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How to Make the Switch to Fiction Editing (by Sophie Playle)

How to Make the Switch to Fiction Editing (by Sophie Playle)

I’d like to welcome Sophie Playle from Liminal Pages to my blog today: Sophie is a fiction editor and also trains other editors to do what she does. I tend towards working on non-fiction, marketing, informational and academic texts myself, but if you’re interested in moving into fiction editing, Sophie outlines here the ways to start going about this. I hope you enjoy reading this excellent article; do post a comment or share the article if you’ve found it useful. Over to Sophie …


So you’re a freelance editor. You’ve done the training, built up your business, maybe even tucked a few years’ experience (or more) under your belt. By day, you edit textbooks. Or technical papers. Dissertations. Journal articles. But by night … you lose yourself in the latest Man Booker Prize winner, or perhaps a heady romance or a brain-tingling sci-fi.

And you wistfully think to yourself: I wish I could spend my days editing books like this. Editing novels. But you don’t have the right skills, you tell yourself. And besides, you’ve already built your business, and fiction editing doesn’t really come into it. (Other than the occasional proofread that comes your way.)

If you harbour the desire to become a specialist fiction editor but are worried about changing your business model, I’m going to tell you step-by-step how you can make the switch. Really – it is possible! What you need most is a shift in focus and a plan.

Step 1: Change your mindset

We build our identities around a number of factors. One of the more dominant is what we do for a living. It’s often the first question we’re asked when we meet new people. ‘So, what do you do?’ Changing our profession feels like changing a core part of our existence. Scary stuff, no?

But you’re more than your job; your job doesn’t define who you are. We grow and change throughout our lives. Just because you’ve set yourself down a certain path doesn’t mean you have to stick to that path forever. ‘I’m a biomedical-sciences editor’ can become ‘I’m a fiction editor’ if you want it to.

If you’re not entirely happy with the business you’ve built, you can change it. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed at building the right business for you. It simply means the time has come for a change. Your business has served you well to this point, but you’re ready to steer it in a new direction.

Big change can be scary. But if you’re feeling stuck in a rut and wish your professional life were different, it’s scarier to think you’ll be in the exact same position feeling the exact same way ten years down the line.

Step 2: Build your confidence

Editing fiction can be quite different from editing other kinds of text. You need to pay extra-close attention to the author’s style. Different characters will have different voices, too – you can’t make them all consistent. Then you might have to consider whether the author has deliberately deviated from convention for effect. (Did the author mean to use the passive voice continuously throughout this passage?)

But don’t panic. I want you to remember two things.

  1. You’re already skilled. Proofreading and copy-editing focus on the technical side of writing rather than the artistic side of writing. A misplaced modifier is still a misplaced modifier whether your editing a thriller or a journal article. And a homophone is still a homophone. You already possess the skills to spot and correct these mistakes. And if you’re proofreading or copy-editing a novel, that’s still exactly the kind of thing that’s required.
  1. If you’re an avid reader of fiction, you’re already an informal expert. Reading fiction might seem like just a hobby, but I bet you’ve subconsciously absorbed a whole lot of information about what makes for good writing in fiction. If you know your stuff as a reader, you can apply this knowledge to editing novels.

For more tips in this area, read my guest post on Louise Harnby’s blog: How to edit fiction with confidence.

Step 3: Increase your knowledge

A lack of confidence almost always comes down to a lack of knowledge. I hope the above points will make you realise that you know more than you think, but there’s even more you can do.

  • Learn about all the different types of fiction editing. The path to publication for novelists is not quite the same as it is for other types of writers, and editors can come into the fold at different points along the way. You might already possess the skills to provide proofreading and copy-editing at this point, but perhaps line or development editing interests you, too – in which case, you’ll likely need to bolster your knowledge.
  • Learn how to adapt your editing style. I’ve already touched on this point, but generally being open to rule-bending to allow for style while still applying a degree of consistency is key. This is where your informal knowledge comes most into play, and where you’ll need to both exercise your judgement and hone your querying skills!
  • Study the craft of writing. There are many excellent books out there on how to write fiction. If you want to develop your copy-editing skills, focus on books that talk about style, self-editing and point of view. (Try The Art of Fiction by David Lodge, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley.) If you want to develop your line or developmental editing skills, read books on bigger topics like plot, story and characterisation. (Try Monkeys with Typewriters by Scarlett Thomas, Story Engineering by Larry Brooks and Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated by Roz Morris.) You could also take a fiction writing class and learn by doing!
  • Read novels analytically. As an editor, you might find you do this already. (I know I always have ­­– I can’t seem not to!) Read slowly, carefully and thoughtfully. Take notes in the margins and underline passages, if you like. Keep a reading log and write out your thoughts. You’ll learn so much about fiction editing by simply reading with awareness. Grab a copy of Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose for more advice on how to do this.

