rain radar is also useful – even on really bad days, there’s generally a break in the weather at some point. I always feel much brighter (and more productive) afterwards, even on the days when I really don’t want to go outside.

Lockdown clichés

I’ve turned into a complete lockdown cliché, having taken up sourdough and running!

It’s hardly a solution for everyone, but I can totally recommend getting a puppy.

We have two golden retrievers and we try to walk them every day. It’s great to get out into the fresh air and, c’mon, golden retrievers. They’re good for the soul. Doctors should write prescriptions for people to spend time with golden retrievers.

I’m also spending a lot of time growing my hair. I’m trying for an A C Grayling look, but most people think it’s more Doc Brown (from Back to the Future, not the rapper).

I’m also a bit of a lockdown cliché, as it’s walking and breadmaking for me.

Getting it right

There is no one right way of looking after ourselves that works for everyone. This post only covers the most popular themes that members have shared on the CIEP forums. How do you look after your wellbeing? Has it changed over the past year? Let us know in the comments below.

About Abi Saffrey

Abi Saffrey is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP. A member of the CIEP’s information team, she coordinates this blog and edits Editorial Excellence, the Institute’s external newsletter.

Now she’s finished writing this blog post, she’s off for a walk.

 

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: crocuses by Aaron Burden; long-tailed tit by Andy Holmes, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Using plain English to maximise immersion in fiction

When most people think of plain English, they think of functional, practical non-fiction texts rather than stories. Here, Katherine Kirk looks at how the plain English principles can be applied to works of fiction.

In this article, I’ll explore these questions:

  • What is plain English and why does it matter for fiction?
  • How can plain English principles improve the fiction reader’s experience?
  • Does writing in plain English mean stripping fiction of its artistry?

Striking the right tone

In my former life as an English teacher, I found that many of my students, in an attempt to elevate their English to the highest possible level, were obfuscating their concepts by becoming fixated on implementing linguistic arabesques which were utterly drenched in verbosity at the expense of clarity.

If you’re still reading after that ridiculous sentence, thank you for sticking around. Most readers wouldn’t.

Using loftier words to sound like a ‘better writer’ is more common than you’d think. Students trying to pad their essays will devour a thesaurus whole and vomit the longest words onto the page. Writers for whom English might not be their first language – and some for whom it is – will often turn to the flashiest word and throw it into a sentence it has no right to be in, having missed the connotations and nuances that make a word fit just right.

Writers who hold the literary arts to be the most profound form of human expression (and rightly so!) might feel that they would be doing their book an injustice by writing it the way they speak, and that readers who come across simple sentences and words might feel that their text lacks colour.

As copyeditors, one of our aims is to have the readers’ interests at heart. Hopefully, this article will help you to show your clients that writing in plain English doesn’t mean writing in boring English, and how simplifying their texts makes it easier for readers to fall in love with their story.

Aristotle said, over two millennia ago, ‘The virtue of style is to be clear … and to be neither mean nor above the prestige of the subject, but appropriate.’ He’s talking about using the right language for the job at hand. The fiction writer’s job is to write a story their readers can escape into. Our job is to help them.

What is plain English and why does it matter?

When most people think of plain English, it’s with regard to non-fiction texts, such as warning labels, legal or government documents, or instructional guides. Laura Ripper and Luke Finley wrote an excellent introduction to plain English for the CIEP blog a few years ago.

Most plain English principles tend to be aimed at businesses and organisations that want their users, clients or readers to be able to access the information as easily as possible. But how does that apply to fiction writers?

Dr Neil James sets out more general principles, saying that plain English writing should have:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • a clear core message
  • the right level of detail
  • a fit-for-purpose structure
  • coherence and flow
  • clear document design
  • a light but professional tone
  • a readable style
  • an active voice
  • an efficient style
  • an error-free text
  • evidence-based testing.

I think these can apply to fiction too. Let’s dive in!

A reader-centred approach

Good writing transmits ideas from the writer’s mind to the reader’s. The reader imagines the world, hears the dialogue, and feels the emotions. That is immersion, and the best way to get the reader into it is by the most direct route possible – using the same language they think in. When this fails, readers write reviews like ‘I felt lost’ or ‘I couldn’t get into it’. Keeping the reader in mind means making the writing accessible to them.

A clear core message

To successfully transmit that message, it needs to be clear. In fiction, the message is multifaceted: the writer is trying to convey who the characters are, what the story is, and why it matters. If the complexity of their language is getting in the way of any of those things, then readers will feel lost. They might lose interest in the story, too. Writers must beware of tangling up the meaning and concealing it behind words readers need to look up, and sentences they’ll need to read three times to decode. They should also be careful of having a storyline so convoluted that the reader needs a wiki to keep track. If the message is clear and accessible, the reader will have a better experience (and come back for more).

