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Is Freelance Editing For You?

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Copywriting, Proofreading by Sally Evans-Darby on 8 August 2012 | 8 Comments

Four reasons why freelance editing could be the right career for you

People arrive at careers in freelance editing from all walks of life. Of course there are many who work in publishing for decades, turning their years of experience into an invaluable marketing tool when they decide to take the freelance plunge. Others might start out as teachers, salespeople, academics. Or even butchers or bakers or candlestick makers. But they all have one thing in common: they are all in love with words. That love affair’s been going on for quite a while now. It’s getting pretty serious.

If you’re thinking of getting into freelance editing, you’re already straddling the first hurdle (you’ll need a bit more of a push to clear it completely). That first hurdle is seeing your own potential as a person who is skilled with words, and realising that you could make a freelance career out of that skill.

So how do you tell if freelance editing is right for you?

1. You are prepared to work your socks off

There’s no two ways about it: freelance editing is hard work. It requires hours of deep concentration, spot-on judgement and great linguistic skill. And if you’re working freelance, the actual editing work you do is only one part of the bigger picture.

Much of your time will be spent building, sustaining and enhancing your editorial business. Because, let’s not forget, that’s what you’ll be if you decide to go it alone as an editorial freelancer: a business owner. You might be the only employee, but you’ll have a whole slew of new work to attend to that just doesn’t come into the picture when you work for an employer: marketing, advertising, accounts, tax returns, administration, ongoing training. Don’t underestimate the amount of work this will add up to, especially if you haven’t worked in these areas before.

And you’ll want to be giving the best editorial service possible, so you’ll be pounding the keys, hunched over and squinting at that Arabic numeral that just doesn’t look right, at all hours of the day and night – at least you will be in the early days before things take off.

If you’re not ready to throw yourself in at the deep end and work like you’ve never worked before, you’re probably not ready to become a freelance editor.

2. You don’t like being around people

Okay, this isn’t wholly true – of course, to be a successful freelance editor you have to be an excellent oral as well as written communicator, you have to attend networking events and learn from your colleagues, you have to be prepared to meet a prospective client at their offices or for lunch to strike up a new working relationship. If you’re hoping to hide away in your study and not have to come into contact with those blasted fellow humans, you’ll be disappointed.

But it’s fair to say that you will be spending quite a lot of time on your own. However much networking and hobnobbing you do, your core business will still involve sitting alone in a room, undisturbed and utterly absorbed in your editing work.

This may be something you’ll have to come to terms with if you’re usually a social butterfly, or if you’ve ever described yourself as a ‘team player’ in a job interview without a hint of irony. There’ll be no more watercooler chats about last night’s soaps or elevator exchanges about how rubbish the weather is lately (you might be able to tell this isn’t something I miss).

In all seriousness, though, social interaction is essential for everyone’s mental and emotional wellbeing. No man is an island – you’ll have to cast lifelines to civilisation if you want to stay sane. This is certainly something to take into consideration if you’re thinking of going freelance.

3. You have a tough hide

To cut it in the world of editorial freelancing, or any kind of freelancing, you have to have a thicker-than-average skin. It’s not going to be plain sailing. There will be times when you lose faith in yourself and your abilities, however momentarily. No-one is going to hand you your freelance career on a plate and thank you politely for your efforts.

There has to be an element of struggling against the odds, of difficulty, of uphill heaving. Sometimes, things won’t go perfectly to plan. Sometimes, things won’t go your way. You’ll have weeks when nothing seems to be going your way.

If in these situations you think you might be apt to fold your hand and duck out, telling yourself you’re not cut out for this, your freelance career is going to be shortlived. In times of adversity you’ll have to come out fighting, with one singular aim: to keep going, and never to give up. This might sound a little melodramatic, but when you’re relying on yourself and your own abilities to get by, you have to have inexhaustible amounts of resource and strength. You have to be able to take the hits, learn from them, and move on.

