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My favourite editing quick-fixes

Posted in: Copyediting, Grammar by Sally Evans-Darby on 7 October 2015 | 2 Comments

Every piece of text I edit is different, whether a textbook on corpus linguistics, web copy translated from Finnish into English, or a journal article on spondylolysis. Yet there are some clunky turns of phrase that crop up again and again, and they’re among the first things I iron out on my first read through. I’ve compiled a short list of these, so in the hope they might come in useful for fellow editors and writers, here they are in all their glory:

in order to –> to

In almost every case where ‘in order to’ appears, it can be replaced simply with ‘to’ and retain exactly the same meaning. Every now and then I stet ‘in order to’ if removing it changes some necessary rhythm of the sentence, but that’s once in a blue moon.

due to the fact that  –> because

Again, this is one where using the word ‘because’ changes nothing in the meaning – and has the added bonus of cleanly swapping five words for one. I see this very often at the start of a sentence, e.g. ‘Due to the fact that I was trying on a new dress, I was happy’, which I would (with great glee) change to: ‘Because I was trying on a new dress, I was happy’.

utilize –> use

Occasionally ‘utilize’ can impart a more specific meaning than ‘use’ and should be left as is. However, in the majority of cases it’s used unnecessarily, as in the sentence ‘I utilize public transport to get to work’. ‘Use’ does the job just as well and cuts three syllables down to one.

firstly … fifthly etc –> first … fifth

‘Firstly’ is an old favourite in scientific writing to introduce lists, but the suffix ‘ly’ really adds nothing of value and always appears to me a little fussy. I will generally change ‘firstly’ to ‘first’, ‘secondly’ to ‘second’, etc.

Of course, as with all aspects of editing, it goes without saying that these quick-fixes should all be used with judgement, and never applied thoughtlessly without reading the text carefully and being sensitive to the author/publisher’s requirements. If an author much preferred ‘due to the fact that’ to ‘because’, it would have to remain… as much as that would pain me!

I know there are dozens of other quick-fixes out there – care to add your own?

Celebrating Two Freelance Years

Posted in: Copyediting, Copywriting, Grammar, Proofreading by Sally Evans-Darby on 22 October 2014 | 5 Comments

Time flies when you’re having fun.

That’s why I can’t believe it was exactly two years ago today that I woke up on a Monday morning to begin my new freelance life. Having handed in my notice at my day job a month before, I was now free to embark on what I had aspired to do for so long: working for myself full-time as a freelance editor, proofreader, and writer.

I can tell you, it was scary at first. The defeatist in me told me I would fail. Who was I kidding? I was no bright young entrepreneur bursting with the latest marketing techniques and unwavering self-belief. I worried that this lifestyle wasn’t sustainable, that things would dry up after the first few jobs, that I would have to tell everyone I’d gleefully told I was “going freelance” that it didn’t work out. I’d be sitting at the local supermarket checkout in a few weeks’ time mournfully pointing out spelling errors in the signage to anyone who’d listen.

Okay, so I wasn’t an entrepreneur as such, but I had determination. It might have been born out of desperation, but it was determination all the same. I had skills that I was simply burning to put to use. And I had discipline. A lot of people say to me they could never work freelance as they would end up sitting on Twitter/Facebook/[insert time-frittering website here] all day. Sure, I had days when procrastination took over and I suddenly found I’d spent half an hour staring open-mouthed at a story online that didn’t even interest me very much. But on the whole, I was good at structuring my days and keeping my nose to the grindstone when I needed to – my new life depended on it.

And so the days went by, then the weeks, then the months, then the years – two of them. And it really has been a blur because it truly has been fun. I’m fortunate enough to say I love my job and the freedom it gives me. I’m immensely grateful to all my clients over the last 24 months who have allowed me to spend my days being a word nerd/grammar geek/pedantic know-it-all.

As it’s a bit of a milestone for me, I thought I would share ten things I’ve learned while being an editorial freelancer over the past two years. Hopefully, some tips may come in helpful for those just starting out. Please do say hello or let me know your thoughts in the comments box below!

