Tag Archives: communication

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.

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.

Plain English Campaign: from Thatcher to Johnson

By Lee Monks

‘Wit is the alliance of levity and seriousness (by which the seriousness is intensified)’ – TS Eliot

Although officially established in 1979, the Plain English Campaign really started life much earlier. Our roots lie in making life fairer for everyone; the Tuebrook Bugle, founded by Chrissie Maher in early 1960s Liverpudlian slums, was created to bring news to people whose education meant that general news items largely or partially passed them by. They were inadvertently excluded from their community through a combination of poor reading skills and shame. The paper’s language was simple and clear, and meant that many hundreds of locals now felt connected. News items that directly affected them were no longer baffling. Local citizens could claim more knowledge that would not only inform them but empower them too.

Democratising information

The Bugle was a highly popular and unprecedented success. There’d been nothing like it before in the UK. Working-class mums like Chrissie were predominantly responsible for its content, production and delivery (available at a nominal cost; no more than enough to get the paper printed). It was the seed from which the Plain English Campaign would later flourish; it was born out of anger that masses of people were unnecessarily marginalised. It led to revamped local conditions – no more keeping people in the dark about their rights to save money – and the appreciation that the ‘rank and file’ could enforce change, as long as they had access to all necessary facts.

Chrissie eventually moved on to other endeavours, such as the Liverpool News and the Salford Forms Market (enabling poorly educated men and women to claim what they were entitled to by helping them understand horribly written government forms), but the scope for helping people and democratising information ultimately led in one direction: towards the transformation of language and information at the national level.

Enduring change

To think of the Plain English Campaign now – as a force for the democratic good, a bulwark against jargon, legalese, obfuscation and spin – is to forget just how rampantly confusing much of the public domain information was in 1979. The event that heralded the official beginning of the campaign – Chrissie shredding impenetrable government documentation in front of the Houses of Parliament – was a watershed moment. At that point, there had been no real speaking truth to power on the matter. Those on the bottom rung simply accepted their plight. But Chrissie had nearly two decades of fighting their corner under her belt and knew how to bring about enduring change. That symbolic initiation was no gimmick – it was a call to arms. And it brought attention to a campaign that would grow rapidly in the following years.

The first few of those years were about driving home the point that pompous use of language was no longer acceptable. Walls had to be knocked down; an entire philosophy, established over centuries, needed to be replaced. There were two key elements in play, both of which were vitally important to the continued success of the campaign. One was the need to reinforce the idea that polysyllabic words were not only not impressive when it came to public information, but that the use of them was a political matter. Language was a means of shutting out vast numbers of a potential audience; if you couldn’t understand something, the onus was on the reader to parse often labyrinthine tranches of information. Long sentences, Latinate references: this habit of employing words that only a portion of a readership could appreciate needed to become less prevalent.

The second measure, without which the campaign might have taken much longer to become as established, was mockery. It was all right suggesting that people needed to know about local and national government matters and that to deny them was inherently wrong but, as has been shown since, those in power will more often than not wilfully confuse an audience rather than inform it and risk economic loss. The morality of providing clear information – which Margaret Thatcher would support – was one thing; doing the right thing, encouraged by the prime minister, was certainly effective, and the requirement that civil servants communicate clearly got things moving in the right direction. Job centre forms were already much clearer thanks to campaign pressure; medicine labels would soon follow suit.

But once it became not only regrettable but also a matter of ridicule to use poor, pointlessly complex language, things really began to take off.

So plain English became not only the right way to communicate – arguments against it only strengthened its hand in opposing a needlessly stubborn elite – but also the only respectable way. Beyond a certain point in the 1980s there were no longer convincing reasons for doing otherwise. Jargon was no longer confusing; it was laughable, easy to caricature (have a look at our Gobbledygook Generator for proof!). Those employing gobbledygook instead of plain English were not only becoming more and more unfashionable, they were figures of fun.

