The Wordstitch blog

Monetising feedback and embracing fragilityNot long ago, I met up with three old university friends who are all employed by (or have been employed by) large public-sector organisations. Their work environments (the support and demands of a corporate structure; the necessity of wearing shoes with rigid soles) couldn’t be more different from mine (the freedom to improve or damage my business unchecked by rules set by others; an office six metres from my bed). Yet I always learn things from our work-related chats, whether in the form of direct tips to apply to my business or reflections that give me an altered viewpoint on how I exist as a small business owner. I’d like to share two of those reflections with you.

Next to money, feedback is the most valuable commodity we get from our clients

Whether through direct reporting, receipt of career mentoring, performance evaluations or 360-degree reviews, my employed friends receive a vast amount more feedback on their work than I do as a self-employed person. And that makes me a bit jealous because, for me as a small business owner, feedback on the service I provide is a vital determinant of how well I am able to respond to what my clients want. Receiving feedback – and reacting to it well – is therefore crucial to the success of my business.

Realising how precious a commodity feedback is can help us to react positively when we receive it – whether it’s good or bad. When you’ve done everything right and the client is falling over themselves to say so, taking a bit of time to bask in your own brilliance is perfectly justified (after all, when you’re self-employed, nobody is going to do it for you). But, once you’ve basked to an appropriate degree, reflect on why the project went well. Did you have a particularly good working relationship with the author or client and, if so, how can you work on fostering such relationships with your other contacts? Did you use a new process or piece of software and, if so, how can you use it to benefit your other clients? Did you come up with a brilliant solution to a problem and, if so, how can you use it in other projects or avoid the difficulty ever happening again?

Likewise, we all sometimes get the sinking feeling that comes from learning that a client is less than thrilled with our work. Whether they are actually complaining or just unenthusiastically satisfied, this is a cue to think about what you could do differently. How can you eliminate the possibility of repeating any mistakes or misunderstandings? Or, if everything went smoothly but your client gives the impression of being distinctly underwhelmed, what can you do to wow them in future and thus make them more likely to return to you?

Many, many publishers and clients won’t bother giving feedback and will simply move on to someone else if they’re unhappy with your work. If you’re lucky enough to have someone take the time to tell you why they’re unhappy with your service, embrace that feedback with open arms and squeeze every last bit of value out of it. It’s a cliché but, when your livelihood is at stake, such feedback truly is a gift.

For the self-employed, fragility can be inspiring

Don’t get me wrong: workers’ rights and employment laws are excellent and necessary things. However, when I chose to become self-employed, I left all of those protections behind me. As a consequence, I probably view my situation as a worker rather differently from how an employed person views theirs. Essentially, my position in relation to each of my clients is much more fragile.

A major difference is that a client can ‘sack’ me at a moment’s notice (as long as we’re not in the middle of a specific contracted project). Heck, I can be sacked without my clients even telling me I’ve been sacked. All they have to do is not give me more work. This might not even be because I’ve done something wrong – the client might have undergone internal restructuring that means my services are no longer required, or they might simply have found someone else who’s a stunningly good match for their needs. They have absolutely zero legal responsibility to tell me if this happens, or even to remember I exist.

On the face of it, this can be terrifying, and of course it’s why most self-employed people have more than one client (in case one of them suddenly sails off into the sunset). But I would so much rather live and work in this way, as it makes me utterly accountable for how I run my business. Because I can be sacked at a moment’s notice, I can never be complacent. It’s my responsibility to make sure my business works well but (on the upside) it’s my responsibility to make sure my business runs well (yes, I did mean to repeat myself there). Nobody is going to pick up the slack, and personally I find that invigorating and inspiring.

The feedback–fragility connection

I’ve used the word ‘commodity’ in this post deliberately, as I firmly believe that feedback is a monetisable quantity for a small business. Whether you’re taking steps to ensure you sustain activities your clients have praised or are working on eliminating practices that weren’t so helpful, how you respond to feedback will have a direct effect on your future earnings and your client retention – and, thus, allow you to embrace and enjoy the fragility of your business rather than fearing it.


Wishing you an invigorating and enriching 2017!

Posted in Client relations, Editing, Getting work, Professional development, Proofreading | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

I’m delighted to have been asked to contribute to three other blogs this year. This is a roundup of those posts and also serves to introduce my rewritten and redesigned website, now at a new home at I’d love to know what you think of the new design – please comment and let me know!

Macros and wildcards: essentials or added extras?

Back in April, I wrote a post for the Indian Copyeditors Forum introducing macros and wildcards. I suggested some reasons to give them a go and some ways to start getting acquainted with them. Here’s an extract:

On certain editing forums, few topics are more likely to inspire passionate debate than the use of macros and wildcards. For many years they have gradually been seeping into our editing practices, and they are now essentials for some editors while for others they remain irrelevant complications – perhaps even distractions from the ‘true’ business of editing: engaging with a text.

You can read the whole post on the Indian Copyeditors Forum here.

Editorial project management: what, who, how?

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about editorial project management, take a look at my post on the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) blog in June. Based on my experience managing projects totalling over 5 million words per year, I look at what editorial project managers do, who undertakes the various project management tasks and how to get started as a project manager.

Becoming a PM requires a lot of experience and knowledge, and excellent organisational skills. While publishers who hire PMs will almost certainly have their own comprehensive workflow documents for you to follow, it’s still important to have sufficiently broad experience and training to enable you to properly plan a project and manage issues as they arise; as the above list of tasks implies, project management is a lot more than following a checklist.

Read the whole post on the SfEP blog here.

Wise owls

Earlier in September, the SfEP posted the first hoots (or screeches?) from its ‘wise owls’ . This is a series that offers advice from a panel of SfEP Advanced and Advanced Professional members. The first topic was ‘one piece of getting started advice’ and you can read my snippet here alongside words of wisdom from three other owls: Liz Jones, Sue Littleford and John Espirian.

Our second post, in November, gave some topical musings on how to take time off at Christmas. You can find invaluable words of wisdom from eight wise owls here.

Most recently, we offered our thoughts on what editors with plenty of experience and qualifications can do to further develop their skills. Get inspired by clicking here.

