Conference 1999: Buxton

Page owner: Conference director

Whitcombe Lecture

The Plain English Campaign:

John Wild and George Maher

Summarized by Val Rice

John gave a brief history of the campaign, which was founded in 1979 after Chrissie Maher (mother of George) found that official forms and documents, such as insurance policies, were too complex for the ordinary person to understand. Having campaigned against 'officialese' for some time, in 1979 Chrissie and some of her supporters shredded official forms in Parliament Square. The police arrived and the Riot Act was read in 97 words – Chrissie interpreted this as 'We've got to clear off'!

Since then, the PEC has instituted the Crystal Clear symbol that appears on many official forms, such as insurance policies, bank and patient information leaflets. The PEC is not about correcting speech or accents, abolishing jargon, abolishing new words or curbing writers of literature. It aims to make things clear.

They spend much of their time working on official communications. They are currently working on the Inland Revenue self-assessment form. The PEC definition of plain English is: 'Information that conveys its meaning clearly and concisely to its intended audience with the necessary impact and appropriate tone of voice.'

The PEC has worked with British Aerospace on leasing contracts that, when redesigned, shortened the negotiating time from six months to three weeks. Another success story was the Greater Manchester Police handbook, shortened from a million words to 60,000. It is now read and understood by the police.

The Campaign also has an annual awards ceremony in London at which awards are made for good, clear English, but also given for poor English – these are called the Golden Bull awards. There is also a Foot in the Mouth award, usually given to Murray Walker.

John kept us entertained by giving examples of unclear English – such as 'ambient replenishment controller' (supermarket shelf stacker) – in job vacancy adverts and on notices in hotels and car parks. He also gave examples of amusing headlines, deliberate or otherwise.

He asked what is plain English and what is not plain English, and why do people use complicated language? He had three suggestions:

  • people who don't realise that what they are saying is not understandable by others
  • ego trips, such as the language used in countries such as India to make the speaker/writer sound erudite
  • use of complex language to conceal the truth – governments, insurance companies.

John also pointed out that, in the UK, there are now many people whose first language is not English. Therefore, if forms are simple and easy to understand, they are more likely to be filled in correctly.

The PEC is a commercial organization and also provides editing and training services. Money used from the commercial activities funds the training courses. Members of the PEC lecture and run courses on the principles of plain English all over the world. Staff must have an English degree, but all have their own specialities, e.g. legal, accountancy, insurance, IT. PEC training courses are available not just for words, but for graphic design and presentation.

The PEC website contains much more information, most of which can be downloaded and used free of charge.


Dick Greener, director of rights management, Thomson Professional Information

Summarized by Simon de Pinna

Dick began his talk in the style customary to legal types – with a disclaimer! 'This is offered as a general overview only and does not represent legal advice … No liability will be accepted in relation to any reliance on this presentation …' I am happy to proceed with the same caution – if you need legal advice, ask a legal adviser! Don't DIY!

What is copyright?

Dick continued with a definition of copyright as a right to prevent others reproducing your material without permission. He reminded us that copyright is also an asset; it is the creator's intellectual property and can be sold or licensed.

In what can copyright subsist?

Dick listed the works in which copyright can subsist, most of which are fairly predictable: original literary, dramatic, musical or artistic works, sound recordings, films and broadcasts. The important aspect of many works that attracts the copyright is the unique structure and layout of the material, such as a computer program or a directory. You cannot claim copyright in an idea, however unique you may feel it to be – it has to be written down in some form.

There are, of course, grey areas in what can be copyrighted, including translations, compilations and abridgements. The author of those 'secondary works' can claim copyright if more than 'minimal skill' is involved. Book titles, as I have discovered on a number of occasions in school textbook publishing, are not copyright, provided you are not trying to pass off your book as another existing (successful!) one.

Who holds copyright?

The author holds copyright in an original work if the material is first published in the UK and/or if the author is a 'qualifying person' – basically, a British citizen. But if the author creates the work during the course of employment, the employer is the owner. Freelance contractors are the 'first owners' unless they assign the right to the publisher, which should normally be stated in a contract. Joint copyright is possible where there are a number of co-authors.

How long does copyright last?

The EC Duration Directive has recently extended the copyright period from 50 to 70 years from the death of the author, or last surviving author where joint copyright exists. Dick made the distinction between Crown Copyright publications, which are in copyright for 50 years after publication or 125 years from creation (whichever is the shorter) and Parliamentary Copyright – 50 years from its making.

What is/is not allowed by copyright?