The game is up for poor communication

As our Foot in Mouth Award best attests: talk nonsense and you’re asking for trouble. To read a jargon-heavy sentence these days is not only to wince with discomfort but also to implicitly understand that the misuse of language is deserving of ridicule. The government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis is deplorably woolly in terms of language, and it has deservedly spawned countless mocking articles, memes and tweets. The odious ‘Stay alert’ rebranding is surely designed to put the onus on a stressed and ambivalent public to make up their own minds about just what it could possibly mean. But as the withering responses – from newspapers to those suffering harrowing loss – show, poor use of language is now not only ‘not on’, it will get the drubbing it deserves. Plain English is the benchmark; the rank and file know full well when they’re being had. For those unwilling to speak and communicate clearly the game is very quickly up.

Lee Monks is the Media and Communications Officer for PEC but has fulfilled many roles for the Campaign over the years.

 

 

 


Photo credits: Blah blah blah by Nick Fewings, and Daffodils at Westminster by Ming Jun Tan, both on Unsplash.

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

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

Stay alert: the importance of plain English in these confusing times

By Claire Beveridge

Presenting scientific data or science-based guidelines can be like walking a tightrope. Lean too far to one side and you risk falling into the trap of using too much jargon and alienating your readers. Shift too much the other way and your message becomes vague and confusing. You need look no further than the messaging from the UK Government for an example of this delicate balancing act. Their initial message ‘Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save lives’ was simple, direct and clearly conveyed what everyone was supposed to do. Contrast this with its successor ‘Stay alert. Control the virus. Save lives’, which was almost immediately met with confusion and parodies on social media such as ‘Be vague. Cover our backs. Shirk responsibility’. What exactly did ‘stay alert’ mean, and what could and couldn’t we do? If only they had used plainer English.

Communication of scientific and medical information is most effective when things are written clearly and simply. Scientific literacy among the general population has been reported to be decreasing, and bad writing that is too complicated makes it increasingly difficult for non-scientists to engage. Add in the pandemic of ‘fake news’ that constantly seems to swirl online and you have a dangerous mix. A BBC team recently reported that the human cost of coronavirus misinformation has included assaults, arson and death, with hundreds dying in Iran as a result of alcohol poisoning following rumours of its curative effects, and others ingesting disinfectant and even fish tank cleaner following some of the daily pronouncements by Donald Trump. The stakes could not be higher. If important information isn’t communicated in a way that people understand, the result can be the unnecessary loss of life.

The ‘dihydrogen monoxide parody’ is a classic example of how using unnecessarily complicated scientific terms and selectively reporting data can lead people to reach misplaced conclusions. It has been deployed several times, and involves water being called by an unfamiliar chemical name and members of the public being presented with a list of its well-known effects that make it sound dangerous (such as that it is used as an additive in junk foods, it is found in tumours of terminal cancer patients and it is the major component of acid rain), followed by people being urged to ‘sign here to join the campaign for it to be banned’.

Science, by its very nature, is full of questions that cannot be answered without an element of doubt. Even if someone can get the same result when they repeat an experiment, it doesn’t ‘prove’ that something is or isn’t true. Results are simply pieces of evidence that support (or refute) a theory; ‘all scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, and nothing is final’ (Kanazawa, 2008). Understandably, this can be a hard concept to grasp, and frustration and mistrust can arise if people feel that they are not being given a ‘proper’ answer. When will we have a vaccine against COVID-19? When will our lives go back to the way they were before the pandemic? No mathematical model can accurately predict the answers to these questions because we have never experienced this situation before. Even if we had, there would be no guarantee that the situation would play out in exactly the same way again; there are simply too many factors involved. When presenting data, writers need to consider people’s expectations and be honest about what is and isn’t known, and why.

The use of plain English is also important when scientists write for other scientists. It is a golden rule of scientific writing that methods must be described so that someone else can repeat experiments, and it is best practice to aim the abstract of a research paper at a level suitable for a non-specialist graduate student. More importantly, English is the global language of science and writers must always remember that many of their readers will not be native English speakers. Reading research papers that are crammed full of acronyms and complicated terminology can feel like wading through treacle, even when the writer works in the same field as you. Imagine how this must feel if English is not your first language. When results and guidelines are published, they are shared globally to spread ideas and new findings as widely as possible, and hopefully stimulate new ideas and collaborations across different disciplines that will advance our understanding. This cannot happen if only experts in a specific field can decode what is being said. Writing in plain English both speeds up the process of sharing new knowledge and increases the chances of new and exciting discoveries being made, something that is particularly useful when confronting a global pandemic caused by a virus that has never been seen before.

