Tag Archives: academic

The hidden art of editing – the 2016 Whitcombe lecture

By Susan Greenberg

When I was first invited to give the keynote Whitcombe lecture at this year’s SfEP conference, they told me about the theme for this year – ‘Let’s talk about text’ – and explained: ‘Our members’ work is very varied, but we are all in the business of improving text.’

I feel a deep affinity with this approach. I have spent the greater part of my life thinking about what it means to improve texts; first as a practitioner, then as an academic.

When I started a PhD to go with this new career, about 10 years ago, I wanted to choose a subject that connected these two different lives. And I chose editing in particular because – like other behind-the-scenes work – it is mostly invisible; a hidden art. It would be interesting to bring it more fully into view.

Right from the start, my instinct was to look at the subject in the round. The analysis had to be comparative; it had to take the long view, and it had to include the insights of practitioners. The comparative aspect is crucial, because we already know how the different kinds of editorial work are different; why not ask how they might be similar?

Z_EditorsCoverSo far, one book has already come out of this research, and work on a second is advanced. In the first book, a set of interviews, we get to hear conversations on a human level about what people do when they are editing and what they think about it. This does three main things:

  1. It teases out the shared concerns of different kinds of editors.
  2. It gives a rough shape of a possible ‘best practice’.
  3. It underlines the extent to which good communication is hard; and so the extent to which people need help.

The second book is based on the idea that to bring this invisible practice into full view, we need not just description and definition, but also a really good theory.

We think of ‘theory’ as something high-minded and abstract, but it can and does affect everyday life. Compared to other cultural practices, publishing is very under-theorised. And this can end up undermining its value or status. The reason is that people need a framework in which they can fit random discoveries; otherwise the things they encounter are not fully noticed or remembered.

So, one needs a theory, but the type of theory makes a difference to visibility as well. Until now, the theorisation of editing often comes under the heading of ‘social constructivism’ and often uses the language of ‘gatekeeping’. This is a useful metaphor, but it can struggle to fit all sizes. And it sometimes makes too many assumptions about its subject. The assumption in the case of editing is usually that the ‘gatekeeper’ is always bad, and is always found only in whatever part of the media that the researcher does not like.

That is why I feel there is a need to define principles for textual work that make more allowances for the messiness of human practice.

Dr Susan Greenberg

Dr Susan Greenberg

Dr Susan L. Greenberg is Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton [1], following a long career as journalist and editor. She teaches and offers doctoral supervision in her specialist areas of narrative nonfiction, and publishing. Susan is also the Publisher of the department’s in-house imprint, Fincham Press [2]. Publications include Editors talk about editing: insights for readers, writers and publishers (Peter Lang, 2015) [3]. Visit her blog at Oddfish [4] or follow her on Twitter at @sgediting. [5]

Specialist Q&A – Archaeology (and related fields)

Specialist Q&AOur editorial industry is made up of people carrying out a huge range of tasks across many different sectors. Although we are bound by common aims – to make text consistent, accurate and clear – our chosen areas of work can differ in fascinating ways.

Jill Cucchi is a freelance copy-editor. She has answered some questions on her main specialism: archaeology.

  1. Briefly, what’s your work background?

I started out in the civil service writing business cases for HM Treasury and answering parliamentary questions, but my passion was always archaeology. After many years volunteering on digs, and after completing a BA (Hons) degree in archaeology in 2004, I landed my dream job as a field archaeologist with Durham University.

  1. How long have you specialised in this particular kind of editorial work, and how did you get started?

I did some editorial work for Durham University’s archaeology department, but it wasn’t until I moved to France that I realised it could be a full-time job. After ‘checking’ some journal papers for my husband’s colleague, and really enjoying it, I started looking into copy-editing (via indexing and proofreading) as a new career. I’ve recently started to specialise in academic journal/conference papers written by authors with English as a second language.

  1. What specific knowledge, experience or qualifications do you need?

You need to have a wide-ranging knowledge of archaeology and archaeological practices (e.g. chronology, excavation, methods of dating), as well as a good understanding of related disciplines (e.g. zooarchaeology, archaeobotany). For me, having French as a second language is also useful in differentiating scientific jargon from direct translations.

