Conference 2009: Editing in the 21st century

Reports from the 2009 conference at Vanbrugh College, University of York

Whitcombe Lecture: Professor Richard Smith

Workshops and seminars

These edited articles first appeared in the conference supplement of the November/December 2009 issue of Editing Matters.

M listening to the Whitcombe Lecture in the lecture hall, including Honorary President Judith Butcher (front left).
M listening to the
Whitcombe Lecture in the lecture hall,
including Honorary President
Judith Butcher (front left).
(Click on image to enlarge it.)

Whitcombe Lecture: Who needs medical journals in the age of Facebook?

Professor Richard Smith

Reported by Loulou Brown

Professor Richard Smith (editor, Cases Journal, former editor of the British Medical Journal) says that he likes making soup, marmalade ... and trouble! Indeed, his lecture was both controversial and stimulating in equal measures, his central thesis being that soon there will be no need for medical journals or peer reviews because of the democratic and innovative Web 2.0, which, among other items, features Wikipedia, Google, social networking sites and blogs.

Room for disagreement

There are problems in trying to predict the future. For example, Lord Kelvin (1824–1907), a British mathematical physicist and engineer, predicted that heavier-than-air flying machines would be impossible and that X-rays would prove to be a hoax. More recently, it has been suggested that offices would become paperless (if only ...), that the UK would become a society of leisure and that books would no longer be produced. (What wasn't predicted was the explosion of the internet.) People make predictions rather than attach probabilities to possibilities; think of only one future rather than many possible ones; and consistently overestimate the effects of short-term change while underestimating the ramifications of long-term change.

There is, however, always room for disagreement on the use and misuse of various words, although the Queen's English Society would not agree – this group is extremely prescriptive.

In our era of very rapid change, we constantly need to think about what might be going to happen. As the CEO of Coca-Cola has said, 'If you think that you can run an organisation in the next ten years as you've run it in the past ten years, you're out of your mind.' The point is not to predict but to prepare for the future and shape it.

Created by the many, not the few

In 1980, there were two choices for a global network: either only trusted sources would be able to provide information, with everyone having access, or everyone would provide information and have access. In 1990, there were two choices regarding the building of the world's best encyclopaedia: either there would be first-class contributors and editors, elaborate fact-checking and scrupulous copy-editing, or there would be a website where anybody could contribute and anybody could correct anything.

What did happen was Wikipedia, part of Web 2.0, which among other things lists RSS feeds, blogs, wikis, podcasts and social networking sites. It's a participative web, created by the many, not the few. It's democratising, anarchic, iconoclastic: the power of the 'we' rather than the 'I'.


There are four possible futures for scientific publishing:

  1. Traditional journals remain as they are, with peer reviews closed.
  2. Almost all material is open access and published on databases rather than journals. A few journals will be left, but they'll become magazines. Researchers are linked electronically in clubs. Academic credit comes from hits, citations in magazines and evidence of making a difference in the real world.
  3. Electronic conversations, blogs and social networking sites will replace published material. Traditional publishers will have largely disappeared.
  4. Information will come from large organisations, such as governments, Google or WHO. Editors will work for organisations that sponsor research. Money and ideas markets will become intertwined.

Medical journals publish science and update clinicians. They inform and relate new information, set new agendas, legitimise, create communities and make money. However, it makes no sense to send journals to doctors, as they don't read them. Currently, journals publish 'high-class' stuff; instead, they should be publishing a giant database that should have free and open access. They don't meet information needs. There are far too many, resulting in too much duplication. They're too establishment; they're boring, too expensive and too biased; they don't reach the developing world; they can't cope with fraud; and they're too concerned with authors rather than readers.

Peer reviews provide little evidence of benefit. They're expensive to undertake and slow to replicate; they're wasteful and are always something of a lottery; they don't detect errors; and they're often very biased and easily abused – other authors steal ideas and harshly review the work of rivals.