Clearly, copying is not allowed, particularly for publication, and neither is 'adapting' the work (teachers do this a lot by cutting and pasting various text passages alongside their own questions). Dick pointed out that ownership of the material does not give a right to copy, citing the recent Hewitt/Princess Diana letters as an example: Hewitt owns the physical documents but cannot publish Diana's words.

Dick discussed the notion of what constitutes a 'substantial part' of a work that must be copied in order to infringe copyright. There is no hard-and-fast rule, but Dick advised that we obtain permission to reproduce even a few lines of a published poem. The only categories that count as 'fair dealing', in the UK, are:

  • research or private study
  • reporting a current event
  • comment, criticism or review.

How is copyright used?

If your copyright is infringed, you can either start an action for damages to recompense you for losses suffered as a result of the copying, or seek an injunction to prevent further distribution of the infringing material.

How do you exploit your copyright?

You can either assign copyright to a publisher (in writing), usually in return for payment, or you can grant the publisher exclusive or non-exclusive rights, possibly limited by territory, period or media – but you retain copyright.

Database rights

A separate piece of legislation was enacted in 1997 to protect the creators of databases, whether electronic or paper-based. Database right belongs to the maker of the database for either 15 or 70 years after the completion or publication of the database, depending on the originality of the data and the form of the database. It protects the right holder from unauthorized extraction or reuse of the database or parts of it.

Moral rights

Under the provisions of the 1988 Copyright Design and Patents Act, the author of a work has the following rights:

  • the right to be identified as the author
  • the right to object to derogatory treatment
  • the right for the work not to be falsely attributed (i.e. another name being given as the author)
  • the right to privacy in private photos and films.

The author must assert his/her moral right, such as by a statement in the book prelims, although it is often waived when rights are assigned to the publisher of the work. There are other exceptions to the identification right, such as where an employee has written the work in the course of employment, or in a newspaper, journal or encyclopedia.

Derogatory treatment amounts to the addition or deletion of material that could be construed as 'prejudicial' to the reputation of the original author. This could include the results of editing the work, and Dick believes it is in our interests to check with the publisher that the author is kept informed of editorial changes before a problem might arise.

Moral right is becoming more contentious with the growth of electronic publishing, where there is no clear link between the author's statement asserting his/her right and the separate pages of text. One remedy is to ensure that the statement appears whenever a page is printed from the CD-ROM or downloaded from a website.

Other legal issues

Dick touched on other areas of potential problems for editors and publishers such as plagiarism, libel/slander and negligent misstatement.


  • Publishing Law by Hugh Jones (Routledge)
  • Copinger & Skone-James on Copyright, 14th edition (Sweet & Maxwell)
  • Publishing Agreements by Charles Clark, 5th edition (Butterworths)
  • Defamation Law and Practice by David Price (Sweet & Maxwell).

Been there, done that – now what?

Mary Fox

Summarized by Gina Walker

My life will be different in five years' time – but how different? How different do I want it to be? When you work for yourself, there is no career structure to follow. It's up to you to create your own development path, and to steer and stumble your way along it. I went to Mary Fox's workshop to help me work out where I want my working life to go – and how I can get it there.

Mary Fox knows a thing or two about planning and achieving key work objectives, having built up a highly successful business. During this session, she helped a group of us to analyse our current positions and aspirations, and to see how to put together a five-year career development plan.

Where are you now?

First, make an audit of your current working life. What exactly do you do? What skills do you offer? What do you enjoy about working, and what really hacks you off?

We work for two reasons – money and entertainment. If our work provides both, we are happy. If we earn a decent hourly rate that means we don't have to work all hours, so we can spend time with family or indulge in bizarre hobbies, that's great. If our work provides stimulation and satisfaction, and our clients make us feel appreciated, that's great too. These are the things we like about working.

What really hacks us off is when the other sides of these coins show themselves – when we feel undervalued, overworked and even bored. So, we want to keep the upside up, and the flipside firmly at bay.

Where do you want to be?

You've looked at the way things are – now decide where to take them. Decide on your objectives.

The thing is, even if you do nothing proactive to change your career profile, the world is changing around you. You have to change if you are to survive. It's not just a question of being outrageously ambitious – in some cases, it's just a question of staying afloat.

Each of us offers a range of skills – proofing, on-screen editing, project management, for example. As time goes on, some of these skills will become more in demand, and others will tail off. Anticipate which skills are up-and-coming, and develop those, and not only will you keep fresh and motivated, but you'll be ready and waiting when demand peaks.

Of course, it's impossible to predict exactly what your future holds, but you could try that old chestnut, the SWOT analysis, to help think about the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats that potential changes to your working environment could mean for you.