1.    Get moving

Before I went freelance I cycled to the train station every day, so even though my diet left a lot to be desired, I stayed fit and healthy. When I went freelance, at first I tried a bit of dog-walking, yoga, and indoor aerobics, but that all slid to the wayside when the deadlines started coming thick and fast. After a year, I’d put on weight and was feeling sluggish – I’d fallen prey to the sedentary lifestyle. Nowadays, I make sure I get on my exercise bike at least once a day, I eat more healthily, and I play badminton once a week. Sure, I could still do a lot better in the fitness department, but I’ve realised how essential it is to keep yourself moving as a desk freelancer.

2.    Be kind to yourself

Give yourself an afternoon off on a Monday if you’ve worked all weekend to meet a deadline. The world won’t end and you’ll feel like you’re back in control. After freelancing for a while, you get a feel for when you can afford to take your foot off the gas a little every now and then and go on an impromptu day trip or even, heaven forbid, have a lie-in. I always remind myself that I don’t get allocated holiday, sick pay, or any of the other benefits you get in regular employment, so it’s up to me to look after my own wellbeing.

3.    Get an accountant

For someone like me (i.e. as bad with numbers as I am good with words), it just isn’t worth trying to do your tax return yourself. Invest in a good accountant and let a pro take care of it!

4.    Get plenty of Vitamin D

It’s easy to go all day without going outside when you’re up against it. I’ve learned to be strict with myself – even if I’m up to my eyeballs with a punishing deadline, it’s essential I take time to go outside, breathe in some fresh air, and see daylight. Otherwise, I would simply become troglodytic. I have a sun lamp too to combat those grey English days.

5.    Embrace variety

It’s easy to stick with what you know and shy away from the unfamiliar. Obviously, I would advise to stay within your skillset, but I’m glad I’ve taken on a variety of projects and learned about lots of different things over the past couple of years. From philosophical theory to urban infrastructure to jazz music, from fantasy novels to journal articles, I love that my job allows me to dip my toes into an ever-changing kaleidoscope of subjects.

6.    Invest in a decent diary

Or some other sort of scheduling tool. Mine is always at my side on my desk and I rely on it absolutely for all my deadlines and generally scheduling my life. As soon as you begin a new project, look at the days until the deadline and plan how much you’ll have to do in increments to stay on top of the work. It’s easy to think ‘oh, that deadline’s miles away, I don’t need to start that yet!’, but of course the thing about deadlines is that they have a nasty habit of arriving all too quickly.

7.    Listen to music

This is a bit more of a recent one for me. Different things work for different people. I used to think I had to work in silence to get things done, but listening to some instrumental music (at the moment it’s mostly Liszt and Dave Brubeck) can actually really help me concentrate. It’s also good to blast out something feel-good between jobs and blow off some steam!

8.    Connect with like-minded people

This one is mostly a reminder to myself, as I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t yet gone along to a local SfEP meetup. I’ve spent the last two years with my head down at my desk and just haven’t found the time. But there’s no excuse – you have to make time! I’m planning to go to the next Oxford SfEP group meetup next month, am meeting some local ladies for National Freelancers Day, and have also signed up for the SfEP ‘Efficient copyediting’ course in London in December. It’s a start!

9.    Learn to say no

At first it’s hard to do this as every bit of work that comes your way seems like gold dust, and you’re keen to snatch it up. Luckily with time there comes the luxury of being able to choose the work you do. If it’s more trouble than it’s worth, or it’s way outside your skillset, or you just have too much other work on, it’s okay to politely decline. Know your strengths.

10.    Don’t take it for granted!

I’m guilty every now and then of complaining about the volume of work I have, or the haste with which deadlines are approaching, or the length of time today I’ve spent staring at this computer screen. But then I pinch myself and remind myself how fortunate I am – to be completely my own boss, to have a level of job flexibility and freedom I’ve never had before, and to be doing work I’m good at and enjoy. Being a freelance editor is the tops!