Better and faster

Professor Smith claims that we don't need pre-publication peer reviews, which are incomplete and random, and are printed in journals that take a long time to produce. Various forms of Web 2.0 can provide better information much faster. For instance, Wikipedia, Google or blogs can provide vital information in moments, and you can very quickly access many different viewpoints. Agenda-setting happens faster than in journals and newspapers. Social networking sites can tell you what to think about – fast. Web 2.0 makes money by providing material to millions, and it's concerned with readers rather than with authors.

Web 2.0 allows people to take the information they require. It adds value – or it disappears. Web 2.0 is very fast; it is 'everybody', and there's no possibility of bias. It is all about innovation. Everybody can be heard, and there's no censorship. Most of Web 2.0 is free. Low- and middle-income countries are currently and rapidly getting wired: they can access the free material of Web 2.0 and join the debate.

These days you've got to keep evolving fast. Professor Smith thinks that eventually all journals will disappear and only a handful of 'reputable' medical bloggers will be left. As authors move towards open access, publishers will follow. Money will become the motivator, and authors will very soon learn which blogs are 'reliable' and which to avoid if they want to publish their research.

Workshops and seminars

Effective copywriting

Tim Trout, Tim Trout Copywriting

Reported by Sarah Carr

Copywriting is a useful skill for SfEP members who write for clients or who wish to promote their own services. Tim Trout, of Tim Trout Copywriting, delivered a stimulating workshop on this skill, putting participants through their paces with a range of interesting exercises. Tim's overall message was: 'Think more and write less!'

A copywriter can be defined as someone hired to write to a brief. This brief may require the writer not to write the truth, but as a freelancer, you can, of course, turn down the work if you think it's unethical. The copywriter's job may be to inform (e.g. a swine flu leaflet), persuade (e.g. a party political newsletter), sell (e.g. an advert) or often a combination of these. It's useful to pinpoint this purpose before you start.

Four tips

What makes copy work? Tim had four tips:

  1. The 'three-speed read': Imagine three groups of readers – one gives your writing a bit of their attention; one, some of their attention; and one, all of their attention – and write for all three.
  2. Provide a compelling 'call to action' – that is, make it obvious to readers what they should do next.
  3. 'Kill your babies': This motto may be brutal but it's not as gruesome as it sounds. It means that, if you're not convinced about your idea, scrap it!
  4. Perhaps Tim's most important tip, and one that I'll definitely be applying to my website: put benefits before features. For example, don't write 'Monthly networking event'. Write 'Easy way to meet new clients'.

Voices, values and brands

Tone of voice – the 'language personality or attitude' or 'brand language' – is vital for effective advertising – 38% of the meaning that people extract from each other during conversation is down to this. Think arrogant Marmite, laddish Pot Noodle and traditional Hovis! Tone of voice reflects brand values and encourages brand recognition.

Linguistic techniques to achieve the right style in copywriting reminded me of the plain English guidelines: favour verbs over nouns; use the active voice where possible; write in the first and second person; cut out redundant words; and so on. But as George Orwell advised, 'Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.'

Artwork and illustrations

SfEP's honorary vice-president David Crystal (third from right) and others break for coffee.
SfEP's honorary vice-president David
Crystal (third from right) and others
break for coffee.
(Click on image to enlarge it.)

Jane Ward

Reported by Anne Trevillion

Jane Ward is an experienced editor in the fields of medicine, sociology and political science. In this workshop, she led the delegates through the basics of artwork sizing, leading on to editing artwork and, finally, working with figures in a more creative way. People attending the workshop had a range of experience with artwork, some coming from journals work, where the least work possible is done, and others from publications where everything is redrawn and the editor has more influence.

Add value

Starting with sizing, we considered possible page layouts and the proportions of the page width used for illustrations. Then, armed with rulers and calculators, we set about sizing, cropping and reorganising a set of illustrations Jane had provided.

