Two truths of editing are universally acknowledged: (1) editors are good at objectively reacting to work produced by other people and (2) no two editors will edit the same piece of text in the same way. Remember this – I’ll come back to it.
For many of us, being mentored – in other words, having our work scrutinised line by line, edit by edit, marginal squiggle by marginal squiggle – is something we haven’t experienced for some time. Others may have recently completed a mentoring scheme or other in-depth course but be very aware of how much they still have to learn. And yet others (myself included) may never have had the experience of being mentored, having learned in house or via courses.
Regardless of the route we’ve taken to get to whatever stage we’re at, what editorial tics might we have picked up or not shrugged off? What techniques or industry developments might we not quite have mastered? Obviously we continue to attend training courses and we habitually consult our preferred oracles, whether human, printed or digital (in other words, we engage in continuing professional development (CPD)). But, however conscientious and thoughtful we are, human error makes it likely that we have quirks and weaknesses of various kinds.
‘But,’ you may be thinking, ‘My work is assessed all the time by my clients. I’d know by now if I was doing anything terrible.’
Well, yes and no.
Firstly, you probably aren’t doing anything terrible. But you might be doing some things less well – or in a less clear or less efficient way – than you could be. Improving your clarity is good for your clients and improving your efficiency is good for your income.
Secondly, the assessment your clients carry out is likely very different from the in-depth, informed and constructive scrutiny that a mentor can provide. As I’ve pointed out, publishing clients are usually limited by time constraints (and perhaps by a lack of technical knowledge) to reacting to obvious errors only. And authors (whether in traditional-style publishing or author-as-client scenarios) are unlikely to have the necessary knowledge to make a proper appraisal. It’s likely that, as long as the freelancer hasn’t interfered with the content of the text, the author will be happy.
So what’s the solution? We can’t all afford to pay a mentor to conduct a review of our work, and in any case there wouldn’t be enough mentors available.
Enter co-mentoring for editorial professionals
At this stage I’m hoping some of you are assuming wise Yoda-like expressions, perhaps steepling your fingers for good measure, and muttering something along the lines of, ‘Ah yes, co-mentoring works very well / terribly; I would recommend it to everybody / I would never submit myself to such a horrific experience again.’
If so, great! (That you’ve tried it, that is, not that you had a terrible experience – if indeed you did.) Please tell us about your experience in the comments! I’ve personally never heard the concept mentioned in the editorial world, but I find it difficult to believe that no editorial professionals around the world have ever tried it.
However, in case others are unfamiliar with the idea, I’ll explain.
Co-mentoring involves a mutually beneficial agreement between peers to provide feedback on each other’s working practices. After the term popped into my head, I did some Googling, and it turns out that the concept is widely employed by such groups as doctors, teachers, academics and business professionals.
In the editing (or proofreading or indexing) world, this would involve swapping completed pieces of work with another freelancer and giving feedback.
To return (with due apologies to Miss Austen) to the two truths I mentioned at the start, editorial professionals are good at analysing and improving on what other people have done. And they are also all different; as Erin Brenner said in a recent article at Copyediting.com, ‘No two editors will edit the same way. We’ll make different decisions …. And no editor will know everything or be able to think of every possibility.’
So, editorial professionals (not just editors) are, in a way, natural mentors because we think analytically and we’re practiced at bringing a fresh perspective.
I haven’t yet tried co-mentoring myself – it’s just an idea that’s been bubbling away at the back of my brain. But I can think of many reasons I’d like to. I’ve touched on some above, but here are some more:
- It’s free training! All you’re giving in return is your time, and, provided you clearly agree the terms of the swap with your co-mentor (see below), you should receive feedback that’s equal in worth to the time sacrificed.
- There are plenty of online and offline sources of information where editorial professionals can ask specific questions. But the tricky thing is that you have to know (or stumble across something that points out to you) that you’re doing something a bit dodgy in order to ask the question in the first place. In contrast, a co-mentor will approach your work with those fresh editorly eyes we’re always harping on about to our clients.