4. Words make your heart sing

I touched on this earlier, but it really is the most important thing to appreciate if you want to live in the world of editors, writers and proofreaders. You can be a whizz with words and enjoy pontificating over the finer points of grammar with the best of them, but to be a freelance editor you need something more than that. You might love words with your head, but you need to love them with your heart, too.

As a freelance editor (or writer or proofreader) you will live and breathe words every single day. You will be constantly surrounded by phonemes and morphemes – you will figuratively, as well as literally, live off them. They will be your constant companion, whether you like it or not.

And some days, you won’t like it. You’ll be sick of the sight of all those crowding, noisy letters jumbling your field of vision, vying for your attention. Words will become your work, and everyone needs a break from work sometimes. If you don’t love words truly-madly-deeply, you’ll want to turn your back on them when the going gets tough. But if you love them enough, you’ll stick with them through thick and thin – because deep down you know you can’t live without them.

Do any or all of these points resonate with you? If so, freelance editing could be up your street. It’s hard work, it’s something you have to give yourself to wholeheartedly – but if it fits, it’s a wonderful profession to be in. I certainly wouldn’t have it any other way.

Spotlight on Punctuation

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Punctuation, Spotlight on Punctuation by Sally Evans-Darby on 20 May 2012 | No Comments

Spotlight on Punctuation: Curious Commas

This week’s spotlight on punctuation takes a closer look at the comma (,). Don’t let its diminutive appearance fool you – it’s a contentious little punctuation mark that can make the difference between a well constructed sentence and one that limps along like a wounded animal.

Some commas run riot across otherwise healthy sentence structures, lurking unwanted in the strangest places; others are entirely absent, leaving sentences bereft. The trick is to get the balance right between a sentence that’s cluttered with commas and one that’s aided by them.

Let’s start with a definition…

The OED defines the comma as ‘a punctuation mark indicating a pause between parts of a sentence or separating items in a list’. The explanation in the Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation sheds a little more light on the matter; the use of the comma is clearly set out in the following five ways:

  1. To separate items in a list
  2. To parenthesise sections of a sentence
  3. To divide the clauses of a complex sentence
  4. To separate sections of a sentence to make it easier to read
  5. To introduce or end a piece of direct speech.

These explanations sound simple enough, but comma usage is not completely clear-cut, however unambiguous the dictionary definitions might seem.

The problem with commas

The use of commas is often down to a particular author’s or editor’s personal taste, and as taste changes over time, often what was acceptable comma-wise a hundred years ago seems unacceptable now.

Take, for example, this passage from Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1853):

The fellow, by his agent, or secretary, or somebody, writes to me, “Sir Leicester Dedlock, Baronet, presents his compliments to Mr Lawrence Boythorn, and has to call his attention to the fact that the green pathway by the old parsonage-house, now the property of Mr Lawrence Boythorn, is Sir Leicester’s right of way, being in fact a portion of the park of Chesney Wold, and that Sir Leicester finds it convenient to close up the same.”

The style in the 1800s in literary texts of this kind was ostensibly to pepper sentences liberally with commas. There is nothing wrong with this usage-wise – each comma in this passage has a correct place as defined by the Oxford A-Z. But nowadays the trend is for starker, sparser punctuation: today’s editors might well be inclined to divide up the sentence with full-stops to make it more digestible and less in need of such frequent punctuating.

Of the five points set out by the Oxford A-Z above, the second, third and fourth points are, I think, where usage becomes confused. Take, for example, this sentence here. It uses commas as parentheses – ‘for example’ is enclosed between two commas because it is a separate interjection to the thread of the sentence. But you might see a sentence like this written in any of the following ways:

Take for example, this sentence here.

Take, for example this sentence here.

Take for example this sentence here.

Take, for example, this sentence, here.

As an editor, would you make alterations to any of these? Personally I would say that comma usage is incorrect in all of them – in the first one, there should be a comma before ‘for example’ to make this a complete parenthesis. The same applies in the second example, where there is a comma missing after ‘for example’. The third example contains no commas and feels ‘rushed’. The final example contains an erroneous comma before ‘here’ – it is not doing anything here except splitting the sentence up unnecessarily.