  1. How do you go about finding work in this area?

As most scientific papers need to be written in English, academics who are non-native speakers are always looking for copy-editors and/or translators. As my husband works for the CNRS (Centre national de la recherche scientifique) at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (Paris), and his colleagues knew he had an English wife with a background in archaeology, I was constantly asked if I could do urgent jobs when their usual copy-editor was busy. After a few (hopefully well done) ‘rush jobs’, I took on every urgent job that came up, did minuscule jobs (e.g. reading a 100-word abstract, correcting a book review), offered a final free proofread, adjusted my hourly rate – anything in fact to get some experience. Often the copy-editors that academics use have a PhD (I don’t), or are fluently bilingual (I’m not) so competition is tough. However, now I have an ever-growing set of regular clients, and I’ve had requests from other universities and museums via recommendations.

  1. What do you most enjoy about the work?

I love that it combines my two great passions: archaeology and literature. I love taking a piece of complicated text and making it readable. I love it when a client has a paper or a grant application accepted and I can breathe a huge sigh of relief. I love that my job allows me to read (and write) and learn about archaeology without getting wet and muddy, though that is fun too.

  1. What are the particular challenges?

Trying to copy-edit complex scientific papers when I am not a science graduate and the author is a non-native English speaker. Also, the text can be incredibly specialised (e.g. 12 pages on the nitrogen value of pig’s teeth), so it can be challenging to stay focused.

  1. What’s the worst job you’ve had – and/or the best?

The worst job I had was a paper I had copy-edited being refused publication and not knowing why. Ouch! (But later accepted, thankfully.) The best job I had was a scientific budget report with a two-day turnaround (sadly, the two days were Saturday and Sunday). The client readily accepted my increased hourly rate and insisted I take a bonus – I thought I was dreaming.

  1. What tips would you give to someone wanting to work in this field?

You will need a sound knowledge of the subject so read lots of journals, volunteer on some digs, see if you can help out at your local museum and register for some (often free) online courses (e.g. FutureLearn – they have several archaeology/history courses). You’ll also need excellent (I’m not quite there yet…) copy-editing skills as the publication process is tough.

  1. What is the pay like – and are there any other perks?

It varies (wildly) depending on the client’s grant allocation or the project’s budget, but I’d say for an average 15-page paper (about 8/9 hours) you could expect around £200. My biggest perk, at the moment, is just being freelance – after 12 years in the civil service this is a dream!

  1. What other opportunities do you think editorial work in this area might lead to?

It’s hard to say really as I’m just starting out, but I’ve recently been asked to translate and copy-edit a book chapter for the Musée du quai Branly on anthropology, which is a new and exciting direction for me. I’ve also been asked to copy-edit a catalogue for an art gallery in Paris, which has nothing to do with archaeology at all, so it seems the possibilities are endless.

Jill CucchiJill Cucchi is an Entry-Level Member of the SfEP. She is an archaeologist turned copy-editor specialising in academic journal/conference papers for non-native English speakers.


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

Specialist Q&A – oceanography and medicine

Specialist Q&AOur editorial industry is made up of people carrying out a huge range of tasks across many different sectors. Although we are bound by common aims – to make text consistent, accurate and clear – our chosen areas of work can differ in fascinating ways.

Cathryn Primrose-Mathisen is an onscreen copy-editor. She has answered some questions on her main specialisms: oceanography and medicine.

  1. Briefly, what’s your work background?

Following university, I worked for Fugro GEOS/OCEANOR for 14 years. I was involved in metocean measurement and real-time monitoring projects, holding roles such as project/sales manager in Trondheim, operations manager in Houston, and senior oceanographer in Singapore. I also completed many fieldwork visits, installing and servicing instrumentation on moorings and offshore platforms, as well as reporting the results and presenting them at conferences. I worked with very different clients, such as oil and gas companies, governmental organisations and universities. In terms of medicine, when I was younger I used to work in the summer holidays at the health centre where my mother worked as a GP.

