The freelancer and … HOUSEWORK


2014-08-02 09.24.05

My mother would be ashamed of me for saying this, but I don’t ‘get’ housework. Never did. I do a minimum amount for hygiene and convenience, but after that … So there is some dust on the bookcases and picture frames. So? Your point is … ?

My mother had a deep conviction that the house had to be spotless and sparkling at all times. I never quite dared ask out loud, but my questions about this were: Why? Was someone coming round later to do judging? Were we going to be marked out of ten? Why would we care if we were?

Since I’ve been freelance and worked mainly from home, I’ve occasionally (and unexpectedly) had pricks of conscience about this housework thing. Maybe on some level my mother’s convictions got through to me after all. Now that I’m no longer out of the house for multi-hours every day, there’s a small annoying part of me that nags that I should be doing more hoovering. The much larger and more exasperated part of me still asks, Why? I may be inside my house but I am still working full time. What is it about being a woman at home that brings on this compulsion (however faint and far-off) to tie on a pinny and hold a cloth?

What next? Dinner on the table when the partner comes home? My partner loves cooking, and is much better at it than me, so he tends to cook, while I tend to do laundry, clean bathrooms, and so on. My sensible brain knows that it doesn’t matter how household tasks are allocated, as long as they are divided moderately fairly. Nobody needs those ghastly life-negating arguments about whose turn it is to take the rubbish out. But that small annoying subsection of my consciousness still feels a residual spark of guilt and responsibility.

I thought about a lot of potential issues when I went freelance, but housework wasn’t among them. That one snuck up on me.


Be an optimist, but not a wishful thinker

Optimism and positivity are good qualities. It’s great to work with people who are sunny and have a can-do attitude. But sometimes, oddly, too much optimism can itself be non-optimal …

“It’ll be fine!”

Maybe it will. Or maybe, sometimes, it won’t. We all encounter setbacks and delays. Who among us hasn’t experienced that awful sinking feeling as realisation dawns that an error has been made, or a promised deadline won’t be met?

Any experienced editor knows that things go wrong. Being a professional doesn’t mean never having difficulties or making a mistake. We demonstrate our professionalism by how we handle issues when they arise. That is, by keeping calm, thinking constructively, working out solutions – and above all, by communicating effectively.

The trouble is that nobody wants to be the bearer of bad news, and disappoint or annoy others. So there can be a temptation to go on reporting to colleagues/clients that everything’s fine, and hoping against hope that the magic problem-solving elves will come in the night and fix it: put out the fire, weave the cloth, make the shoes.

SPOILER: they won’t.

We mustn’t blind ourselves, and others, with hope and wishful thinking.

A need-to-know basis

Putting books together (at least via the traditional publisher route) is a team effort, and in teamwork communication is key. Before an illustrated non-fiction book gets to the printer it will go back and forth between an author (or authors, or many contributors), one or more editors, a designer, a picture researcher, an illustrator (sometimes), a proofreader, an indexer, and a production controller. Everyone’s efforts must be braided together carefully so that the right things happen in the right order, and each stage interconnects. It’s a carefully coordinated group dance which can fall apart if somebody misses their steps.

As a rule, the later a problem comes to light, the more costly it will be in terms of money, time, effort and everyone’s workload. The client or the team may be annoyed to hear about a problem when you tell them today. They will be FAR more annoyed in six weeks’ time when they find out for themselves, by which time a hiccup may have become a major headache.

False positives

Optimism is good, but utter lack of realism is not. When material is late, or lost, or over budget, crossing your fingers and assuring everyone, “Oh yes, it’ll be here by Friday!” feels like a positive response, but saying something doesn’t make it true. If you see potential trouble coming, the project manager and the people down the chain waiting to handle the next stages really need to know. (As a sometime project manager myself, I say this with feeling.) With some advance warning, action can be taken, people notified and plans changed. With none: a mess.

Freelance colleagues, in particular, need accurate information. Freelancers can’t afford (literally can’t afford) to be left without expected work, and shouldn’t be forced to disappoint their clients when schedules clash.

They’ll find out on deadline day

The fact is that problems can only be glossed over for so long. That error or delay or overspend will come to light sooner or later, and the reaction is likely to be a lot less understanding and sympathetic if it’s later. The time to shout ‘Fire!’ and grab the extinguisher is when you see the first wisps of smoke. Don’t wait for others to notice that the building is burning around them.

