Conference 2000: London

Page owner: Conference director

Whitcombe Lecture

Stet, delete, OK? Editors, authors and author–editors:

Laurel Brake, senior lecturer in literature, Birkbeck College, University of London

Summarized by Penny Williams

Academic authors, especially in the arts, can feel isolated as they are not used to receiving feedback, except through conference papers. In the UK, there is little 'informal' circulation of work among other academics in preparation for submission for publication.

The refereeing of periodical articles is the main feedback mechanism in this culture. But in the UK, the main purpose of refereeing is to determine whether an article should be accepted or rejected for publication. If a book is rejected, authors often see only short and general remarks. This minimizes their experience of constructive criticism and makes them unaccustomed to receiving and acting on editing by book publishers.

From the publisher's point of view, the first and only editing is done by the copyeditor, the primary purpose of which is technical – mainly marking up for the typesetter. Of course, copyediting can and does have an impact on the quality of the writing and improves manuscripts considerably. But is this enough? Most manuscripts would benefit from an editor's interrogation of their clarity, shape, verbosity and structural logic.

The editing function has fallen foul of pressure to publish as quickly and cheaply as possible. This is unfortunate, especially in academic publishing, where the author is often regarded as the expert. Often the copyeditor is the only outsider to read a manuscript carefully. No one with the capability to provide constructive criticism is involved, and, of course, editors as well as authors make mistakes.

Academic authors may appreciate dialogue with their copyeditors, and, when this happens, this unfamiliar process will acquaint them with its benefits. Good copyediting must be made more acceptable, and somewhere in the process manuscripts should be thoroughly considered by an experienced editor. Production schedules should be adjusted to accommodate this added stage of traffic between editor and author, which disappeared along with galley proofs.

The position of the author–editor exposes the awkwardness of editorial processes in academia, where peers are editing peers. It helps to explain the insufficient consciousness of editorial skills within the academic community, and the necessity to emphasize the primacy of the manuscript over the author's authority. This is why editing is so much more acceptable if it is done by professional editors outside the academic world.

As an editor, Laurel is frequently shocked by the state of some of the manuscripts submitted, which can be sloppy, incomplete and littered with typos, spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. Sometimes whole folios or bibliographies are missing. There can be problems in dealing with peers, in attempting to mask shock and even contempt, and in entering into constructive dialogue about improving the manuscript. But the reward is a coherent, accurate and intelligible publication.

Laurel ended by saying that, in the publishing industry in the UK at the present time, copyeditors were largely the only editors, and our role is crucial in improving the quality of print published by the industry. Authors need to learn more about the preparation of manuscripts for the press and to recognize the need for improvement.

Discussion groups

Additional services that the SfEP might provide

Summarized by Michèle Clarke

  • Help needed with tax/sole trading/VAT, etc., in an updated Going freelance course
  • Take some focused national/regional meetings around the country as roadshows
  • Financial services/pensions advice/travel insurance/holiday offers
  • Cheap courier services/stationery/books
  • Need to appoint a benefits officer, possibly on commission
  • Benefits for the new advanced membership (when operational): discounts on conferences; SfEP email address (could be set up soon); more prominence in the Directory and other benefits in there
  • Make more use of the SfEP website – make clients' first access to registered and accredited members
  • Try out a CD-ROM version of the Directory.

Registration and Accreditation

Summarized by Michèle Clarke

  • Needs some good publicity once it is up and running
  • One hundred members are currently testing the pilots
  • Time taken on the tests needs a lot of honesty
  • It is hoped that the tests will become a norm for the publishing industry
  • Accreditation should weed out novices and the inexperienced.

The Directory

Summarized by Michèle Clarke

  • Design – some members preferred the old two-column style; font was too small; too much white space; emboldening suggested for specifics
  • Categories – more needed
  • Registered/accredited members – more prominence
  • Money – need to pay more (up to £50 for an entry?) to pay the production manager
  • Subjects – put in order of expertise
  • Skills/media – make more specialized, therefore omit copyediting/proofreading/journals/books
  • Reinstate 'Freelance since …' and 'Available for in-house work'.