Step 4: Re-do your website

Now that you’ve built your confidence and knowledge, it’s time to take the leap. If you want to edit solely fiction, I strongly advise that you market yourself as a specialist fiction editor. Not as a generalist who also happens to edit fiction. But as someone who just edits fiction.

Why? Imagine for a moment that you’re an author who wants to self-publish. You have a crime novel that’s ready for copy-editing and you’re looking for someone to take on the job. Who do you choose? An editor who works on business flyers, cook books, journal articles and the occasional novel? Or the editor who focuses solely on novels? It makes sense to choose the editor who has their head firmly in the novel-editing game.

It makes sense to make fiction editing your niche.

The most important thing you can do now is totally re-do your website. Your website is one of your key marketing tools, and you want it to attract and engage the right clients – people looking for a fiction editor. This may seem like a big task, but it’s essential if you want to make the switch to fiction editing.

Step 5: Build your client base

It would be short-sighted to immediately sack all your current clients and expect a boatload of fiction clients to land straight in your lap. I know you don’t think that. In fact, it’s probably one of the things stopping you from making the switch.

Instead, keep working with your current clients – even though you’ve now totally changed your website. (They probably won’t notice anyway.) As the fiction editing enquiries start trickling in, start dropping your existing clients. You can always keep the ones that bring you the most benefits if you really want, but eventually you’ll be able to transition to full-time fiction editing, at your own pace.

Of course you’ll also need to start marketing yourself as a fiction editor. Most people won’t land on your website by chance, so you need to start point prospective clients towards it – through directory entries, online and in-person networking, advertising, content creation and so on.

And there you have it!

Switching your business model to specialise in fiction is perfectly doable but requires a little courage and some careful preparation.

If you’d like to know more about setting up a fiction editing business – and would also like some guidance and feedback as you make the transition ­– my online course, Start Fiction Editing, goes into much more detail and is open for registration until Wednesday 1st February.

 Come and join us – and make the switch! Visit www.startfictionediting.com to learn more.

Sophie Playle runs Liminal Pages (liminalpages.com), where she offers editing to authors and training to editors of fiction. She’s a Professional Member of the SfEP and often packs her laptop into a rucksack to run her business while traipsing around Europe.

 
 

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Working with an editor 2: How do I negotiate with an editor or proofreader and book my project in? #amwriting

Working with an editor 2: How do I negotiate with an editor or proofreader and book my project in? #amwriting

This article follows on from Working with an editor 1: How do I request a quote?, where I explained what an editor needs from a prospective client in order to give them a price and turnaround quotation. Now we’re going to look at where you go from there – what will the editor/proofreader send you, is it OK to ask for a sample edit, and how to proceed with negotiating and then – hopefully – booking an editor.

What does a quote from an editor include?

Your editor will usually quote you a price and a turnaround time. I work in a price per 1,000 words (different people do different things: I like my clients to know up front how much they’re going to pay) and will tell the prospect how much time I’ll take to do their work and when I can slot it into my schedule. So I might say something like “I can take on this project for £7.50 per 1,000 words, I’ll need 2 weeks to do the work and I would be able to start it on 1 May”.

Be assured that a good editor will have thought very carefully about the pricing before they send it to you. I try to be as fair as I can to myself and the author, basing my price on the amount of work that the edit will involve. This is why most editors and proofreaders will offer a “from” price on their website if they have a price at all, as that’s a guide to the least it will cost (for something involving a very minimal amount of editing). Some editors offer discounts for students or self-publishers, so make sure you’ve explained if you’re one of those categories.

How to negotiate with an editor

In my opinion, the negotiations should be about dates and turnaround times, and about what you want your editor to do, not about price. I don’t offer a high price so that I can be beaten down to my “real” price, and I don’t know anyone who does.

