Conference 2012: The many faces of editing

Page owner: Conference director

Reports from the 2012 conference at Vanbrugh College, University of York



These edited articles first appeared in the conference supplement of the November/December 2012 issue of Editing Matters.

Whitcombe Lecture: Year of the water dragon: excellence as the key to transformation in challenging times for publishers

Jessica Kingsley, MD of Jessica Kingsley Publishing

Reported by Joan Dale Lace

According to Chinese astrology, the year of the water dragon, which 2012 is, will be a time of great change – transformation even; we all enjoyed Jessica Kingsley's wide-ranging and inspirational talk based around this theme.

She discussed some of the challenges that the publishing industry is facing, among them the advent of the e-book and Amazon's increasing domination. Both of these tend to have a negative effect on quality. In the rush to digitise, books were scanned in and offered uncorrected on Amazon; Jessica's view was that the poor quality of these publications is bad for publishing in general – driving down standards (and expectations). Linked with this is the increase in self-publishing, which people now tend to think is easy.

Making good books

JKP is upholding standards. Jessica noted that our industry values quality, and we need to fight for it. She made the decision to bring e-publishing in-house in order to ensure quality. The company is profitable, which she attributes to high standards and to setting rather than following trends. As far as Jessica is concerned, it's not about making money, it's about making good books. Her enthusiasm for and commitment to her company, the individuals who work for her and publishing in general was clear. She gave the impression that JKP is a wonderful company to work for.

It's a hard time for publishers and booksellers. Poor-quality publications (Fifty Shades of Grey was cited as an example) are taking market share – Penguin's profits are reported as being down 50 per cent. People tend to think that e-books should be cheap, and agents have been trying to push royalties up. It's also more difficult for publishers to attract good books, since authors may decide to self-publish.

It sounds as if it was mainly gloomy, but the overall message of Jessica Kingsley's lecture was optimistic. She wished us all a transformative year of the water dragon.

After-dinner talk

Deborah Cameron, Professor of Language and Communication at the University of Oxford

Reported by Elaine Pollard

As we reached the end of an excellent meal, Gerard Hill called for attention to introduce our speaker, the buzz of conversation subsided and we settled down to enjoy Deborah Cameron's talk, which took us on a light-hearted tour of popular attitudes towards language and attempts to regulate its use.

Burning questions

Soon after joining the University of Oxford, Professor Cameron realised that she had unwittingly taken on the role of ‘honorary unpaid agony aunt for the linguistically challenged'! Although linguistics is generally descriptive rather than prescriptive (‘Right and wrong, good and bad are not part of the linguist's vocabulary'), she regularly finds herself called upon to answer burning questions about language. From ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' wanting an authoritative ruling to settle an argument, or ‘Mr Crank' looking for official endorsement of his pet theory, to a group of tuba players trying to resolve their 30-year-old debate as to whether they should be ‘tubists' or ‘tubaists', people from all cultures care about language. ‘If only workers could stop bickering about grammar, productivity would soar!'

Last-ditch defence

Looking deeper, language disagreements seem to reflect fundamental differences in attitudes to life – should rules be followed to the letter, or are there cases where applying a rule will actually make things worse? A neat sidestepled to consideration of editorial work and an appreciation that good editing involves far more than mechanical rule- following. ‘Those who publish know that copy-editors are our last-ditch defence against saying something stupid.' Then again, the world would be a duller place if the process didn't fail occasionally (witness a 1940s childcaremanual that advises, ‘If the baby does not thrive on raw milk, boil it'!)

Professor Cameron's entertaining speech, peppered with wonderful examples, certainly generated a good deal of laughter, food for thought and enthusiastic applause, rounding off the conference banquet in fine style.

A new edition of Professor Cameron's book exploring these issues, Verbal Hygiene (Routledge), was published earlier this year.


Future of publishing training

Peter McKay, Publishing Training Centre

Reported by Jane Moody

The publishing industry employs over 195,000 people in the UK, and, according to Creative Skillset, employers are looking for people who are highly literate and numerate, have basic office skills, turn up on time and get on well with others. As traditional publishing roles begin to blur, flexibility and an understanding of a mix of platforms are essential. Intellectual property, sales and marketing, and entrepreneurial leadership are crucial, especially in the digital arena.