To edit, or not to edit…

Commas can be a thorny issue. Often it is down to your good judgement as an editor or proofreader in deciding whether to insert a comma where you think one is needed, or to get rid of ones that you deem superfluous.

You have to make sure you’re not being too interventional and changing the author’s voice by taking away too many or inserting them where they aren’t wanted. The thing is, the presence or absence of commas can unmistakeably alter the voice of a piece of writing. Take the following minimally punctuated passage:

When making scrambled eggs you must try to get the balance right between overcooking and undercooking. This can be a difficult thing to get spot on especially when you have other things cooking at the same time or are perhaps making a cup of coffee too. Undercooked scrambled eggs can be a watery yellowish mess while overcooked scrambled eggs can be chewy and slightly burnt around the edges resulting in a rather unsatisfactory breakfast.

The above example uses no commas. You might think this reads perfectly well, or you might find it rather ‘bare’. Compare it with the below example:

When making scrambled eggs, you must try to get the balance right, between overcooking and undercooking. This can be a difficult thing to get spot on, especially when you have other things cooking at the same time, or are, perhaps, making a cup of coffee, too. Undercooked scrambled eggs can be a watery, yellowish mess, while overcooked scrambled eggs can be chewy, and slightly burnt around the edges, resulting in a rather unsatisfactory breakfast.

It might be the author’s preferred style to punctuate sparsely as in the first example, in which case you might be best to leave well alone (though personally if I could only insert one comma in the passage, it would be after the word ‘edges’). Similarly it might be the author’s style to use lots of commas as in the second example, though personally I would say the commas after ‘right’ and ‘coffee’ are examples of incorrect usage.

There is also the matter of the Oxford (or serial or Harvard) comma – some styles prefer to have a comma after the last item in a list preceding ‘and’, as in ‘monkeys, jaguars, pumas, and gorillas all lived in the jungle’. Different rules might apply depending on the number of items in the list – while you might add an Oxford comma in a list of four items or more, it might be deemed unnecessary to add one in a list of just three or four items.

The golden rule for commas

I have heard it said that the rule when deciding whether or not to use a comma should be to think of it as a pause in a sentence: try reading the sentence aloud and if you pause for breath, that’s where a comma should be.

In fact I think this is a pretty inaccurate way of knowing whether or not a comma is necessary, if only because spoken words are an entirely different medium to the written word, and different rules apply. If you apply a comma every time you pause for breath you might end up putting them in all kinds of strange places. It is also completely dependent on whether the piece is intended to be read orally or not.

Here is what I think correct comma usage amounts to, taking the Oxford definitions above as a guide. In my opinion, commas should only be used in the following circumstances (don’t forget, there is a wealth of other punctuation marks we can use too – semi-colons, full-stops, colons, brackets, dashes – more on these in the coming weeks).

  1. Commas separate items in a list. ‘When I go to the shops today I need to get milk, juice, bread, washing-up liquid, and ice cream’ (using an Oxford comma in this instance). This clearly reads better than ‘milk juice bread washing-up liquid and ice cream’ because it separates each item and makes the list easy to read and understand.
  2. Commas act as parentheses. ‘A carpeted floor is, in my opinion, much more comfortable’. The rule to remember here is that if you are going to use commas as parentheses in this way, there has to be a pair – never use one without the other. Consider ‘a carpeted floor is, in my opinion much more comfortable’ and ‘a carpeted floor is in my opinion, much more comfortable’. Both lack a comma to mark where the parenthesised clause begins and ends.
  3. Commas act as sentence-dividers. Some sentences benefit from a well placed comma or two to make them easier to read: ‘When I was a young boy, I didn’t like sports at all’ or ‘I wasn’t going to be here for long, but while I was here I decided to look around’. Both split up the sentence comfortably without jarring its overall rhythm.
  4. Commas act as markers in dialogue. “I wish I could have a slice of watermelon,” remarked Susie, “just so I could take all the pips out.” Here, the commas simply aid the flow of direct speech by, in the first instance, showing that Susie still has more to say, and in the second instance showing that the dialogue is about to continue.

