Conference 2017: Context is key: why the answer to most questions is ‘It depends’

Page owner: Conference director

Reports from the 2017 conference at Wyboston Lakes


Whitcombe lecture

Taking the stage as the first speaker at a conference – and on a Sunday morning too – is no mean feat. But Oliver Kamm rose to the occasion, and encouraged us all to have faith in our own skills as professional users of the English language.

New possibilities, new directions

After a coffee break and a chance to look round the conference fair, the first workshops began.

Methods for managing clients and work

On Sunday afternoon the first sessions got under way.

Practical practices

After another coffee break, and the chance to ask questions about upgrading and chartership, the last sessions of the day took place.

After-dinner speech

It's easy to be drowsy when replete with food and wine but not (well, not much) after the gala dinner and certainly not when the after-dinner speaker is our honorary president, Professor David Crystal.


Branch out and widen your reach

Another day of learning and networking dawned. After breakfast the delegates got down to business with more fast-paced and fascinating workshops.

Develop knowledge, increase familiarity

The work continued with a busy hour of sharing knowledge and experience.

Have you thought of trying. . .?

The afternoon sessions had something for everyone.

Closing lecture

Challenging the gnarled and wizened 'rules' of prose, Mark Forsyth lambasted grammarians in his closing speech to the conference.

These edited articles first appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Editing Matters.

Whitcombe lecture

Oliver Kamm

Reported by Melanie Thompson

We gathered together at the early hour (for many) of 09:15, replete with Wyboston's finest 'full English'. We were ready to hear Oliver Kamm deliver the Whitcombe Lecture to a full house at the 2017 SfEP annual conference.

I'm guessing that Oliver had scoffed the proverbial three Shredded Wheat that morning, because it certainly takes substantial stamina to address an audience of professional editors without notes or (horrors!) PowerPoint slides, knock down a number of grammatical shibboleths and roast a couple of 'grammar gurus' . . . never mind confessing that you're good friends with Michael Gove.

I wasn't familiar with Kamm's oeuvre (the last time I regularly took The Times was back in the days of Miles Kington's 'Moreover' column) but he quickly brought us up to speed. After a career in the financial sector, Kamm joined The Times in 2008, and started out as explainer-in-chief of the Western banking crisis (more proof of his stamina), before moving on to pen a weekly column on English usage and grammar from a linguistic perspective, titled 'The Pedant'.

Inspired by his mother's career as a literary translator (of Kafka, Freud and René Goscinny's Asterix books, among others), where she deftly combined the roles of 'co-author' and 'invisible collaborator', Kamm told us how his approach to writing was further developed after a colleague at The Times told him to 'write down what you just said'.

His thesis is simple: the users of a language are the people who know what they are doing. And he lambasted the self-appointed grammar gurus who rely on 'fictive rules' dreamt up in the late 18th century – 'thou shalt not split an infinitive' being one that seems to particularly irk him. He also described the difficulties encountered with newspaper sub-editors ('subs') in thrall to the dreaded Style Guide, zealously applying 'the rules' and woe betide anyone who dares to step beyond these carefully delineated bounds.

The Economist came in for quite a drubbing: Kamm thinks its subs go to extreme lengths to follow 'the rules'. And Mr Gwynne's eponymous guide is: 'The worst book I've ever read . . . on perhaps anything!'

But he made it clear that he wasn't necessarily against prescriptive guidelines, providing they are based on fact and evidence of the kind compiled and analysed by another key speaker at the conference, Geoff Pullum. Thus, the language and 'the rules' are not fixed but flexible – as per the theme of our conference, 'It depends' – particularly so because English has become a global language with numerous dialects (Indian, Canadian . . .). Despite warnings from the doom-mongers, Kamm predicts that English will retain its dominance, and it is our duty as editors and proofreaders to acknowledge change and apply 'the rules' with care.

He commanded us to spurn the influence of pedants and sticklers, and encouraged us to carry on with our profession as if these people didn't exist, saying: 'Don't get riled: I will get even.' Here endeth the lesson . . . and a jolly good time was had by all.

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Introduction to script editing

Phil Mulryne

Reported by Gillian Haggart

Phil Mulryne is a TV script-editor whose workshop provoked lively, animated chat and full-on participation. He took note of each of our areas of expertise before explaining the work of a script editor in drafting, pre-production, production and transmission. We were invited to discuss the 'flavour' of each TV channel: for example, ITV, we 'agreed', is a bit of a 'hand-holder' ('for people who can't think for themselves'). I enjoyed Phil's tips about what to look for in streaming (The West Wing, Big Little Lies); and chuckled about 'hand-holding' ITV, thinking about my favourite, Taggart ('There has been a MUR-DUR!').

Interesting points

  • Changes: these are shown on the final script using underlining or capitals to highlight revisions. Software (e.g. Final Draft) is used for editing scripts.
  • Font: post-production scripts are in a different typeface, and are used to add music cues and subtitles.
  • Page to screen: one page of a script is around one minute of screentime.
  • Authors: a big series like Holby City or Casualty will have a whole team of writers.
  • Agents: a scriptwriter needs an agent, for practical and legal reasons.
  • Jobs: a freelance script-editor is used only when the production is definitely going ahead.
  • Streaming (e.g. Netflix): this has had a significant effect on scheduling.
  • Medium: on our tendency to read scripts like any other text, Phil reminded us that the finished product of script-editing is not the copy but the visual transmission: a note such as '[sweaty palms]' is for the actor; it doesn't need to be edited.