The price an editor offers you reflects …

  1. Their experience and training
  2. Their knowledge of your subject area or genre
  3. Their knowledge of English grammar, sentence structure
  4. Their ability to help you to express yourself in the best way possible, while retaining your unique voice and writing style
  5. Their knowledge of standard style sheets
  6. Their ability to match the style sheets of publishers, journals, etc.

But within the negotiation, it’s fine to, for example, ask for a sample edit, or ask if the work can be done in a shorter time period (this may involve an urgent fee but your editor will explain that).

Regarding time slots, it comes as a surprise to some people to discover that their editor / proofreader has other clients on the go. We have to keep booking in clients and rebooking regulars in order to have a constant stream of work and, basically, a continuous income. So if your editor really can’t start working with you until the week after next, there will be a good reason for that and they may not be able to move that commitment. However, do give them a chance and ask, just in case.

Is it OK to ask for a sample edit?

Some people are nervous about asking for a sample edit but most editors are happy to provide one. We usually limit it to about 1,000 words, which should show up any major issues that are going to come up in the job as a whole. I use Tracked Changes in word or marked-up PDF as appropriate, and I also send back a skeleton style sheet detailing the decisions I’ve made so far, so you can see how I work.

It’s a good idea to send your sample text from the middle of the work in question. You will typically have gone over and over the start of your manuscript, but not paid so much attention to later sections. A section from the middle will offer a truer representation of the level of editing needed.

Asking for quotations from more than one editor

It’s of course fine to do this, and good practice, as I would do when engaging a plumber. There are some other elements of good practice here, though:

  • It’s polite to let an editor know you have asked other people for quotes and may need time to make your decision
  • It’s not polite to play editors off against each other. Editing is quite a small world, and if you claim to Editor A that Editor B has offered a very low price, well, they might just know each other and check … Be honest and fair as you expect others to be fair to you
  • Let the editors know when you are going to make your choice
  • Let the unsuccessful editors know the result, as well as the successful one

This last point is really important. If I’m negotiating with a client on a job, I’ll be holding open a slot for that job for the time frame we’ve been discussing. It’s only fair to let me know if you don’t want to book my services, so I can accept another job in its place.

Choosing an editor or proofreader is a whole topic in itself. You need to feel comfortable with them and they need to work in your subject area or genre. You might think I’m great, but however lovely I am, I’m just not going to be able to edit your horror novel! It’s fine to look at references (a good editor will have references or testimonials on their website) and to discuss how they would approach your book. It needs to be a good fit from both sides. If I don’t think I’m a good fit for you, I will usually be able to recommend on someone who will be more useful, but an editor’s ability to do this does rely on the networks they’re in.

Booking in your editing or proofreading project

So, you’ve chosen your editor, you’ve told the ones you don’t want to use that you have no need of their services. Now you’ve got a slot and a price that you’ve accepted. These are the next stages:

  1. Signing a contract or accepting terms and conditions in writing – I ask people to do the latter, but will create a formal contract if one or other of us thinks it’s necessary. Make sure you read all the terms and conditions carefully and ask about any you’re not sure of.
  2. Maybe paying a deposit in advance if your editor requires it.
  3. Submitting your work.

Now, most editors and proofreaders understand that the date you think you’re going to have your work completed isn’t always the date you’ll have it completed. Even if you think you’re ready, something might come up. If you’re using the booking to force yourself to finish the job (and there’s nothing wrong with doing that in principle!) then something might come up.

The golden rule for me is: it’s fine if you get delayed, as long as you let me know.

If you’ve booked to send your work to your editor next Monday and it’s Friday and you’ve not finished, then let them know. Preferably let them know before that, so they can book another job into the space. Let them know when you think you’ll be ready, and update them. As I mentioned above, most editors have more than one job going on at the same time, so it should be possible for your editor to shuffle work around to leave your slot open in a week’s time, say. However, if you don’t let them know and don’t keep them informed, then suddenly expect them to edit 100,000 words for you with no notice and a month late, they simply might not have the time in their schedule to do that!

Don’t miss your slot: if you get delayed, let your editor know as soon as you can.

Negotiating and booking in with an editor or proofreader

This article has given you, the author or writer, some hints on negotiating with editors and getting your job booked in with them. Everyone works slightly differently, so I’ve tried to keep this as general as possible, and based it on my own practices.