For example, say you work a great deal on journals at present, but it's likely that many of them will be published electronically in the future. Is that good or bad for you? If you do nothing to develop your skills, it could be very bad – you could be left without much work. But if you find out now what to do to make sure you're on that electronic bandwagon, it could represent a massive opportunity.

So, what do you want to be doing in five years' time? If you like, write yourself a SMART mission statement (another well-trodden acronym): make it Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic (isn't that the same as achievable?) and Time-based. All this helps you to focus, and keep focused, on your goal.

How can you get there?

So, you have your mission statement tattooed across your partner's forehead (so you can see it), but how do you make it happen? What will be your strategy and plan?

A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. You don't have to map out every inch – just know where you're going and what the next step will be. Keep focusing on your goal, and you'll make things happen that bring you closer to it, little by little. Your route might not be direct – you might even alter your dream as other opportunities arise. But you will progress.

This sounds dandy in theory. But what practical steps can you take towards getting yourself those top-notch, top-paid jobs?

Think carefully about the benefits of your skills to your clients – sometimes the aspects of your work that you prize are not those for which a client is willing to pay big bucks. Find out how to develop valuable skills, and market yourself accordingly. Allocate regular time to marketing, and to planning and monitoring your progress in every aspect of your business.

Think about which of your current clients have the highest 'satisfaction' rating, which offer good terms of payment, stimulating assignments, good work relationships – and how you can obtain more work from them, in order to ditch lower-rating clients. Think about working with other people, or investing in new equipment. Think also about what could go wrong. You can't plan for every eventuality, but it helps to have considered options.

I was inspired by Mary's workshop, and I promised faithfully to allocate time to my five-year plan. Of course, I haven't done it. I'm too busy working all hours to scrape together a living. A chicken and egg thing, I think. But I must make time to plan my future. After all, I can't afford not to.

An electronic megapedia:

Nik Holmes

Summarized by Bill Gregory

Once upon a time, there was a TV space serial called Blake's Seven, a kind of cut-price Star Trek in which a bunch of rebels in a borrowed spaceship roamed the galaxy adventuring and fighting a corrupt administration. During their 'nerve-noggling' encounters, our heroes ran into a crusty old boffin who had invented a device called 'ORAC' which, with the magic of hyperspacial telecommunications appears to have been plugged into all the computers in the universe!

ORAC was a microwave oven-sized, transparent perspex box that chatted with its users and was capable of telling them anything they were ever likely to want to know, which, of course, excluded how the series would end.

ORAC was science fiction, its real life counterpart, the home computer connected to the internet, is now fact. It too can handle large quantities of information, as well as doubling as a passable substitute for Postman Pat. As a newcomer to hands-on internet practice, I will not attempt to go into detail here. In this regard, I would refer you to David Penfold's fine article entitled 'The Editor and the Internet', which began in the November 1997 issue of Copyright.

Originally developed for the United States military in the early 1970s, the internet, like the fax, has been around for many years, but required an industry to develop its potential before it was available to the citizens of the world. Only in the mid 1990s did sophisticated format software provide the flexibility for users to do really useful work on it. Clearly, the internet is now a fact of office life that is continually growing in sophistication and application.

Nik Holmes' presentation at this year's conference was designed to emphasise the two main functions of the internet: exchanging messages and acquiring information. The two-hour long session consisted of an introduction to working the system, followed by a personal computer link-up, enabling the participants to send and receive messages via the internet in a clockwise direction around the room (receive from the person on your left, send to the person on your right). Those present at the session were a fair representation of a profession with varying types of home computers and varying levels of expertise, but with a common need to adapt to on-screen work practice.

In the manner of a postal mailbox system, the internet acts as a communications medium to send and receive messages. It also functions as an encyclopedia, linked to a massive index-cum-telephone directory. Because the scope of the information that can be accessed and shunted around is so massive, specific programs are required to get the best out of it.

Much of the internet is dross, as is inevitable for a medium that caters for everything. The power of the internet becomes apparent when hunting for obscure references or copious amounts of scientific data that would formerly have meant time-consuming trawling through the library. It is the explosion of accessible information that has revolutionized research for the individual.

This is not to say that the electronic megapedia has replaced the printed publication. There is still a need to download and print material that can be perused in depth later, rather than hogging expensive computer time. Nor will the internet ever replace books entirely. There is a sense of personal contact that books provide, as well as still being the best way to peruse a topic in depth away from the pressures of the workplace.

The internet has effectively turned the world into one large office, increasingly concerned with teleprocessing interfaces rather than personal interaction. The downside of this is that individuals tend to journey to meet their clients less and less. A certain alienation can result with everybody holed up behind the sophisticated ramparts of telecommunication.