Keep checking the SfEP blog for more posts in the new year!

New design

I hadn’t changed my website’s design since I launched it in 2012. A freshen-up seemed to be in order! So I now have a new logo, a new site design, new text across the whole website and a new home: Just for fun, here are before and after screenshots. I hope you like it!


Before updating my website


After updating my website

Posted in Getting work, Professional development, Project management, Tools, Training | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

I spent the weekend just gone in Birmingham at the 2016 Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) conference – my fourth. There were over 30 hours of excellent CPD and networking opportunities, and I’ve emerged re-invigorated and with plenty of new ideas for my business and personal development, if a little brain-weary:

This year I was also asked to be a speed mentor, and I spent a stimulating hour chatting to three other SfEP members about their professional goals and helping them with sticking points and hurdles. And it was fabulous to catch up with old friends, meet new ones, and put faces to names and Twitter handles.


I always enjoy how the SfEP conference blends opportunities for reflection – on what it is to be an editor and on editorial practice – with more direct and specific chunks of learning.

Susan Greenberg – a rare academic who both is an editor and studies editing herself – opened the conference with an exploration of visibility, artistry, and power in editing. She also gave us such gems as the observation (quoted from freelance book editor Constance Hale) that editing consists of telling people they need to do ‘a shitload more work’ and trying to make them excited about it. So true.

There were many specific tips on offer at the session on legal editing. In this workshop, Lorraine Slipper gave a thorough introduction to the esoteric world of legal writing practices and citations. Despite the fact I have zero aspirations to be a legal editor, this session was well worth my time, as I often come across snippets of legal citations in my social sciences and history projects. I always prefer to be over-prepared to deal with things that are outside my core working practices, especially when I’m managing other editors who may need guidance on areas that are unfamiliar to them.

Rich Cutler’s session on graphic design and typesetting was also very useful. Having explained how graphic design is primarily a matter of communication, with ‘making it pretty’ following much later in the process, Rich moved on to typesetting, giving us some tips on how copy-editors and proofreaders can keep the role of the typesetter in mind. Ensuring your coding and styling are neat and tidy is a core thing to think about – and echoes much of my post earlier this year on how to help (and hinder) your typesetter. Rich also exhorted us to be realistic: if we (as copy-editors) can’t work out how to style an author’s crazy-complex table, why and how should the typesetter?

I particularly enjoyed John Pettigrew’s talk on the ‘tools of change’. His message was apocalyptic yet pragmatically hopeful, talking about there being an extinction event once a generation in which new practices and tech emerge and during which editors must change to survive. In an environment in which new consumption patterns (self-publishing, open access, and library closures) will affect how editing is funded, we need to focus on communicating our core skills while adapting them for new technological realities. This message was echoed in the panel on educational publishing chaired by Out of House, which encouraged freelancers to make sure their clients know about all of the skills they can offer.

At the after-dinner speech, expert in the differences between UK and US English Lynne Murphy introduced us to the concept of Americolexicophobia and to such exoticisms as the notion that in America one can have a sandwich on a bagel. And celebrity linguist and SfEP Honorary President David Crystal closed the conference with a tour of Internet English and its ramifications for what we consider a ‘text’.


The overall impression I am left with after the SfEP conference is one of optimism. Every freelance editor and proofreader I spoke with was in a positive position, whether flooded with work, productively blending editorial work with other paid and unpaid ventures, or enjoying their training. Fees and client expectations are perennial peeves (and indeed sometimes real problems), but I am excited about the ventures underway in the SfEP to enhance our profile and credibility as professional editors – and thereby our negotiating power.

As for me, I have a to-do list spanning the prosaic (streamlining my work environment) and the more ambitious (reviewing how best I invest my time for growth and development, and looking into non-editorial qualifications to complement my editorial work). More than anything, though, I’m happy to be part of this community of interesting, fun, and intelligent people – people who understand the excitement to be had from discovering cute-faced paperclips in one’s conference goody bag.

Thank you to the SfEP conference team for such an enjoyable and productive weekend.

Posted in Editing, Getting work, Paperwork, Professional development, Project management, Proofreading, Training | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

TypesettingCopy-editors and proofreaders rarely get any direct contact with or feedback from typesetters. As such, we can never quite be sure whether our markup and working practices are helpful and sufficient or whether we’re causing confusion and wasted time. Developments in technology – for example, the use of styles in Word and the use of Acrobat’s built-in markup tools – have led to further options and possibilities, with the result that there is no single ‘right’ way of marking up text.

As a project manager, I am lucky to be in the middle of this process, so I have an insight into what works (i.e., what causes a project to progress smoothly) and what doesn’t (i.e., what causes errors, delays and even additional costs).

I’m delighted, too, to be able to welcome the voices of the major India-based typesetters Aptara and SPi to this post. These typesetters handle hundreds of titles per week for many of the world’s major publishers, so they work with mark-up from huge numbers of copy-editors and proofreaders. Anitha from SPi and Shalini from Aptara have been kind enough to share their thoughts on what copy-editors and proofreaders can do to be helpful (and troublesome).

Following, then, are some suggestions based on their thoughts and on my own experiences.

Note that these observations particularly relate to the traditional print publishing workflow in which a book is copy-edited, then typeset, then proofread and then corrected (from the proofreader’s markup) by the typesetter. However, the principles here may be relevant to any work in which text is sent to a typesetter or designer to be laid out on a page or converted into an electronic product. Keep in mind, too, that clients’ needs may change in the future, for example in the direction of more structured/semantic tagging.

Note also that you should always follow your client’s instructions. Most publishers work with many typesetters and have created preferences that work across all setters, so always follow any publisher-specific instructions you have been given.

1 Be consistent

Any codes used and markup supplied should be entirely consistent. Use Word styles logically and with no messy duplicates. Or, if you’re using hard codes (e.g., <a> for an A head), strenuously avoid typos, duplicates and other confusing things. Styles and codes act as the typesetter’s map of a book. From them the typesetter generates the XML and any other coding necessary to create the various electronic formats for which the text may be destined. The copy-editing codes are the foundation of this work.
Similarly, think about other ways in which you can be consistent. If you’re using highlights or colours in Word to mark certain elements, check the colours are exactly consistent (if necessary, look at the RBG values). Two colours that look near-identical to the human eye will be treated as entirely separate categories by software.