This group work would have been better on tables, rather than in the lecture theatre, but we were able to discuss the task with the people on either side. Jane then brought us together again to discuss the decisions we'd made. Throughout she stressed that there are many different ways to approach a problem, but the aim must be to enhance the text and so add value to the publication.

Dubious quality

The second exercise required us to edit artwork – first, assuming that all figures would be used as submitted with corrections and, second, that they would be redrawn. This highlighted the dubious quality of some submitted artwork and the issue of permissions with some of the diagrams.

The choice of illustrations also helped to bring out other aspects that the editor needs to be aware of, such as type size (for legibility), graphing conventions, house style, keys, captions and errors in spelling and sense.

Creative input

The final exercise focused on the editor's creative input when deciding which of a set of suggested illustrations to use to enhance the message and look of a pair of spreads. The handouts were in black and white, which made it a bit tricky to work out which line was which on a colour-coded graph! I found that not having the text that was to accompany the illustrations made it hard to decide what their main purpose was.

However, in her review of the exercise Jane very clearly explained how she had dealt with the illustrations, using material from the text to add to the images and moving some material from the illustrations into the text, to make attractive and informative spreads.

Jane's upbeat view on the value of editorial input will turn my frustration at poor briefs into a celebration of the opportunity to be creative.

Editing tables on screen

Penny Howes

Reported by Paul Crabb

This workshop was aimed at beginners, so (thankfully) we started with simple stuff and worked our way up. Here are some pointers we were given:

  • The first task is to work out whether what appears as a table on the screen is boxed text, a Word table, an object, a spreadsheet or tabbed text. Beware, especially, a box that's really a table (or a table that's really a box).
  • The edited table doesn't need to look exactly right, but it must be formatted correctly for the typesetter, as either a Word table or tabbed text. You must ask which is wanted.
  • A golden rule: one cell, one entry and no hard returns.
  • A lightbulb moment for most participants: you can decimal align the data in a column by using the decimal tab marker. To find it in Word, click on the tab button located on the ruler at the top left of your working page; this rotates between left, centre, right and decimal tabs. Oh, joy! (Just be sure to have 'left align' on.)
  • If you've got headings in merged cells and odd column layouts, copy the whole thing into an Excel spreadsheet and then copy it from there directly back to your Word document. You'll find that several formatting problems and extra rows, etc., have been sorted out.
  • If you need more space, you can always insert a section break and work on your page in landscape format.
  • Avoid using track changes when editing tables.
  • To test that you've got a correctly produced table, convert it from a table to text and back again. If there are no problems, you've got it right.
  • The 'Undo' option in Word is a good friend.
  • Don't panic: take it slowly and logically and remember to keep saving.
  • If it seems impossible, sleep on it.

Anne Waddingham leads her workshop: 'Moving to Word 2007'.
Anne Waddingham leads her
workshop: 'Moving to Word 2007'.
(Click on image to enlarge it.)

Editing scientific journals

Caroline Landon

Reported by Sonia Cutler

For the aspiring scientific journal editor, but also providing a useful insight for the more experienced among us, Caroline Landon's workshop provided a focused and enlightening introduction to editing manuscripts for scientific journals.

Although taking the lead from biomedical journals, many of the principles outlined by Caroline also transfer easily to other scientific disciplines and are thus essential and valuable tools when editing scientific manuscripts.

The areas covered included:

  • the component parts of a manuscript
  • the life cycle of a manuscript
  • metrics: working out how long it will take to read a manuscript and then providing an appropriate quote
  • issues of scientific style
  • styling text for a journal
  • how to handle tables, figures and reference material effectively and efficiently.

Caroline also provided an extremely useful step-by-step guide for copy-editing a manuscript. Everything was explained in a clear and accessible fashion and backed up by well-written and informative hand-outs.

'Trust no one'

Caroline was also able to pass on some very useful general tips. These included the X-Files-inspired 'Trust no one', implying that, when you're presented with information, you should always check it and not be afraid to query anything that's unclear. Other useful pointers included: realising that good researchers are not necessarily good writers; learning how science professionals talk; and not polishing the language so much that it soils the science.