Membership structure

Summarized by Michèle Clarke

  • Most were happy with the proposed categories.
  • 'Retired/career break' people would not be able to vote if they became 'affiliates'; such members should continue their professional development to maintain the quality of their work. Could there be life membership for people over a certain age?
  • The criteria for going from 'full' to 'advanced' membership should be flexible.
  • Don't open up the membership to peripheral skills.
  • Unfair that 'advanced' members have to pay to become so, and then pay higher subscriptions.
  • A professional structure should attract professional people.
  • A postal/email/Copyright ballot should be held on draft amendments.

Reference works

Summarized by Yvonne Percival

We all have our favourite reference works, and whatever your reference needs – we covered everything from accounting to video – there is bound to be a book, a CD-ROM or a website for you. Well, almost: nobody seemed to know whether there was a dictionary of marketing acronyms.

Reference books may now be available in electronic format, but the usefulness of old encyclopedias or past editions of Whitaker's Almanack, for example, should not be underestimated. We were exhorted to scour book sales at our local libraries.

Websites, however, are of undoubted value in checking facts or references, although the cost of dial-up charges and subscriptions to online reference works may be a consideration: unlimited online access to the 33 volumes of the Grove Dictionary of Art was cited as being £200. There was a suggestion that SfEP look into buying corporate access to reference books on the web and licensing their use to members.

Many of those present worked in the referencing field, and agreed that there is an expanding market for freelance editors and proofreaders on reference CD-ROMs and websites. It was felt that some knowledge of international mark-up language is needed, but that coding is becoming increasingly automatic (XML has been developed in the last couple of years). Specialist knowledge may be required for copyediting, but not necessarily for proofreading.

With the boom in work on electronic products, copyeditors and proofreaders alike are being asked to work faster and faster, and many participants worried that a skills downgrade is the likely outcome. Pressures on in-house desk editors filter through to us, leading to a 'Do you want it right or do you want it right now?' culture. One corporate member said he would welcome guidance from the SfEP on how many pages can be edited or proofread per hour. The question of average speed had recently been debated on SfEPLine and was felt to be 'reassuringly slow'.

There was consensus that dialogue between freelancer and client is vital. If you feel that you are being asked to do the impossible, say so early on. It may be that the desk editor has not seen the copy or has not been involved in the timetabling, so is unaware of your difficulty. If you don't expect to work evenings or weekends, make sure that the schedule permits this. As one participant said, 'We must never undervalue ourselves.'

Dogs, cats, crawlers and ad-dodging:

Nik Holmes

Summarized by Ruth Ogden

We wanted tips from our tutor on faster searching on the internet and easier navigating, then on ways of saving information once we had 'drilled down' to it.

We learned how to:

  • choose the correct search engine for the job – some use 'web crawler' programs to search the text on each page, others rely on categories decided by human operators, and a few merely borrow other search engines!
  • go straight to an address if we knew it; to put 'and' rather than 'or' between search keywords to reduce the resulting number of matches, or to search for an exact phrase
  • go back to any page by choosing from a list of addresses visited so far
  • customize the browser to suit our morals/children/need for security, and to avoid adverts on the home page
  • tell if our PC is still online and costing us money
  • work offline (and save money), regularly updating our favourite offline pages with current data, though this depends on the browser. Much of the time it is easier to cut the text to the clipboard, then paste it into the word processor, because getting the web to talk to a printer is 'like asking a dog and a cat to be friends'!
  • spot sneaky adverts! Some masqueraded as search facilities – or even error messages with dire consequences if ignored – but once we had clicked, we realized we'd been had as our screens filled with useless graphics. Fortunately there is a 'Go away' button (Nik had a rather more colourful name for it) to escape.