- Evaluating another person’s work will give you the practice of seeing things from a client’s perspective. If you were sent this completed piece of work, what would you think? Would you find the edits or corrections clear, proportionate, appropriate, sufficient? Would you be troubled by any oddities in the application of the style guide? Would you find the queries clear and easy to answer? Carrying this mindset back to your own work can only be beneficial.
- You’ll likely learn about a few things you could be doing better, but you should also gain a confidence boost from getting feedback on some things you’re already doing well, or from being able to share your skills with your co-mentor.
Choose your co-mentor carefully
Obviously, not every partnership can consist of a fresh-off-the-bus hopeful and an editorial giant with skills honed to pen-point-sharp (or pixel-sharp) precision. But that would just be regular mentoring and the giant would get little or no benefit from the arrangement anyway.
Another fairly pointless partnership would be two professionals with entirely different specialisms (e.g. a proofreader of children’s fiction and a proofreader of physical-science textbooks).
However, I’d hazard a guess that all sorts of co-mentoring partnerships could be beneficial, and that a degree of difference of experience should be no barrier and could even be a benefit. For example:
- Editors with different but intersecting specialisms might be able to offer interesting insights into each other’s working practices. So, two editors who work in the social sciences might have different focuses but some crossover – perhaps one tends more towards the hard science end of the spectrum and the other more towards the humanities.
- Somebody with strong technical onscreen-editing skills who is trying to break into academic editing might form a productive partnership with somebody with years of academic editing skills who has struggled to cross over from paper editing.
- Different types of client require different skills and ways of working. Somebody with lots of experience with a certain type of client (e.g. businesses or self-publishers) might find that others value their knowledge and have equally desirable knowledge to offer in return.
- Editors are often asked to edit text to a certain regional variety (e.g. Australian, Canadian, UK, US) and many find themselves working on varieties that are not native to them. Having a native speaker as your co-mentor could help you to learn some of the finer points of the particular variety.
The great thing about co-mentoring is that it can be arranged to suit the two parties. Extremely experienced editorial professionals would be unlikely to benefit from anything more than a quick check-up every few years. However, newer editors might like to swap with a co-mentor (or a succession of co-mentors) on a yearly basis as a kind of mutually supportive stock-taking activity and as one of the ways in which they consolidate the skills they’ve gained in the past year.
Of course, there’s always going to be the possibility that you will have a bad experience. But common sense dictates that some simple precautions will minimise the risk.
- Make sure your co-mentor is someone you respect or that you feel will bring a particular slant or skill you value.
- Agree strict confidentiality. You don’t want to be worrying that your co-mentor will blab your slip-ups to other freelancers.
- Be honest with your co-mentor about your limitations and ask them to do the same. Co-mentoring involves shared learning and there is no obligation for either party to feel that they should ‘know everything’.
- Agree the scope of the scheme. Will you swap a chapter or a set number of words, or will you agree to spend a certain number of hours? Will you review other’s work against the client’s brief or style sheet or will you work ‘blind’?
- Will you stop at matters editorial or will you discuss other skills (e.g. technical, business)?
- Agree what follow-up time you’re each willing to give. Will you simply swap notes and then go your separate ways? Or will you discuss any differences in your working practices that have emerged, and investigate them jointly?
What have you got to lose?
It’s my strong gut feeling that co-mentoring cannot but make people better editors and proofreaders. We can all always do with a bit of extra insight and knowledge and a chance to reassess our skills in the light of comments from fellow professionals.
The idea of allowing another freelancer access to your work might be scary – but far less scary than a client one day picking up on one of your editorial tics and raising a serious issue about it.
I’d be really interested in hearing from anyone who’s tried this (whether you’re an editor, a proofreader, an indexer or a member of another word-based profession). Was it difficult to set up? Did you have to overcome any practical hurdles? Did you feel it made you better at your job? Was the experience of sharing feedback difficult in any way? What would you recommend to anyone thinking of trying co-mentoring? Please consider sharing your experiences in the comments!