Caroline's extensive experience in editing scientific journals really shone through, and her confident and professional delivery made the workshop an extremely enjoyable and worthwhile experience that I would highly recommend to anyone wishing to gain an insight into editing for scientific journals. The workshop also gave me enough confidence to become involved in this area of STM publishing.

Wordsmithing for business

Penny Poole

Reported by Mary Brailey

Penny had us pooling our resources at her 'Wordsmithing for business' workshop. Split up into small groups, we considered the opportunities and pitfalls presented by three case studies:

  • the dizzy young photographer – bigger on ideas and enthusiasm than business acumen – launching her first business and looking for help with her website and marketing
  • the multinational consortium well behind schedule in assembling its make-or-break bid for a big contract, looking for a miracle last-minute editorial intervention to save the day
  • the care company juggling the different expectations of government, venture capitalists, service users and families, looking for an editor to fix all its communication needs through a newsletter.

Here are some key points I brought away from the workshop to ponder ...

Business clients might need a service that's somewhat different from, or additional to, what they ask for. Crystallising the precise nature of the editor's task can bring a clear-sightedness to the client's broader business objectives and plans and might generate more opportunities – e.g. to help write the client's business plan.

Where does the role of the editor begin and end? We may have to tease out the editorial opportunities without getting bogged down in the company's other problems. It's important to set ground rules when the client is not clear (the ever-expanding or ever-changing brief) or is under pressure.

The job we're brought in for is only one of many things on the client's mind. They may well be happy to hand over a project in its entirety to someone they trust to do a good job. Your taking charge can be a relief to the client whose shoulders are thus unburdened.

If there's a lot riding on the project, you can command a good fee!

It's worth considering your preferred business strategy: do you like quick-fix, firefighting jobs or 'slow burn', considered projects and a long- term relationship with established clients?

Some ideas for getting and keeping clients:

  • Most business clients don't know what we do. We need to explain it in terms that are relevant to them.
  • Look for opportunities for collaborative or reciprocal ventures: clients can turn into 'partners'.
  • If working as part of a team, have a 'wash-up' meeting at the end to learn lessons for future projects.
  • Use your Business Link regional professional services broker.
  • Remember the 'Four Cs': clarity, consistency, clout, credentials (get written testimonials).

Perhaps the biggest lesson from this workshop was the scope and variety of work that awaits the adaptable wordsmith in the world of business.


Rick Cordell, London College of Communication

Reported by Mark Ackerley

Rick Cordell, associate lecturer at the London College of Communications, hosted this workshop on InDesign, Adobe's industry-leading page layout (desktop publishing) software package. Judging by the turnout for the workshop, this is a subject of interest to many of us.


Rick started by giving a brief introduction to InDesign and the Adobe Creative Suite, and outlined the functions and costs (from £684.25 for InDesign CS4 up to £1,581.25 for the Design Suite Premium) of the various packages available. He then went on to discuss the differences between the Adobe CS3 and CS4 packages (CS4 has greater interaction with other digital media), the hardware requirements for PC and Mac for running InDesign, the choice of monitors for the InDesign user (good monitors, in Rick's opinion, start at £750!), and training and support materials.

He compared InDesign and QuarkXPress (InDesign is 'funkier' and has more features), and finished with a summary of who is using what software in the newspaper and magazine industries (amazingly, the Daily Mirror is still using an ancient version of Quark-XPress, though it's currently planning an upgrade to InDesign).

Rick augmented his PowerPoint slides with a number of video clips of an interview with John Houston from the Guardian, who spoke about how staff at the newspaper use and customise InDesign, and the implications of a planned upgrade from CS3 to CS4.

The second part of the workshop featured a live demonstration of InDesign and some of its key features.