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Introduction to content marketing

Louise Harnby and John Espirian

Reported by Tanya Preston

Louise and John explained content marketing as making content that inspires your clients to know, like and trust you, so they call you first. Reasons why you would dedicate your time to content marketing include increasing your business's visibility, building trust with your customers, standing out from your peers and showcasing your expertise. Content marketing takes an average of 2–2.5 years to give a return.

Six principles underpin good content marketing strategies:

  • Value: you create value for your customers by solving problems. Look in forums, at Google's autocomplete suggestions, and listen to questions people ask about problems you can solve.
  • Credibility: by providing solutions that work, you increase credibility with your customers and keep yourself at the top of their minds.
  • Memorability: make your content compelling, so that you shift your readers' mindsets from 'cheap' to 'I hope I can afford him or her!'
  • Usability: understand what your clients want, whether that is text, videos or podcasts. Make it usable for your audience, and on the platform that they use.
  • Identifiability: stamp your content with your unique branding and language, so that it is easily identifiable as yours.
  • Visibility: without a plan for promoting content, it's not valuable. Build your network and be visible – share your content.

Louise and John's final message was that content marketing lets you target the clients you want, and gives you opportunities and choices, whereas no marketing means you have no choices.

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Teaching editors: how to train the next generation of editors

Erin Brenner

Reported by Andrea Kay

Erin Brenner possesses all the traits that editing trainers need: humility, patience, forgiveness, kindness, firmness, open-mindedness and critical judgement. According to Erin, we editors are the best people to train the next editing generation: we have the knowledge and skills, we understand how the English language works, we have grappled with the tools available for working with text and we understand the publishing world.

Learning is literally 'changing our minds', and Erin explained that trainers need to provide students with information that is well organised and connected to what they already know. Students also need exercises to help them retrieve that knowledge. For this, Erin favours multiple-choice questionnaires, quizzes and graded participation in forums. This low-stakes testing is relatively stress free for students and helps Erin to assess their progress.

As Erin teaches many students, both online and at the University of California, she has devised tests that are marked automatically, but her students also submit work that receives the benefit of Erin's feedback. A trainer should provide feedback in a way that models how author queries should be handled: identify the problem, explain what is wrong and offer a solution to solve it. Erin's feedback takes pains to identify the positives in every student's work – no matter how hard she has to look – and if Erin writes 'See me' on your work, you are more likely to receive an offer of a shoulder to cry on than a stern ticking off.

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B2B or not B2B? Clients in business

Julia Sandford-Cooke

Reported by Eleanor Parkinson

Bagging a regular, high-paying business client is many an editor's dream. But how to make it a reality? This workshop aimed to provide some guidance.

After taking some time to think about what we each had to offer businesses, the group discussed ways to identify potential clients: do we point out typos on their marketing materials? The answer was a resounding no! Julia suggested some other ways – perhaps you can grow your business by reaching out to small businesses you've used yourself.

The workshop moved on to marketing ourselves and to mistakes we may make when we talk about what we do. Matching your language to the business you're targeting and focusing on the problems you can solve means that the business is more likely to understand your value – and don't call yourself an editor if that role is unfamiliar to the client.

Throughout the workshop there was plenty of discussion and input from delegates, and a couple of great tips were shared. Robin Black mentioned his success with letters instead of email, and Denise Cowle talked about non-scary ways to attend other industry conferences.

Finally, we covered the importance of looking like a professional business and paying people to help us do the things we're not great at – a professional headshot, a well-designed website, business cards that match the appearance of your website and a customised email address are all vital for making a great first impression. Remember: if you 'stalk' potential clients online, chances are they'll 'stalk' you too!

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Life on the other side: from editor to author

Chris McNab

Reported by Rebecca Thomas

Chris McNab is an editor, and author of more than 100 non-fiction titles. (Military history and its technology is his speciality – but he will 'write anything for cash'.)

He tells us in his enlightening workshop – with a grin – that editors and writers share a life of 'unrelenting solitude and gnawing anxiety'.

His workshop exercises revealed the benefits of adding writing to our careers. The key message is that we add value to publishers. Our copy is clean. We understand deadlines and we worry about text and image rights. We meet expectations.

It suddenly feels doable. Based on 20 years' experience, Chris's approach is to write compelling, human pitches and 'give it a go'. Yes, you can just call a publisher. No, you don't need an agent.

Being a writer has negatives: exposure, legal liability, financial risks, tight fees and creative pressures. The positives? Adventure tops the list, as you can get excited about the research. You can make more money and avoid the mission creep of editing because you submit your manuscript and move on.

Five tips

  • Show publishers that you understand the industry and know your readers.
  • Try different markets, drawing on personal interests. Pick a couple and see what sticks.
  • Royalties or flat fees? Investigate how you will be paid, and when.
  • Look for 'bind ups', where existing material is repurposed. You can edit and write the bridging material.
  • Be productive, not a perfectionist: write it, edit it once and submit it.