2 Follow the design (if supplied)

During copy-editing, if you have been given a design template (i.e., a PDF of some sample text showing how the book will be laid out) or design instructions, follow them as closely as possible. Think about how each segment of text will actually translate into a designed element in the book. And make sure you differentiate clearly between elements, using enough codes or styles for the typesetter to intuitively understand what’s what. Otherwise, the typesetter will have to waste time working out how to shoehorn a manuscript into a design template that it doesn’t fit.

3 Let the typesetter know of any special instructions

Sometimes there may be elements that don’t quite fit the design or where you need the typesetter to do something particular to ensure the content is laid out appropriately. Send the typesetter a list of these instances – don’t wait for it to be discovered on the proofs that special treatment was needed. For example, I recently had a book where displayed quotes in Welsh were immediately followed by displayed translations. The styles provided by the publisher had no facility to show that a small gap was needed between these paragraphs, so I added a <sp> code and explained to the typesetter that it signified a half-line space. There were a lot of these, and adding the extra space at proof stage would have caused text to be reflowed over page boundaries, causing extra work and possibilities for error.

When determining how to handle such exceptions, always involve your client if the content requires an entirely new design element or you’re not sure how an issue should be dealt with.

4 Let the typesetter know of any special sorts

Always highlight non-standard characters in the text, and consider providing a separate list too (in which each character is explained), as typesetters can still find such lists helpful despite modern technology’s ability to handle these characters.

5 If you have a choice, don’t necessarily default to using copy-editing codes

Both Aptara and SPi said they preferred Word styles to hard coding, as styles benefit the composition process as a whole. They can also benefit the copy-editor, as they result in a cleaner manuscript and are quicker to implement. But always follow the instructions you have been given. Hard codes have a visibility and permanence that can be beneficial. And be careful to follow any guidance supplied by your client for the use of mathematical and other special content.

6 Check nothing is missing

If a copy-editor doesn’t notice and account for any missing material, it can cause havoc throughout the rest of the production process. Space will need to be found for missing elements, and the text will have to be reflowed accordingly (and the index may need to be meticulously updated). Then somebody will need to run extra checks to ensure running headers and contents page numbers have been correctly updated, and that there have been no knock-on effects on the text surrounding the missing element. All of this is particularly burdensome on the typesetter.

7 When proofreading on screen, ask which mark-up method is preferred

This is a controversial one. Proofreaders now have the option of using either stamps that replicate traditional proofreading marks or Acrobat’s built-in annotation tools. They can even blend the two approaches. Both Aptara and SPi strongly expressed a preference for the exclusive use of the built-in Acrobat tools, and this is a preference I tend to echo. While both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, stamps can make the processes of collation and of making corrections cumbersome and confusing. In contrast, when the full range of Acrobat’s tools is used, most corrections can be made using a single Acrobat annotation (as opposed to two or three stamps per correction), and, for more complex changes, short explanations are often more human-friendly than stamps.

However, as with everything else, your client’s preference should be your rule of law. Different workflows will be appropriate to different contexts.

In summary

As with all editorial work, consistency is key. Be consistent, follow the design, and communicate clearly about any exceptions or deviations, and the typesetter will be able to perform their magic just fine.

As Anitha from SPi says, ‘Copy-editors are the very first in a typesetting workflow to make changes to the content. If this process happens perfectly, it is most likely that the remaining processes will happen without any major problems.’


Do you do typesetting work? If so, what are some examples of good and bad practice that you’ve come across? Or, if you’re a copy-editor or proofreader, what feedback have you had on what works well and not so well?


Grateful thanks to Anitha (SPi) and Shalini (Aptara) for sharing their valuable insights. Thank you also to Wiley Blackwell for helpful suggestions on the post.

Posted in Client relations, Editing, Paperwork, Project management, Proofreading, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Combo BoxesI am a huge advocate of comprehensive and well-organised style sheets. When copy-editing and proofreading, they help me to clearly summarise the style decisions I’ve made and communicate them to my client. And, in my project management work, they are indispensable tools for corralling copy-editors on multi-editor projects and for keeping styles consistent throughout copy-editing, typesetting, proofreading, collating and indexing. I’ve previously written about how editors should never fail to provide a proper style sheet (see point 4).

I’ve recently been experimenting with a new technique in my own style sheets: the use of the combo box (also known as a dropdown list). These allow inputting of a set of pre-defined options, one of which is later chosen by clicking on the list and selecting an item.


So how can combo boxes be used in style sheets? Well, I find that the process of compiling a style sheet can be quite time consuming. Yes, I can create a template with the main categories listed (e.g., headings capitalisation, number range elision, treatment of ellipses), but I still have to manually type out what style I have elected to follow for each category. It’s fiddly and dull.

Enter the combo box.

With combo boxes, your style sheet template can have all the possible options for each style category. For example, for headings, I might want any of the following:

  1. sentence case
  2. title case (cap. nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs)
  3. APA title case (cap. nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs + all other words of 4+ letters)

Each of these can be plugged in as an option in your ‘headings style’ combo box.

This method has many advantages, including:

  1. efficiency: two clicks and your chosen style is recorded
  2. accuracy: no possibility of typos or of hurried typing leading to lack of clarity
  3. comprehensiveness: setting up a template that covers all possibilities means you can’t forget to record a style decision – each style category will eyeball you until you input an option


(Note that these instructions are for Word 2016 on a PC, but the methodology for previous versions of Word and for Macs will be similar.)

1. Check that the Developer tab is visible in Word. If it’s not, go to File > Options > Customize Ribbon and tick the Developer option.


2. In your document, place the cursor where you want the combo box to appear. Then, on the Developer tab, find the Controls group and click the Combo Box Content Control tool.


3. You should get a rather ugly box appear in the document, looking something like this.


4. Ensure the combo box control is selected (it should be by default immediately after you add it) and click the Properties tool, back up on the Developer tab.