The right level of detail

Sometimes in the effort to convey that image clearly to the reader, a writer might veer too far in the opposite direction by being overly specific and spelling out every little detail. Encourage your clients to give your readers the benefit of the doubt and to trust them to fill in the spaces between the words; removing the fluff will make that easier.

A fit-for-purpose structure

Plain English is about more than just sentence-level clarity. If the story jumps from flashback to flashback, wanders aimlessly through nested dreams, explodes into en dash confetti and then suddenly switches to a second-person account written entirely in italics, the reader will absolutely get confused. Some books manage a labyrinthine structure. In Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the labyrinth is the point. For genre fiction, though, the ease with which your reader can navigate the story directly correlates with their ability to be immersed in it.

Coherence and flow

We can’t all be James Joyce or Samuel Beckett; sometimes the best stories are the ones that readers can actually follow. Leading readers on a journey through the story is what good writing is all about. You don’t want to lure them into the woods only to run off, leaving them to either struggle to catch up or get lost entirely. Writers should be walking just ahead, beckoning the reader around the next corner.

Clear document design

Literary fiction can be a tricky genre to get right because many writers think it means you have to be innovative with punctuation, structure and formatting. Experimentation is fine, if it’s done well – but for immersion’s sake, for writing that disappears behind the story, it’s better to give readers what they expect by following established conventions.

A light but professional tone

Readers may feel intimidated by overly formal text, or text that is dense and inaccessible to them. They might respect the writer, but they probably won’t have as much fun reading the story as they would if it were easier for them to understand. Throwing themselves entirely into the writer’s world takes a certain kind of vulnerability, and if readers feel shut out by language they can’t understand, then they’re not going to do that. Using the right language helps readers to trust the writer and to be willing to open themselves up to having their hearts absolutely destroyed by the story. If the writer is too caught up in trying to sound smarter, then they lose the readers’ trust.

A readable style

The key thing is readability. The most beautiful sentence in the world might be a multilayered, poetic work of art, but if it requires a doctorate to unpick and understand, then the writer is excluding the majority of their readership – and for what? To show off their thesaurus?

An active voice

Now, this is where many people who like to give advice to writers tend to overgeneralise and lead writers astray. It’s also where robotic grammar checkers tend to overcorrect at the expense of clarity, flow and readability. Active voice is about making it clear who is doing what, but passive voice isn’t wrong. In the famous opening line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen isn’t wrong to use the passive voice; she’s making a point, and a sarcastic one at that, setting up the entire premise of the novel.

The passive voice can and should be used with intention. Above all, aim for clarity.

An efficient style

Another bit of writerly advice that well-meaning but often misinformed people give is to cut specific words or sentence structures. It’s silly to make blanket rules when language is infinitely variable. What writers (and editors) can do is try to be as efficient as possible, such as choosing a strong adjective over two weak ones.

Simplicity doesn’t always mean fewer words. Sometimes it means using a few simpler words to convey a complex idea. Having an efficient style means getting the idea from your mind into your reader’s mind without a detour into the dictionary.

An error-free text

The purpose of grammar and punctuation is to eliminate ambiguity and enhance clarity. A logically and grammatically consistent text ensures the reader understands the story the way the writer intended them to. If the writer is trying to force the grammar into doing something it’s not meant to, they’re more likely to make a mistake. They may find themselves tangled up in semicolons and en dashes, and the reader will be just as muddled. That said, fiction is far more forgiving of its rules being bent. Being able to strike a balance between accuracy and a comfortable narrative voice is one of the key skills a fiction copyeditor needs to develop.

Evidence-based testing

What is being tested? It might be the theme or hypothesis behind the story (the ‘what if?’), or it might be the conflict between the characters, or the plausibility of the made-up science. Testing the characters by putting them under pressure is what fuels character development. Show, don’t tell means that fiction writers need to give their readers the evidence of that development by letting them see it unfold.

Reading levels in the UK and US

Putting all these principles together can help editors to make sure their clients’ writing is at an appropriate level for their target readers. According to the Center for Plain Language, the majority of American readers are reading at 8th grade level (12 to 14 years old), and the National Literary Trust reports that many adults in the UK have poor literary skills. So, having the novel in a register that requires a tertiary education to understand means the writer is probably not going to sell many books.