My golden rule: don’t use a comma unless you are completely sure you need one.

Top 4 Tips for Writers

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting by Sally Evans-Darby on 4 May 2012 | No Comments

How to Get Along With Your Editor

Why you should treat your editor as a fellow comrade, not your worst enemy

Editors are grumpy, difficult people. They’re your primary school teacher incarnate, nitpicking all your errant commas and slapping your wrist for using a split infinitive. They probably tried to be a writer themselves, once, but failed; so now live out their frustrated dreams by telling real writers what to do. They’re likely to make a pig’s ear of your carefully arranged prose by splitting up sentences and replacing your favourite adjectives with simpler synonyms. Right?

Unfortunately, this is how many writers often see editors. Of course, in a good editor none of the above would be remotely accurate. But impressions such as these are what can sometimes make the relationship between writer and editor fraught with tension.

Writers, here are my top four tips for removing that tension and making your writer-editor partnership work for you.

1. Keep communication lines open

Communication is key both for writers and editors. From the word go, talk to your editor, liaise with them, make the communication lines clear. Be available and transparent and they will in return. Answer queries promptly. Don’t go AWOL. Realise that you writing the piece and sending it off to be edited is, generally, not the end of the process. You may need to work in conjunction with your editor to rewrite passages, or to review their work if they are doing the rewriting.

Also it should go without saying that the level of work required should always be set out clearly with the editor before they begin work. Agree payment, deadlines, the level of edit required and so on, and then hand over for editing to begin.

2. Understand why your work is being edited

Realise that all written work will need to be edited or at least proofread in some way. You are not being singled out. Your piece might be brilliant, incisive, artistic – but it will still benefit from a fresh pair of eyes. The more emotionally invested you are in a piece of work you have written, the more it needs an editor. This is because you are too close to it and you won’t be able to perceive flaws that to the reader may be glaringly obvious.

An editor provides you with that fresh pair of eyes, but not just any pair of eyes – a pair of eyes and a brain that have been meticulously trained in the very precise skill of editing. They know what to look for, and they know how your audience is going to see your piece. Remember that the editor’s aim is not to alter your work for the sake of it, but to polish it and make it the best it possibly can be for its intended audience.

3. Leave defensiveness at the door

It’s so easy, as a writer, to get defensive about what you have written. However thick-skinned you are, and however well you generally think you can take criticism, the smallest perceived slight against your creation can make you grit your teeth in resentment.

A Word document that is returned to you covered in unsightly Track Changes can make your hackles stand on end, ready to argue against anything your editor suggests changing.  Their polite suggestion that a Dickens-esque sentence could be simplified can seem like a huge blow to your writerly ego if you take it too personally.

It’s really important to try and take a step back in this situation and see your work dispassionately. Treating the writer-editor relationship like a power struggle isn’t helpful for anyone. Realise that editors have the best intentions at heart for your work and they are here to help, not harangue.

4. Editors are fallible; so are you

Finally, a note about fallibility, both of the writer and the editor. The editor does not know everything. They are not descending from on high to lecture you on participles and gerunds. They sometimes make mistakes. You sometimes make mistakes. You are both human. Try and get along.

Top 5 Tips for Editors

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting by Sally Evans-Darby on 22 April 2012 | No Comments

How to stay on the right side of a writer

It’s your job as editor to improve the writer’s copy; but do it with a healthy dose of tact and respect

I’ve been meaning to write a blog for a little while on just how easy it is to get on the wrong side of the writer whose words you are editing. As editors, we tread a fine line – while we can’t be treating every piece of copy that comes our way with kid gloves, it is important to be respectful and tactful when it comes to changing what an author has written.

This week, here are my top five tips for striking up and maintaining a good relationship with the writer whose work you’re editing.

1. Understand the brief

It’s essential to get your working relationship with a writer off to a good start by making sure you completely understand what it is you’re being asked to do. Nail down the basic details of the job – when does the writer want the copy returned, what format do they want you to work in (if they want you to work in Track Changes, clarify whether they want a ‘clean’ version sent back to them as well as a marked-up version), what are the payment arrangements; but crucially, how much intervention is required.