5. There are various options that advanced users might want to consider (e.g., applying a certain style to the entered text). However, the only essential portion of this box is the bottom section, which is where you can add, modify, delete, rename and reorder your combo box’s options. Here is what the Properties box looks like after I enter the above three options for the capitalisation of headings.


6. Repeat as necessary to create combo boxes for all the options you need for your line(s) of work.

7. Now here’s the clever bit. Sending your client a style sheet with all the options still available might be risky: somebody could accidentally change one of your selections. But macro guru Paul Beverley has sourced a simple macro that removes the combo boxes, leaving behind the selected text and thus creating a final snapshot of your style sheet that you can send to your client. Here is the macro in its entirety:

Sub ComboBoxAccept()
For Each cc In ActiveDocument.ContentControls
    cc.LockContentControl = False
End Sub

(If you need guidance on how to install this macro, read Paul’s excellent – and free – book, available here.)

8. And that’s it. From these basics, complex combinations of combo boxes can be compiled to create chains of clickable, customised categories. (See what I did there?) For example:



Go forth and create combo boxes! And please comment with any creative uses you dream up.

Posted in Editing, Paperwork, Popular posts, Professional development, Project management, Proofreading, Tools | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Respect and the inner robot in editingI recently edited an academic book on Nazi Germany and, as is standard copy-editing practice, checked the spelling and diacritics of all proper nouns and non-English words: the Polish ‘el’ in Che?mno; the triple-consonant ‘sch’ in Mischlinge; the umlaut in Röhm. I’ve found that, with experience, copy-editing functions like this have become almost automatic. A ‘bzzzt’ noise in my brain flags that I’ve just read something I need to check, and I’m consulting the client’s house style guide, Alt-tabbing to my style sheet or copy-pasting into an appropriate dictionary or Google almost before I realise.

But in some books, like the one mentioned above, this mechanical approach jars with the content. My editor brain is tripping happily through the text prissily pouncing on errors while my human brain is fixated on the horror or the sadness (or in other cases the hilarity) of what the author is describing.

This calculating approach can seem cold, inadequate, insensitive. As editors we might even feel we’re being disrespectful by subjecting a poignant exposition to such objective grammatical and stylistic scrutiny. It might seem to be missing the point.

But, in fact, entirely the opposite is the case. It is as respectful to ensure a text with emotional import is accurate as it is disrespectful to assume that its inherent gravitas will somehow ward off or neutralise any faux pas. In the aforementioned book on Nazi Germany, I came across ‘Auschwitz’ spelled as ‘Aushwitz’ (not by the author – by a fellow professional); a methodical approach – regardless of content – is what enables such errors to be caught. And I would argue that errors such as this should really never be missed. It would almost be like failing to notice ‘8/11’. Certain words have an iconic, hallowed status. They make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, for both emotional and practical reasons (even setting aside the possible distraction of its emotional import, clearly ‘Auschwitz’ is easy to misspell). These ‘never-to-be-misspelled’ words will of course vary according to the culture in which the editor works.

Copy-editing and proofreading require detachment and objectivity. But, by incorporating this approach into our editing, we show the respect that allows the emotional, cultural and other import of the words to shine out clear, or sit on the page with quiet solemnity, or whatever is intended. This process shows respect for the content and respect for the reader, by helping the two to come together with no grammatical obstructions or distracting typos.

One of the wonderful things about editing is that, with experience, you can do the robot thing and the human thing at the same time. At first, when you’re learning, most of your brain power is taken up with remembering the rules and working through your mental checklists. As you gain in experience, you still do these things, but they become less all-consuming, allowing you to catch the errors while reacting to the text like a normal reader – and this is good for the author and reader too, as it can only result in the editor responding more sensitively to the text.

Good editing unites respect for the ‘rules’ with respect for content. I have sat editing a Key Stage 2 history textbook with tears dripping off my chin. I have had substantial psychological epiphanies from seemingly dry literature textbooks. And I have snorted with amusement at an author’s particularly dexterous rendering of the Suarez biting incidents. But none of these reactions should distract from delivering a solid, accurate edit. By keeping our inner robot and our inner human in balance, we can ensure that, on the one hand, emotive content is spelled correctly and that, on the other, grammatical and typographical considerations never stifle what would otherwise grab us emotionally.

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Authorial voice - the bogeyman?‘Don’t intrude on the author’s voice’ is one of the first things every new proofreader or copy-editor is told. This is both a very helpful and an utterly useless piece of advice. It is helpful because it is absolutely true, but it is useless because it rarely seems to be defined just what on earth authorial voice is.

Is it just one of those conveniently nebulous concepts that can be thrown down as a trump card to back up a quavering argument? Or can it be pinned down as a real ‘thing’, distinct from all the other aspects of written language that editors have to worry about?

Let’s ponder.

Things authorial voice probably isn’t

1. Grammar, or the disregard thereof (see also below). The conventions according to which other human beings understand punctuation marks and sentence syntax must be adhered to if your author wishes to be understood (though less so in fiction than non-fiction). For example, omitting commas after very long introductory clauses is probably going to make readers struggle. And injudiciously muddling the order of adjectives and nouns is likely going to make them abandon the endeavour entirely. For an author to have a voice at all, their text must be intelligible.

2. Inexperience. What may be a deliberate usage choice by an experienced author may be an unconscious tic by an inexperienced one. Instead of wringing your hands over a recurring issue, ask questions. Many inexperienced authors (and often experienced ones) will be grateful to have such oddities made more reader friendly.

3. Ambiguity – unless intended. Sometimes ambiguity, contradiction or inconsistency can be a deliberate authorial choice in a novel or in a non-fiction argument. But usually they are undesired. When fixing them, try to do so in a way that is compatible with how the author has written elsewhere. Editors should be sensitive to picking up the tone and vocabulary of the manuscript so that any suggested fixes are harmonious. (Or, if it’s a particularly tricky passage that requires a major rewrite, if you can, ask the author how they want to rewrite it. No-one’s better at mimicking how the author writes than the author!)

4. Generally poor or offensive writing. Preserving an author’s voice requires that the author’s voice is worth preserving. Rambling, offensive or otherwise off-putting writing may need considerable work before it is even possible to conduct a level of edit in which preserving the author’s voice is a concern.