Maintaining the writer’s voice

Some writers may balk at the idea of simplifying their language, thinking that to do so would be to rob the text of any sense of artistry. Editors may worry that they’ll be stripping away the writer’s voice. Be careful to maintain the balance; suggest rather than dictate, and let the writer make the call.

Achieving clarity takes a certain kind of artistry. Do it with the readers in mind and they’ll keep coming back for more.

Wrapping up: plain English in fiction

The elements of plain English writing can apply as much to fiction as to non-fiction texts. Writers and editors can aim for:

  • a reader-centred approach
  • the right level of detail
  • coherence and flow
  • a readable and efficient style
  • an error-free text.

How do you apply plain English principles in your writing or editing? Drop us a line in the comments below.

More guidance on working with plain English

The CIEP has some helpful resources to help you work with plain English.

About Katherine Kirk

Katherine Kirk is a fiction editor who has to force herself to simplify the English in her own writing.

Rumoured to have eaten a dictionary as a child, she suffers from abibliophobia (the fear of running out of books to read). She speaks four and a half Englishes and can often be found muttering to herself about the New York Times Bee’s prejudice against most of them.

 

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: reflection by Jingwei Ke; hedge maze by Tycho Atsma; straight road by Karsten Würth, all on Unsplash.

Is proofreading a good side hustle?

Proofreading has long been touted online as a good way to supplement a regular income – the side hustle. This post by Louise Harnby examines the notion, and explores the challenges.

In this post, we’ll look at the following:

  • What is a side hustle?
  • The problem with the terminology
  • Proofreading as a side hustle – popular but problematic
  • Do I need training?
  • Who am I competing with?
  • Who hires professional proofreaders?
  • How will I find work?
  • Additional considerations

What is a side hustle?

A side hustle is the term used to describe part-time work that’s done alongside a person’s regular job. Side hustles can be long-term or short-term gigs, and they’re popular because they allow people to dip their toes in the proverbial water rather than fully committing to a career change.

For some, they’re essential, either because their day jobs aren’t generating enough income to meet their costs of living or because their day jobs don’t come with an income at all – for example, those bringing up children or caring for dependants.

The problem with the terminology

In the editorial world, there’s resistance to the terminology owing to the negative connotations of hustle.

Editorial work is about attention to detail, about respecting a client’s voice and brand, about shaping and smoothing text rather than butchering it.

And editors and proofreaders do love their dictionaries. Which doesn’t help matters given hustle’s lexical association with pushiness, pressurised selling, prostitution, and worst of all, fraud.

Since professional self-employed editors and proofreaders spend a chunk of their time trying to build trust with clients searching for editorial support in what is essentially an unregulated global market, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that mention of a hustle makes them twitchy!

Proofreading as a side hustle – popular but problematic

Let’s put the terminology to one side. Can proofreading work be done on the side? Yes. Can a proofreading business be set up overnight? In name, certainly. However, the reality is that unless you already have clients waiting in the wings, you’re going to have to do what every self-employed business owner does – find them, or enable them to find you. Which means marketing.

Furthermore, you’re going to have to find those that you’re a good fit for, and that means skilling up.

Training takes time to complete and marketing takes time to bear fruit. For that reason, if you’re looking to earn extra income quickly, proofreading makes for a poor side hustle.

Do I need training?

Side hustlers in the making might be wondering if training is necessary. Put yourself in a potential client’s shoes. Even if you’re a mega marketer, such that you get in front of your clients quickly, persuading them to hire you requires them trusting you to do a great job.

Trust can be earned in more than one way, but training’s part of the equation. When the tap starts dripping or a plug starts sparking, I don’t want someone messing around with my plumbing and electrics if they haven’t made the effort to ensure they know what they’re doing.

Clients who want help with their words feel the same way about having their text polished. And so they should. The work we do will cost them tens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of pounds. Proofreaders charging for their services owe it to their clients to be qualified to do a great job.

Plus, we don’t know what we don’t know. Prior to carrying out editorial training, I had no clue what a publisher expected from a proofreader. Training solved that problem. One thing I learned is this: a good command of spelling and grammar is just the tip of the editorial iceberg.

Here’s just a smidgen of the skills my publisher clients expect from a proofreader – issues that once read like gibberish to my untrained eye.

  • Marking up page proofs with BSI proof-correction symbols
  • What to do with overmatter
  • How to manage orphans and widows
  • How to check running heads
  • Handling stacked hyphens on rectos
  • Checking that references are styled according to APA or Harvard

 

Who am I competing with?