Editorial Survival Kit

Posted in: Blog, Copyediting, Grammar, Proofreading, Punctuation, Spelling by Sally Evans-Darby on 27 January 2013 | 5 Comments

Editorial Survival Kit: 6 Things I Can’t Live Without

Ask any freelance editor, proofreader, or other form of word-wielder: there are some things in the world of editorial freelancing that we just can’t live without. They make up the editor’s survival kit: often a mish-mash hodge-podge of stowaway items that make life just a little bit easier. The editor/proofreader’s desert island miscs.

As an editorial freelancer, there are a few things that I would be pretty lost without, and I’m curious to find out what would go into others’ survival kits too. Here is a top 6 list of mine; leave a comment below and let me know what you can’t live without.

1. OED, King of dictionaries

This one has to come at the top of my list because without its reassuring bulk I would feel ever so slightly bereft. It sits at the left of my computer and I’m forever thumbing through it looking for Oxford’s view on a particular stylistic issue or to find out, say, if premiss really is an alternative spelling of premise. (Turns out it is. I still prefer –mise.) It can also be a source of pleasurable procrastination, between jobs for example: open the dictionary at random and see how many new words you can learn.

Of course any editor worth her salt needs more than one dictionary to reference depending on the client and style guide, but the OED happens to be my personal favourite, even with its penchant for ‘-ize’ endings.

2. Helpful references

As well as my trusty OED I have a collection of editorial and language reference books, which I’m constantly adding to. Such texts are a must-have if you need to quickly check the received wisdom on hyphenation or gather a consensus on whether it is okay to use ‘different than’ as well as ‘different from’ (it is). Plus there’s simply something pleasurable in surrounding oneself with books on the subject you are interested in.

My favourite go-to books at the moment are: the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Oxford University Press, 2005), and the Penguin guides to punctuation (R.L. Trask, 1997) and grammar (R.L. Trask, 2000).

3. Googling away

Okay, so this might not be the most fashionable thing to say, but I love Google. I love that it allows me to quickly check facts with minimum fuss. For things like checking the state abbreviation for Maryland (it’s MD, but I always think it’s MA) when editing a reference list, it’s immensely helpful.

And no, I don’t mind that ‘to google’ is now a verb listed in the OED. It’s a nice word and there’s nothing wrong with it being there (such a travesty must rest heavily on the minds of those like Simon Heffer).

4. Wordly wisdom

Word has many features that seem specifically and helpfully engineered for the jobbing editor (macros, format painter, and the most obvious: Track Changes). But the one that really comes in useful for me is its customisable dictionaries. When working with more complex or scientific texts, customising the in-built dictionary so that it lets me know that ‘gluecopyranosyl’ should be ‘glucopyranosyl’ is pretty useful. It’s much easier to read and spot the errors in a verbose document without red squiggly lines under every out-of-the-ordinary word.

5. Perfecting it

I was rather sceptical about such software at first, but I can now admit that I am a PerfectIt convert. PerfectIt is a nifty little Word add-in that performs a last-minute consistency check of your document, pointing out things that are easy to miss (especially in longer texts) such as use of capitalisation, hyphenation, how bullet lists are formatted, etc.

My first reaction to such a whizzy idea was along the lines of “but it’s my job as editor to spot those things; I shouldn’t be relying on a bit of software to do it for me”. The thing is, as long as you don’t come to rely on it, it can be a very helpful quick last check of a document before sending it off to the client.

Some might feel their editorial egos will be punctured if a computer programme is doing this for them, but I prefer to look at it this way: I do all the work, spotting inconsistencies and incongruities down to crossing the last tee – then, just to make sure that I haven’t missed anything (I am human after all), I perform a PerfectIt check before sending it off. Why risk missing something out of pride? Also, it’s rather gratifying to perform the check and have it return no inconsistencies.

6. Caffeine ahoy

Finally, coffee is something that I just can’t live without. I know, it’s probably bad for me (on the other hand, maybe it’s really good for me). But in those first few hours of a Monday morning fug, nothing beats it.

So what would you put in your editorial survival kit? Let me know by posting below.

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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.