Things authorial voice might be

1. Grammar, or the disregard thereof (see also above). However much you might like certain grammar rules, as a professional editor you have to accept that others might not be so precious about them. Few grammar ‘rules’ beyond the basics are defensible if an author prefers a consistent and intelligible alternative that is suitable for the intended readership and function of the text and that does not contravene any brief you have been given.

2. Personality (or tone). An author’s text will often reflect his or her individuality. Signs of that individuality may range from colloquialism, informality, jokes or emotion on the one hand to meticulous use of displayed lists, frequent parenthetical asides or a general sense of gravitas on the other. If none of these aspects are contrary to the intended function and readership of the text, they’re probably fine. And bear in mind that your author’s personality may be a key selling point for a text. You may do serious financial damage to a project if you remove an author’s personality from their work.

3. Impersonality. Sometimes it is inappropriate to allow authors’ voices to be evident, and in such cases the ‘voice’ of the text will be impersonal (not necessarily inhuman – just not specific to any particular human author). Certain non-fiction genres (such as textbooks and reports) are usually presented as if ex nihilo: the author is just a conduit for the facts and is rarely important in his or her own right.

4. Evolution of language. Depending on the genre, it may be appropriate for the author to push the boundaries of accepted ‘correct’ language.

5. Convention. Certain genres and fields of study have particular conventions. We might think of these as their distinctive ‘voice’. These can pertain to vocabulary, syntax, spelling and any number of other things. Some of these conventions can seem odd to outsiders, but they must be respected lest you risk making the author seem ignorant to his or her peers. Editors who sometimes work in areas in which they are not specialists (of which I am one) must be sensitive to signs of these esoteric formulations.

6. A bogeyman. The above ideas notwithstanding, it is difficult to define exactly what authorial voice is. Is it really a ‘thing’ for which we must stand up in defence? There will always be the occasional editor who tramples over a manuscript in a pair of concrete wellingtons, ripping up everything that doesn’t take his or her fancy. But is this not just general bad editing? I find it hard to conceive of a good editing job that somehow ruins the author’s voice. Such an edit would automatically be bad, because the editor would have been imposing his or her preferences rather than judiciously employing rules and experience to make the text fit for purpose.

Perhaps it follows, then, that a good edit will automatically preserve authorial voice. If so, this is good news for new editors, who may experience the paralysis that comes of being afraid of the bogeyman – of being afraid of stepping over some elusive line that only the cognoscenti know. Perhaps preserving authorial voice is just about having a good basic grasp of editing technique and of the text’s genre. Perhaps it’s about being aware that there are multiple approaches to most editing questions and that you may not yet know all of those approaches. Perhaps it’s just being a good editor.

The dangers of fearing the bogeyman

It might seem from some the above that I’m arguing for editors to leave texts largely untouched, on the basis that almost anything is excusable if done with sensitivity to the context and readership. But I’m actually arguing for the opposite: I’m arguing for new (and established) editors having confidence in their training and instincts and giving themselves the psychological freedom to use their good judgement to remove infelicities and suggest improvements where they are warranted.

Why? Because, far from finding that editors routinely meddle with authors’ work to a degree that causes upset, I more often find editors under-editing – leaving basic errors and unclear passages untouched because they are not confident enough to intervene.

Kowtowing to the bogeyman of authorial voice without attempting to clearly conceptualise what is acceptably unconventional and what is unacceptably confusing can lead to an editor leaving a manuscript in poor shape. (A fiery or opinionated author can be particularly intimidating in this regard. A process of negotiation in which the editor is firm on the grammatical essentials – giving clear explanations of why they are essential – but allows the author some less harmful whims is usually the best approach in such cases, but the client should almost always be consulted in the case of a conflict.)

Concluding thoughts

The concept of preserving authorial voice is useful as long as one recognises that it is just that: a concept and not a ‘thing’. It will automatically be preserved if an editor follows his or her (reputable) training and engages the author in dialogue about suggested changes. It is not a bogeyman that should be allowed to paralyse you out of properly engaging with the text you’re editing.

If in doubt…

Try following this train of thought:

1. Situation: the way this bit of text is written displeases me or makes me uncomfortable in some way.

2. Question to self: is it contrary to a truly basic rule of grammar or syntax; inconsistent; difficult to follow; misleading or ambiguous for the intended readership; unsuitable or inappropriate for the genre or intended purpose; or contrary to the brief I have been given?

  1. Possibility 1 – no, I just personally don’t really like it: leave it alone.
  2. Possibility 2 – I’m not sure: see what a few authorities (books or websites) have to say on the subject, or ask your client, the author or your editorial colleagues for their input or advice.
  3. Possibility 3 – yes: change it in the least intrusive way possible, querying the author if the change is substantial enough that he or she may have an opinion on how it should be fixed. Always either explain your rationale (if appropriate) or be ready and able to explain it if queried.


Do you agree? Is authorial voice a ‘thing’? Or is it at best a convenient shorthand for a nebulous concept and at worst a potentially paralysing invention? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Posted in Editing, Proofreading, Training | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The seven deadly sins of freelance editorsYou’re a good editor. You can juggle serial commas and breathe fire at dangling modifiers. Your ninja coding skills can subdue even the most tortuous of manuscripts.

But, however good your editorial skills, they may not be able to save you from losing a client to certain common etiquette pitfalls. I’ve collected seven of these below. These examples particularly apply to relationships with traditional project managers (PMs) or production editors. However, they can apply to relationships with business or self-publisher clients too.

Avoid these ‘sins’ to lessen your chances of irritating your client into dropping you as a supplier.

1. Bad filing

Unhelpfully named documentation can be a hindrance and gives a poor impression of your professionalism. When communicating with your PM or other members of the project team, try to pick email subjects and file names that will be helpful to everyone. For example:

  1. Never title an email ‘Index’, ‘Queries’, ‘Complete’, ‘Help please!’ or any other unspecific term. Your PM may have many projects on the go, and clearly naming your emails (e.g. ‘Kennedy indexing complete’) will help her to quickly identify them, deal with them and file them.
  2. Similarly, never title a document simply ‘Invoice’, ‘Queries’ or ‘Index’. Identify the project and, if relevant, a version number. For example, ‘Hale copy-editing queries 2’.
  3. Wherever possible, avoid writing about more than one project in a single email. If your client has separate email folders for each project, she will have to remember that key details of project A are filed in project B’s folder.
  4. If a project enters a new stage, either start a new email chain or update the subject line. Don’t reply to an email headed ‘Wells copy-editing queries’ if you’re asking a question about the index.