If you’ve found this article useful, do please comment and share using the buttons below! Thank you!

Other useful articles on this website

Working with an editor 1: How do I request a quote?

Do I need editing or proofreading?

Working with Tracked Changes

What is a style sheet?

On completion of your edit, will my manuscript be ready for publication?

 

 
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Posted by on December 7, 2016 in Copyediting, Ebooks, proofreading, Writing

 

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Working with an editor 1: How do I request a quote from an editor or proofreader? #amwriting

handshakeA large number of people get in touch with me every week to ask for a quote for editing or proofreading. I’ve put together these guidelines for contacting me for a price and turnaround quote, but it would apply to most editors and proofreaders I know, with a few tweaks here and there.

Sending me all this information in one go won’t give you a price decrease or a quicker turnaround if we end up making an agreement, but it will make the process easier and quicker – for both of us.

What does your prospective editor need to know?

This is what I need you to send to me in order to be able to give you a fair price and turnaround quote:

  • Is the material a book or something else (a website, advertising material, etc.)?
  • If it’s a book, is it fiction or non-fiction?
  • What is it, generally, about? (I have a list of things I don’t work on in the Content section of my Terms and Conditions – it is really helpful if you look at that first and check)
  • How long is the book – in words?
  • Is it finished and ready for editing yet?
  • When will you need it back from me?
  • What do you want me to do – editing or proofreading (see the distinction here, or the summary below)
  • A sample of your work – preferably from the middle of the book

Other editors might ask for other information at the first stage (if you’re an editor, do add a comment if you have other questions you ask – I’d love to know!)

Why does your editor need this information?

I need this information so I can work out

  • Whether I am the best fit for editing your book (if I’m not, I usually have someone I can recommend you on to)
  • Whether I can fit your project in to my schedule (I’m pretty busy with regulars and pre-booked work, so it’s unlikely although not impossible that I can fit you in at short notice)
  • What is a fair price, given the time it will take me to do your editing or proofreading
  • What is a fair turnaround time, given the scope of the work (with relation to the work I have in my schedule already)

I think that any editor would give the same answers.

A note on timing

Good editors and proofreaders get booked up quickly. If you have any idea of when your book will be ready for editing, start looking around for editors then, not a week before you want to put it out there.

For one thing, once you’ve had your book edited, that doesn’t mean it’s immediately ready for publication (see this article on that topic).

For another thing, your editor is likely to have other projects going on and will need to slot you into their schedule. The further in advance you ask them, the more likely they are to be able to fit you in.

I will never mind a vague estimate for a few months’ time, followed up by a firming-up process when we agree when the manuscript will arrive with me and when I’ll return it.

A last-minute request might work, but it’s much better and likely to be successful if you plan in advance.

Quick check: what service do I need?

Although this doesn’t quite fit in here, this is the issue that I have to clarify most frequently, so here’s what I send back to prospects explaining what I do – it’s useful to have a think about this before you contact me and decide what you need to be done:

I provide an editing service for fiction and non-fiction books and other texts. This will cover identification and resolution of

  • typos
  • spelling mistakes
  • punctuation
  • grammar
  • sentence structure (repetitive structures, etc.)
  • wording (repetitive word use, etc.)
  • consistent spelling / hyphenation / capitalisation throughout the text
  • comments where wording is unclear and suggestions about changes

This is typically done in Word with Track Changes turned on.

Substantive editing includes all of this plus suggestions on major changes to the format, ordering and content of the book.

My proofreading service looks at the manuscript once it’s ready for publication and checks for:

  • typos
  • inconsistencies
  • layout (including headings separated from text, page numbering, etc.)
  • matching contents page with headings and page numbers

This is typically done in PDF using comment balloons to mark up the text

Sending the correct information to an editor

This article has explained what information I need in order to provide a price and time turnaround quotation for editing your book. Other editors might need other information, and I’d love them to let me know if that’s the case. Hopefully this will make the process smoother for the author and the editor in those early stages of creating our arrangement.

Read the next article in this series: How do I negotiate with an editor and book my project in?

Other useful articles on this website

Do I need editing or proofreading?

Working with Tracked Changes

What is a style sheet?

On completion of your edit, will my manuscript be ready for publication?

How do I negotiate with an editor and book my project in?