Some skills and values still persist: for example, the goal of readable, accurate text means that language and grammar skills are still key, as are the selection and editing of content, quality assurance, and the marketing of products to ever-more demanding consumers.

Boutiques and mega stores

Peter McKay, the CEO of the Publishing Training Centre, divided our industry into the ‘mega stores', such as Reed Learning and Econsultancy (whose profit, Peter mused, was greater than the PTC's turnover), and ‘boutiques' – focused on a specialist niche area or operating on a limited scale, such as the PTC itself. He also looked at universities offering publishing training, which have a very high take- up and turn out 500 graduates a year.

Peter concluded that businesses offering publishing training wouldhave to work collaboratively in the future. There is no sign of growth in this market – the more people try to get a piece of the pie, the less it will be sustainable. Accreditation is going to be important as well. Training will need to respond to personal choice, and be employer sponsored, wherever it is needed (mobile) and auditable. Quite a challenge!

Designers and editors

Andrew Barker

Reported by Steve Hammatt

Andrew Barker, who runs his own book design business, took us through a case study on one of his publications. While the high-level process was familiar, the seminar lived up to its billing of ‘strangely familiar but different', owing to his designer's viewpoint.

The financially based case study had a substantial number of graphs and pie charts. A great deal of iteration had been involved in getting the exact look of the graphics right, along with ensuring that the charts stayed alongside the corresponding text as changes were made. Saving space was a key consideration for this book, owing to the increasing volume of the text, so tuning the margin sizes and choosing whether captions were on or off the charts made a significant difference.

We also saw another example of Andrew's work, a beautiful Gnostic Gospels book. The eight levels of headings (the mere mention of which elicited gasps and groans from the audience) caused him a lot of headaches, including picking out the most-used level and how to save space for that (the solution was italics). This led on to a brief discussion of typography, which seemed to have many leaning forward in their seats in interest. Topics such as ‘true small capitals versus reduced-font small capitals' and ‘true italics versus sloped roman' could perhaps have enthralled us for much longer. Apparently, a research study has shown that good typography can create a good mood in the reader!

Using social media to your advantage

Dan Prendergast and Matt Burton

Reported by Alison Peck

Dan Prendergast presented the first half of this session. He took us through some facts on the use of social media by businesses, with compelling statistics that made me feel I either had to join in or would be left behind. He showed material from a number of sources, and included a clip from YouTube that really made me realise how important social media could be to my business.

Creating your online presence

The second part was presented by Matt Burton, and was focused more on the practical elements, with a few hints and tips on setting up an online presence. Some of us were concerned that we would be letting too many people into what is currently a personal space, and Matt explained that you can either create separate accounts (for some services) or create a business page (eg for Facebook) that is linked to your account but does not give people access to your personal information.

Both Dan and Matt pointed out that there were a number of social media options available, and that no one could hope to use them all equally effectively. They recommended we concentrate on the big three: LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter – and possibly look at YouTube if we had something that worked in that medium.

Overall, some valuable insights from very knowledgeable people.


Liz Wager

Reported by Clare Smedley

‘Fungi are red, bacteria are blue' was the revelation in a chapter for undergraduates that led an eagle-eyed participant in our seminar to track down a copied figure. Another participant found stray references to Iowa in a report on cereals in an African country, leading her down the line to a report on grains in the USA, with only place and cereal names changed for the author's new destination.

In the city of the National Railway Museum, Dr Liz Wager gave us a whistle-stop tour of plagiarism in publishing. Boarding at definitions and detection, we passed through resources and good practice for prevention and dealing with cases. For all passengers, the journey was enlivened by Liz's rich set of slides, and examples from our own experience.

Common sense and careful reading

The scenery of the journey – Liz's slides – drew out definitions around the intent to mislead, unreferenced text and the quantity of material copied. The Committee of Publication Ethics, which she has chaired for the last three years, differentiates between ‘clear plagiarism' and ‘minor copying of short phrases'. It became clear that, even using text- matching software, assessing a text requires the application of common sense and careful reading.