On our way through the workshop, Nik explained some of those obscure initialisms (http means 'hypertext transfer protocol'). 'People always want to know what the acronyms stand for, even though the words are as obscure as the acronym,' he observed, but one of his favourite abbreviations is RTFM: 'Read the flippin' manual' …

By the end of the workshop, however, most of us had been convinced that the internet is at least of some value to our working lives. If you want to know more, you will have to sign up for an SfEP course.

Creative approaches to time management:

Nick Williams

Summarized by Sally Daniels

How can we make ourselves more efficient? How can we find the time each day to do what we want to do? And how can we make the most of our skills?

There were no quick fixes, but Nick Williams, diminutive, black-clad and laid-back, did at least force us to think about our working practices.

'Joy', he said, is what we want from our jobs. When we can recognize what gives us joy, we can focus on the ways and means of doing more of what we like – and less of what we don't like. 'Identifying what is important' lay at the core of Nick's presentation, and he urged us to learn to discern the difference between 'important' and 'urgent'. His time-management matrix showed us how we can compartmentalize our activities and allocate appropriate time to each.

I especially liked the concept of 'sharpening the saw' – developing our individual skills (portfolio working), improving our working environment, building relationships, etc. – all tools for making us more effective. Setting goals is another: daily, weekly, monthly and longer-term goals provide a structure by which we can measure our success. If, at the close of each day, we achieve what we want to achieve, then we are successful.

Nick's 'yes/no' questionnaire made uneasy reading for some, 'Do you employ a TM system to plan and cater for the following week?' 'Do you create enough time and space regularly to be a human being and not just a human doing?' 'Do you ever book meetings with yourself?' A majority of 'nos' meant 'Stop the world! Start again! ... Decide now to work methodically through each of your "no" answers until you get to a "yes" answer. You will experience discomfort, turbulence and resistance – however, it is quite clearly time to take charge of your time.'

By the end of the presentation Nick had made us feel good about ourselves, about what we do and how we should be doing it. With renewed sense of purpose, I am, for one, off to set goals and sharpen my saw!

Running a successful partnership:

Frances Follin and James Griffin

Summarized by John Ormiston

Fancy working in a partnership? Frances Follin and James Griffin, along with another, did precisely that a few years back, and it certainly works for them as Genesys Editorial Ltd.

James and Frances first described the basic elements required in a partnership. The main messages were: trust those involved, agree on financial arrangements, have different skills to offer, form a limited company (to avoid personal liability), hire an accountant, pay the individuals less than is charged for each job and register for VAT.

Another important aspect is promotion. The company name must be promoted, not those of the individuals involved, so apart from the obvious leaflets and letterheads, when answering the phone always give the company name, not your own. Furthermore, once the work is done, keep in touch with the clients using whatever reason you can (someone's left or joined the partnership, Christmas, we're in your area). Keep that profile high.

The workshop then divided into four small groups, each to discuss whether they could and, if so, would form a partnership. To aid this process, each group had a summary sheet of aspects to consider, and the likely responses. After discussion, at least two groups would not form a partnership, one because one or more of its members could not abide the idea of working with others. The other two groups felt they might be able to set up a partnership in the right circumstances, and one may have even started by now, if the initial enthusiasm was anything to go by. The main outcome: trust is paramount, and if you don't feel happy relying on someone else, then don't enter a partnership!

James and Frances had a flying start because they had worked with each other in the same company before setting up their own, initially with the main bulk of their work for their previous company. Others of us could probably benefit if we could overcome the dynamics of starting a partnership. Two things became clear:

  • The effort is only worthwhile if it is going to be more successful than you by yourself.
  • If your immediate reaction is 'Will my partners do the work as I would?', don't look for partners.

Impressions of the British Library

Summarized by Gillian Clarke

Despite the rain outside, the inside of the British Library was bright, light and airy.

We were welcomed by Geoff Newman, Friends administrator, who took us (in two groups) around the parts of the library that we were allowed to visit. I chose to take the escalator from the ground floor, and was pleased to see lifts as well. Good news for the less agile of us!