Clear communication in these confusing times may also yield another benefit; increasing engagement with science and medicine holds the key to inspiring the next generation of researchers, which will hopefully increase the numbers entering the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Data from STEM Women show that the split between men and women in terms of studying STEM subjects at university and then going on to pursue a career in STEM is still far from equal. We have a golden opportunity to readjust this balance if we can clearly communicate just how fascinating and rewarding scientific and medical research can be.

I have seen a lot of posts online musing over whether COVID-19 will change the way we live and work forever. If we can increase our use of plain English when communicating scientific data and guidelines, one positive change may be increased engagement.

Claire Beveridge is a CIEP Advanced Professional Member specialising in medicine and the biological sciences. Based near Oxford, she has over 13 years’ experience working with publishers and individual researchers. She has recently developed a worrying fascination with personal finance. Find her on Twitter.

 


If you’re looking for an experienced editor skilled in plain English editing, search for ‘plain English’ in the CIEP Directory.


Photo credits: tightrope by Loic Leray; clear water by Rots Marie-Hélène, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Alice McBrearty, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

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

Not just fun and games: the CPD of escape rooms

By Julia Sandford-Cooke

You might think I’m just a meek and unassuming editor, but I have a secret identity. When I’m not correcting content, I may be stealing diamonds, exploring Egyptian tombs, solving crimes or perhaps even saving the world (twice from a renegade sheep). Despite my reputation for remaining calm under pressure, I have been known to scream, ‘Why are you just standing there? We only have three minutes to defuse the bomb!’

Yes, I’m an escape room enthusiast. Bear with me because the link to continuing professional development (CPD) isn’t as tenuous as you might think. After 20 years as an editor, I’m still committed to learning but I’ve completed most relevant courses at least once, so have begun to seek out new ways to build and apply my skills. After all, we editorial professionals don’t just spend our days correcting grammar and swearing at Microsoft Word – we also practise problem solving, time management, team working and lateral thinking. And all these skills are tested and strengthened in escape rooms.

What is an escape room?

Basically, you and your team of two to about seven people enter a room to solve puzzles relating to a particular theme or story within a set amount time (usually an hour but, increasingly, 90 minutes). In fact, ‘escape room’ is rather a misleading term. It’s really more about escapism than escaping. Although you may need to find a way out of a setting like a prison or cabin within the time limit, instead you could solve a crime, find a relic, save a pirate ship or pass all your wizarding exams. Sometimes the challenge is just collecting as many toy cats as you can. You won’t actually be locked in (I believe that’s illegal) and, in fact, many rooms allow you to leave at any time – but what would be the fun of that? I won’t spoil your future games by describing the puzzles you’ll encounter in detail but they may involve matching words, spotting inconsistences, identifying patterns, remembering sequences, cracking codes, finding pieces of a jigsaw and completing it, or something more physical, such as shooting foam bullets at a target. Typically, you’ll need to identify a numeric sequence or locate a key for a padlock. It’s seen as bad form to require external general knowledge (that’s what pub quizzes are for) so, as long as you know simple maths and the alphabet, you’ll be able to make a start. If you get stuck, your games master, who monitors you on CCTV, can provide a hint.

Most escape rooms are aimed at adults but switched-on kids aged over eight or so often excel as part of a grown-up team, as long as the theme isn’t too scary – my 11-year-old escape room veteran refuses to do any rooms relating to Egyptian mummies, zombies or school detentions. As for the rooms themselves, some are charmingly homemade, some are slickly mechanised and some have amazing movie-quality sets but all require players to accept the scenario in which they find themselves and work together to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome. Can you see the parallels with publishing yet?

Julia and her husband test a virtual reality game at ERIC. Photo by Guy Wah Photography.