Don’t worry, be happy

It’s great to be positive, and the whole publishing endeavour would probably grind to a halt if book people weren’t, basically, optimists. Book-related problems, bad as they may feel at the time, are not the end of the world. Breathe – and communicate! Difficulties can be fixed; people get past even the stickiest situations.

No reasonable client will expect every project to be trouble-free, but they have a right to expect honest reporting and full disclosure. Keeping your client happy does not mean keeping them in blissful ignorance. We can all hope for the best, but we shouldn’t base our professional behaviour on the Magic Elf Scenario Strategy. Guess where that leads …

What do I think about, when I think about editing?

startA colleague recently asked me to note down some general pointers and principles to consider when embarking on a major copy-edit (non-fiction).

I came up with 12 – would your list differ?


1 Read/scan the WHOLE text before starting

That way you start to familiarise yourself with the job, and can let the client know immediately if anything is missing, or any files are corrupted or unopenable. Then look at the client’s brief again, and get clarifications if required.

2 Create a copy of the author’s file(s) to edit

Keep the author’s file(s) unaltered so you can go back to the original if necessary. Use a sensible system of file names for work in progress, so versions of files are never mixed up.

3 Get to know the house style, if there is one

Sometimes clients require absolute adherence to their house or series style. Sometimes they may be happy to accept an author’s style variations as long as those are consistent and correct. If you don’t know their preferences, ask.

4 Make an editing plan and follow it

Decide what needs doing, make a list – ideally, have a template list that can be adapted for each job – and do the tasks in a sensible order. This will require multiple passes through the text: it’s impossible to focus on everything at once.

What’s a ‘sensible order’? I liken this to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: start with the basic essentials (clean-up, formatting, style basics) and work upward to the highest level of sense, clarity and content. For long or multi-part texts, I create a table and tick each editing task off for each chapter/section as I do it.

pyramidPsychologist Abraham Maslow described how humans strive to satisfy a hierarchy of needs, starting with the most basic physiological ones (air, water, food). The hierarchy is usually shown as a pyramid. (Image from Wikipedia)



(To state the obvious: if the text needs substantive reorganising/cutting/rewriting, then that must happen BEFORE copy-editing. These notes assume that the text is edit-ready.)

5 Put yourself in the reader’s place

For whom is the text intended? Will they understand and appreciate it? Is too much background knowledge being assumed – or unnecessary detail given?

6 Distinguish essential edits and real errors from your own likes and dislikes

It is not our job, as editors, to impose our personal preferences. We don’t have to justify our editorial existence by changing everything. The author’s ‘voice’ and tone should not be altered without compelling reasons.

7 Create a style sheet

Editors work on lots of projects and our memories are not infallible. Record spellings and style decisions for the current project, and keep the style sheet updated. Supply it along with the edited text – it will help the client (and proofreader) later on.

8 Use track changes wisely

Even if the client wants edits tracked, it’s usually not a good idea to track EVERYTHING. Heavily tracked text is hard to read. Even small changes, such as removing extra spaces after punctuation, or switching between -ise and -ize spellings, can make the text look very heavily edited when it isn’t. Forests of red tracking will create panic and horror in the author’s breast … But anything that is changed ‘silently’ should be noted in the style sheet.

Consider supplying a clean copy alongside (or before) the tracked one, especially if the editing is heavy.

9 Global search and replace is great, but …!

This can be a great time-saver, but the unintended consequences can be disastrous/hilarious … every editor will know a horror story. Think it through before, and check the results after, the search/replace. (Likewise macros.)

10 Make appropriate use of editing software tools

I highly recommend PerfectIt:

11 Check how edited text should be presented

Ask the client for any specific requirements for formatting and presentation (they won’t always remember to tell you). If you are using tracked changes and comments, check that the recipient understands how to deal with them.

12 Be tactful in notes and queries

You can make or break your relationship with the author by page 3. Show some empathy with the writer, who has put so much effort into creating the text. Give reasons for significant edits, to show that changes are not simply capricious. A high-handed tone will probably make the author resist your edits; ‘I suggest …’ is a useful phrase. An editor–author relationship should be a respectful collaboration, not a power struggle.


These notes are based on (what sometimes feels like) several centuries of editing non-fiction texts, usually for traditional book publishers. I’d love to hear how other editors’ opinions, experiences and priorities differ.

When indexes attack

or  How could something so RIGHT, be so WRONG?