Something else the side hustler should consider is the competition. This is not a barren marketplace, alas. There are tens of thousands of editorial professionals out there already, many of whom run their businesses as full-time enterprises. They:

  • are highly trained, often with specialist skills and knowledge
  • are very experienced and have portfolios to prove it, and
  • have been around for a while so know how to be found and where to get work.

That said, there is always room for new proofreaders and editors because most of the work these days is done digitally, which means the market is global. And just as people join the profession, so others leave it.

However, it would be a mistake to think that competing in the proofreading market is just about supply and demand. It’s a digital world, which means the name of the game is visibility.

Who hires professional proofreaders?

First, the good news. Anyone who works with words and cares about their meaning and readability will be interested in hiring a proofreader. This short list of potential clients only scratches the surface.

  • Academics
  • Business owners
  • Educators
  • Independent authors
  • Marketing and communications agencies
  • Packagers and project management agencies
  • Publishers
  • Students

That’s the easy bit. The harder bit is that not all clients know what kind of editorial help they need. And so, even if they ask for something called ‘proofreading’, and that’s what you’re offering as a side hustle, it might be the last thing they need. Literally.

In fact, they might need specialist structural or stylistic help that doesn’t fall under the scope of proofreading at all. Proofreading is a final quality-control check after other rounds of editing.

So if you’re thinking about offering this service as a side gig, make sure you and anyone you work with understand the precise scope of the work you’re offering.

Failure to do so could lead to disappointment, complaints and requests for refunds, thereby turning your side hustle into an upfront hassle.

How will I find work?

Getting work means being visible. Either the client has to find you or you have to find them, meaning anyone looking to earn an income from proofreading needs to have marketing skills as well as proofreading skills.

That’s a necessary time-sucker that any independent editorial pro needs to wrap their head around from the get-go.

There are lots of ways to be visible, some better than others, depending on what types of clients you want to proofread for.

  • Emails, letters and phone calls are good options if you want to get on the radar of publishers and packagers.
  • Content marketing is a slow but powerful burn for those wanting to be found on Google and social media by authors, students and academics.
  • Freelance directories can be a good source of work, though are often the first port of call for clients looking for cheap and fast.
  • Many professional editorial associations such as the CIEP have editorial directories that can be good lead generators for appropriately qualified proofreaders.

Proofreading might seem like your ideal side hustle but you must factor in regular time to get the work in the first place. There’s too much competition not to do so.

Additional considerations

Finally, don’t forget the additional business-critical responsibilities that come with the job, even if it is on the side.

  • Will you need indemnity insurance to protect yourself?
  • Will the income you earn need to be declared to the relevant authorities? Will there be tax implications? Might your additional income affect any state benefits you receive?
  • Do you have funds in place for training and marketing? Both have costs to them.
  • Do you have access to an environment that will allow you to concentrate and work without interruption?
  • Do you have industry-standard hardware and software, and know how to use it?
  • How many hours a day do you have available, and will you be able to meet clients’ deadlines? High-quality proofreading is labour-intensive work. Even experienced full-time proofreaders will need at least a week to proofread a novel. Being realistic about the time required is essential.

Summing up

Proofreading can be used to supplement income from another job. Many full-time professional proofreaders started their editorial journey by doing it on the side.

Don’t forget that being a proofreader means becoming one first – via training. And making your side hustle viable means being found by those who need your services – via marketing.

It can be done – just not overnight.

Want to become a proofreader?

The CIEP has loads of support and information to help you get started.

And Louise Harnby has a selection of books and courses to help you on your journey.

About Louise Harnby

Louise Harnby

Louise Harnby is a professional fiction editor with 30 years’ publishing experience, and specialises in working with independent crime, thriller and mystery writers.

She is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP and co-hosts The Editing Podcast with Denise Cowle.

 

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:

 

What do editors and proofreaders think of taking tests?

We asked our freelance members for their opinions about editing and proofreading tests: tests set by a potential client to assess the freelancer’s suitability for the job. Here, four CIEP members share their thoughts on the topic.

Alex Mackenzie

This was a timed proofread I’d been asked to do as part of a job application. The email said they’d send me a document at 10am; I was to proofread it and return it an hour and a half later. Heart racing, I began, wide-eyed and focused. Ninety-one minutes later, of course, reassessing my sent work, I spotted a mistake! The test had been simple enough, basically a simulation of the company’s typical report: one table (misaligned and missing information), one graphic (valuable seconds lost trying to edit that insert), logos and company branding (creative capitalisation), finishing with a wordy biography (university degrees and excessive work experience). But that ticking clock, I thought, was an unnecessary pressure. And my obvious mistake wouldn’t have escaped a re-read or a PerfectIt scan. Oh well, I huffed – I’ll put that down to experience. Three months later I was hired – they’re now a regular client, paying CIEP suggested minimum rates!