I have been freelance copy-editing/proofreading for about six years. I specialise in science, technology, business and medicine. I have copy-edited numerous scientific articles both pre- and post-submission to journals, and I have copy-edited books about, for example, climate change, marine ecology, earthquake engineering, international relations and clinical diabetes. Over the past five years I have worked with a local doctor providing English language review of his PhD thesis as well as articles that have been published in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders and the BMJ.

  1. How long have you specialised in this particular kind of editorial work, and how did you get started?

I have specialised in these areas for most of my freelance career. Initially, I took The Publishing Training Centre’s ‘Basic proofreading by distance learning’ course and joined the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). I marketed myself as a proofreader, emphasising my academic qualifications (MSc Oceanography, BSc (Hons) Geography) and the subject areas I studied at university (climate change, palaeoceanography, geopolitics, culture etc.). It soon became clear that I was a more natural copy-editor and that I had a broad range of both academic and commercial experience. A couple of my proofreading clients asked whether I would like to do some onscreen copy-editing work and it grew from there. I studied Barbara Horn’s Copy-Editing and decided to supplement my knowledge of MS Word by taking the SfEP’s ‘Onscreen editing 1’ course. I plan to take the level 2 course when I can.

  1. What specific knowledge, experience or qualifications do you need?

A sufficient academic grounding enables you to know whether the flow of a text is correct for the fields in which you specialise, helps you to communicate with the authors, and helps you to spot obvious mistakes. My master’s degree has helped me to obtain projects, but it is not a prerequisite for all clients.

One of my best commercial clients contacted me specifically because I had spent a great deal of time working offshore on oil rigs. They knew that I was familiar with the stringent health, safety and environment procedures found there. Similarly, one of the PhD theses that I copy-edited last year was about project management, and the client contacted me because of my previous commercial experience.

A close family member has diabetes type 1 and uses an insulin pump. The system is similar in many ways to the real-time metocean monitoring systems that I installed for Fugro, and we troubleshoot it in the same way.

  1. How do you go about finding work in this area?

I started by approaching some of the larger academic publishers and replying to job announcements sent via the SfEP. Over the years I have built up my experience and have maintained a good relationship with my clients, leading to repeat work.

I upgraded my SfEP membership so that I could obtain a directory entry and have received some good leads from different types of clients in this way. I have also experimented with other directories, finding some more suitable than others.

My aim is to continue to expand my commercial base. I have attended the SfEP’s ‘Getting work with non-publishers’ course, which has helped me to clarify my goals. I will soon be working with a local business mentor to help me build my business network in the cities closest to where I live, and I have also joined my nearest chamber of commerce (Norwegian equivalent of). Last year I attended the Aqua Nor conference in Trondheim, Norway, and this year I will be attending the Oceanology conference in London. I am fortunate that our local business development organisation Bindal Utvikling AS is providing some financial support.

  1. What do you most enjoy about the work?

I enjoy being able to make use of my university and work experience to help clients from around the world. I particularly enjoy copy-editing articles about data collection during fieldwork and the subsequent presentation and analysis of results.

  1. What are the particular challenges?

Cross-referencing many pages of tag numbers proved ‘interesting’, but I found that the key was to develop and apply a clear and logical sequence of actions.

  1. What’s the worst job you’ve had – and/or the best?

The worst job I had was really two and this was very early on in my freelance career. I naively accepted two large proofreads that overlapped and I did not anticipate delays with the first one. This led to very long days and nights.

  1. What tips would you give to someone wanting to work in this field?

Do not overestimate your potential earnings. Also remember that you may not be able to focus properly for more than about four to five hours a day on a long-term basis.

  1. What is the pay like – and are there any other perks?

Pay from my commercial clients is generally higher than from my publishing clients. I aim for balance in my work and family life, and I enjoy going for a walk in the hills at lunchtime.