We all love a good index. But when indexes go wrong, they can infuriate readers and destroy one of the most important ways to access a book’s information content. The following tale of (narrowly avoided) woe may help to illuminate some of the pitfalls …

IndexI’m an editor; I’ve edited and checked a lot of indexes, but I do not compile them. A proper professional indexer could no doubt provide a more forensic analysis than I offer here (and I apologise for muscling in on their turf). Still, in my non-specialist view, the three Rules of Indexing would be something like this:

  1. The index entries (headwords) and locators (page numbers) must be accurate;
  2. The index (within its own intended limits) must represent the contents of the book accurately;
  3. The index must enable readers to locate, reasonably easily, specific information that they may feasibly wish to find.

Following Rules 1, 2 and 3 is not a simple mechanical task. In fact, indexing is a much under-rated skill. The best advice is always to hire a proper indexer if possible (the Society of Indexers website might be the starting point). Still, a lot of authors, editors and other non-specialists do have to create their own indexes, for various reasons. I hope that the cautionary tale below might help them to identify, and therefore avoid, some of the common traps.

It looks like an index, it walks like an index, but …

A while ago I had cause to look over a couple of indexes for non-fiction books, before publication. Both indexes were technically accurate: all the words indexed were indeed in the books, and the page numbers given for them were correct. Rule 1: tick. However, the indexes failed so dismally to follow Rules 2 and 3 that they were unpublishable as they stood (and indeed they were not published). I’ll demonstrate why, with examples, below.

(By the way, I’m certain these indexes were compiled ‘mechanically’, using an automatic program or the search function. There’s nothing wrong with using software for indexing – but it is a tool, not a substitute for an indexer’s own brain. A thinking human indexer will read the text thoughtfully, and use their own judgement and understanding to select, filter and structure the entries. Otherwise the result, as in this case, can be something that looks like an index, but does not function as one.)

Two important notes!

First, neither index had been assembled by a specialist, but (I think) by one or more helpers, not familiar with the text, but helping the authors out. It is definitely not my intention to be mean about those unknown person(s) or to mock their efforts. Indexing is difficult, and that’s why there are professionals! I’m posting this in the hope that others who find themselves unexpectedly in the indexing boat will take some constructive help and ideas from these examples.

Second, I have not used real names or quotations from the texts, because I don’t want anyone to be able to Google the extracts and identify the books I’m talking about. Also, of course, the indexes were both redone before publication. So don’t bother looking – they’re not out there. The ‘quotes’ below are 100% made up, though they very accurately reflect the (mis)usages I’m talking about.

* * *

  1. Who’s who?

One book discussed a family in which the father and son had the same name. They were indexed as if they were one single person. ‘Mr Smith, senior’ and ‘Mr Smith, junior’ (or ‘father’ and ‘son’, or life dates) would have sorted that out.

  1. The truth, the whole truth …

Abstract nouns can be tricksy. In one of my troublesome indexes, some entries appeared to be themes or concepts – but were not. ‘Truth’ had five page numbers. One might legitimately index ‘truth’, of course, but in this book four of the five mentions were quotations that said things like, ‘I had never seen such a woeful index, in truth, and could not wait to absent myself from it’. You don’t need to be a specialist to know that’s daft. What does the reader find out from looking that up? The fifth instance was a reference to someone perhaps not telling the truth about a certain event, so could sensibly have been indexed: but without that context of person or situation, the entry was nearly meaningless. ‘Pinocchio, truthfulness of’?

Likewise, ‘Death’ was included. Not because the text discussed death as such – no, these were just fleeting references to the deaths of named persons, mostly persons who were not even important characters in the narrative. ‘After the death of Fred Nameless [never mentioned again in the text], Our Hero went to work in Birmingham.’ Far better to index ‘Nameless, Fred, death of’. Or even just ‘Nameless, Fred’, since his death is the only information ever given about him.

  1. The noun/verb discombobulation

‘Crafts’ was indexed. Well, that’s vague. One might ask, what kind of crafts? Various kinds of artwork and handicraft work, from different countries, were mentioned in the relevant book. Could this mean embroidery, ceramics, jewellery …? No. On all three pages cited, the word was used as a verb – for example, a writer was said to ‘craft’ an image in his verse. I speculate that the indexer probably added ‘craft’ but then a well-intentioned somebody made it plural ‘for consistency’, because it looked like a noun and other nouns were indexed as plurals (cats, fruitcakes, violins). Hey presto – meaning accidentally, but completely, falsified. ‘Poetic imagery, crafting of’?

  1. One of these things is not like the others

A word can have more than one meaning – that’s hardly breaking news, but it’s a trap for unwary indexers. Here a ‘Trials’ entry included two references to trials (i.e. tests) of a certain invention or piece of machinery, and one reference to a person’s trial for murder. Need I say these should not have been mixed up together?