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UK vs US English

Lynne Murphy

Reported by Sophie Gillespie

Lynne Murphy's session began with a thought-provoking look at what makes a text 'look and feel' specifically American or British. It soon became apparent that there is so much more to UK/US language divergence than the spellings of 'colo(u)r' and 'travel(l)er', although Lynne acknowledged the general trend in American usage to shorten the spellings where possible. Lynne guided us through the differences in vocabulary, punctuation and idiomaticity: for instance, Americans would say an address is 'on' a street, while the British would say it is 'in' a street. Adverb placement also tends to differ between UK and US spelling – Americans would say 'it certainly has been a pleasure', while 'it has certainly been a pleasure' would sound more natural to British ears. These are very subtle differences, and signal that it might not be quite as easy as one thinks to edit in American English if you are British, and vice versa.

Lynne set us straight on a common misconception – the US verb form 'gotten' is only used to signal a change in state: for example, 'I've gone and gotten a cold.' She also cautioned us on the inevitable exceptions to a rule – for instance, American usage includes both 'aesthetic' (with the 'ae' more commonly found in British spellings) and 'anesthetic' with just an 'e' instead of 'ae'.

Lynne was an inspiring and extremely knowledgeable speaker, and I shall be looking forward to the publication of her forthcoming book on this fascinating topic: The Prodigal Tongue will be published in March 2018.

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Introduction to fiction editing

Katherine Trail

Reported by Jane Woodhead

This fascinating, well-attended session – aimed at editors interested in branching into fiction from other fields – was packed with practical information and advice.

Katherine began by examining the differences between fiction and non-fiction editing. While both are concerned with reader understanding and clarity, fiction editors need to approach their relationship with the author as if the novel is their baby. It's a more emotional relationship requiring diplomacy and tact. As a fiction editor, you don't necessarily change things that are incorrect, but pay more attention to the flow and cadence of the writing and the author's intent.

While there is no authoritative style guide for fiction, style sheets are critically important to keep track of aspects of the novel – including the timeline, geography, characters and places – to ensure consistency. The style sheet records how elements such as interior monologue, letters, emails and texts will be written.

Katherine pinpointed common errors, especially with new writers, and how to solve them, such as plot holes (e.g. where characters disappear and the reader is left wondering what has happened to them). Weird solutions to problems, anachronisms, lack of authenticity, incorrect facts, and body parts doing weird things – all need to be considered.

Above all, a good story is more important than a well-written book. If the narrative is an immersive experience for the reader, they are more likely to continue reading.

The session concluded with a practical exercise during which we applied our new knowledge and skills by reviewing two fiction samples.

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Setting up and making the most of an accountability group

Denise Cowle

Reported by Pete Gentry

When choosing my sessions, I thought this sounded like an interesting area to explore; I think we often all need a push to achieve things.

What motivates us to get things done? Most would agree that pride, satisfaction and goal achievement are major motivations, although the motive might not necessarily be positive! Who might we want to be accountable to? Our peers, for example?

Accountability groups aren't about being told what to do, being critical or necessarily knowing the answers to group members' problems. They're about belonging to positive communities and providing safe, supportive spaces that help in goal setting, gaining skills and knowledge, and acting as sounding boards for your ideas.

Denise talked us through the first steps of setting up a group, and structure options (online or in person) and the pros and cons of these. We then learned about how to run one, including the various online platforms that can be used (Skype, Zoom, etc.), and aspects such as respecting the group and reporting on what you said you would achieve since the last meeting. And finally, we were alerted to what can go wrong: own up if you haven't done what you promised!

Overall, this was an excellent session. Although accountability groups aren't for everyone (you may feel you are self-motivated enough already), it is clear that they can provide a strong, supportive environment to help you get things done. Trust your peers to help you; it's possible for the bonds within an accountability group to become even stronger than in any other kind of network.

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Live forum: Making the most of your website

John Espirian

Reported by Joelle Skilbeck

John Espirian's friendly, coherent presentation style made his session accessible to everyone, from the newbie to the seasoned pro.

Several attendees (myself included) did not have a website, and sought advice on the best way to set one up and get the most out of it. Others had worries ranging from out-of-date content and inability to attract traffic to uncertainty about the structure, amount and quality of their content.

John asked five key questions, which we discussed in groups:

  1. What's your biggest challenge?
  2. How do you keep your site up to date, and how often do you update it?
  3. Do you have complete control of your website?
  4. Do you know who's looking at your site and is the content tailored to them?
  5. If you started afresh, what would your site look like?

The groups fed back, and John shared his expertise on how to make an editorial website look professional, attract traffic, achieve visibility in search engines (SEO), charm Google and reduce 'bounce'. I learned a lot in this 90-minute session – I now have a practical plan for creating my website, showcasing my editorial services and ensuring that people can find them.

Tips I took away: Use WordPress; have clear menus; use two main colours (plus b&w); increase the font size to 20 pixels; keep to 400 words per page; offer solutions to problems; answer clients' FAQs; add pen portraits; use keywords; use Google Analytics. Simple!

John's description of pen portraits are online.

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Live forum: Managing client relationships

Sue Browning

Sponsored by Out of House Publishing
Reported by Maya Berger

I had been looking forward to this session, since nurturing client relationships requires endless diplomacy, and there's always more to learn. I was also eager to hear about the experiences of my fellow SfEP members in handling difficulties with tricky clients.