Food for thought

As an occasional InDesign user myself, I enjoyed the session, particularly the discussion on the benefits and quirks of the latest CS4 package. I think it's only fair to say that the workshop did not really meet the needs and expectations of the audience, a view that was expressed in the post-workshop question and answer session.

What I think would have been more relevant is something along the lines of 'InDesign for editors': How do InDesign and Microsoft Word combine? What are the options available when importing text from Word into InDesign? How do styles in Word and InDesign interact? What are the options available when editing text directly in InDesign? This could be combined with an overview of the main functions of InDesign and an explanation of key terms. Food for thought for a future conference workshop, perhaps?

Project management

Margaret Aherne

Reported by Alta Bridges

My first impression of this informative workshop led by Margaret Aherne was the diversity of the job of a typical project manager. In fact, I should not even use the word 'typical' with 'project management', as it seems that projects can vary significantly from one to another.

Project management is for experienced copy-editors, who will find, when taking on project-managing tasks, that the lonely process of working through typescripts is far from the constant interaction with different people that occurs in the course of a project. A good project manager should inspire all members of the team and instil confidence to enable them to deliver the best work possible. A project manager is the voice of sanity, of tact and diplomacy, while making sure that everything keeps going.

Encouraging word

A well-run project needs a person who can manage people, think on his or her feet, handle different tasks in different projects at the same time and still manage an encouraging word to a freelance copy-editor dealing with a difficult author.

A project manager also has to plan for any unforeseen problems, such as the knock-on effects that might arise from bad copy-editing, careless proofreading or major late changes by an author. It became clear how important it is to be well organised and prepared for anything that might impact on a project. In short, a good project manager is one who is good at maintaining relationships.

Typical tasks involve assessing budget adequacy and restrictions, appointing freelance copy-editors, proofreaders and indexers as well as liaising with the designer, typesetter, publisher and author. Then, on top of all that, the project manager must ensure that everyone adheres to a carefully planned schedule.


The strongest message through all this was that a project manager must ensure, from the initial planning stages right through to final handover, that all sides (participants) in a project are fair to each other. Budgets and expectations should be realistic and schedules followed as closely as possible. The project manager should also be knowledgeable on all aspects of the job, being able to advise and correct at any stage of the project.

The effectiveness of virtual teams

Nora Naughton

Reported by Naomi Laredo

Nora Naughton, the MD of Naughton Project Management, began by outlining the recent technological advances and global pressures that have transformed the publishing environment, making virtual publishing teams not only possible but necessary.

The internet has raised expectations of easy, cheap and quick access to information, putting pressure on publishers to reduce overheads and speed up production. Communications technology gives clients the global reach to outsource production to any part of the world – and therefore negotiate hard on price and schedule. The lowering of skills in house affects the quality of briefing, and new publishing technology presents its own challenges, blurring job boundaries and demanding new skills.

Competence and reputation

The client may seem to hold all the cards, but the project manager setting up a virtual team can also draw on a global pool of expertise. How do you choose your 'associates' (a term that Nora prefers to 'suppliers') and whom can you trust? Developing personal relationships builds trust and confidence. Competence has to be measured and demonstrated regularly, and reputation spreads by word of mouth. This applies to clients, too: nurture your authors, because a happy author boosts a publisher's reputation and creates repeat work.

Big projects can be completed more quickly and more reliably by sharing work, but they require planning and leadership. 'Know your team – and yourself': learn to interpret a team member's silence; use the phone rather than email, especially for bad news; know when to step back and let the expert (copy-editor/ designer) take the lead; share information and, with it, responsibility.

Rewards and lessons learned

It's crucial to anticipate and avoid problems, rather than solving them once they have occurred. The client won't even know there was a problem, so tell them what you have achieved! Nora advocates formal feedback and assessing 'lessons learned'.

The rewards? Paradoxically, the project-based, deadline-driven nature of publishing makes a good work/life balance possible: absences can be planned around schedules. You do get to work with people you don't like – but only once.