  1. Vague, vaguer, vaguest

‘Lovers’ was an entry – with a very long string of page numbers, and no clue about whose lovers they were in each case. In a book that discusses a number of named individuals and their complex relationships, how, honestly, is any reader going to use that entry? Too vague, too general. ‘Mrs Robinson, lovers of’? ‘Chocolate, lovers of’?

  1. Surely something missing

Although those anonymous ‘lovers’ were included, significant concepts of different kinds of love and friendship, and depictions and examples of them during the historical period under discussion, were not. Other important themes in that book, which I can’t name without giving away too many clues to the identity of the volume, were also absent.

Such thematic entries can be tricky: they require thought and understanding, and a deep and careful analysis of the text. Indexes can omit such things altogether, and stick to straightforward names and places only, of course. There’s no dishonour in that. In this case, though, entries such as ‘truth’ and ‘death’ gave the impression that the index was covering themes and concepts, but: a) it wasn’t; and b) those weren’t the right themes anyway. Misleading on both counts.

  1. Time’s a-wasting

Adding insult to injury, in both indexes the entries were not structured: important and oft-mentioned persons’ entries were long, undifferentiated strings of page numbers. Ideally, no more than six (or so) page numbers should be listed without subdivision. With no sub-entries to help them navigate, readers wanting to find Lady Nuptial’s wedding, or the discussion of her correspondence with Lady Epistle, might well have to look up every one of twenty-two page numbers … Grrr. There are various ways to break up and structure long entries with subdivisions. Looking at a few good non-fiction book indexes will give ideas for structures that suit your project, and believe me, readers will appreciate that effort.

* * *

Despite a lot of work and well-intentioned effort, those two indexes both had to be re-created. A sad story for all concerned.

So a final word of advice – admittedly from a non-specialist. If you can possibly hire a professional indexer, or get advice from one, do so. If you have to construct an index yourself, keep it simple – and keep taking a step back and thinking about what the index does and how it will be used. And always ask someone else to look at the index and undertake some spot checks of entries – a fresh pair of eyes may pick up errors and infelicities that the compiler has become way too close to the material to see.

Then congratulate yourself – you’ve done a difficult job, and one that many, many readers will thank you for. A decent index is a thing of beauty, and a joy forever. At least until the revised edition …

In praise of book production people

buttons2I love book production people, and that’s a view developed and confirmed over years of working with production departments in many companies. I can’t count the number of times that production controllers have saved the bacon of me and my projects with their technical know-how, negotiation skills and plain ability to get things done despite never having enough time, money or resources. They are the fourth emergency service, as far as publishing is concerned.

They are also the most practical people on Earth. Wander into a book production department with any question, problem, or wish, and someone will be able to help. A few random examples:

  • Production departments have stuff. They are given gifts by printers and other suppliers, which they save and share. So if an impromptu celebration (or commiseration) is required, the production folk will invariably and generously produce wine, coffee, chocolates, wasabi peas, crisps and biscuits.
  • I needed one Treasury tag. Anyone remember what they are? How long has it been since anyone used them in an office? For reasons I cannot to this day explain, it was a requirement that one particular Open University assignment had to be submitted on paper with the pages held together by such a tag – not a staple or a paperclip. The minimum number of tags you can buy is 100. I happened to bemoan this in the production department, and in moments one of the controllers had produced a small stash of historic Treasury tags and given me two (one and a spare, of course). Equally, I expect that if I’d wandered in asking for suggestions on practical things to do with 99 Treasury tags, they would have obliged.
  • A few of us mention wistfully that it would be lovely to get our old crowd of ex-colleagues together for a drink. The production person finds everyone’s email addresses, sends the invitation, fixes the date, books the pub, and is there early to greet everyone with wine in the cooler and the right number of glasses.
  • Recently I knitted a garment for a new small relative and wanted to buy some funky buttons for it – not the usual boring shirt-button-style plastic ones that all the department stores provide. Who knew the names and locations of two specialist haberdashers in obscure side streets within walking distance of the office? Yep, the production person.

If the zombie apocalypse starts and we all have to flee for our lives, I predict this: while the editors are fussing over the spelling of the emergency notices (or trying to print out all their manuscripts before the electricity goes off), the designers are taking photographs and the marketeers are looking for their lipstick, the production people will be quietly tooling up with baseball bats and crossbows, stockpiling provisions and bottled water, and holing up in a fortified position in the book warehouse.