It may be that the writer would like you just to check for spelling, grammar, and overall fluency. Or, they may be asking you to do a heavier edit requiring some sections to be moved around or rewritten. Make sure you are clear on the level of edit required before you dive in, or you could get yourself in hot water (more on this below).

2. Communication is key

As an editor, there must at all times be a clear line of communication between you and the writer. You need to talk to each other. If you have a query about the piece you’re editing or need to clarify something, don’t try to answer it yourself or ignore the issue. Flag it up with the writer and work on a solution together.

It would be going to the other extreme to call on the writer every time you have a question, so make a list of queries as you’re going along, then put these in an email/phone call clearly and succinctly at an appropriate time in the editing process (perhaps after you’ve completed your initial edit).

It’s also key to let the writer know what’s going on and what stage you’re at with the editing. Don’t leave them in the dark, wondering when they might get their copy back and what state it might be in. Within the deadline they give you, come back to them with an estimated date that you’ll be able to return the copy to them. If it looks like you might not be able to meet this estimate, let them know in advance. At all points of the process, keep them informed about what’s happening.

Also, a note about comments boxes in Word Track Changes. If you need to make a comment or query using these, make sure to keep them brief. You can always elucidate in the covering email or letter if you need to. No-one wants to spend ages squinting at a long note in a comments box trying to make out what you mean and what they need to do about it.

3. Don’t get a superiority complex

At some point on the road to becoming an editor, you will have had the realisation that you have a particular knack for language – maybe you were top of the class at school when it came to spelling, or you could come up with a catchy slogan quicker than your university peers. You will have realised you’re born to work with words and that is why you have become an editor. However, this does not mean that you have the last word when it comes to an author’s piece of writing.

It’s easy, as an editor, to start seeing yourself as an authority on words, spelling, grammar. And while you must have conviction in your knowledge of the nuances of the English language, there’s a fine line between that and becoming an insufferable know-it-all who thinks their job is to clean up after messy, incompetent writers.

Don’t let yourself get into the toxic situation where you are playing the role of the stern schoolteacher armed with a red pen, and the writer begins seeing themselves as the reprimanded pupil. No-one wants to feel like they are back at school being slapped on the wrist for forgetting that ‘accommodation’ has two m’s and two c’s.

Realise that you are not infallible. You are not perfect, and you will sometimes make mistakes. If you start from a place of humility and equality, rather than putting yourself on a pedestal, you don’t have as far to fall if you do happen to make an error of judgement. Strike the right balance – you have expertise, and you’re here to use it wisely and professionally, but don’t let that sense of power go to your head.

4. Have some tact

In fact, this is probably the most important point. Have tact in bucketloads. Apply it liberally and at all times.

You don’t have to baby an author or feel like you’re walking on eggshells every time you point out an incorrect spelling. You don’t have to be genuflecting, subservient (whatever you say, sir!), tip-toeing around the mighty author-boss. But it can’t be said enough that sensitivity and tact are key to working as an editor.

If you’re not a writer yourself, it might be more difficult to see this from the writer’s point of view. They have created something, they may well have spent months crafting and honing it, deliberating over each carefully chosen word. Now they have released it to you, the editor, to improve and polish it. Don’t send it back to them torn to shreds. A few pointers:

  • Advise, rather than instruct. Never say ‘this must be made clearer’ or ‘this section must be deleted’. Point out the problem, then suggest a solution. Suggest changes rather than telling the author to change something
  • Don’t use inflammatory statements/questions. Some inexperienced editors do this more often than you might think. Writing in the margin comments such as ‘this is not clear!’ or ‘what is this supposed to mean?’ are just going to annoy the writer
  • Avoid sarcasm at all costs. It’ll just reinforce the stereotype of editors being irascible grumps. Instead, politely explain the problem and suggest a solution.

Remember, the writer has hired you for your editorial expertise, but if they don’t like the way you work, they can always ignore your suggestions and hire a different editor.