  1. What other opportunities do you think editorial work in this area might lead to?

Over the next few years I will increase the marketing of my rewriting and website copy-editing skills. I shall also continue to reach out towards the aquaculture industry, where my skills and experience can also be used.

I have recently completed my own print-on-demand book of landscape photographs and have used design software to compile a recipe booklet for fundraising for a school class.

Cathryn Primrose-MathisenCathryn Primrose-Mathisen is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP, specialising in science, technology, business and medicine for everyone from individuals to multinationals. Following a successful commercial oceanographic career around the world she now lives in Norway and helps others to acquire more customers, sell more products and services and/or present clear safety and technical information or scientific results. She walks wherever and whenever possible. Find out more at: www.cathrynprimrose.com, www.sfep.org.uk/directory/cathryn-primrose-mathisen and www.linkedin.com/in/cathrynprimrose

Proofread by SfEP Professional Member Christina Harkness

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

Specialist Q&A – Linguistics

Specialist Q&AOur editorial industry is made up of people carrying out a huge range of tasks across many different sectors. Although we are bound by common aims – to make text consistent, accurate and clear – our chosen areas of work can differ in fascinating ways.

Sue Browning is a freelance proofreader and copy-editor. She has answered some questions on her main specialism: linguistics.

  1. Briefly, what’s your work background?

I have a degree in linguistics and spent 22 years in speech technology research, first in academia and then for a government research establishment. I started freelance editing in 2005, and have worked on a range of humanities subjects as well as linguistics.

  1. How long have you specialised in this particular kind of editorial work, and how did you get started?

I’ve been editing linguistics right from the start of my editing career. My early work came mainly from students, through ex-colleagues in academia, advertising on free online directory sites like Freelance Proofreaders, and then by word of mouth. Later, a project management company for which I was already copy-editing a range of subjects happened to ask about specialisms, and since then I have edited many academic linguistics books for them.

  1. What specific knowledge, experience or qualifications do you need?

Linguistics is a huge field, encompassing everything from phonetics and phonology (the sounds) to pragmatics and discourse analysis (entire conversations or even larger language elements), to parts of cognitive science and psychology, and it helps to be familiar with the terminology and conventions of all these different fields. My specialism is phonetics and phonology, so I need a good working knowledge of the phonetic symbols and how to code them so they print correctly.

  1. How do you go about finding work in this area?

I started by making sure that academics I had worked with in linguistics departments knew I was an editor, and that brought me work on linguistics PhDs and occasionally for academics preparing papers for journals. Most of my work now comes by word of mouth or repeat business with existing clients. So I just make sure that relevant clients know my specialisms and that all my online profiles mention linguistics.

  1. What do you most enjoy about the work?

Learning! I’ve recently edited a number of books on evolutionary linguistics, which wasn’t a thing when I studied linguistics, so it was entirely new to me and I find it fascinating. I also love learning how speakers of other languages view the world. Did you know, for instance, that while speakers of Indo-European languages (like English) talk of events in the past as behind them and those in the future as in front of them, speakers of Aymara, an Amerind language that privileges knowledge gained at first hand, talk about past events as in front of them, so open to inspection, and future events as behind them, so not visible. That kind of blew my mind when I first read about it.

  1. What are the particular challenges?

I’m not sure there are any particular challenges. Being interested and knowledgeable about language, most linguists write pretty well, even non-native speakers, but they make the same lapses that all authors do. Sometimes an author will use a specialist phonetic font that gets mangled in the pre-processing so I need to be able to spot that and check what it should be with the author. Wrangling linguistic examples so they align correctly can be tricky too.

  1. What’s the worst job you’ve had – and/or the best?

Like most editors, I’ve had nightmare jobs, but it is rarely because they are linguistics books! I also edit fiction, and one of the jobs I enjoyed the most was for a sci-fi author who had made up an alien language. We had great fun making sure it was internally consistent.

  1. What tips would you give to someone wanting to work in this field?

Make use of any links you have with people in the field, and tell people about your specialist areas.

Oh, and while linguistics gives you a great understanding of what grammar is and how language works, you still need the basic training in editing and proofreading.