So if there’s something strange in the neighbourhood, whether it be a hiccup with a craft project or the collapse of modern civilization as we know it … who you gonna call?


The freelancer and …100 MEANINGS OF SILENCE

There aren’t really 100 Inuit words for snow. That’s one of those apocryphal stories, though it would be fun if it were true (and likewise I’ve always thought that there should be 100 Cumbrian terms for rain, etc).

I’d like, however, to suggest 100 potential meanings of silence. Here, I don’t mean the silence of a peaceful woodland. I specifically mean cybersilence: the kind of silence that comes when you’ve sent a client or colleague an email and you wait for a reply. And wait. And wait … And try to imagine what’s happening, what their reaction is, and what this silence means.2015-01-30 21.05.10-3 A freelancer is usually at a distance and can’t just pop down the corridor to their office and ask.

Of course a non-reply doesn’t necessarily mean anything. But at one time or another we’ve probably all imagined some, most, or all of the following possibilities:

  •  1 I didn’t get your email.
  •  2 I got your email, and I’m thinking about it.
  •  3 I got your email, but I’m going to pretend I didn’t.
  •  4 I genuinely intend to get round to answering your email.
  •  5 I genuinely don’t know how to answer your email.
  •  6 I will answer your email in the next 2 minutes.
  •  7 I will answer your email in the next 2 hours.
  •  8 I will answer your email in the next 2 days.
  •  9 I may answer your email in the next 2 months.
  • 10 I may never answer your email.
  • 11 I have asked a colleague to answer your email, and she will.
  • 12 I have asked a colleague to answer your email, but she won’t.
  • 13 Your email will be passed around everyone in the office until it reaches the assistant, who will conscientiously try to answer but won’t know what to tell you.
  • 14 I am no longer working on this project, but the manager has forgotten to give you the new contact’s name.
  • 15 I am on annual leave, but the out-of-office message I set up has failed to work.
  • 16 I am on annual leave, but I forgot to set up an out-of-office message.
  • 17 I have left the company, but my email account hasn’t been closed.
  • 18 I’ve gone to the Himalayas to find myself, and I am no longer concerned with material things such as emails.
  • 19 Om.
  • 20 I have printed out your email and marked the salient points with three different highlighter pens. It was very satisfying.
  • 21  I have printed out your email and filed it.
  • 22 I have printed out your email and I am experimenting with paper aeroplane designs.
  • 23 I have printed out your email and I am origami-ing it into a crane.
  • 24 Our server has crashed and I can’t access any of my emails.
  • 25 We have lost our broadband connection and I can’t access any of my emails till tomorrow.
  • 26 We have lost our broadband connection and I won’t be able to access any emails for 6 weeks.
  • 27 My email has crashed because someone tried to send me a 130 MB attachment, and the IT dept have all gone home.
  • 28 My PC has died because a virus got through the firewall.
  • 29 Sssh, I’m writing my novel.
  • 30 Stop bothering me, I’m reading New Scientist.
  • 31 Stop bothering me, I’m reading Hello magazine.
  • 32 I’m at the coffee machine talking about shoes/football/philosophy.
  • 33 I’m at the coffee machine plotting the downfall of a colleague.
  • 34 I got your email, and what you said was so outrageously stupid that I’m speechless.
  • 35 What you said was so amazingly wonderful that I’m speechless.
  • 36 Between us, words are unnecessary.
  • 37 I didn’t understand what you said.
  • 38 I am working actively to get you an answer.
  • 39 I misunderstood your message, and I am now extremely cross about what I wrongly think you said.
  • 40 What was the question again?
  • 41 I have been abducted by aliens on an intergalactic fact-finding mission.
  • 42 I have to consult my boss.
  • 43 My boss has to consult his/her boss.
  • 44 I have to consult Marketing.
  • 45 I have to consult Sales.
  • 46 I have to consult Production.
  • 47 I have to consult Accounts.
  • 48 I have to consult HR.
  • 49 I have to consult the oracle.
  • 50 I have to consult the entrails of a sheep.
  • 51 I have to consult the flight of birds.
  • 52 The bird flight consultancy operative is on annual leave.
  • 53 I answered your email yesterday. Pay attention.
  • 54 I answered your email but it went to the wrong email address. (Damn you, Autocomplete.)
  • 55 I accidentally deleted my reply instead of sending it.
  • 56 I hit Forward instead of Reply and a puzzled third party is now reading my reply to your email.
  • 57 I deleted your email in error.
  • 58 I deleted your email deliberately.
  • 59 Cyber pixies deleted your email.
  • 60 Flights of bluebirds are winging their way to you with my reply calligraphed on precious silk paper.
  • 61 A squadron of pigs will bring you my answer.
  • 62 I am maintaining a gnomic silence.
  • 63 I am studying Zen and the art of not answering emails.
  • 64 I am expecting you to read my mind.
  • 65 If I ignore your email long enough, the question will answer itself.
  • 66 If I ignore your email long enough, you will ask someone else.
  • 67 If I ignore your email long enough, I can blame you for delaying the project.
  • 68 I’m assuming that if the question is really important, you’ll ask again.
  • 69 I thought about replying, and have now forgotten that I didn’t actually do it but only thought about it.
  • 70 Your question was stupid and unnecessary.
  • 71 I am busy doing a marathon for charity.
  • 72 I have a time management system and your email is not due to be answered until Tuesday.
  • 73 Today I am too busy to breathe, let alone answer emails. Tomorrow is not looking good either.
  • 74 I have taken a vow of silence.
  • 75 I can’t believe you needed to ask.
  • 76 I trust you to deal with this yourself.
  • 77 I don’t care how you deal with this.
  • 78 I care deeply how you deal with this, and I am constructing a 27-page answer, with footnotes and appendices.
  • 79 I have 25 projects on the go and I can’t keep across the minutiae of all of them. You sort it out.
  • 80 I am about to send you an answer, but after you have acted on it, I will change my mind.
  • 81 I will wait until you given up waiting for an answer, guessed what it should be, and acted on it, and then I will send you a different one.
  • 82 I have so many emails, I never even noticed yours.
  • 83 I hired you to manage this project. Why are you asking me about details?
  • 84 I’m drowning in overwork. I will never get to your query.
  • 85 I’m drowning in overwork but I’ll get to your query quite soon, because I am frankly superhuman.
  • 86 Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
  • 87 I’m off for a long lunch.
  • 88 I have so many meetings, I can’t even look at my email.
  • 89 I have given up email for Lent.
  • 90 I scanned your email quickly and filed it without noticing the bit that needed a reply.
  • 91 Your email scared me so I’ve hidden it.
  • 92 You won’t like the answer, so I’m putting off sending it to you.
  • 93 Why answer today when I can prevaricate until tomorrow?
  • 94 I don’t know who you are. You sent your email to the wrong person.
  • 95 I wish I didn’t know who you were.
  • 96 I will shortly send you an answer, but it will be irrelevant.
  • 97 Your email is languishing in my spam folder.
  • 98 I’m rendered speechless by the fact that you put a haiku in your email.
  • 99 I am composing an ode in blank verse in reply.
  • 100 Next time, say it with flowers.