The first and most impressive sight was the King's Library. The king in this case was George III, who spent more (in real terms) every year on books than the British Library does today. His library was given to the nation by George IV. The books are not there just to look pretty; they may be used. The library, which takes up only part of the floor area, nevertheless fills a number of levels; viewed from the top, the levels look rather like something out of Star Wars.

There were too many of us to be allowed into the Reading Room but we passed by the maps room and the India and Orient Office (called 'office' rather than 'library'). We also went into the room where books are received from the store on their way to readers. Their system is based on the baggage handling system in Terminal 4 at Heathrow Airport. Requests from readers can be filled within 20 to 40 minutes.

The publications are stored in the basements – all four of them, each with two levels. The building is already 80% full. Newspapers are housed elsewhere in London, and magazines/journals are in Boston Spa, Yorkshire.

There were far too many statistics for me to note them all down, but we were amused to learn that this building had been the most expensive government construction until the Dome took its place.

While the other half of our group was taken round by Geoff, we could look round the free exhibitions. I gave Chapter & Verse a miss because my feet were beginning to give out, but I managed the music part of the exhibition. It includes a page of manuscript from Handel's Messiah, a page from Holst's Planets and a page from a Mozart piece.

On the way out, I noticed a splendid bench on the ground floor. It looks like a huge book, partly open, and is attached to the floor by an enormous ball and chain. Great fun all round.

Macro magic:

Anne Waddingham

Summarized by Derek Atkins

I came to the workshop knowing that the ability existed within Word 97 for the creation of macros, having seen them discussed on SfEPLine and elsewhere from time to time. But I had never created one and was far from convinced of their usefulness in reducing the overheads of on-screen editing. I came away from this instructive and valuable session wholly persuaded.

The primary objective of macros – mini-programs created through something called Visual Basic – is to increase the accuracy and speed of on-screen work for clients. They exist to automate some of the processes that would otherwise be undertaken through repetitive edits: changing double spaces to single, number spans with hyphens into those with en rules, and straight quotes to curlies, for instance, and even implementing some elements of appropriate house style. In terms of improved efficiency, it comes down to knowing when and where to use macros, balancing the effort of creation against the time saved in global changes.

The workshop started with how to create a 'clean-up' macro for running at the start of a project, in order to deal with sets of global changes similar to those just mentioned. We were shown how to assign frequently used macros to keyboard or toolbar shortcuts, how to copy and delete macros as part of general file management, and where to find extra resources through the internet (thus saving on the effort of creation).

We went, step by step, through the subject in our two-hour session. In that way, we learned the basics at first hand, through practical examples that we undertook on our individual workstations. When we got stuck, our tutor used what she called a 'whizzy gizmo' to replace our rather messy screens with the image from her own, to show us how it ought to be done. By this first-hand experience, I came to see how macro creation is relatively easy if you have a basic understanding of programming instructions – and even if you don't, you can use some unchanged from storehouses available though the internet.

Overall, it was a very valuable workshop and a good taster for the two one-day courses that Anne runs as part of SfEP training (On-screen editing 1 and On-screen editing 2), which, of course, together cover much more than just macros. As time and earnings allow, I now aim to attend both. Magic!

What's the point?

Valerie Elliston

Summarized by Elizabeth Teague

Our first task was to punctuate some text that Valerie had doctored so as to be unintelligible. We discussed each 'point' in turn: when the colon was appropriate; when the semicolon was the preferred option; when the comma was correct; when parentheses or – acceptable in less formal text, as here – parenthetical dashes should be used.

The passage contained dialogue, and questions arose over logical (UK) and conventional (i.e. illogical) punctuation, as used in the US. The piece illustrated how the tone can be altered by the placing of commas, and how short, staccato sentences can convey hesitation and, in this case, that the speaker's first language was not English.

