This year’s CIEP conference was held online, from 12 to 14 September. Attendees from all over the world logged on to learn and socialise with their fellow editors and proofreaders, and a number of delegates kindly volunteered to write up the sessions for us. Julia Sandford-Cooke reviewed My unedited and unproofread life, by Ian McMillan.
‘Funny poet here’ read the sign for one of Ian McMillan’s readings. Those three words sum up his wise and hilarious talk on ‘precise language’ but he repeatedly used another word too – ‘joy’. And so delegates spent a happy half hour giggling at their desks, with added unintentional humour from the Zoom closed captioning struggling to render Ian’s distinctive Yorkshire accent.
You might know Ian McMillan as the presenter of Radio 3’s The Verb for the past 20 years, as a regular guest on the Radio 1 evening show in the 1990s, as the author of oft-anthologised poems and newspaper columns or as a prolific Twitter chronicler of life’s quirks. But he still claims that people often mistake him not only for a dead American novelist of the same name but also for Ian McEwan, Ian McKellen and fellow performance poet Ian Bland (‘If I was called Ian Bland,’ he said, ‘I’d change it to something dynamic like Ian Fantastic’). But he is certainly one of a kind.
Always with an eye on his editorial audience, he launched into a series of anecdotes about the ambiguous signs, posters and lists he’d picked up from libraries and village halls around the country. (‘I bet collecting notices is something you do on the sly.’) From ‘Do not trip over the feet’ to ‘Where can we go to watch people play badminton and eat our sandwiches?’, he highlighted the poetry in everyday writing.
‘These notices,’ he said, ‘are a conduit of joy – they are wrong in a way that makes you think language is amazing. Even when it’s wrong, it’s wrong in a way that makes it feel right.’
He described language as our playground, our building blocks and our scaffolding. ‘If we use it imprecisely, it starts to squeak … (But) at the edges of imprecision, there can be a kind of poetry and there can be a kind of joy.’
He also had good advice on freelance life: ‘Whenever [clients] ring up, always say yes, as it leads to exciting adventures.’ Maybe adventures such as (almost) reading a sonnet about bleach (‘the champagne of the smallest room’) in a specially constructed wooden loo for National Toilet Day and then critiquing the poetry of ‘a very small woman, about the size of one-half of a cruet set’.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter if our own work adventures aren’t quite as memorable. Ian explained: ‘We are all telling stories – rubbing the truth a bit to shine a light on it. I want to be two things at once – a precise writer but one that lets the light in.’
And isn’t that also what we editors are all aiming for? To spark illumination and, yes, joy?
Postscript: ‘Barnsley’s busiest man’ responded personally to every appreciative tweet about his talk – and there were many. Let’s hope he can make good on his promise to write a ‘theme song’ for the Linnets to perform at our next conference. What a joy that would be!
Julia Sandford-Cooke of WordFire Communications has spent more than 20 years in publishing. She writes and edits textbooks, proofreads anything that’s put in front of her, speaks very bad Dutch and posts short, often grumpy, book reviews on her blog, Ju’s Reviews.
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:
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.