Sue Browning must have read my mind, because she started by saying that she aimed to replicate the spirit of open discussion found in the SfEP forums by looking at client relationships chronologically, from managing expectations at the outset to addressing problems during the editing, and handling payment issues. We were then split into groups, given conversation topics and encouraged to share tips and anecdotes.

The session was very loose and relaxed, and the conversation in my group was lively and enlightening. We talked about establishing the scope of each job with the client before beginning to edit, and the importance of having clear terms and conditions. The conversation then turned to dealing with scope expansion and chasing invoices, and it was reassuring to hear that we all faced the same sorts of issues. One member of my group told us about how she successfully took a client to a small claims court when he refused to pay her for a job.

I came out of the session feeling energised and armed with new tools for communicating clearly and effectively with my clients.

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Live forum: Healthy freelancing and maintaining a work–life balance

Helen White

Reported by Dan Coxon

The focus of this Live Forum was on healthy freelancing. What does this mean? What challenges do we face? And how can we look after ourselves better?

Having split into groups for discussion, we were unanimous in agreeing that we all need to learn to prioritise our own well-being. Particular challenges we identified were anxiety over deadlines, having difficult conversations with clients, setting work–home boundaries – and, of course, that old enemy: snacking.

In many cases, the suggested solutions involved being more efficient in our work practice. It was agreed that scheduling time for work, physical exercise, relaxation and household chores helped maintain a healthy balance. We also agreed that it's important to step away from the desk sometimes and socialise. (It's okay to tell the client that you're away from your desk!) Those with kids found that walking the school run (rather than driving) provided much-needed exercise, while others had considered getting a dog to make walking a part of their routine.

The forum environment encouraged a relaxed but lively atmosphere, and it was good to discover new tools to balance my physical and mental health within the working day. It was distressing, however, to note that I was the only man in the forum – contrary to popular belief, men need to look after themselves too!

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Getting the most from your directory listings

Nick Jones

Reported by Dawn Ingram

Nick Jones is the owner of Full Proof and the directory site Find a Proofreader. His session was full of useful advice, whether we advertise on his site, on a general directory like FreeIndex or through a listing in the SfEP Directory.

Among his top tips were:

  • Optimise your content – keep it simple, have a strong first line, and space the text out, using bullet points and headings to help people scan the relevant facts.
  • Focus on your clients' points of view – to stand out from other listings, emphasise the benefits to them of using your services.
  • Get found – maximise your keywords. On Find a Proofreader you can add tags that don't feature in the body of your text but will improve search results.
  • Include contact info – don't be afraid to give your mobile number: some people prefer to pick up the phone. And include your address – you might be reluctant to do that, but the benefits can outweigh the risks, and an address verifies you as a valid business.
  • Use images – FreeIndex found that companies with photos and videos get double the enquiries. So, for the shrinking violets out there, you really do need to include your photo!

He also stressed the value of reviews and the importance of keeping your listing updated. Finally, include the SfEP logo and proofread your text!

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PerfectIt for Macs

Daniel Heuman

Reported by Frances Cooper

The first thing to know is that PerfectIt Cloud isn't just for Mac users: it's for everyone. But it will be the first time that Mac users can run PerfectIt functions without an intermediary platform. You'll need Word 2016, though, from which PerfectIt will be available via the Office Store or the Add-In tab on your Word ribbon. Unlike with previous installed versions, as a cloud-based tool, you will need an internet connection to use it.

  • Why would you want it?

    PerfectIt is a consistency checker that has been designed for editorial professionals. Users seem fairly united in their appreciation of it, particularly for longer documents. PerfectIt Cloud will be easier and faster than previous versions and will work on all devices. It will lack some features of PerfectIt 3, although new features will be added.

  • ETA?

    It is currently being beta tested. There are a number of bugs and additional functions that its creators, Intelligent Editing, are working on. It will become available in early 2018.

  • Will it be secure?

    Your document will be encrypted and uploaded to the cloud via https and, Intelligent Editing advise, will be entirely secure. Documents will exist on the server only temporarily while they are being worked on, and no record of them will be retained there.

  • How much will it cost?

    It will be available from the SfEP website for $49 + VAT (30% discount) for an annual subscription that covers all your devices.

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Corpora for editors

Ana Frankenberg-Garcia

Reported by Douglas Meekison

I came to this session with only a vague idea of what corpora were. Fortunately, our tutor, Ana Frankenberg-Garcia, asked right at the start how familiar we were with them: we covered the whole range – from having no knowledge to being 'hooked' on them.

She explained that corpora are collections of texts stored in digital form, from which we can retrieve results with special tools (corpus software) to find how words are used in a given language, possibly the language used in a specialised field. The texts selected for corpora are taken from real-world usage, produced in specific contexts. We then moved on to the question of what editors can get from corpora. In summary, they can give us answers not documented in dictionaries, style guides and the like, including word frequencies and collocations. We finished with a list of some of the corpora and corpus software that are available, followed by a live demonstration.

The take-home message for me was that corpora may not be tools that all editors will want to use every day, but they are something we ought to be aware of. They offer hard evidence of usage, potentially allowing us to make more informed decisions when our reference sources don't give us answers.

Ana is working on a project called Collocaid, aimed at integrating information about collocations with text editor software to assist learners with their writing, and would like to hear from us about miscollocations that we encounter in our work.