Take my nearest venue, Fakenham Escape Rooms. In this game, we have been employed by the International Rescue Corps to complete the work of a missing professor who had been working on new technology that predicts the time and location of natural disasters. Our mission is to find his research and coordinate our findings to discover where and when the next disaster will be. It’s a fun, immersive room and, as it happens, we were top of the leader board for six months until some professional escapologists (pah!) completed it slightly quicker. It’s the taking part that counts – but beating other teams does motivate competitive players like me. The owners subsequently asked us to test their new room before it officially opened, and listened to our constructive feedback on the experience, a bit like a physical version of proofreading.

It’s all about teamwork

So, what makes a good escape room team? Well, I’ve edited enough business books to be intimately acquainted with the Belbin team roles, and have played enough escape rooms to know that combining people with different skills is going to get the job done quicker and better. For example, my daughter has a mind like a trap and is good at finding hidden items. My programmer husband can apply logic to any situation, and I delegate all the maths puzzles to him. Some of the friends I’ve played with are efficient, organised and focused. Others are highly creative or have an in-depth knowledge of binary. As for me, when I asked for feedback on my performance, Team-mate 1 (my daughter) said I’m quick to make connections between different elements and Team-mate 2 (my husband), after some thought, said I’m better at reading than he is. Our greatest triumphs have been a result of focusing on the goal, clear communication and mutual respect for each other’s abilities. All of which are ingredients for successfully managing any project.

Benefiting more than just me

I’ve attended two excellent conferences this year. One was (naturally) the SfEP conference at Aston University. The other was the amusingly named ERIC – the Escape Room Industry Conference in glamorous Dagenham. Covering everything from game theory to marketing, with a little acting thrown in, it was the most enjoyable small-business foundation course that you can imagine. I came home brimming with ideas for developing my own editing business (‘escape rooms’ now features as a key word in my SfEP Directory entry – puzzle tester for hire). As a textbook specialist, I’d love to look at ways of engaging learners via puzzles and for improving testing methods such as those tricky multiple-choice questions that authors always struggle to perfect.

What’s more, while I’m not quite ready to open my own escape room (watch this space), I made a contact at ERIC which has resulted in another exciting new project. I’ve joined forces with my local library to coordinate a treasure trail for teams of Key Stage 2 pupils (9 to 11 year olds) in which they have to use the library facilities to tackle puzzles and act out a narrative – hopefully developing their literacy and problem-solving skills, and their enthusiasm for libraries, in the process.

Try it for yourself

There are now about 1,500 escape rooms in the UK, and maybe 20,000 in the world, so there’s likely to be at least one near you. Some are inevitably better than others – read reviews before you go to gain an idea of quality because it’s admittedly not a cheap hobby. The typical cost is around £20 per person, and it can be even more expensive if (as a purely hypothetical example, of course) you choose to celebrate 20 years with your husband by travelling to Margate to play five games over two days (Kent being the unlikely escape-room capital of the UK). It’s still cheaper than formal training as well as fun, educational and a welcome break from those ubiquitous screens.

Excuse me, I’m just off to Google ‘Milton Keynes escape rooms’. If you want to join my team for some extra escapist CPD while we’re in town for the 2020 CIEP conference, let me know!

Julia Sandford-CookeJulia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has 20 years’ experience of publishing and marketing. She has written and edited numerous textbooks, specialising in vocational education, media studies, construction, health and safety, and travel. In her spare time, she’s a pirate, spy and astronaut.

 


Thinking about your CPD plans for 2020? The SfEP offers a wide variety of courses, and more informal CPD is available through its members’ forums and local groups.


Photo credits: Sheep Jonathan Poncelet, Escape Rooms sign – Zachary Keimig, both on Unsplash; Julia and her husband testing a virtual reality game at ERIC Guy Wah Photography.

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

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

Plain English: ‘Be short, be simple, be human’

By Laura Ripper and Luke Finley

Ever had to deal with text that makes you feel alienated, inadequate or frustrated? We’ve all had that experience – of struggling to make sense of writing that’s pretentious and showy, filled with jargon and buzzwords, or simply badly planned and confusing.