I find that a knowledge of linguistics sometimes helps in explaining the need for a change and it also helps counter some of the ridiculous pet peeves you might come across (like those that Geoff Pullum spoke so entertainingly about at the 2015 conference).

  1. What is the pay like – and are there any other perks?

The pay is pretty typical for the academic humanities, i.e. not great. I do it more for the pleasure of being able to read fascinating books by erudite authors, and I have to confess I get a particular thrill from editing books by my linguistic heroes.

  1. What other opportunities do you think editorial work in this area might lead to?

A knowledge of linguistics is very useful for teaching English to both native learners and non-native speakers, and I edit in these fields too.

Sue BrowningSue Browning is a Professional Member of the SfEP, specialising in copy-editing linguistics and other humanities and social sciences. She mainly works on books for academic publishers but also edits for individual academics and authors. As well as prowling the halls of academia, she also walks on alien planets, editing sci-fi and fantasy fiction.

Website: www.suebrowning-editing.co.uk

Twitter: https://twitter.com/SueBrowning_ed

LinkedIn: uk.linkedin.com/in/SueBrowningEditing


Proofread by SfEP Professional Member Louise Lubke Cuss (WordBlink)

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

Beyond the proofreader’s remit?

By Liz Jones

When proofreading materials for book and journal publishers, we are not always presented with a thorough brief and there is often a tacit understanding of what the role of the proofreader includes … and what it does not include. The SfEP sets out some commonly understood responsibilities of the proofreader and the copy-editor in the traditional publishing process. However, it’s apparent that these roles are becoming increasingly fuzzy in the academic publishing world.

Recently a discussion arose in the SfEP forums on the thorny topic of whether a proofreader should check references in an academic book as a matter of course, and exactly what that checking should entail. The original poster referred to a proofreader being expected by a client (an academic publisher) to cross-check a reference list against the in-text citations. Many experienced editors weighed in on the debate, and gradually a consensus emerged. The general understanding was that such detailed checking of references should be part of the copy-editor’s role, not the proofreader’s. In an ideal world the proofreader would then simply need to read the reference list, checking for small inconsistencies of styling or typos. Several posters said they would perform spot-checks of a few citations during such a proofread to ensure that the reference list seems to be in accord with the main body of the text. It was also pointed out that it is certainly not the proofreader’s job to check the factual accuracy of references, or even that authors’ names are spelled correctly.

work stressThe problems start when a proofreader finds (perhaps through performing spot-checks) that the references have not been properly edited, or that other errors are present, perhaps as a result of formatting. In more extreme cases the proofreader may suspect that the text and associated references have not been copy-edited at all. In this case, the proofreader is presented with a difficult choice:

  1. They can carry out the proofread as briefed and within budget, but without doing any work that might be considered beyond the remit of the proofreader. The proofreader knows that some errors are likely to remain, but decides it is not their responsibility to make the text perfect, and is not willing to reduce their hourly rate to compensate for shortcomings earlier in the publishing process.
  2. They can go beyond the standard proofreader’s remit in order to bring the book up to a publishable standard. This means the proofreader carries out a proportion of what might be considered ‘higher-level’ copy-editing work, while being paid as a proofreader. It may also entail significantly more time being spent on the job, reducing the hourly rate still further.

Neither of these solutions is ideal. As editorial professionals we tend to be hard-wired to want to help the client produce excellent work … but at the same time, as business owners we don’t want to be taken advantage of.

What should make a proofreader wary?

Sara Peacock, former chair of the SfEP, provided examples of the problems she sometimes encounters as a proofreader:

  • None of the citations cross-checked against the references list.
  • References wildly inconsistently presented, with lots of missing information.
  • Bullet lists inconsistently presented, in terms of capitalisation and punctuation.
  • Figures not correlating to text in terms of style and sometimes content, or the text referring to coloured portions when the figures are reproduced monochrome.
  • Inconsistent capitalisation in headings.
  • Lists of what is to come in the text not corresponding with the text that actually follows.