A number of recommendations for good practice were discussed, the most important being to have a clear policy on what is and is not acceptable, setting out clear instructions for authors and text editors.


Starting out

Val Rice

Reported by Merryl Gargan

We were a small group, warmly welcomed and soon made to feel at ease at Val Rice's ‘Starting Out – Setting up a small business' workshop. Val's enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge about her chosen topic were evident throughout, and by the end of the session we were certainly well informed regarding the range of opportunities, possible pitfalls and the inevitable challenges involved.

We covered a number of aspects, including the initial decision to work as a freelancer, creating a suitable physical working environment, managing one's finances, the importance of organisation and time management, and being professional in every aspect of one's work – all very practical and useful for those of us getting started.

How to get work

There was a lively, animated discussion around the question of how one gets work. The importance of establishing contacts was stressed, and the key word here was ‘networking' – attending local group meetings and training courses, making use of Associates Available and, of course, attending the SfEP conference. Actively working towards upgrading was strongly recommended, not least for the advantages to be gained from an entry in the Directory.

The session not only served to encourage and motivate those who attended to make a start but also provided a wealth of practical advice, generously shared by a skilled and experienced workshop leader.

What is your fee?

Christina Thomas

Reported by Richard Hutchinson

This well-crafted workshop started with the initial client query, offering help both in eliciting all the appropriate information about the job and in analysing that information, alongside your needs and motivations, in order to come up with a suggested fee. Christina, ably assisted by the experience and erudition of the audience, led us gently through what questions should be asked of the potential client, not the least of which is ‘Can I see a sample?'.

Assess the job

The task then is to assess the job thoroughly from that sample and from the overall brief, identifying all the tasks that might be involved and estimating how long each might take. Top tips: for a good idea of the editing task, check out the middle of the document rather than the possibly more polished beginning or end; and always add some contingency to cover the unexpected.

Having worked out the number of hours, then assess the client. What can they afford? What rates might they expect? Top tip: do talk to friends or contacts who might know the answer to that.

Assess yourself

Then assess yourself. How much do you want/need the job? Work out a basic rate based on your working hours and financial needs, then adjust this rate according to your assessment of the client.

We ended by working through some case studies, which helped to show that everyone finds the process of estimation difficult and approaches it differently. All agreed, though, that this workshop had definitely helped.

Demystifying grammar

Sarah Price

Reported by Denise Bannerman

Being of the opinion that one of the most mystifying things about grammar as a subject is the way it disappeared from the curriculum somewhere after ‘O' level grade at school, I decided to attend the ‘Demystifying grammar' workshop.

My hope was that the workshop would refresh my understanding of the principles, provide practical examples and enable me to have more confidence when tackling the convoluted writing style of some authors.

Entertaining and informative

Sarah Price delivered an entertaining and informative session to a packed room. The approach was informal, allowing participants to give their own examples of grammatical experience, good and bad, which enabled us to benefit greatly from a large pool of knowledge and which, in many cases, was very amusing.


Sarah presented a comprehensive overview of the subject, addressing the thornier issues of punctuation, looking closely at verbs, nouns and clauses along the way. A set of exercises consolidated the points she had made, and she also provided a list of recommended books for further reading. ‘Demystifying grammar' was both valuable and instructive, and it was well worth attending.

Introduction to XML

David Penfold

Reported by Elena Findley-de Regt

Entering the XML (Extensible Markup Language) workshop, I had no idea what to expect, but I hoped to learn something that would cause an immediate paradigm shift. Instead, I found a practical tool, widely used in the publishing industry to structure documents so that document elements are identical and identifiable no matter what the final publishing medium – print, web, books, apps or mobile. The formatting then becomes an aesthetic choice that can change with how the document is delivered.

David Penfold was a knowledgeable and entertaining guide to the world of XML, having three decades' involvement in projects using XML or its precursors. His tutorial was frequently sidetracked by fascinating stories about the early days of the internet, and – hands down – I want him on my pub-quiz team!