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Grammar myths: self-defence for copy-editors in a world of bad grammar advice

Professor Geoffrey Pullum

Reported by Matthew Seal

Hooray for Geoff Pullum! He promised and delivered 'an inspirational sermon', telling us who will defend us in the grammar battlefield: 'Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage can be trusted; educated people's beliefs, even if widely shared, cannot.' Heed empirical evidence: 'who' is not being replaced by 'that' in noun phrases referring to humans, as a simple Google check shows; the passive voice is not evil, and indeed in most prose some 10–25 per cent of transitive verbs will head passive clauses; normal people and normal prose do use adjectives and adverbs. And the biggest grammatical elephant? It's not, in fact, beginning a sentence with a connective, which is perfectly good usage, so stet the previous sentence's 'And'!

It's split infinitives, of course. The 'simplistic' injunction against them is an invention of the early 1800s, but usage goes back to the 1200s. His advice? 'Don't blindly shift adverbs if the right sense is expressed. It can damage intelligibility as well as style.'

Then, adverbs don't just modify verbs but can also serve as modal adjuncts. Take 'clearly'. The chairman never understood this clearly is a manner adjunct; Clearly, the chairman never understood this is a modal adjunct. Nobody worries about this dual function of 'clearly' but in the 1960s American commentators began proscribing the modal adjunct use of 'hopefully'. Ignore them: '"hopefully" is fully respectable in its modal use'. Geoff concluded with words we might inscribe in stone: 'the usages that people regard as grammatical errors are often simply instances of somewhat less formal style. Not every writer wants to sound formal, let alone pompous, so don't over-correct.'

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After-dinner speech

Professor David Crystal

Reported by Sara Bryant

Once again, Professor Crystal brought something fresh to the after-dinner speech. He modestly alluded to the number of times he's been called on to speak at these dinners but, as ever, he reinvented the wheel. This year, by way of a change, he had arranged a preliminary task for us – on each table was a quiz to work on during the meal – but first there were the anecdotes. Our attention was gradually directed towards the Antipodes with a tale of the Crystals' visit to 'the longest place name in the world', in New Zealand (read this and weep, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch!). It's a place name on a sign, there's nothing else there; a tourist was eating in a Little Chef down the road from the sign and asked the waitress 'How do you pronounce the name of this place?', whereupon she slowly and carefully enunciated 'L-it-tle Ch-ef' . . .

But first, the quiz. Find an exact rhyme for a list of 16 words of two or three syllables. The more abstruse examples had us really scratching our heads but, remarkably, as the wine sank further down the glass, imaginations were freed (in my case, anyway, along with memories of my dad's predilection for nonsense rhymes), and our group were rather pleased to manage seven answers in accord with the Ogden Nash originals. One of our number came up with a solution for 'boomerang' so inventive that I must record it for posterity though it wasn't an 'official' answer: I forget the first part of the two-line ditty he devised to introduce it, but it ended with '. . . the Emperor Moctezuma rang'.

But let's return to that glorious name, recited fluently by our speaker: Taumata whakatangi hangakoauau o tamatea turi pukakapiki maunga horo nuku pokai whenua kitanatahu (for the curious, this translates as 'the place where Tamatea, the man with the big knees, who slid, climbed and swallowed mountains, known as "landeater", played his flute to his loved one'). But wait, hidden in that lovely description is the jewel of the evening, the Maori word for 'flute'. In his closing words, Professor Crystal returned lingeringly to those three syllables, 'koauau', savouring their cadence. Thus, with subtle skill, he brought us full circle to the purpose of the quiz.

I think we all surprised ourselves in the end, as our brains freed up and we recognised what the quiz was telling us: attune your ear to the musical power of auditory rhythm and rhyme. This is how words cast their spell, and it highlights something special about our president – his childlike and profound delight in the musical power of words, even when they're nonsense. This, or the lack of it, is what makes an accumulation of words magical or mundane. How often have we intuitively judged a series of words to be infelicitous, however 'not wrong' they were? In his deft and elegant way, Professor Crystal was teaching us to listen to the music. As well as thoroughly enjoying himself and sharing the joy with us.

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Working with fiction, creative non-fiction and their writers

Emma Darwin

Reported by Kia Thomas

If anyone was expecting a gentle pace to ease them into a Monday morning, they probably had a bit of a shock. After Emma introduced the session and herself, we whizzed through the various decisions a fiction/creative-non-fiction writer makes. Much of what we discussed is on Emma's blog, so I won't reproduce it here, but two particularly important ideas were establishing the 'rules' of the book, so readers know what to expect, and psychic distance, on which there was an exercise to stretch our post-gala-dinner brains.

As a fiction-only editor who attended Emma's session last year and reads her blog, I didn't learn much, if anything, that was completely new. That's not to say I didn't find it valuable or enjoyable, because I did. The concepts discussed are so fundamental to fiction writing, and therefore editing, that an opportunity to analyse them is always welcome, and Emma's passion for and humour about her subject made for an interesting session.

I did wonder, however, if people newer to fiction might have found it a little hard to follow, especially considering the pace and lack of a handout. If you missed it, or attended but want to look more closely at the ideas mentioned, I highly recommend checking out Emma's fantastic blog, This Itch of Writing.