The freelancer and … EMPATHY

I was very interested to read this article: People are people not users (thanks @SfEP for tweeting the link to it). It makes some good points about empathy (in an IT context). It’s highly beneficial for developers and IT folk to think of the people who will actually work with their systems as people, not just ‘users’ in some abstract dehumanised sense. The article struck a chord with me, as I’m sure it did with many others who have struggled and cursed their way through software and systems that seem entirely unsuitable for the mere carbon-based life form.

It also made me ponder the topic of why empathy is increasingly rare these days, and not just in IT. (Don’t get me started on the whole political/social aspect of this – when and why did it become normal to blame and fear, instead of accept and support, the less fortunate and anyone who seems ‘different’?) Anyway, politics isn’t where I was going with this. I would like to think about empathy in editing.

A while ago I was asked to copy-edit a non-fiction book written by a fairly eminent person who apparently has a reputation for being ‘difficult’ with editors. The publisher, having listened to a lecture from this author about the shortcomings of editors, was incredibly anxious to stress the need for me not to over-edit, and to be diplomatic and careful in my notes and queries. The publisher must have pronounced, at various times, twenty variations on the theme of ‘X is very difficult. Do keep that in mind. Have I mentioned how difficult X is? Do remember how difficult X is.’

In fact I’ll ruin any dramatic tension that might have existed in this story by telling you right away that the editing was well received and I got a nice message of thanks from author X. Mission accomplished, ta da.

So what’s the point? Where does empathy come into this? Well, it comes in because CNV00012the episode with X was a good illustration of the fact that an editor should always think not only about how readers will receive and understand and feel about the text, but also about how the author will receive and understand and feel about the editing. It’s easy for editors to feel that they are all alone with the text, but there is another person too, even if they are out of sight over the horizon at the moment. How are they going to feel? The edit may seem light and reasonable to the editor: to the author it may feel as if their precious work of art has been ripped to shreds and reassembled.