Logic and structure

David's tutorial opened with an explanation of what XML was and its origins, namely an evolution of American publishers' 1980s in-house systems. He provided examples to illustrate the basic logic of the system and what its comparative strengths and advantages are. The degree of ‘structure' imposed on the document can be quite intensive, or limited to keywords that link elsewhere. Most editors' work is limited to ensuring that the right XML codes have been inserted into a document.

The session concluded with an exercise applying an XML structure to the first pages of Othello, which quickly demonstrated how important it is to understand the document structure hierarchy.


Becky Pickard

Reported by Olwyn Hocking

This session was structured as a hands- on opportunity for editors to try out some of the many features of InDesign.

The highly experienced Becky Pickard ( was forthright about its strengths and weaknesses. Her well-prepared demonstration case studies showed its power as a search, find and replace tool; that its storage of style templates could potentially save many hours; and that it allows the editor to prepare text for a variety of intended publication routes, digital as well as print. But it has gaps, such as not being able to handle endnotes, although Becky recommended the plug-in FoottoEnd.

We valued the chance to ask questions, gaining insight into how to make life easier for the typesetter: Becky's number one hate was ‘tabs everywhere'. A 50-page supplementary guide to using InDesign was provided, and guidance given on ways to acquire InDesign more cheaply as part of broader packages such as Adobe Cloud.


For some of us, though, it was clear that a considerable amount of training would be needed on top of the investment in InDesign – quite a sum to balance against the advantages. One tip given for affordable online training was Becky also praised the site for useful articles and training information.

Nevertheless, the session was felt by many to be very useful and encouraging: one verdict was a surprised but happy ‘I could do that!'

Negotiating for success

Sue Bennett

Reported by Hazel Harris

The informal subtitle for this workshop that arose from group discussion was ‘Knowing what I want'. Sue Bennett explained how, whether you're working with a difficult author, dealing with too many requests for free help or facing the never-ending issue of how to negotiate better rates, you should always start with knowing your ideal outcome and the minimum you're willing to accept.

What can you offer?

Many of us suffer when it comes to negotiating, feeling a natural instinct to please. Sue explained how we should be more aware of ourselves as small businesses and of what is fair, rather than getting bogged down in our emotional reactions. She explained the importance of thinking in terms of the features we can offer (‘I have specialist X software ...') and the benefits those bring (‘ ... which means I can Y').

Sue then covered passive and aggressive styles of behaviour, and what might cause them (often the same triggers, such as shyness, panic or feeling trapped). These behaviours were contrasted with assertive traits, and Sue demonstrated the importance of making words (what you say), music (how you say them) and dance (your body language) match up.

Sue's handout gave a great summary of five things to consider when negotiating:

  1. your ideal goal
  2. what would solve the problem
  3. what would be an acceptable outcome
  4. whether you're being realistic
  5. what strategies will get you what you want

A final tip from Sue? Practise your negotiation techniques on the cat!

Numbers and stuff

Sandy Nicholson

Reported by Stephen Cashmore

Key message: editing maths is not much different from editing anything else. You don't have to understand the mathematics you're editing, but you do have to be able to follow the ‘grammar' of maths; there should be a comma after an equation if it is just part of a longer line of text; brackets and braces should be paired off; equals signs should be lined up down a page; spacing should be consistent; variables should be in italics; and so on. Commonsense will get you a long way,too. For example, if an equation reads ‘x = 3.5y + c, where x and z are time variables and c is the Nicholson SfEP constant', it doesn't really take much mathematical knowledge to realise that y appears to have turned into z, or vice versa.

Sandy spent some time introducing us to various symbols and how they could be strung together, and got us all to try inputting some simple expressions into our chosen mathematics program. The most common choice seemed to be MathType (a bolt-on to Word.) After that he gave us some short ‘spot the errors' exercises, and, using Sandy's tips on symbols and commonsense, I'm glad to say I picked up most of them.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable, informative and interactive session, and if the conference director can twist Sandy's arm to repeat his efforts at another conference, I recommend attending.

Panel discussion

How can we expand our skills?

Reported by Linda Mellor

On the Sunday afternoon a panel session discussed how we could develop our editorial skills.