 

 
13 Comments

Posted by on November 30, 2016 in Copyediting, Ebooks, proofreading, Writing

 

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How do you create a two-line figure caption and a one-line entry in your Table of Figures? Word 2010, 2013, 2016

This one was suggested by a regular reader of this blog in a comment, and I promise to write about it quite a long time ago.

This is a very specific situation where the style guide for your organisation or publisher demands that you have Figure and Table captions set out over two lines, but you want the Table of Figures to have one line including both Figure label and caption, so it looks something like this:

caption with two lines table of figures with one

How not to create a two-line figure caption

The natural inclination is to use the Return key to split the Figure label and caption, either by entering it all in one line in Insert Caption then splitting it up or using Insert Caption to add the title, hitting Enter then adding the caption. However, when you create your Table of Figures, it either won’t pick up the second line at all or will create two entries in the Table of Figures:

incorrect two line caption and table of figures

How to create a two-line figure caption so the Table of Figures only has one line per figure

This is how you do it correctly. The key is to use the soft line return (Shift+Enter) rather than a hard, paragraph return (Enter).

Place the cursor where you want to insert your caption and go to the References tab, Insert Caption:

Insert caption

Make sure the figure label reads as you want it to (adjust the label to Table, etc.) and then hit OK

Insert caption word

Place the cursor at the end of the figure label and hit Shift+Enter to start a new line:

Adding a new line to your caption word

Type in your caption:

word second line of caption

ALTERNATIVELY

Type the whole caption into the Insert Caption box and press OK:

word insert whole caption before splitting

Place the cursor at the start of the caption and press Shift+Enter to move it down to the next line:

4b-split-whole-caption

Now create your Table of Figures using References, Insert Table of Figures and you should have one entry per Figure:

caption with two lines table of figures with one

This article has taught you how to create two-line figure captions which show on one line in your Table of Figures.

If you have found this useful, please comment using the comment box below and/or share using the social media sharing buttons. Thank you!

Other useful posts on this blog

How to create a Table of Contents

Table of Figures and Table of Tables

How to update your Table of Contents, Table of Tables or Table of Figures

Editing and the Table of Contents

 
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Posted by on October 26, 2016 in Copyediting, Short cuts, Students, Word, Writing

 

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Why are my tracked changes altering their colour when I save in Word 2010, 2013 and 2016

We’ve already learned what Track Changes is, why we use it and where to find it, and how to customise Track Changes to suit our own preferences and learned how to work with a document that has Tracked Changes.

This article explains what to do when your tracked changes alter their colour when you press the Save button. It’s weird, it can be annoying, and your initials might disappear, too, which can be confusing if more than one person is commenting on the text.

Screen shots are from Word 2013.

Has your track changes markup ever changed colour?

This has only happened to me when working with a document that has originated from someone else.

You have made lots of changes in a document, and they show up in red, as normal (or whatever colour you have set for your corrections), but when you save, yours go into blue and your initials disappear. This might also happen if you’re working on a document which already includes someone else’s tracked changes: yours show in a different colour to theirs until you press Save. Then they’re all blue (or whatever colour the first person’s were).

What is happening here?

The original owner of the document has specified that the personal information of whoever is working on the document will be removed when they Save the document.

How to check whether your personal information is being removed upon Saving the document

To check whether this is the reason for your tracked changes changing colour, follow these steps.

Go to File (the extreme left tab in Word) and Options:

word options for checking trust center

Clicking on Options will give you this Word Options menu; choose Trust Center:

accessing the trust center in word

Click on Trust Center and then go into Trust Center Settings by clicking the button at the bottom right:

Trust Center in word

Once in the Trust Center Settings, you need to go into Privacy Options (it will default to Macro Settings):

Privacy settings in trust center in word

…. and once you have accessed Privacy Options, you will see that Remove personal information from file properties on save is ticked, which means that when you save, all references to your name are removed from both track changes and the properties of the file itself:

remove personal identification on save in word

Now, at this point, this can be “unticked” so that your changes stay in your colour (in your own view, only, of course) and with your initials (everywhere). But do stop to think: did the person who created the document do this on purpose? It’s quite a lot of clicks to make by accident, so I do tend to check this, see why it’s happening and then leave it as it is. I might change it so I can see my own changes then make a note to change it back before my final save, but in general, I leave it.

Why might someone choose to remove personal information in a document?