Three ways of punctuating the final sentence were offered, which demonstrated the potential of punctuation to create ambiguity and nuanced meaning:

  • Anna had one problem: only she knew she could never face life in the tropics.
  • Anna had one problem only: she knew she could never face life in the tropics.
  • Anna had one problem only she knew: she could never face life in the tropics.

Finally, Valerie handed round sheets on various points, with explanations and comments that proved that, far from being a dry-as-dust topic, punctuation can be fascinating when presented with wit and wisdom.

Scientific/technical editing:

Janet Pascoe

There was a strong corporate presence at this session, and Janet Pascoe took the opportunity to find out what publishers really require from their scientific and technical copyeditors.

Reassuringly, a reading knowledge of the subject rather than a specialist degree is needed, although copyeditors should be aware that referees are given neither sufficient time nor money to sort out all the problems with manuscripts, and that sometimes (particularly with journals) the English can be so bad that the material is virtually incomprehensible. What is more, many large commercial publishers no longer use proofreaders because authors are deemed capable of doing this job themselves!

Copyeditors are expected to formulate author queries (usually) to be sent out with proofs, and to insert SGML tags to define the architecture of the document so that everything will go into the correct boxes in other products (web pages, online databases, online journals and so forth). Surprisingly, perhaps, the system of processing text is by no means universal – both hard and electronic copy being in use (sometimes within the same establishment), although the inexorable trend is towards on-screen editing and ever shorter turnaround. However, publishers do offer training – in particular, concerning the use of specialist software.

LaTeX will be retained because of its utility in keeping index markers when transferring data to other products, insertion of correct spacing in equations and automatic amendment of equation marking. Those familiar with the package may expect to earn premium rates.

There was general agreement among those present that science and technology are harder to copyedit on screen because of the complexity of the subjects, and that there are real problems in finding accurate and up-to-date reference materials – Quantities, Units and Symbols (from the Royal Society), for example, having last been revised in 1981. Useful sources were thought to be the CBE Manual for Authors, Editors and Publishers and the Chicago Manual of Style, Chambers Dictionary, which contains many technical terms, and Donald Knuth's book on TeX with its information on displaying equations. Learned societies' web pages may also be worth visiting. For that hardy perennial, reference checking, Medline, CAB Abstracts, CASSI and the Electronic Editors' home page were proposed.

Suggestions on keeping up to date included joining a learned society and making sure that your clients provide you with current information – a recent copy of their journal or a book on a related topic were considered essential.

Although a slight drop-off in the quantity of work available was noted, in that individuals were currently turning down less than they had done previously, the prospects remain bright for those willing and able to work in this sector.

Regular revenue:

Journal editing

Summarized by Susan Williams

I expected to find greater differences between working on books and journals, but it seems that house style, problems with references and the relative merits of hard copy or on-screen editing are common themes for both. Good communication between freelancer and publisher is vital. The main problems stem from uneven workflow and tight deadlines.

Does it provide regular income?

Yes, you will be commissioned to work on a set number of issues per year and to receive a regular number of papers per week. The routine can be boring but it eliminates the worry of where the next job is coming from. You must be happy working with references and citations as most queries relate to these.


If an author's copy is late, or two articles come in one week and 20 the next, you are still expected to meet the deadline. On the plus side, articles are shorter and quicker to complete than books, and the typical turnaround is ten days per paper.

Although most publishers realize that freelancers work for more than one client, you may have to turn down other work because of the commitment to regular deadlines. But don't be afraid to negotiate time for holidays – there will be a pool of freelancers working on each journal to even out the work flow.

Papers for specialist journals should have gone through a full peer review before reaching the publisher. However, as some journal houses now either copyedit or proofread, it is vital to know what work has been done on the material before you receive it and what stages it will go through when it leaves you.

Some journal papers are being put directly on the web because of the pressure to publish research work as fast as possible. This cuts out the print process, but the product must still be peer-reviewed, copyedited, typeset and checked to ensure quality. Authors may be more committed to accuracy of content than to accuracy of grammar.