And – the central thing – I don’t believe that experienced editors just switch on that mindfulness, or empathy, when they are warned about a ‘difficult’ author. Isn’t it just a normal part of their professional good practice? I understood the publisher’s anxiety about X totally, and when I promised to be mindful of the author’s feelings and reactions I was completely sincere – but the thing is, I would have tried to be mindful anyway. I didn’t open a box marked ‘empathy’ and take it out specially for that one book.

So what does empathy, being ‘mindful’ of the author in that editorial sense, mean? Lots of things, many of them obvious enough. I expect that every editor’s empathy directives would be a little different in content and emphasis. These are the kinds of instructions I give myself:

* Be emotionally intelligent (as well as the other kind)

Be professionally cool and analytical in your approach to the text, certainly, but always remember that a human person, with human feelings, wrote it. And loves it.

* Don’t always do the thing

Don’t make unnecessary changes. Know the difference between a thing that’s wrong and a thing that isn’t done the way you personally prefer. It’s the author’s book, not yours.

* Suggest, don’t dictate

If extensive edits or rewordings are proposed, at least say ‘I suggest …’, rather than simply laying waste to the original.

* Explain

Say why things have been done – in particular why extensive edits or cuts are being proposed. If you can’t, when challenged, give a sound reason for an edit, then why did you do it?

* Be courteous

Be respectful and polite, as well as clear, in editorial comments. Read them through before you submit the text, and remember your tone of voice doesn’t travel. Very concise notes and queries can sound simply brusque and rude (or indeed incomprehensible) to the author.

* Acknowledge that you are not the expert

Query data with the author by all means if it’s necessary. Even if fact-checking is not required in the brief, some double-checks can save an embarrassing error. But only use reliable, appropriate sources for checking; and when querying, explicitly acknowledge the fact that the expert author may have better and more up-to-date sources than you, and be right. Smugly telling an author they’re wrong on the basis of a half-digested Wikipedia article wins no hearts and minds.

* Don’t track wildly

Don’t (unless the publisher or author insists) use tracking for every tiny basic style point (double/single quotes, en dashes/hyphens, wrong word spaces, etc.). All that tracking clutters up the place and gives the author the impression that their text is much more heavily substantively edited than it is. List changes that you have ‘silently’ corrected in the style sheet.

* Trackless wilderness?

Make it easier for the author to review and understand the editing. Seeing heavy tracked changes and numerous inserted queries can bring on a panic attack, and in practical terms it can be hard for authors to follow both the macro and micro issues through the forest of red and blue. In that case they can’t make fair judgements on the editor’s work; they may simply give up and decide that they hate both your editing and you. Is a separate typed list of queries, keyed to the text, more approachable to some authors than inserted comments? Is it helpful to consider supplying a ‘clean’ reading version of the edited text (maybe as a pdf), perhaps with just the comments/queries visible, in addition to, or even in advance of, the tracked Word file?

There are no guarantees. An author may still hate an edit (any edit) and respond badly however sensitively the work has been presented. Such is life. In that unfortunate case, it’s a lot easier for editors to cope with it if they can genuinely say they have done good work and presented it carefully and with respect to that other human in the equation: the author.


Anyone else studying with the Open University? If you are, you’ll know that their study packs of books and DVDs arrive in cardboard boxes prominently marked Urgent: Educational Materials.2014-08-30 12.08.45

Stand back. Make way, there! Educational material coming through!

I’m not making fun. I really do love the idea that education – of any kind, for anyone – is urgent, important, worth making way for.

As a working adult it is not easy to fit serious learning into one’s busy life. Freelancers don’t waste time commuting and can be flexible with working hours; they can make space for study more easily, perhaps, than full-time employees. On the other hand, it is certainly a challenge to follow an organised course of study on top of a packed, and sometimes unpredictable, schedule of intellectually demanding editorial work.

So why do we do it?

To get another academic qualification? Possibly. Some people like certificates. Depending on the field of editing, additional qualifications may or may not be relevant and helpful to a freelancer’s work. Of course, a qualification in a subject does not, by itself, qualify anyone to be an editor in that field. Not without editorial skills and training.