These are clearly the responsibility of the copy-editor, but as a proofreader, we do not know the reasons behind problems we may find with copy-edited text.

Experienced editor, trainer and long-standing SfEP member Melanie Thompson made the point that errors might be ‘potentially down to problems of the files not being imported correctly (tracked changes carrying across by mistake) … Could the author have been given back the [copy-edited] file and undone a lot of the good work? And then of course there’s the possibility that the publisher/client never had the material copy-edited in the first place …’

Veteran editor and SfEP member Kathleen Lyle pointed out that ‘one problem is that things can happen to the references in the gap between copy-editing and proofreading – for example, an author may decide to add some new references to bring a chapter up to date. Depending on the publisher’s workflow this new material may be dealt with in-house and not be seen by the copy-editor; this could well cause discrepancies of style or content between text and list. As a proofreader I’d expect to pick up discrepancies of style in the text or list, and cross-check any strange-looking items.’

From these comments alone it is clear that text may appear badly edited for a number of reasons, including lack of time and budget, or technical glitches. There is also the possibility that the copy-editor lacked training, or tried to get away with providing substandard work due to other pressures. It is also a fact that many in-house editors and project managers are very pushed for time and may not be able to closely monitor and assess the work of all their suppliers on every job. (I say this as a former in-house editor.)

What can we do?

If we find ourselves presented with poorly edited text as a proofreader, there is a third way (beyond the stark dilemma presented above).

First, we can establish the brief. Gillian Clarke, trainer to many editors over several decades via the SfEP and the PTC, said simply that ‘it is hugely important to establish from the very beginning exactly what the client wants’. This can help at whatever stage in the process we are working. If the client hasn’t provided a clear brief, consider sending them your own checklist of tasks covered by proofreading (and not).

Assuming that the brief is clear, you can then try the following if presented with text from a publisher that needs a lot more attention than a straightforward proofread.

  • Assess the work: Does the budget cover what you need to do? Is it within your capabilities in the time allowed? If the answer to these questions is yes, and the job is fairly self-contained, you might decide in that case simply to get on with it and provide feedback for the publisher along with delivery of the completed work.
  • Raise the issue: If the budget and schedule do not allow for satisfactory completion of the job, or if you feel the work goes beyond what you are comfortable doing – in short, if there is any reason why you think a job is not possible within the given parameters – tell the client straight away, and wait for their response before proceeding. If they don’t answer first time, try again – this is important.
  • Ask for more money/time: If the client can offer more of either or both, the issue might be resolved in the short term, enabling you to complete the job.
  • Adopt a pragmatic attitude: If the client will not budge on money or the schedule, and you decide to proceed with the work, be strict with yourself about what you can and can’t do with the available resources, make sure the client is aware of this, do the job and move on.

However you deal with the job, you should make it clear in your handover notes to the client what the editorial shortcomings were when the project reached you, and what you had to do as a result. Be clear and matter-of-fact about the ways in which you needed to go above and beyond in order to complete your work, without making assumptions or personal attacks. You need to do this because the client might otherwise remain unaware of the issue. However, you don’t need to start telling them what to do with this information.

Questioning clients and (re)negotiating rates can be daunting, especially for newer proofreaders and editors. It’s also tempting for proofreaders just starting out to go above and beyond to try to impress new clients and secure future work. This is where discussion in the SfEP forums, on other online platforms or with your local group can help enormously.


This really all boils down to the simple question of whether the proofreader should have to compensate for inadequate copy-editing. It’s the client’s budget or yours – something has to give.

However, it also has wider implications for our industry, perhaps most pressingly in the academic publishing sector. A lack of investment in careful editing by trained professionals may help publishers balance the books in the short term, but the eventual outcome will surely be a drop in the overall quality of output, and a growing reluctance among the more experienced proofreaders to work for certain clients at all, which would surely be much more detrimental in the long term.

Next controversial topic: how far should a proofreader go in checking an index …?

Liz JonesLiz Jones (www.ljed.co.uk) has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She specialises in trade non-fiction and educational publishing, and is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP.



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