Other than that, I’ve completed test edits for academic proofreading agencies. I remember Janet MacMillan’s words in one of my early Cloud Club meetings: give it an hour, there’s nothing to lose. True. This approach has landed me two more jobs, meaning (low-paid) editing work pops into my inbox weekly. I consider it all training!

Laurie Duboucheix-Saunders

In the best of all possible worlds, editors with a proven record of training and experience should not have to take editorial tests.

However, personally, I have found that such tests have opened doors for me that would otherwise have remained closed. English is not my first language and my degrees in English Lit from the Sorbonne and the fact that I have been an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP since 2016 are not enough to stop people from asking whether I can, or even should, edit or proofread an English text because I am not a native speaker.

I use that term even though it has become controversial in more enlightened editorial circles – where multilingual is preferred – because those editorial tests have allowed me to get work based on my abilities and expertise alone, regardless of where I come from. As with exams that are marked blind, they are an objective assessment of a candidate’s skills and knowledge.

As I write this, I worry that my argument could be used to support the use of editorial tests specifically for non-native editors. This is a million miles away from what I’m trying to say. A strong CV and proven training in editing English material should be enough for people like me to get the job. As it’s not the case yet, I’d rather take a test than be ruled out systematically simply because I am not originally from an anglophone country.

Louise Bolotin

Louise Bolotin

I’m not opposed to sitting editing tests, but I’m not wild about them. I believe my many years of experience and my Advanced Professional Member status in the CIEP should speak for themselves and indicate my competence. My CIEP directory entry, my website and LinkedIn profile are all places a prospective client can look at my CV, a sample client list and client testimonials. On that basis, I won’t take a test for a small company or a private individual such as an independent author. However, I might – if the job looks really interesting and I really want it – offer to do a free one-page sample. No more, and beyond that I’m happy to agree to a week’s (paid) trial or some such, to see how we work together. I do sit editing tests if required where it involves a major rolling contract. I recently took one for a government inspectorate, where passing the test was a prerequisite for joining the freelance pool. I’ve also taken tests for publishing companies for the same reason, but these tests should never be more than a couple of pages and should never take more than around 90 minutes to complete. If they are any longer, you should be paid for your time.

Caroline Petherick

While it’s reasonable for a client to want to have some indication of competence in a freelance editor or proofreader they’re thinking of hiring, the idea of testing a qualified and experienced editor is, in my view, not just out of date but near enough insulting.

As I understand it, the concept arose in the publishing industry in the mid-20th century, an era when many publishing houses were getting rid of their in-house editors in favour of freelance editors and proofreaders, who required less commitment, both financial and pastoral. That was (and still is) seen as an important move in this cut-throat industry.

Until the mid-20th century, copyeditors and proofreaders were quite likely to have been wives of publishers – and unpaid. That view of the profession lingered long in the publishing industry, to its financial advantage. Throughout the 20th century (and in some cases into the 21st), it clearly suited the publishing houses to continue to perceive the proofreader and copyeditor as lowly individuals at the bottom end of the status ladder.

But with the new freelance system, how could a publisher establish editorial competence? A test designed to include the classic traps was obviously deemed appropriate.

Now that we editors and proofreaders have made our mark as independent professionals, due to the formation of the SfEP – now the CIEP, a chartered organisation with registered members and clear status – it is clear that a potential client asking a CIEP member to take a test would be as incongruous a request as, for example, asking a qualified lawyer, designer or accountant – or even a Gas Safe engineer! – to do so. (To be fair, though, it’s probably only a few publishing houses who might still ask for a test. The myriad of other types of clients are highly unlikely to do so.)

The balance of power has changed. And not before time.

A sample edit is, however, as I see it, crucially important. And here, editorial professionals have an advantage over lawyers, designers, accountants and plumbers in their dealings with clients. In working on a sample, a CIEP member will not only be showing the client what work they’d carry out, but they will be assessing the text and, to some degree, the client. And then, having seen what the client produces, they’ll also be able to quote a fair price for the work. All part of the professional package.

Wrapping up: editing tests

This post has presented the opinions of four CIEP members on editing tests, and it shows the breadth of views there are on the topic.

Have you taken an editing or proofreading test? Or have you set one as a way to assess a freelancer’s abilities? Tell us more in the comments.

Ayesha Chari has written about her experiences of editing tests.

READ AYESHA’S ARTICLE

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: clock by Samantha Gades on Unsplash