I’m not entirely sure that I have an answer to this. Maybe they have edited the document and don’t want their end client to be confused by lots of different names on the file. Maybe they’re a student who wants to make sure no one else’s name is on the file. I do tend to assume they have a reason, and respect that.

But this is how and why the tracked changes colour sometimes changes when you save your document.


This article has taught you how to work with a document that has been marked up using Track Changes where the colour of the track changes alters. You can read more about what Track Changes is and why we use it, how to work with a document including tracked changes and how to customise Track Changes.

If you have found this article useful, please share or “like” it using the buttons below, or leave me a comment to tell me what you think. Thank you!

This is part of my series on how to avoid time-consuming “short cuts” and use Word in the right way to maximise your time and improve the look of your documents.

Please note, these hints work with versions of Microsoft Word currently in use – Word 2010, 2013 and 2016 all for PC. Mac compatible versions of Word should have similar options. Always save a copy of your document before manipulating it. I bear no responsibility for any pickles you might get yourself into!

Relevant articles on this website

Track changes 1 – why use it, where can you find it, what can you do with it?

Track changes 2 – customising Track Changes

Track changes 3 – working with a document with tracked changes

How do I accept one reviewer’s changes?

 

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2016 in Copyediting, Errors, New skills, Short cuts, Word, Writing

 

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How do I add comment balloon numbering in Word 2013 and Word 2016?

I have already published a range of posts on issues with comment boxes or comment balloons, including ones on comment boxes suddenly going tiny, or comment box text running in the wrong direction, changing the language in your comment balloons. This article covers what to do to add comment balloon numbering back in Word 2013 and 2016. Incidentally, this also signposts you to how to change the style of your comment balloon in general.

Where have the comment balloon numbers gone in Word?

In Word 2013 and 2016, the default setting is for comment balloons not to have numbers. Why? I honestly don’t know. Microsoft does have a habit of “simplifying” its Office interfaces, and the numbers do change with context (if you remove Comment 2, Comment 3 will be labelled Comment 2, etc.) but I have always found it useful to have numbers in my comment balloons.

Here’s what the default looks like:

comment balloon Word 2013 no number

and this is what I’m aiming for:

Word 2013 2016 comment balloon with number

How do I change the comment balloon style and numbering?

We need to change the style of the comment balloons in order to add a number.

Click inside a comment balloon and press Ctrl+Shift+S (all at the same time, in that order) to display the Apply Styles pane:

Word 2013 2016 balloon style

This should be context-specific, but just check the style name is “Comment Text”.

Click the Modify button  to access the Modify Style pane:

Word 2013 2016 modify style
Look at the bottom of the dialogue box and click the Format button, which will give you a dropdown menu:

Word 2013 2016 numbering comments boxes

Click Numbering, which will allow you to select a numbering scheme:

Word 2013 2016 choose numbering scheme for comments

Click on the numbering scheme you want to use so that it’s highlighted with a line, and then click OK.

If you want to use a numbering scheme that’s not on this screen, click on Define New Number Format instead:

Word 2013 2016 define new numbering format

Once you’ve clicked this, you will see some new options:

7-format-choose-new-numbering

Click on OK here, which will take you back to the previous screen, OR click OK on the number format screen, then choose if you want Word to update this document (Automatically update) and to apply this default to all new documents from now on (New documents based on this template):

Word 2013 2016 apply new style

Click OK and your comment boxes will have numbers!

Word 2013 2016 comment balloon with number

This article has shown you how to add numbers to your comment balloons / boxes / text in MS Word 2013 and 2016 for PC. You can use it to modify this setting in earlier versions of Word, but they will default to having numbers.

If you have found this article helpful, please add a comment and/or share it using the buttons below. Thank you!

Other related posts on this blog

What to do if your comment boxes go tiny in Word

What to do if your comment boxes start running from right to left

Changing the language in your comment balloons

Customising your comment boxes – everything you need to know

Customising Track Changes

 

 
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Posted by on September 21, 2016 in Copyediting, New skills, Students, Word, Writing

 

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Can I edit what I am not? Editing outside your direct sphere of knowledge

DictionariesThis year so far, I’ve worked on, among other things, a book about Black history in the UK, incorporating a number of responses in prose, poetry and rap which reflected the spoken norms of inner city youth; a project about (very) experimental architecture; and a book giving advice to gay men on dating and relationships. I’ve transcribed interviews with bands I know nothing about, and I’ve localised texts about items I’m never going to use. As a straight, white woman who is not an experimental architect, doesn’t follow those bands and is unlikely to use a remote-controlled helicopter, should I have engaged with these texts where I was quite clearly the “Other” in the relationship or knew little about the topic? Or should I stick very closely to what I know?