This is an important reason for attending conferences. Real humans can emerge to reassure themselves that they are still really there. That is until virtual reality internet arrives, enabling us to attend conferences in cyberspace without the effort of leaving home.

Not just a load of old bodice rippers:

Penny Poole and Nancy Duin

Summarized by Michèle Clarke

This was not a workshop on how to earn a fortune being a second Catherine Cookson, but on how to expand your freelance activities and write instead of copy-edit, particularly if it earns you more money.

Penny and Nancy both earn good livings by writing, which takes up more and more of their freelance time. They both gave several case reports to illustrate the types of writing on their job files. These included:

  • writing for TV
  • writing case reports for lay medical texts
  • ghostwriting
  • co-authoring
  • writing your own lay texts
  • writing for local authorities
  • compiling newsletters
  • writing text for websites.

The real problem, of course, is finding the time to research and land these exciting new jobs – but the time spent should repay you and, if you like writing, will stop the rot of boredom setting in, if all you do is copy-edit now.

Look outside the main publishing industry for that first writing commission. Many companies outsource their publications. Penny travels with a tape recorder or attaches it to the telephone, and makes sure she has done her research thoroughly. You can brush up on subjects via the internet. Your checking process should be rigorous. Who to interview? Interviews should have already been facilitated, but otherwise the first contact in a company or other organization will probably be through the human resources department.

Do not consider ghostwriting to be a second-rate writing commission. People have a story to tell but have not the time or facility for writing it themselves.

Fees: £500/8-page copy/2 days' work sounds good to me. Fees can be per 1,000 words or negotiated.

Co-authorship can be a painful experience. The other author can be aggressive or having a session of writer's block.

Writing and editing can blur so it is a good idea to add 'writing' to your CV. But be careful: you want to get paid for writing – you do not want your work to get subsumed into the editing fee.

Local authorities spew out reams of literature. All of it should have been edited somewhere. They pay well and promptly. Find their website or directory for contacts. Remember when you are quoting that your tender will be against the likes of ad agencies – and they charge a fortune. Examples of costs are £30/hour for local authorities (gasp!) and £50/hour for commercial firms (gasp, gasp!).

Other possible sources like this include your local chamber of commerce directory (who might need your services for their text?), environmental group campaigns, anybody's annual report.

I do actually spend a large amount of time rewriting (with the publisher's permission, not necessarily the author's!), but I now have this aspect of my work definitely further up my list of jobs to foster.

Freelancing and how to survive it:

Christine Lindop

Summarized by Antonella Elisabetta Collaro

Among the highlights of this year's SfEP conference was the workshop on how to keep afloat in the world of freelance editing and proofreading. I attended with a colleague from Sage Publications. We were the only corporate members there but did not feel excluded or out of place. It might have had something to do with the fact that I worked as a freelance translator while still living in Italy.

We all had a story or a piece of advice, and the picture that emerged from those two hours has so far been very useful to my job as assistant production editor. I always try to imagine the working lives and conditions of our freelancers, most of whom I have never even met (yet who are essential to the publication of our books and journals).

The potential isolation of working from home and how to avoid it were topics of much discussion at Christine's workshop. She suggested several ways to avoid feeling isolated (some of which might even bring about more work – i.e. becoming more involved with the children's school newsletter, meeting up with local groups and leaving the house at least once a day).

One of the disadvantages of working in-house is that you are often quite removed from the issues connected to running a business from home. As a result, you only tend to think of the positive aspects of your freelance staff's lives: no smelly commuting, no office politics, time with your children, being your own boss. The list is endless, really.

But attending Christine's workshop has made me determined to operate a few small changes in my relationships with freelance editors and proofreaders. From now on, I am going to try and communicate with them by telephone as opposed to using emails and fax machines. This will not only give our jobs a more human dimension but will help us to get to know each other better and, hopefully, will lead to (even) more accurate communication.

Christine Lindop gave plenty of advice on how to find work and keep it. We all told each other what, in our opinion, are the most appreciated qualities in a freelance editor (flexibility, good communication skills and knowledge of the latest technologies came top). I listened, enjoyed myself and learnt a great deal about the joys and sorrows of having your own business. To be honest, though, I also came back to the office on Wednesday morning glad of the fact that my work just seems to 'land' on my desk, that I absolutely must to get out of bed at 6.30 in the morning and that I am surrounded by great workmates (prêt-à-porter social life).

I don't know what the future will hold and how I will feel about commuting to work in ten years' time. What I do know is that the workshop on freelancing and how to survive it has been an eye-opener, useful to my present in-house position and to help me feel less apprehensive about (unexpected and unforeseen) changes of circumstances.