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STM editing

Anna Sharman

Reported by Sharon Williamson

At the STM editing workshop we started off by introducing ourselves. It became clear that the workshop had appealed to a whole range of participants, from people keen to move into STM editing through to veterans of the field. This range of experience was especially valuable when discussing various questions we had about STM publishing, with many tips and approaches shared. We talked about a range of clients and materials; in particular, perhaps because of the experience of the participants, about editing journal papers.

The main focus, in keeping with the conference theme of 'It depends', was the kind of editing appropriate when working for different STM clients. A group exercise reinforced this by asking us to think about how we might edit an extract for an author and for a publisher, which highlighted the different approaches needed. Although I have been editing STM material for many years, it has always been at the publisher end of things, so the insights into how the focus shifts when working with an author were interesting; I'm sure that other participants found the exercise and ensuing discussion equally useful.

A handout covered the workshop topics, including topics that were only briefly touched upon such as 'common things to look out for', and also included a list of resources. This enjoyable workshop covered a lot of ground, and there were things to take away for everyone – newbies and old hands alike.

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Rates: reaching for the stars, selling your worth and pricing projects

Janet MacMillan, Katherine Trail and Erin Brenner

Reported by Sally Antram

Whatever you're charging now, it's not enough! That was one particularly encouraging piece of advice for this newbie freelancer from a useful session, presented by Janet MacMillan, Katherine Trail and Erin Brenner.

The speakers emphasised the importance of recording detailed information from past work and reviewing this regularly. This will help establish whether it's worth working for a particular client and provide important evidence when pricing new projects.

Other suggestions included having a minimum charge for small pieces of work, keeping rates under annual review, charging separately for complex elements of a job and using efficiency tools (with particular mention of PerfectIt and TextExpander). The speakers recommended sample edits to assist with pricing, on the basis that this is an investment in a future project, often with a high conversion rate to paid work.

Three scenarios were considered, which led to a helpful discussion of how best to deal with authors with limited budgets, very low proposed rates per 1000 words and new clients.

I left the session with increased confidence that freelancing should provide me with a reasonable income and some helpful tactics for negotiating with clients.

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Last but not least: an introduction to indexing

Ann Kingdom

Reported by Adele Anderson

Chair of the Society of Indexers, Ann Kingdom, shared with the group her extensive experience in compiling indexes, which has been described as both an art and a science. Ann dispelled the myth that a good index can be produced by a computer, pointed out the differences between an index and a table of contents and explained why the author is not usually the best person to prepare an index.

Next, she took us through the process of generating the index, and provided examples of good and bad indexing for us to evaluate. In discussing the problems and constraints, it was evident that the answer to many questions is indeed 'It depends'. Finally, we saw how indexing software can assist with repetitive tasks and help ensure consistency. Ann highly recommends the Society of Indexers' 'Indexing basics' online workshop to all editors interested in acquiring this complementary skill.

We were treated to a very comprehensive overview of the subject by an expert with many years of experience. Ann also provided a large number of printed handouts for reference and further study. The opportunity to try a few more exercises together would have made this very informative workshop even more useful.

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Working with students

Peter Norrington

Reported by Kerry Sayer

This was one of the stand-out sessions for me. Despite the 9 am Monday start, Peter Norrington deftly kept four groups discussing key questions, with time to present our thoughts to the whole room. Our range of experiences (both as students and proofreaders) informed the debates: 'Where are students and how do they find us?' and 'What is a student and what do they need from us?'

Peter shared useful tips throughout the session: for example, I had never considered reaching out to students via discipline- or language-based societies. I will now also look for more context to a job; I'll know that non-traditional routes to qualifications are often taken by those with more vocational skillsets; and I'll recognise that what they need from us will be different and so our role can be more flexible.

We then moved on to the thorny topic of ethics and, in keeping with the conference theme, each topic had grey areas and exceptions. So, where to draw the line with interventions? Peter suggested that a useful guide could be whether marks are specifically assigned for the language style and quality, an approach that gives me more confidence for my work in the future.

The session ended by challenging the perception that 'all work must be the student's own'. Research is not carried out in a vacuum, so our boundaries, while professional, should be adapted to match each job.

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Getting the most from PerfectIt

Daniel Heuman

Sponsored by Archive Publications
Reported by Rosemary Carr

I'm someone who uses PerfectIt at the basic level but has not been brave enough to experiment with creating customised style sheets. So, I was interested to attend Daniel Heuman's session explaining how to use PerfectIt's advanced functionality.

This was billed as an advanced workshop primarily for editors who already use PerfectIt on a PC with Windows. Daniel, who developed the software and is the CEO and founder of Intelligent Editing, began by distributing a handout summarising the session content and telling us what PerfectIt can and cannot do. He then showed us – in real-time on the screen – the ready-made style sheets available, e.g. WHO Style 3.0, before moving on to show us how to create a new style sheet for each client and set preferences within that style sheet, e.g. for non-breaking spaces. He also talked about sharing style sheets through the import/export functions.

After discussing the use of wildcards for any search and replace combination, Daniel went on to tell us how to deal with italics, prefixes and superscripts/subscripts, how to skip sections, how to add a user note and create exceptions to that user note and, finally, how to fine tune the style sheet.

Daniel was happy to answer questions throughout the session, and his presentation was lively, fun and direct. A laptop or tablet wasn't required and the handout included links to video tutorials. I came away feeling I could tackle creating a customised style sheet and felt enthused about what PerfectIt can do.