2. Sending haphazard emails and queries

They may just be ‘quick queries’, but receiving a separate email with a ‘quick’ one-line query three times a day is irritating and distracting. Your PM may be managing three, seven, or even twenty or more projects at once, each with their idiosyncrasies and complications, and mentally hopping between them is not easy. Help your PM by batching your queries into manageable chunks so that she can properly budget the time and brainpower to give them the attention they need.

3. Making your PM write the words ‘as mentioned in the brief…’ more than once or twice

When a brief is long, it’s only human that you’ll miss a few things. However, when a freelancer queries – or downright skips – basic or numerous aspects of a brief, it really starts to make my ears steam. What it says to me is, ‘I’m very experienced so I’m going to skim read your instructions but broadly do the same job I always do.’ Or, ‘I struggle to absorb detailed guidance but I’m not going to bother implementing a system to ensure I can’t miss or forget about an instruction.’ Determine which style points you struggle to absorb and find a method to ensure they can’t elude you.

4. Thinking that style sheet = word list

Sometimes the style sheet you supply to your client at the end of a job can just be a list of spellings. For example, if you’ve been asked to follow a specific style (e.g. APA, Chicago or a publisher’s house style) to the letter, there is no point transcribing the manual to your style sheet.

However, in my experience it is rare for a book manuscript to be edited to this degree of conformity. More usually the instruction is to follow key points of a certain style but otherwise ‘follow author style if consistent’. In these cases, it is essential to create a detailed list of style points for the basics: acronyms and abbreviations; capitalisation; citation syntax; criteria for displaying quotes, verse and equations; dates; figure and table captions; italic and bold; lists (run-on and displayed); numbers; possessives (for words ending in s); punctuation; references; and any other styles specific to the project.

Here are some reasons why:

  1. It helps you. Making yourself consider and clearly document every style decision can only lead to a higher level of consistency.
  2. It helps the proofreader. Without a style sheet, the proofreader will have to deduce what styles have been used as she proceeds through the text. Worse, if she finds inconsistencies, she may lose confidence in the copy-editor and waste time checking the text more thoroughly than if she’d had a style sheet (even a slightly flawed one).
  3. It helps the project manager. When the project manager is collating the various corrections into one set for the typesetter, she will need to check no corrections contradict the style implemented during copy-editing. Without a comprehensive style sheet, she will be reduced to wading through the book looking for examples of the style in question. And, if she finds an inconsistency, she will have to dig even deeper to find out what the predominant or intended style is.
  4. It helps the budget. Without the clarity of a well-implemented style sheet, there will almost certainly be more corrections at proof stage. Typesetters may charge for higher levels of corrections. In addition, corrections may lead to text needing to be reflowed over page boundaries, meaning that if the index has already been created it may need to be updated, again potentially at extra cost.
  5. It helps to keep the author happy. Without documentation of key copy-editing decisions, the proofreader could unwittingly reverse important points the copy-editor agreed with the author, which may provoke the author’s justified ire later on.

Bottom line: a good style sheet can make a huge difference to the enjoyment or aggravation your PM gets from the project and thereby to her satisfaction or dissatisfaction with you as the copy-editor.

5. Not knowing what your PM’s remit covers

Most PMs will be and should be willing to help you out if, for example, you need to get in contact with another department, have a general query about how the publisher operates or need help chasing an overdue invoice. But avoid sending PMs emails that they simply won’t be able to do anything with. I once had a freelancer of many years’ experience repeatedly email me out of the blue with vague and insubstantial book concepts a particular publisher might like to consider, forcing me to explain several times that I had no contact whatsoever with the publisher’s commissioning department. Whether your PM writes back explaining why she can’t do anything with your email, struggles valiantly to send it to someone who can, or ignores it, you will have irritated her.

6. Responding poorly to feedback

One of the rewarding aspects of managing freelancers is seeing their skills expand over the years, and the process of giving feedback is vital in helping freelancers to improve. Unfortunately, though, sometimes freelancers react in a hostile or otherwise unhelpful manner to feedback. For example:

  1. ‘Oops. Oh well – better next time!’ Acknowledges responsibility but gives no indication that the freelancer understands exactly what was done incorrectly or plans to take quantifiable steps to address the issue for the future. The PM is left unsure of the freelancer’s professionalism, attitude to improvement and ability to improve.
  2. ‘Here you go – I fixed it.’ If you choose to immediately send your PM a ‘fixed’ version of your work, be very sure you understand everything that needs fixing and that you fix all of it. I have several times had ‘fixed’ work sent back to me implausibly quickly with residual mistakes, which only makes you look worse.
  3. ‘That task isn’t my responsibility.’ If you choose to respond in this way, you need to be very, very sure that you have a leg to stand on. Your PM likely manages many projects and knows the publisher’s requirements for its freelancers more thoroughly than you, so she will have an excellent overview of what is within your remit. That being said, it is sadly the case that editors often aren’t briefed sufficiently (or at all), so do stand up for yourself if you believe this to be the case.
  4. ‘Your instructions weren’t clear enough.’ If this was the case, why didn’t you ask your PM to clarify the brief earlier on in the project?

It is not your PM’s responsibility to become your mentor or to directly assist with your professional development. But, if she points out an issue with your work, it is important to succinctly let her know that you acknowledge the error and to explain how you will ensure it won’t happen again.

7. Reacting emotionally to a professional situation

We are all guilty of this at times, and freelancers can be particularly susceptible. In certain situations of stress or tiredness and without colleagues to bounce off, we can be prone to losing perspective and reacting emotionally when something goes wrong professionally. But too much of this can force a PM to drop a freelancer for being simply too much to handle.