I think it’s fine to edit and otherwise work on texts that are outside your direct experience, as long as you’re flexible, keep the audience in mind, are willing to learn and keep an open mind. I also think that there are limits to what you can work on, and I’ll talk about that, too.

Why I think it’s OK to edit outside your direct experience

It’s my personal opinion that it’s OK to edit texts that are outside your direct experience, as long as you bear a few things in mind.

  • Be flexible. The language of an inner-city rap poet might not be the same as your own casual register, let alone the register you use for formal academic writing. Think about the conventions of what you’re working on, not your own preconceptions, go with the flow and keep things consistent and clear (which is the editor’s mantra anyway)
  • Be open-minded. The advice given in a dating book on apps for hooking up with people might be way beyond your comfort zone as a happily married, middle-aged woman, but that doesn’t mean you’re right and it’s wrong, or bad, it’s just different. Which leads on to …
  • Think of the audience. What will the readers of this book want? Is the relaxed style with all the I’d and should’ve contractions something that they will feel more comfortable with? Leave those in.
  • If you’ve got a good amount of life experience and a solid general knowledge, that will see you a long way into an unfamiliar topic.

Why I think it’s positively GOOD to edit outside your direct experience

The good editors I know are wise in knowing what they don’t know and seeking to expand their knowledge. They love to learn. What teaches you more than grubbing around in the very innards of a text on something you never even knew existed? There are other positives, too.

  • By approaching the text as the “Other” (while retaining a sensible approach to the privileges you might have as someone who is not usually the “other”), you might be able to suggest subtleties or pick up on attitudes that are going too far the other way. Maybe you can help reassure an author and their readers that people outside the core audience DO understand / empathise.
  • More importantly and commonly, the aim of all writing should be to be clear and express its author’s intentions clearly. So if you, as an outsider, don’t understand the text, maybe it does need to be simplified a little. If I don’t understand something on the second or third go, I’ll pop a comment in the margin that this might need to be clarified.
  • I think I have a tendency to edit better and more carefully when I’m working on something slightly unfamiliar. It’s like editing your own writing: if you really know the topic, you tend to see what you expect to read, and may skim over errors. I know I have this propensity, so I work extra hard on texts on known topics, and try not to enjoy the process too much at the expense of doing a good job!
  • You learn all sorts of things that might be useful in your everyday life, the next thing you edit, or even pub quizzes. Your next client will benefit from that extra knowledge (or maybe the one after that – I edited a load of texts on Agile working a few months ago, so can cheerfully say I know all about it when another prospective text comes in).

When I think it’s NOT good to edit outside your direct experience

There are some occasions when I do think a text is best left alone. Complete incomprehension of a technical topic or genre is not going to make for a good editing process. I pass those jobs along to a colleague (and get some co-opetition karma in the process). Examples in my own work of jobs I’ve turned down have included:

  • A book all about optimising your motor vehicle engine use, with lots of diagrams and examples. I know nothing about this, and there was little value I could add to something so technical.
  • A localisation job where I would have had to research European legislation on a topic I knew little about to start off with, and match it up to US legislation. That’s too dangerous to mess with.
  • Editing novels in genres I am not familiar with myself such as romance and science fiction – you do need to know your genres if a book is to be edited to fit into them. I’ve actually pretty well stopped working on fiction apart from the odd thriller for an on-going client, as they are pretty well all in genres where I know someone else will do a better job.
  • Specialised transcription – medical and legal in particular. I’ll cheerfully type about makeup I don’t wear or economic policy that can be checked easily, but I don’t go near the specialised terminology used in medical and legal transcription.

In summary … in my opinion, it’s good to stretch the boundaries of the areas you work on and to edit and otherwise work with texts on topics that are unfamiliar, unless the level of technical or specialist content is high enough that you are floundering and uncomprehending. In that case, there’s always someone who  knows more about the topic that you can pass it on to. Happy learning!

What are your thoughts on the subject?

 
 

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