Christina Thomas chaired this session with four interesting and globally eclectic panel members: Mark Allen, Damaris Wilson, John Espirian and Nancy Duin. Each member spoke, then there was some further discussion and some Q&As.

Need to promote our profession

Damaris (from Australia) suggested that editing work is often not well understood and that we need to promote our profession. Training and good business skills are essential.

Mark Allen (from the USA) has a background in newspaper journalism, but has expanded into freelance editing and broadened his view. In the USA there are fewer opportunities for formal training and development, although this is changing.

Keeping up to date

John Espirian, our own SfEP webspinner, fell into technical writing from an IT background, and emphasised the importance of keeping up to date.

Make your clients look good

Nancy Duin (the SfEP internet director until recently) spoke of the power of serendipity and how important it is to grab opportunities and (again) keep up to date – even if this means using social media you are not keen on! Make your clients look good: write it as they wished they had said it!

Questions from the floor covered such topics as: converting books into e-books (freeware – Mobipocket – and self-publishing on Amazon); XML editing – is it a skill we need? (PDFs to XML can be useful); technical writing – do you need to be onsite? (no); areas for editors to expand into (self-publishing, especially in the academic sphere, is a growth area); open-access publishing – will it mean more opportunities? (jury out); modern ways of using the internet (LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, forums ...).

And finally …

Strangers become friends

Jo Allen

I was looking forward to the conference – a weekend without work would be a real treat, but would I be among friends? Those in the know promised the pleasures of a banquet and ceilidh to offset the potential duck poo, but my real concern was whether people would be speaking my language. To an associate, the august body of members can sometimes seem a tad too august and not a little intimidating with their arcane knowledge and weighty years of experience. Luckily, I'd met a few folk through our local group and Facebook – a lovely bunch, one and all, so I knew I'd not be all alone. What I didn't expect was to find that I have so much in common with so many total strangers.

I certainly didn't expect to hear any Australian accents, but was delighted to meet Elizabeth Manning Murphy and add to my stash of reading material – not that I've had much chance to delve yet. Do clients have radar that prompts them to drop something complicated and urgent on your desk when you could really do without being pestered? (Please, no kind offers to elaborate on this subject!)

Lively and informative

The workshops were lively and informative. Anne Waddingham led us through a neat and useful way to work with websites. I hold up my hands and confess I went to Jan Cutler's ‘Something for everyone' seminar on editing recipes to simply enjoy listening to a talk about food – I didn't expect to be amazed and fascinated by the topic! Having always relied on straightforward Delia, I had no idea editing a recipe could be such a truly complex undertaking. Luckily this seminar took place before the banquet ...

Getting dressed up

It was a treat to get dressed up for the evening. I hereby admit to often (okay, more often than not) working in an ill- assorted wardrobe of whatever is most comfy – and that does include dressing gown and jammies. I know others out there share my shame ...

The accommodation was good; it's been quite a long time since I was a student, so I wasn't expecting too much, and was, as they say, pleasantly surprised when I discovered my little hideaway – and not a little jealous of students who are obviously far too cossetted. There was some debate around the breakfast bar about whether the persistent background noise emanated from the air conditioners or the radiators: no firm conclusion was reached. It was a gentle enough noise, but I'd have slept through a fire alarm after the banquet and ceilidh. Having been an early adopter when the music started, I bowed out after a few dances and hid behind the camera while braver and sturdier souls circled and galloped with energy and enthusiasm.

To add to the delight of hearing the Linnets sing, Professor Deborah Cameron offered a hugely amusing and reassuring insight into her life at the pointy end of linguistics, how she maintains a patient public face when dealing with legions of ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells' and her efforts to debunk the myth of ‘The Rules'. I shall think of her when explaining to an author that what they hold to be grammatically correct is an old wives' tale and that lightning will not strike me down for changing it.

Part of a team

At the end, after my initial worry about not fitting in, I came away feeling very much part of a ‘team' – my odd set of skills and experience making me more of an insider than an outsider. And when I got home to read my copy of By Hook or By Crook I discovered something – albeit trivial – I have in common with the learned Professor David Crystal: about the age of nine, I too learnt how to say ‘disestablishmentarianism' and, just like him, still have no idea what it means!