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Lightning talks

Lucy Ridout and Robin Black

Reported by Nicola Wilton

This year's conference also saw the return of a session of 'lightning talks', warmly hosted by Robin Black and Lucy Ridout. The format of these fast-paced sessions was a brief introduction for each of the speakers, after which each had seven (carefully timed!) minutes in which to convey their chosen subject.

A great variety of topics were covered: home-office interior-decorating tips (Abi Saffrey), lessons learned from the first year as a freelancer (Maya Berger), an insight into life as a proofreader in Australia (Adele Anderson), the positive power of appreciative inquiry (Shelagh Aitken), going back to grammar school (Jane Hammett), cartoon drawing (Sara Donaldson) and an insider's view on serving as an SfEP director (Jane Moody).

There was definitely something for everyone . . . all very informative, light-hearted and educational: my thanks to everyone who volunteered and presented so enthusiastically! I for one can't wait to see what variety of topics next year's programme will bring!

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The art of querying

Gerard Hill

Reported by Barbara Holten

This was a fun session that made us think. We covered various types of possible queries, some of which were not obvious until we understood the context of the sample. For example, cities and countries change names, and what may seem incorrect in the present day may be correct in the context of the work as a whole.

If something looks funny to you, check it. If it is correct, stet it. If not, there are three things you can do: silently correct, amend and flag, or query (with suggestions if possible). But if you don't query, be prepared to justify your intervention.

For example, if you see a reference to the 9 September 2001 attacks in New York, you don't need to query this. Change it! Good general knowledge is a real asset, along with access to reputable reference sources, but don't rely solely on Google.

The important things to remember are:

  • If it ain't broke, don't fix it – so ask yourself, is it broken? If it is broken, mend it if you can.
  • If there's no query, be able to justify your action. Think crusty author, testy client.
  • Make your notes and queries self-explanatory.
  • If a query is needed, analyse it, and an answer may present itself.

And build a relationship with the client, be a godsend, be entertaining. Be polite, considerate, efficient and tactful.

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Plain English: how useful is it for editors?

Luke Finley

Reported by Jane Belton

Plain English is a huge topic, and we were racing against the clock in this excellent whistle-stop introduction. To orientate ourselves, we brainstormed factors that often make text hard to understand. Next, Luke talked us through different plain-English guidelines, from Orwell and Gowers to Martin Cutts. We also touched on the benefits and limitations of readability tests.

Our next challenge was transforming a piece of convoluted, jargon-filled text into something clear and simple. But this process wasn't straightforward – as well as 'translating' complex words and sentence structures, it demanded tricky decisions about interpretation, and about what information to prioritise.

The extent to which plain English is a surprisingly complex area became clear as we explored who 'owns' or regulates it. We discussed offering plain-English editing as a service, and highlighted potential issues regarding work in this area, given the existence of bodies such as Plain English Campaign and Plain Language Commission.

Luke's measured and nuanced approach helped us to understand the basics of a plain-English edit, and opened up the possibilities that this kind of work could offer for people who love the creative side of working with language. One striking figure that has remained with me is that the average reading age of British adults is 13. For millions of people, much of the material that we work on as editorial professionals would simply not be readable. This session left me keen to explore how we could play a role in helping them get vital information.

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Living and working as a digital nomad

Kate Haigh

Reported by Natalie Murray

This was the final session for me at the end of a packed and exhilarating first SfEP conference. Kate Haigh gave us an entertaining and informative insight into her 18 months on the road as a digital nomad. If you have ever considered going on the road, all the information you would need was right here.

Where do you start? Getting rid of unnecessary belongings is high on the list – you can only fit so much in a backpack! And, what do you need to be able to do your job wherever you may find yourself? Ever heard of the Roost? Me neither! It's a small, light, cheap laptop stand that Kate swears by for on-the-road use.

Different accommodation types were covered, with Airbnb at the top of the list, but also hotels and house-sitting as viable alternatives. Making sure your accommodation has a decent internet connection is important – or you can look for co-working spaces in whichever town or city you are based.

If you are single but don't want to travel alone, Kate had suggestions on how to proceed. And tips on how to take your favourite style guide with you without taking up precious room in your backpack – an online subscription!

If you are lucky enough to have Kate's session handout, it's full of useful links. However, there are lots of resources available online if you're thinking of going on the road.

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Guerrilla marketing: breaking into publishing and staying there

Tracey Cowell and Jackie Mace

Reported by Annie Deakins

I am delighted I attended this session, as Tracey and Jackie work for educational publishers. I focused! This is my skills area! The aim was to find two fresh marketing tips for your business. More like ten! Other conference sessions focused on how to stand out – with attractive websites and social media to help publishers find you – which worried these speakers. Naturally these things are important, but they turn marketing on its head. How do we go about finding publishers? What should we do? What should we not do?! A funny scenario followed: a role-play of a phone conversation with a rather inflexible editor . . . We completed marketing questionnaires focusing our minds on our marketing approach.

Publishers like a three-pronged approach:

  1. a phone call (makes the client aware that you exist);
  2. an email that includes your website (makes the client aware of your name);
  3. a phone call (might lead to work).

Main tips

  • Consider your strengths, and be specific when marketing yourself. A CV should be brief.
  • Be professional, flexible and open to new ideas.
  • Have grit and perseverance (we've all had to psych ourselves up to make that phone call!).