Sometimes you might long for the writing to be as poetic as Shakespeare, as gripping as Stephen King or as much fun to read as JK Rowling. But when you need information quickly, you just want it to tell you, without all the frills, what you need to know.

In other words, you want it in plain English.

Water ripples above book pagesWhat is plain English?

Plain English is about communicating with people in writing as clearly as possible.

George Orwell and Ernest Gowers, writing in the 1940s, were among the first to encourage writers to use plain English: ‘Be short, be simple, be human,’ wrote Gowers in his guide Plain Words. There’s no one accepted definition today, but the International Plain Language Federation sums it up nicely:

A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information. [our emphasis]

It’s about putting the reader’s needs first, even above the writer’s preferences, when it comes to deciding how to word and organise a text. This doesn’t ignore the writer’s priorities – quite the opposite! What’s your main aim as a writer, if not to communicate clearly with your readers?

What is it for?

You can use plain English to:

  • make information accessible to people who aren’t specialists in your area (whether that’s about health, money, research, government policy or something else)
  • share essential information (on safety or the law)
  • give people the chance to have a say on things that affect them, or to use services they’re entitled to
  • build a reputation for putting customers first
  • build a good relationship with readers
  • save time and money (on clarifying misunderstandings, reprinting documents).

So you can use it for ethical and economic reasons. By making letters, reports, policies, articles and application forms easier for people they affect to read and understand, you’re making a difference to those people. You’re also making savings for your organisation, and helping to achieve its marketing aims.

What can using plain English do for me?

Writing in plain English can help your organisation:

  • make the text more effective (informing, selling to or empowering the reader, or appealing to more readers)
  • market itself (by strengthening your reputation, building trust and loyalty, and attracting customers, staff and suppliers)
  • achieve its business aims (eg increasing profit by saving time and money)
  • fulfil its purpose (providing a public service, raising awareness of an important issue).

Open book with letters flying outHow can an editor help?

Editors offering plain English services can help by making text clearer and easier to read. Many of them can suggest ways to improve its structure and layout too.

According to the Oxford Guide to Plain English, the average UK adult has a reading age of just 13. They’re also busy – they don’t have time to read insurance policies for pleasure. So in a plain English edit, an editor aims to make the writing as easy as possible for the average person to read.

To do this, editors follow established guidelines, such as those in the Oxford Guide. ‘Translating’ a piece of writing into plain English isn’t a mechanical exercise, though – a trained editor considers the reader’s level of knowledge and what will be clearest for them.

Some editors can also help by:

  • giving training about using plain English
  • completely re-writing a document, or writing a plain English summary
  • designing templates and style guides that follow plain English principles.

What else can I do?

  • Keep the reader in mind when you’re planning, writing and designing the text – think about what will be clearest and most logical for them.
  • Make sure you’ve included all the information the reader needs – don’t assume they know as much about your subject as you do.
  • Learn about the principles of plain English (by doing training and using resources, such as those available from the National Adult Literacy Agency in Ireland).
  • Test the text on real readers to see if they understand it quickly and easily.
  • Get feedback from readers on documents you’ve already published and make improvements.

If you write in simple, direct language, readers are more likely to respect and value what you have to say. And this will make as much of a difference to you, and your priorities, as it will to your readers.

Laura RipperLaura Ripper began her career in 2004 at Plain English Campaign, where she translated all sorts of documents into plain language. In 2008 she moved to a wider editorial and communications role, which included raising awareness of the UK’s switch to digital TV. Laura set up her proofreading and editing business in 2012 to concentrate on the aspects of her job that she loves best. She still specialises in plain English, and has found these skills useful for every type of document – from journal articles to board game rules. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. When she isn’t at her desk, Laura loves walking in the hills. She has two feline assistants.

Luke FinleyLuke Finley set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013 and is an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP. He briefly worked in publishing in the 1990s, but most of his working life has been spent in the voluntary and public sectors, in social policy development and implementation. His experience of local government gave him a keen interest in plain English and trying (sometimes in vain) to persuade people to communicate more clearly.  Luke will edit or proofread anything from academic books to charities’ annual reports to travel agents’ websites, but mostly works on social policy and politics texts.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

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