If you make a mistake, a PM should understand that you may feel guilty for letting her down or causing her extra work. Some expression of your feelings of culpability is human and professionally appropriate. But try to strike a sensible balance. A rambling tome of regretful self-flagellation helps nobody and only serves to cause your PM to expend further energy calming your nerves and refocusing the discussion in a more productive direction. Start and end your email with an apology that makes clear you understand the impact of your mistake and will take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again. These framing sections should take up no more than around 25 percent of your message, with the central section objectively discussing what went wrong and how you offer to fix it.

Similarly, if the situation is reversed and a personal situation is affecting your professional world, the PM will likely be sympathetic and understanding. But in all but the most dire circumstances it should be possible for you to let her know what you can and can’t achieve so she can calculate the knock-on effects and make sensible decisions for the good of the project. If you press on blindly based on emotional reasons rather than objective judgments (even well-intentioned reasons such as not wanting to let your client down), your PM won’t be impressed if catastrophe occurs and it turns out it could have been averted.


The reality is that, however good an editor you are, your client will be less likely to rehire you if dealing with you is difficult or unpleasant. But following some simple points of etiquette and always endeavouring to keep your client’s and the project’s needs in mind will make this much less likely.


Project managers, what other editorial irritations really get to you? Copy-editors and proofreaders, what strategies to you employ to ensure you avoid these or any other deadly sins of editors? Please let us know in the comments!

Posted in Client relations, Editing, Getting work, Indexing, Popular posts, Professional development, Project management, Proofreading | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments

Mountain of booksIn my project-management capacity, I generally have an encyclopaedia or two on the go at any one time. These usually range from around 500,000 to around 1.5 million words. The largest modern encyclopaedias are upwards of 40 million words (Britannica’s 2013 print edition has 44 million).

These are difficult works to handle, with a whole raft of consistency and data-handling considerations that simply don’t apply to ‘normal’ books.

Compared to Wikipedia, though, they’re like children’s picture books. The largest encyclopaedia I’ve ever worked on had four volumes and was around 2 million words. That’s 0.075% of Wikipedia, which according to its own figures currently contains approximately 2.6 billion words.

Just for squeaks and giggles, let’s pretend we’ve been asked to manage the production of Wikipedia and estimate the costs and time involved in putting all 2.6 billion words, or around 4.5 million articles, through the standard process of readying a book for publication.

Brace yourself: there will be maths.

(If you want to skip straight to the summary, click here.)

Getting started

The following flights of fancy will be necessarily selective. They cover only what is generally called the ‘production’ stage of producing a book. For a normal encyclopaedia, before production can start, the ‘commissioning’ process has to happen. In this process, academic editors who are experts in their fields decide what areas they want to cover and then commission articles on those subjects. The articles are then reviewed and revised until they meet the requisite quality standard.

This process alone can take many years for an encyclopaedia of normal length, but one of the few advantages of printing Wikipedia is that the articles already exist. And, assuming the publisher wanted to print Wikipedia as it is, we could skip right over assessment of article quality and checking for gaps or gluts in coverage.

‘Hooray! We’ve saved time and money before we’ve even started!’ you exclaim.

But not so fast. The lack of a peer-review process will mean:

  1. many of the articles produced will be complete garbage and not worth printing, but, seeing as we’re taking the purist option of printing all of Wikipedia, they will nevertheless need to be edited into a form that makes some sort of sense;
  2. provision will need to be made to have a panel of experts available to answer the copy-editors’ queries (on everything from axoplasmic transport to the skirt dancer Kate Vaughan);
  3. the copy-editors, indexers and proofreaders themselves will need to be of a very high calibre, able to make decisions with little guidance (but maximum communication between themselves) on innumerable style and content issues.

Still interested in managing this beast? Let’s take a closer look at what it will involve.


Let’s pick an average copy-editing speed of 2,000 words per hour (ignoring the possibility for vast variation in the quality of the text and therefore in editing speeds). That’s 1.3 million hours of editing, or 162,500 days (at eight hours’ editing per day), or 677 years (working 240 days per year).
To complete the copy-editing in anything like a reasonable timeframe, say a year, you’d therefore need upwards of 650 copy-editors – probably more than an entire country’s worth of editors with the necessary experience level. As a result, all other publishers will hate you (you’ll have swiped all the good editors). And, if the copy-editors wise up to the fact you’ve effectively handed them a monopoly, they might be tempted to put their rates up, meaning your already insane copy-editing budget will skyrocket.
Just how insane would that budget be? The UK’s Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) suggests a minimum copy-editing rate of £25.70 per hour. Many experienced editors charge more, but let’s take that figure as our ballpark number. £25.70 x 1,300,000 is approximately £33.4 million.
How insane? Very.


I’m not too hot on the intricacies of typesetting rates, but £4 per page is a reasonable rough-and-ready figure. This includes:

  1. flowing the text on the pages;
  2. processing and redrawing images and tables, and arranging them nicely within the text;
  3. producing PDF proofs;
  4. implementing the proofreaders’ corrections;
  5. producing another round of PDF proofs;
  6. implementing the inevitable tweaks that will still be needed;
  7. generating a final shiny batch of proofs for printing.

At an estimated 5 million pages, including space for images and tables, that’s another £20 million in costs.

Proofreading and indexing

Next we have proofreading and indexing, which happen simultaneously once the proofs have been generated by the typesetter. The SfEP suggests a minimum proofreading rate of £22 per hour. Let’s be super-optimistic and assume our copy-editors have done such a brilliant job that the proofreaders (of which, by the way, we’ll need around 270 to get the proofreading done in a year) can manage 5,000 words per hour. That’s 520,000 hours at a cost of £11.4 million.
Indexing is often charged by the page. We’ll budget £2.50 per page, which gives a cost of £12.5 million. And I’m sure you’ve noticed the pattern by now and can deduce that the number of indexers required will be similarly silly.
As an aside, most encyclopaedias have extensive sections of ‘prelims’ – introductory material such as tables of contents, lists of contributors, lists of abbreviations, and perhaps an introduction and a preface. Seeing as even a table of contents for Wikipedia would likely be around 100 volumes and that compiling (let alone attempting to print) any kind of list of contributors (around 22.8 million) would be a task of truly frightening complications, let’s give the prelims up as a bad job. No one will notice, anyway – they’ll be too busy calculating how many miles of shelving they’ll need to buy to house their new purchase.