5. Work in partnership

The relationship between you and the person whose work you are editing should be one of harmonious partnership. Granted, some editor-writer partnerships can be more harmonious than others. But the key point is that you, as the editor, are collaborating with the writer on the piece of work at hand. You are not here with your grammar guides and red pen to lay down the law. You are here to work together with a common goal: making the writer’s work ready for publication.

Don’t think of yourself and the writer as two separate entities, at opposite ends of a spectrum. Remember that editors and writers are both human, and both fallible. What you are sending by email is going to be read, digested and acted upon by another human being sitting at a desk in front of a computer just like you. It’s easy to forget that sometimes.

Next week, see things from the other camp: my top tips for writers – how to stay on the right side of an editor.

What’s the big idea, anyway?

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Grammar by Sally Evans-Darby on 25 March 2012 | 4 Comments

This week I look at what makes a copyeditor want to be a copyeditor – are we in it for the fame, or just the glory?

Naturally, working as a copyeditor comes with a promise neither for fame nor glory. But of course, if you’re a copyeditor, you’re unlikely to hanker after either of these things.

That’s not to say that all copyeditors are mousy, back-office types who just want to be heard and not seen. On the contrary, you’ll probably find that most are boisterous, forthright and opinionated (and those aren’t all just euphemisms for ‘rude’).

So what is it exactly that makes the average person – who otherwise appears well adjusted and, well, normal – yearn to don the editor’s cap? Freud might say it’s to do with a deep-seated need to gain approval from peers, the old pat-on-the-back feeling. I don’t know about that, but here’s my two-pence worth.

You do it because you’re a stickler for detail

You like things to be just so. You’re a lover of symmetry, of sense, of aesthetic equality. Things need to look neat, precise, measured. This goes beyond the simple need to correct the typos in a piece of writing in the name of ‘getting it right’. It calls to a deeper desire for the way that piece of writing is presented to ring with truth and clarity.

That rogue apostrophe in ‘for your children’s’ children’ isn’t just breaking the rules of English grammar, it’s offending your instinctive sense of linguistic beauty. It makes you, as the reader, stop dead in your tracks, splutter, and eventually toss the piece of writing aside with disgust. Reactions can be that extreme when you’re a stickler for detail.

You do it because you are in love with language

Consonants. Vowels. Declaratives. Elisions. Homonyms. Syntax. Adjectives. Vituperations. You are a logophile: you love language and always will – perhaps it was even your first love, when you learned to talk, read and write, even before that first crush in primary school. It’s not hard to see why so many people love language. It is our method of communication; it allows us to express ourselves, convey an idea, make a joke, describe a memory.

So to work with language every day is, to you, the perfect vocation. To analyse morpheme by morpheme, to pick sentences apart and put them back together so that they work even better than before, then to send them off into the world like perfectly oiled machines. This is one of the primary reasons I got into copyediting, and I’m sure editors and proofreaders the world over must share this passion for the endlessly curious, endlessly surprising, shape-shifting creature that is the English language. If they didn’t, it would be like someone with a nut allergy working in a peanut factory.

You do it because you are a language gate-keeper

You don’t just proofread a piece of writing because the author has requested a quick once-over for typos and you’re not too bad at spelling. Change that ‘your’ to ‘you’re’, ‘i’ after ‘e’ in ‘receipt’, and job’s a goodun. No, you see it as something higher, something far more important – you are a gate-keeper of the English language.

You’ve been charged with a sacred duty: protect and promote proper use of the language at any cost. To you, it’s about much more than just spotting the odd spelling mistake or inserting a missing full-stop. You’ve been given the gift of a good head for grammar and a knack for language usage, and you’ll stop at nothing to use those gifts to the max. Why spray-paint over the chipped paint on your bonnet when the whole car needs a repaint? You are the repainter, you take your duties seriously, and any written text that passes your way is much the better for it.

So there we have it – the stickler, the logophile, and the gate-keeper. Of course most copyeditors are bound to be a delightful mixture of all three; personally I think I’m majority-logophile. What made you get into editing or proofreading? What keeps you working in the field if you’ve been at it for a while? Send me your comments.