Final tip

How to accept work from a new client without seeming too needy. 'Yes, I can start tomorrow!' is not acceptable – a publisher would wonder why this editor was available immediately. Instead, a delegate suggested, say 'I can probably reschedule my diary to fit you in tomorrow.' Brilliant!

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Editing biographies and autobiographies

Loulou Brown

Reported by Sarah Dronfield

Loulou Brown has proofread or edited the biographies and autobiographies of – among others – Richard Burton, Churchill, and a prostitute (serial comma needed there, I think!). She finds the work challenging and frustrating, but, ultimately, a worthwhile endeavour. In her session she had some excellent advice for anyone thinking of taking on this kind of work.

It requires stamina, as each project eats up months rather than weeks – with word counts typically between 100k and 200k, and a great deal of fact-checking is involved. You should always overestimate the amount of time you think you will need, to allow for unknown eventualities.

On working with the subject of a book, Loulou says it can be easier if they are dead, because then they can't argue about the content! When considering working for a self-publisher, it's best to meet them beforehand to discuss potential problems and to make sure you're a good fit – it is vital to gain their trust.

Perhaps the most important advice from the session was that permission must be obtained for any letters, or other material in copyright, to be used – copyright remains with the person who wrote them, or their executor. Also, if you come across any potentially defamatory material, it is essential to advise the publisher or author to get it checked by a solicitor who specialises in this.

Sadly, the session wasn't long enough to allow us to ask questions or do the group work that had originally been planned.

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Changing skills in publishing

Astrid deRidder

Sponsored by Cambridge University Press, Education Reform
Reported by Guy Manners

This session could have gone anywhere – especially with the opening tagline of 'Robots are taking over'!

Cambridge University Press's Astrid deRidder, the head of business development in the Education Reform Division, led us through the mire of artificial intelligence (AI), using the generic term 'robots' throughout. The session could have been scary, but Astrid metaphorically held our hands as she guided us through high-risk and low-risk jobs. The 'good news' is that, in the USA at least, the number of editors is expected to decrease by only 5 per cent by 2024. It is perhaps a matter of our jobs as editors and proofreaders changing rather than being lost.

According to Astrid, the key to surviving the expected upsurge in AI is to view these machines as colleagues rather than replacements. Robots will increase our efficiency and success (i.e. we'll correct more errors). To survive, we need to be highly skilled in our jobs and able to see where a robot can replace and enhance human effort. A graphic of expected timelines for AI to achieve various tasks that could supplant editorial inputs suggested we should focus on creativity, relationships and sales as 'safe-for-now' areas.

Take-home messages: embrace technology (styles, macros, PhraseExpander); work efficiently with robots; and make what we do, especially the creative elements, 'in your face' for clients, such as a one-page summary of our editing of a document with examples of our interventions.

All in all, a humorous yet challenging session. Thank you, Astrid!

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Closing lecture

Mark Forsyth

Reported by Hugh Jackson

It was a treat to hear Mark Forsyth's closing speech to the conference on, as he put it, the great and eternal struggle, the perpetual war, between the writer and their editor. A battle in which he described the poor reader as being an innocent bystander. Mark is no stranger to the SfEP: a former proofreader himself – for television listings, where he took venomous joy in watching the reactions of the writers whose work he'd corrected – he also gave the after-dinner speech at the 2014 conference. He is, he explained, the Darth Vader of this perpetual war, having turned author and moved to the receiving end of the red pen. His works include The Etymologicon, which I remember being broadcast late at night some years ago on the radio, keeping me engrossed until the unsociable hours of the morning. His speech to us this year was equal parts powerful, insightful and silly: just right to cut through our end-of-conference fatigue.

From an account of Shakespeare's conversations with his editor ('To be or not?' covers it) to Raymond Chandler's re-splitting of infinitives (and the poetic revenge he exacted on his proofreader, Mrs Mutch), via an explanation of hendiadys and a superb collection of anecdotes from his times as proofreader and author, Mark combined a challenge to the gnarled and wizened 'rules' of prose with an easy-going charm that sent us all on our way refreshed. At the heart of his message was a call for us to think hard about what it is we're trying to do. The struggle between writer and editor is good; it's how we get our best writing, and we must, he stressed, never surrender. But we have traditionally been too obsessed with clarity and cutting down: shouldn't there be times when we leave the text as a forest, as the rules often stand in the way of poetry? The murmuring of agreement around the conference hall suggested that, even if they didn't agree with his insistence on the hyphenation of 'e-mail', Mark had a fair few allies here.

For at least the third time this conference (following Oliver Kamm's Whitcombe Lecture and Geoff Pullum's 'grammar myths' session, both of which were outstanding), the long-revered grammarians came in for a bit of a battering, although nobody took up Mark's gauntlet to defend Fowler, which seemed to disappoint him slightly. The old authorities' denunciation of adjectives and adverbs was roundly criticised, and Mark compared the writing such austerity would produce to a Japanese pod hotel: it might be all you'd need, but it isn't all you'd want.

Mark's next book, A Short History of Drunkenness, which he assured us had been ruthlessly fact checked (though he wouldn't confirm whether the research involved visits to pubs), is to be published in November, and I'm sure that more than a few copies will be bought by those of us lucky enough to have heard him speak this year.

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