Although virtual teams present particular communication challenges, Nora's advice applies to managing any publishing team. What emerged most strongly from her seminar was her own passion for the job, commitment to quality and determination to get the best out of her team – essential qualities for every project manager.

Not a moment wasted – members network between sessions.
Not a moment wasted – members and
associates network between sessions.
(Click on image to enlarge it.)

Another year, another conference

Ros Morley

It's the day that I set off (Sunday), and I'm wondering why I didn't arrange to go on the Saturday, partly to avoid Sunday travel, but also to make the best use of time meeting old friends and making new ones, and to take part in the treasure hunt around York! But I didn't, and then I even wonder why I didn't catch the earlier train so that should I miss a connection (three trains over five hours) I'd still arrive in York in time for the AGM.

However, there were no missed connections, and the journey was pleasant, although it would have been good to have had a trolley selling coffee on at least one of the trains.

Bears and cats

Most members probably don't get very excited about the AGM, but I was amazed (and excited) to find two teddy bears sitting on a chair alongside the speaker's desk. I'm not letting on just how many bears I have – they used to live in my office, but eventually their number increased to the extent that they took up too much room and had to move elsewhere. Our chair, Sarah Price, is also a bear fanatic, and we had quite a long chat about our collections. (We're also both passionate about our cats – must be something to do with fur.)

At the AGM, one bear – rather bashed about and frazzled-looking – represented the directors when they are bombarded with frequent and impossible demands made by the membership (that's you and me). The other bear was a grand specimen looking happy and very calm – which is how the directors prefer to feel. So no more unnecessary hassling of the directors, you guys – please.


Another reason for getting to the conference on time (other than to attend the AGM, of course) is to be in time for pre-dinner drinks and a chance for anyone who hasn't been to the conference before to meet the directors. This year, just in case we couldn't think who to talk to next, we had a quiz about the people at the conference. For instance, who lives in a house that is 300 years old? Who lives in Wales? Who has appeared on TV? Who's a great-grandmother? and so on.

So we were supposed to walk around with our paper and pencil – and a glass – and ask these questions! As I'm totally incapable of managing a glass and a quiz, I helped other people, carrying just my glass. I have to admit to feeling disappointed when I was asked if I was a great-grandmother, although working it out later I suppose I could be – just!

Rewards and lessons learned

Monday morning was workshop space. I went to 'Moving to Word 2007'. I've been using Word 2007 since last December, when I kept finding that authors were sending me chapters in that format. Whereas I had always been quite happy to ask a publisher to supply a document in another format, it somehow seemed rather unprofessional to ask authors to resend.

So I downloaded Word 2007, and found, after 30 minutes or so, that it was OK and I could still manage. But every so often I encountered the odd function that I couldn't suss out, and I didn't have time to fiddle around trying to find out. So it was very useful in the workshop to go through each of the menus and look at all the functions to find out what they could do and – even more important – how to get rid of the irritating bits.

Delights ahead

After lunch, David Crystal, our honorary vice-president, gave us one of his inspiring talks. I thought I would continue what was turning out to be a very pleasant day by missing the next session and exploring the grounds. The York campus has a beautiful lake and an enormous number of geese (of all varieties) and ducks, coots, moorhens, black swans, etc. I spent a lovely afternoon taking photos and trying to identify them all.

The conference dinner was, as usual, a grand affair, with the Linnets (SfEP's very own choir) entertaining us as we waited for food. A poet talked us through the menu, describing before each course turned up what delights were ahead of us – very clever.

Tuesday's workshop for me was 'Grammar grumbles' – always fun to look at sentences and decide what's wrong with them – not necessarily easy. I usually find the Tuesday of the conference dominated by thoughts about the journey home: Should I stay until the end and risk not getting home until midnight (if I miss the connections)? Should I go early and maybe still miss a connection anyway? I stayed until the end, wished I'd booked an earlier taxi and wished I wasn't paranoid about journeys.

Anyway, the conference was great – see you in Glasgow?