To get more work? Perhaps. That wasn’t my own motivation; and in any case it would take more than a few maths and science courses to qualify me to edit specialised mathematical, scientific and technical texts. Still, knowledge is never wasted, and editors can only improve their work by broadening their minds and their understanding. Apart from the subject itself, becoming a consumer of textbooks again can sharpen up one’s thinking on what makes a good (or bad) information book. I mean really sharpen.

Because we are bored with the work we are doing? Unlikely! Editing non-fiction is a lifelong learning experience in itself. Changing things up can be refreshing, though. Knowledge of one’s own field can always be deepened and broadened; studying in areas that are far removed from one’s usual work topics can be extremely rewarding and stimulating too, and bring the editor back to familiar subjects with new perspectives and renewed interest.

So … are we doing it just for fun, then? Why not? Learning is fun. It’s a teeny bit addictive, also. Once you start on those urgent educational materials, one box can lead to another. I intended to do one short OU astronomy course only, but I ended up following it with two modules in maths and then an extensive introduction to physics, chemistry, biology and Earth science … This from the girl who loathed science lessons in school.

How many other freelancers are combining work with study (of any kind)? It would be very interesting to hear others’ views and perspectives.

The freelancer and … BIG DOGS

Q. Why is a non-fiction manuscript like a big dog?

A. I’m delighted you asked.

Dogs are brilliant, rewarding and fun companions – so long as you (the human) are in control of them. Dogs are pack animals, and packs aren’t democracies. In every pack there is a dominant dog in charge, and in the human-dog ‘pack’, this is still true from the dog’s point of view. If you don’t take the boss’s role, they will. Then you are in the company of a powerful, disruptive (at best) and downright dangerous (at worst) predatory hunting animal, with big teeth, over whom you have no control. You have no idea what might happen after that. Maybe nothing much. Maybe a minor nuisance. Maybe something very bad indeed.

I’m sure you see where I’m going with this.

OK, if a manuscript gets away from an editor’s control, it won’t actually bite the editor or destroy her furniture. One hopes. But a number of undesirable things may happen in unpredictable ways as a result, and I think it’s safe to say that authors and publishers hate that.

If the text is full of invisible characters, extra spaces and tabs, and weird formatting that is going to fly off in all directions once it gets into contact with page make-up software; if the structure of the text, the hierarchy of headings and subheadings, etc, is a mess; if the different elements of the text (not just headings but also displayed and boxed matter, quotations, captions, and so on) are not clearly identified; then how can the designer do a good job? It won’t be a surprise if page layouts arrive in a mess and need a lot of time-consuming and potentially expensive fixing. Perhaps they can’t be completely fixed, and then the final printed book will be a mess. Readers and reviewers will certainly notice and probably complain. (They will, likewise, soon realise if the text itself is littered with confusing inconsistencies, omissions and errors, but for the moment I’m thinking mainly about issues of text mark-up and presentation.)

Good reasons exist, then, to get that metaphorical dog on the lead and walking to heel. It’s a great idea for editors to write or record their own clean-up macros, or at least have a list of search and replace options that they run through systematically and thoughtfully (customised for each project, of course).

I’m a great fan of using the Style function in Word to flag up headings and other items such as boxed matter. There are other perfectly good ways of doing it, including the time-honoured one of typing (e.g.) <BOX STARTS> and <BOX ENDS> at the relevant points in the text. (By the way, I recommend not using those tempting text boxes that Word will insert for you. Often when text is selected, copied or printed, the contents of those boxes will disappear …!) There are some lovely things about using named styles, though. You can look at them in Outline view and see your structure; you can search by style name; you can change the formatting of (e.g.) all of your B headings consistently and in one operation if you need to do so. Styles avoid the need for a tonne of applied formatting (individually marked italic, bold, fonts, etc), and it’s the applied formatting that often makes Word files large and prone to crashing.

And, best of all, if you can coordinate with the book designer, he or she can set up a template in Quark or InDesign with the same style names, and the text will flow in and style itself correctly. Good dog!

(By the way, if you don’t define and apply your own styles, Word will try to apply a random selection of its own. There is pretty much no such thing as a text without styles in Microsoft Word, so make sure they are the ones you choose.)

A clean, well-behaved, housebroken text is welcome in every publishing office and design studio. It will not make the designer’s job unnecessarily difficult or cause a welter of unforeseen layout or typesetting problems. Therefore, everyone’s working life will be that bit easier and the freelance editor will get a reputation for being well-organised and look good to her employers. Wagging tails all round.

(By the way, I would love to have a big dog. Unfortunately, I’m already Chief of Staff to two cats, and they would fire me on the spot at the mere suggestion.)