A second group of proofreaders then has to check that the corrections have been implemented fully and without errors being introduced. Assuming the corrections were minimal, let’s hope these proofreaders can get through 100 pages an hour. At the SfEP’s suggested rate, that’s another £1.1 million of work.


Once these rounds of corrections have been completed and the final PDF proofs have been signed off by the publisher, we can proceed to printing. Wikipedia itself gives an estimate of £0.03 (US$0.05) per page for printing alone – but we’ll need to bind the books too, so let’s double the price as a rough-and-ready estimate. At 5 million pages, the printing and binding cost would therefore be a relatively modest £300,000 per copy.

Who’s steering this thing?

A final consideration is the cost of hiring a team to manage this whole process. Sometimes publishers do this in-house, but increasingly the task is outsourced to freelancers or specialist project-management companies.
This project-management team talks to the contributors, the publisher, the expert advisers, the copy-editors, the typesetters, the illustrators, the proofreaders, the indexers and the printers and attempts to maintain a degree of sanity and direction. This team also needs to be paid – let’s say £4 per 1000 words, adding another £10.4 million to our budget.

How much did you say?

So, here’s your summary of the costs for quick reference next time someone rings you up and asks you to manage the production of a 2.6-billion-word book:

ComponentEst. cost (£ millions)Est. hours
Total (one printed copy of Wikipedia)89.13,270,000 hours, or 1.7 millennia for one person working on their own for 8 hours a day, 240 days per year
Checking corrections made11.150,000
Printing (per copy)0.3n/a

* The estimated numbers of hours for these components are even more guesstimated than the others, as detailed calculations of typesetting and indexing times are outside my expertise. Corrections from better-informed people welcomed!
I haven’t even included fees for overheads such as:

  1. the publishing staff themselves;
  2. the cost of retaining expert advisors;
  3. software to handle the project’s looming mountains of data (Excel’s maximum of just over a million rows is paltry in the face of 4.5 million articles);
  4. courier costs of freighting the encyclopaedia’s 17,000 volumes (roughly an entire 20-ft shipping container per copy).

Cost to purchase (sale price)

The above calculations have only dealt with the unit cost – the manufacturing costs. But, unless the publisher is a charity, they’re going to want to justify this whole crazy endeavour by making some sort of profit.

However, here’s where things fall apart (if indeed they were ever stuck together). Based on the fact that a printed Wikipedia would be uselessly unwieldy and out of date before copy-editing even started – not to mention that storing it would require purchasing a small fleet of delivery lorries’ worth of shelving – the market for a printed Wikipedia would quite certainly be zero. And I do not know of any costings model that is capable of suggesting a sale price for a product with no market.


In summary, Wikipedia, despite its shortcomings, is a stupendous human achievement. Were it to be printed, in terms of the basics it could be managed much like any other encyclopaedia. But attempting to print it would be a monument to human insanity the likes of which have rarely been seen.


Have you ever been asked to work on a 2.6-billion-word book? How did it go? What challenges did you face and how did you overcome them? Please consider sharing your experiences below!

Posted in Project management | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PerfectIn a recent post I said that copy-editors and proofreaders should always ask, ask, ask if they find their client’s instructions unclear or aren’t sure what’s wanted. In this impromptu post I’d like to expand on that a little.

When editorial project managers (PMs) write briefs, they try to make them perfect. They really do. They endeavour to make them complete, unambiguous and as concise as possible.

But the reality is that they will make mistakes. Especially with more complex, bespoke books.

I recently wrote a detailed twenty-one-page brief for the copy-editors of an encyclopaedia. I started the brief almost from scratch as I was in the midst of a major overhaul of my paperwork, and inevitably the brief contained some inconsistencies, typos and ambiguities. It would be crazy if it hadn’t; after all, the very premise we editors and proofreaders build our livelihoods on is that no human being – whether publisher, author or indeed professional copy-editor or proofreader – is capable of editing their own work with a clear eye. We cannot see our own errors because we see what we think we typed, not what we actually typed.

However, my two excellent copy-editors carefully worked their way through the brief before they got stuck into the manuscript, internalising the 95 per cent of it that made sense and sending me queries on the 5 per cent where I’d come unstuck. Result: all-round clarity such that the text will be consistently edited, necessitating fewer corrections at proof stage than there might have been if the ambiguities had remained unaddressed. Plus, my template brief has been honed for future use.

In another example, a shorter book, a single minor ambiguity was not queried by the copy-editor, leading to difficult choices having to be made in an already tight schedule. A five-minute query + reply could have saved hours of reworking.

Knock them off their perch

Many PMs may like to give out the impression they are infallible. As copy-editors and proofreaders, we do a certain amount of that too. It’s a valid part of being a professional: nobody trusts an editor who prevaricates about the nuts and bolts of their trade. But we’re human too: we leave typos in emails, we occasionally fail to explain things clearly enough to authors. And, most, importantly, if we are infallible, we have an infallible sense of when we might be wrong, might have made a mistake or might not know the whole answer to a problem. Project managers should be the same.

If they’re not, knock them off their perch (politely!). Traditional thinking would say that this is risky: I’ve often picked up on a lingering attitude – even fear – that challenging PMs irritates them and risks them not engaging your services again. But be more charitable: faced with a genuine ambiguity in the instructions they’ve written, most PMs aren’t anything like that egotistical (and do you really want to be working with one who is?). Even if you do currently feel stuck working for clients who refuse to admit their fallibility, what you should fear most is misinterpreting the brief (making assumptions, not judgements) and either doing unwanted work or leaving undone what the PM wanted done.

In my copy-editing and proofreading work, I can’t recall ever asking a valid question of a PM and receiving a frosty response, so let’s squash this myth of unapproachable infallibility and allow PMs to be human.


What are your experiences with querying project managers? Do you think PMs benefit from or lose out from the myth of their infallibility? Do you even agree that such a myth exists?


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Posted in Client relations, Editing, Paperwork, Project management, Proofreading | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment