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Category Archives: Ethics

Book review – Ebonye Gussine Wilkins – “Respectful Querying with NUANCE”

Book review – Ebonye Gussine Wilkins – “Respectful Querying with NUANCE”

This book is published by the Editorial Freelancers Association, who are based in America, and I ordered it direct from them. My attention had been drawn to it by a couple of fellow-editors and I thought it would be useful to read and then share about here.

What it says on the back of the book

The blurb on the back summarises the book perfectly:

Editors working with writers of color or marginalized writers have dictated editorial changes that have misrepresented the writers’ voices for far too long. Writers receiving assistance from editors who don’t share their cultural backgrounds or experiences often don’t get the appropriate editorial support because of misunderstandings. Respectful Querying with NUANCE offers a framework that allows editors to continue to provide the necessary guidance while still respecting the author’s voice and encouraging the author to make the manuscript’s final editorial decisions.

Ebonye Gussine Wilkins herself is “a social justice writer, editor, and media activist shaping media through the lens of inclusion” (p. 29) and as such is ideally placed to guide other editors through this process.

What you get in the book

The introduction sets out the author’s stall as someone who is not a gatekeeper or rule-imposer but just wants to “help the writer put forth the best version of their manuscript” (p. v). She moves on to talk about how writers of colour or writers from marginalised communities outnumber editors of colour and from marginalised communities, so there are likely to be occasions when there’s a mismatch between the cultures of the writer and the editor. The editor in this case needs to be extra careful to let the author’s voice shine through and to not seek to suppress evidence of the author’s culture or background in their editing work – especially through their queries.

A query is where the editor puts a comment in the text because they’re not sure what the author intended to put across or needs to make a suggestion. For example, I have used queries recently to check what word someone intended to use when I suspected their voice-to-text software had inserted something a bit odd and, in a sort of backwards version of what this book is talking about, to suggest an author used singular they instead of he/she to avoid gender binary issues in the text. What Wilkins wants editors to do, entirely appropriately, is to take special care when doing this to pay attention to the author’s culture, and not to, for example, smooth out specific cultural terms into more ‘mainstream’ ones they might know and accept more readily themselves, certainly not without thinking about it. The main thing is to empower the author to make decisions on what’s in their own text, and to make sure that the editor’s culture, especially if it’s the dominant culture in the society in which they’re working, doesn’t dominate the author’s own voice.

Wilkins offers a handy framework to do this, based around NUANCE (Notice – Underscore – Accept – Narrow – Consult – Empower). I won’t go into all the details because then I’ll just be parroting the book. If you’re an established editor used to working supportively with writers of different groups to your own, you will probably do this intuitively. If you’re a new editor, or someone who’s feeling a bit challenged by working with someone’s manuscript that is different from your own more commonly held experiences, you’ll find this framework very useful.

My thoughts

I think this is a really good resource, especially for new editors or those needing to come to terms with working with texts that approach issues from or are written from other than their own cultural or personal characteristics. I’ve worked with all sorts of authors for years, and it encouraged and reassured me that I’m on the right tracks with the way I work with clients who are different to me in their backgrounds and lived experiences. The worked examples were useful, and the emphasis on looking things up and checking them with other external sources before assuming they’re incorrect was written in a way that was useful and supportive to the editor. In addition, with more lists and directories available of editors with different cultures and characteristics, I would – and have – directed authors who come to me with very specifically culturally rooted texts to approach an ‘own voices’ editor to work with them, something which may well be more comfortable for both, if they choose to. If they choose to work with me, I’m more confident after reading this short book that I will be able to support and empower them, working with them to make their text represent them and their thoughts as well as it can.

 

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Gendered language and language change

Today I’m sharing an excellent paper, “The State of Gendered Language“, written by experienced and highly respected editor Sarah Grey.

Gendered language is language that takes account of gender and gender-related terms in a marked way, for example using “female doctor” or “male nurse” to point out ‘deviations’ from some shared ‘norm’, using the pronoun he for unnamed examples of bosses, and she for unnamed examples of secretaries, or promoting the gender binary by using he/she or his/hers when there are plenty of folk who exist along a continuum that’s not just binary.

As writers, it’s important to be inclusive – mainly for social and ethical reasons but also, why limit our audience? This article is likely to help writers understand the background of the changes they might be asked to make by editors, agents or readers.

As editors, many of us try to introduce these concepts to authors who might not have encountered them. This article gives us a great resource to back up what we’re saying with some solid and professional facts and references.

Sarah Grey’s article “The State of Gendered Language” appears on the Chartered Institute of Editors and Proofreaders’ website. Thank you to my colleague Katherine O’Moore-Klopf for drawing my attention to it.

Other related articles on this website

Medalling, podiuming and singular they

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2021 in Copyediting, Ethics, Language use, Writing

 

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Do editors make mistakes? What should you do if you find your editor has made a mistake?

I have written a little bit about errors in editing before, but this article by my colleague Erin Brenner of Right Touch Editing says everything that I would say about the issue.

Another reason editing can’t be perfect is the simple fact that editors are as human as writers and designers and every other person on our planet. Even though we’re trained and practiced at finding errors, we do miss them. And we’ll miss more of them when there are a lot of errors in the manuscript. Catching more errors might mean taking another pass through the document, which could mean more time and more expense. A good editor keeps your timeline and budget in mind when trying to make the manuscript the best it can be.

Read the full article here.

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2021 in Copyediting, Errors, Ethics, proofreading, Writing

 

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Essay mills are to become illegal in the UK

The BBC has reported that “essay mills”, where companies sell pre-written complete essays to students, are to be outlawed as part of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. I welcome this, and hope it will drive this practice away from higher education. However, this does need to be accompanied by better essay-writing and pastoral care support for students, who are often tempted to cheat, not out of laziness, but because of high social and academic pressures.

What is an essay mill?

An essay mill is a company that exists to make money from providing pre-written essays and even dissertations on topics which students purchase and try to pass of as their own.

In my (of course entirely legitimate and very careful) dealings with student clients, I come across so many examples of organisations who prey on them and abuse them while extracting money from them. More times than I can count, a student has come to me having already had their essay “edited”, which has, at best, involved running a simple spell check over it. Particularly for students whose English is an additional language to the one or more languages they are already fluent in, this can be woefully insufficient for them. They pay money, often a lot of it, and are left with something not fit for purpose that needs re-editing. When I worked on a university campus, I would see stickers on lamp-posts offering editing or proofreading services for students, or, indeed, advertising essay mills.

Why are students tempted to use essay mills?

I firmly believe this is not all out of laziness and trying to buy your way through university. Of course, some examples may be that, but in my decade and more of dealing with students, especially overseas students who are not fluent writers in English, I have seen the huge pressure to perform that can sometimes overwhelm. Overseas students in particular pay huge fees to attend British universities, even higher than national students, and this money has been paid by families or sponsors. I am not sure that English language support is even across institutes of higher education and I have come across many students who clearly understand their topic but lack the skills to present it in English that is deemed acceptable by their authorities.

I need to emphasise here that I have huge respect for anyone pursuing higher education in their second, third, fourth, whatever language. My French is decent and my Spanish is getting there, my Icelandic can raise a wan smile and I can speak Italian only when in Italy: I would not wish to write a university-level essay in any of these languages. Also, it’s not only overseas students who use essay mills.

So you’re pressured to make good use of the money that’s been spent on you, you know your English skills are not brilliant, and you see an ad where you can buy an essay. What are you going to do?

What happens if a student submits an essay they’ve bought from an essay mill?

Universities and colleges are of course wise to the use of essay mills and the purchase of pre-written essays. Of course these essays aren’t individually written for each student, so they will crop up regularly. Plagiarism software will pick them up easily, and the tutor may also realise that the language used is very different from the student’s usual level of English.

I would hope that the university would offer support in English language skills and essay writing rather than simply censuring the student. I hope there’s more understanding for the people they have brought over and charged highly for this British education.

Dealing with plagiarism carefully

Of course this is all about plagiarism: passing someone else’s work off as your own. Legitimate and careful editors/proofreaders who work with students, like me, are very careful about plagiarism. I have a line I won’t cross in terms of how many corrections and suggestions I’ll make to a student’s work, and I have turned down work several times where it’s clear that too much help is needed from me, and advised the student to approach their tutor for support. I have some resources about plagiarism below.

If you’re a student looking for help and support with essays, I suggest you do the following:

  • Ask your tutor or the library support staff if there are any courses or classes available
  • If you need a proofreader for your essays, ask your tutor or classmates if they can recommend someone
  • If you need to find a proofreader for your essays or dissertation yourself, look for a service provider who has a statement about plagiarism and terms and conditions on their website. Ask them how they do the work, and check that they leave Tracked Changes turned on so you can see and assess their changes and decide yourself if you want to accept them.

This article was triggered by the announcement that essay farms are going to be made illegal in the UK. I have explained what they are and why students might used them, pleaded for understanding and discussed how else students can find support, with a mention of how they might choose that support. There are some resources below on plagiarism which you might also find useful.

Other resources on this website

For students

Choosing a proofreader – student edition

My terms and conditions

Why has my proofreader not edited my bibliography?

Referencing – how to keep track and how to refer to your reference materials

How to quote sources without plagiarising – rewording and quoting appropriately

Essay tips for new students – handy for undergraduates

Top tips for dissertations and theses – from people who’ve been there

Top tips for writing up your PhD

Appropriate language in academic writing

For editors

On (not) crossing the line

Plagiarism – what it is and how a proofreader should work with student material (and my terms and conditions)

Student at risk of plagiarism 1: What do you do when a text isn’t referenced properly?

Student at risk of plagiarism 3: Sending feedback to your student client and their supervisor

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2021 in Copyediting, Ethics, proofreading, Students, Writing

 

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Student at risk of plagiarism 2: What do you do when the editor risks changing too much of the text?

text with tracked changesPlagiarism involves passing someone else’s work off as your own. There are two kinds of plagiarism: there’s plagiarism done by the student when they don’t reference or credit a quotation or theory and are therefore effectively using someone else’s work without credit (which I’ve written about here). The second kind of plagiarism, which we’re talking about here, is where an editor has done so much work on a student text that they’re almost a second author, and the student is then at risk of passing the editor’s work off as their own.

I have written this series of articles for editors who are working with documents produced by students: an essay, thesis, dissertation or article, for example.

Let’s have a look at the levels of change an editor might make when working with student materials and how to tell when the editor is at risk of plagiarism from the level of work they’re doing on the text.

Usually when working on student essays, dissertations and theses, I will come across issues with the language and writing:

  • Uses capitals and hyphens inconsistently
  • Uses British and American spellings (or British s and (Oxford) z spellings) inconsistently
  • Uses inverted commas for quotations and scare quotes inconsistently
  • Uses the wrong tenses
  • Uses the wrong agreements (he have, they has)
  • Includes typos (form/from)
  • Has a sentence structure which is confused BUT I can tell they understand what they’re writing about and have made a good attempt to write that in English (English is not the first language of most of my student clients)

There’s an accompanying issue with the reference list or bibliography, so a minor issue would be:

  • Some mistakes and inconsistencies in the bibliography, where I’m not changing more than about one in ten entries in a major way (turning book titles into italics, etc.) or one in five in a minor way (full stops after initials, making spacing of initials consistent)

In these cases I will (with Track Changes turned on, of course!) and make it all consistent and amend the tense, agreement, typo or sentence.

And, if I find

  • A theory or term which is not explained
  • A sentence which can be taken in one of two ways, and it’s not clear what it means
  • A sentence or paragraph which is jumbled or confused and I can’t make it out

I will leave the sentence and add a comment explaining that the term needs to be explained, what the ambiguous sentence could mean or that I can’t understand it and the student needs to rewrite it.

And if there’s

  • A reference that’s missing publisher or place, journal volume, etc. information

I will add a note that the student needs to check and add the relevant information

It’s probably worth mentioning here that I offer to re-check up to 10% of the total word count after rewrites; this feels fair to my student clients and I’ve never had anyone ask me to re-check anything like that amount of text.

But what if it’s more major changes and the resulting risk of plagiarism?

More major issues would include

  • Confused use of terms which clearly show a lack of understanding of the subject (this sounds nebulous but jumps out in real-life examples, none of which I can obviously show you!)
  • Garbled results which don’t make sense
  • Many sentences which aren’t at all clear or, if I can guess the meaning, would need a complete rewrite to make them at all clear – and I start having to do that
  • A completely chaotic bibliography with no attempt to make it consistent or match it to the style guide which needs work on almost every entry

If any (or all) of these are present in the text, and I’m making a lot of comments on the text, plus a lot of the changes in the above sections, I will get to a certain point (usually 1,000-2,000 words in), have a look at what I’ve done, and make a judgement as to whether I’m risking changing too much.

It’s all done in Tracked Changes so surely I’m not writing it for them!

Yes, we do everything in Tracked Changes as standard, and I have standard text which asks the client to examine all changes and decide if they accept or reject them. However, there is an “Accept All Changes” button and with the best editor will in the world, some students will just press that. How much of the work then is theirs?

What do I do if I find I’m doing too much on a text?

I want to highlight here that this is often not the student’s intentional fault. This applies to referencing, too, and it’s often to do with the learning they’ve received in their home country, the pressures of having to write in their non-first language, and pressures from home around getting this UK or US degree and bringing that knowledge home. But I believe we have a duty to help the student not plagiarise. In the case of referencing, this will get caught by software used by the universities such as TurnItIn. In the case of our work, it might not be so detectable, although a supervisor presented with perfect English by a student who struggles to write in English may be suspicious. We want to help our clients and make sure they don’t get accused of something they didn’t intend to do.

Sending feedback to the student and their supervisor

It’s at this point that my articles on the two kinds of plagiarism coincide. if you’re following along with this series in real time, I’ve already written about what to feed back to the student and their supervisor and how to do it, so as to avoid making you wait for the punchline by doing it the other way round.

So to find out my good practice in contacting students and their supervisors over the risk of plagiarism, please see this article.

Related posts on this blog:

Student at risk of plagiarism 1: What do you do when a text isn’t referenced properly?

Student at risk of plagiarism 3: Sending feedback to your student client and their supervisor

Plagiarism in business texts

On plagiarism

How to quote sources without plagiarising

Referencing for academic writing

Choosing a proofreader – student edition

My terms and conditions

Why has my proofreader not edited my bibliography?

On (not) crossing the line

 

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Student at risk of plagiarism 1: What to do when the student hasn’t referenced their text correctly

text with tracked changesPlagiarism is the act of passing someone else’s work off as your own. There are two kinds of plagiarism in student work: one is plagiarism done directly by a student, where they fail to reference or credit a quotation or theory and are effectively using someone else’s work without credit. The second kind of plagiarism is where an editor has done so much work on a student text that they’re almost a second author, and the student is then at risk of passing the editor’s work off as their own.

This article is written for editors who are working with student texts, whether that’s essays, dissertations, theses or articles for publication.

Let’s have a look at the levels of risk of plagiarism and an example of good practice when working with student materials when the editor is at risk of plagiarism from the level of work they’re doing on the text.

Often when working on student essays, dissertations and theses, I will come across a small example of a risk of plagiarism. This could include

  • A statement such as “researchers have found that” before an assertion, without a reference to who has found this information
  • A reference not being included after a quotation, where most of the quotations are referenced correctly
  • What is clearly a direct quotation which has not been placed in inverted commas, even if it’s got a reference after it, but this is an anomaly in an otherwise well-referenced document
  • What is clearly a direct quotation which has not been placed in inverted commas AND it hasn’t got a reference after it, but this is an anomaly in an otherwise well-referenced document

I count these as minor infringements and I will just mark these up with a comment asking the student to provide the reference, add inverted commas or rewrite the sentences in their own words.

I should mention here that I offer to re-check up to 10% of the total word count after rewrites; this feels fair to my student clients and I’ve never had anyone ask me to re-check as much as that: if it happens, it’s usually about 1%.

Red flags in referencing

Unfortunately, I do come across student texts (and this is not limited to students: have encountered web text and even books lifted from other sources without reference) where the following occurs:

  • What is clearly a direct quotation which has not been placed in inverted commas, even if it’s got a reference after it, happening multiple times
  • What is clearly a direct quotation which has not been placed in inverted commas AND it hasn’t got a reference after it, and this is happening multiple times, even pages and pages worth of direct quotations from other sources
  • A section in a different colour or font where no attempt has been made to hide this has come from elsewhere
  • A section where the client has either added a comment or put it in a particular colour and asked me to rewrite what is clearly a direct quote from elsewhere (this is thankfully rare)

How do I tell when something’s a direct quote that the student hasn’t either referenced or written themselves?

  • The standard of English changes, sometimes subtly, sometimes very obviously
  • The type of English changes (US to UK, s to z spellings, and vice versa)
  • Referencing within that section is markedly different to that within the student’s own work
  • It’s in a different colour or font

How do I check if text is not written by the student?

Google is my friend here? I take a sentence, pop it in Google and see where it came from. My suspicion that it’s someone else’s text are usually correct.

Sending feedback to the student and their supervisor

I try to be kind here. The student may be under a lot of pressure, or may not have understood how to do referencing. I will guide them to ask their supervisor or any support they have in the department or their university library.

It’s at this point that my articles on the two kinds of plagiarism coincide. if you’re following along with this series in real time, I’ve already written about what to feed back to the student and their supervisor and how to do it, so as to avoid making you wait for the punchline by doing it the other way round.

So to find out my good practice in contacting students and their supervisors over the risk of plagiarism, please see this article.

Related posts on this blog:

Student at risk of plagiarism 2: What do you do when the editor is at risk of changing too much?

Student at risk of plagiarism 3: Sending feedback to your student client and their supervisor

Plagiarism in business texts

On plagiarism

How to quote sources without plagiarising

Referencing for academic writing

Choosing a proofreader – student edition

My terms and conditions

Why has my proofreader not edited my bibliography?

On (not) crossing the line

 

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Student at risk of plagiarism 3: Giving feedback to your student client and their supervisor

text with tracked changesWhat do you do when you detect a risk of plagiarism in a student text and you need to give feedback to the student and possibly their supervisor? How do you stop a student feeling accused? How do you get confirmation from the supervisor that what you’re doing is acceptable by their institution?

In this post for editors working with student texts, I share the good practice I’ve developed over my ten years in operation when dealing with the two kinds of plagiarism I encounter in student work:

  • Plagiarism conducted directly by a student who does not reference or credit quotations, results and theories (therefore passing other people’s work off as their own)
  • Plagiarism that arises when you as the editor are doing far too many corrections and effectively risking co-writing the text (therefore risking the student passing your work off as their own)

I will write about these two risks of plagiarism in two further articles which I will link to here when they’re published. I’m publishing this one first to avoid leaving readers who are reading along dangling, as this article covers both types of plagiarism and is referenced at the ends of both articles as the end point of their processes.

What do I do if I encounter or risk enabling plagiarism?

Once I’ve realised a text is at risk of plagiarism (and in my experience, both kinds often come together in a text), I will follow these levels of action/escalation:

  1. Stop working on the text*
  2. Contact the student client immediately
    1. Explain what the problem is
    2. Offer solutions the client can use (go through the text, find where you’re missing references or need to show direct quotes/reference and insert those, etc.)
  3. The student client will get back to me with one of two answers
    1. “I will amend the text and send it back to you”. If that happens, great, and if they’ve done it correctly, I carry on working on the text
    2. “It’s OK, just rewrite the direct quotes”/”Just make the changes to my sentences, my tutor says it’s OK”. If that happens, I go to step 4
  4. It’s time to stop the work or ask for contact from the supervisor:
    1. If 3. i has occurred, I reiterate that the student must write direct quotes in their own words and I can’t do that for them. If an impasse is reached, I state I cannot work on the text any more and invoice the student client.**
    2. If 3. ii has occurred, I ask the student to provide me with evidence that their supervisor has approved the level of work I need to do on the text
      1. I send the student the text that I have amended so far, asking them to present that to their supervisor (I might in an extreme case save this as a PDF to prevent them accepting all changes and then just going and using someone else for the next part)
      2. I ask for either a letter from the tutor on headed paper OR a direct email from the supervisor instructing me to do this work. I leave this up to the student to do. This helps them not feel I’m reporting on them (as I say in Part 2, this is often down to stress, pressure or lack of understanding rather than explicit wrongdoing) and it saves me having to try to contact the supervisor myself.
  5. Depending on what I hear from the supervisor, conclude the work relationship or continue working:
    1. If I hear back from the supervisor in the negative, I stop work, invoice the client and keep the letter from the supervisor for a period of time
    2. If I hear back that I can continue, I continue with the work, present it to the client and save the tutor’s letter with the work files

* I have a statement in my terms and conditions that I will invoice for any work done before I detect plagiarism. I charge by the word, so I check the word count and invoice based on that.

** I will always suggest to the student that they contact their student support services, often attached to their department or library, who can give help with language issues and referencing procedures. I see my role as helping, not blaming or punishing the student for their mistake.

This article has outlined what I do to provide feedback to the student client and their supervisor when I encounter plagiarism in student work. My resources this website about plagiarism are listed below. Do comment if you use another good method or have used this one with success.

Related posts on this blog:

Student at risk of plagiarism 1: When the referencing is missing

Student at risk of plagiarism 2: When the editor is at risk of doing too much

Plagiarism in business texts

On plagiarism

How to quote sources without plagiarising

Referencing for academic writing

Choosing a proofreader – student edition

My terms and conditions

Why has my proofreader not edited my bibliography?

On (not) crossing the line

 

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Being kind: coopetition versus competition

Being kind: coopetition versus competition

It’s been a difficult year, with feelings, especially political ones, running high, and society seeming to fracture. There are a lot of unknowns out there, and when faced with the unknown, people tend to huddle together with the familiar, fearing or lashing out against those not of their “tribe”, whatever their tribe might be.

It’s no different with small businesses. I see a lot of people and industries that seem afraid of bonding with their competitors to offer more to customers; who see everyone in their line of business as a threat. I’m not saying that there’s more than enough work to go round; what I’m saying is that behaving kindly towards your competitors might see you doing better with your business.

Here are some tips.

Talk to your competitors; network

How do you know who to trust? I’ve found the fellow editors I trust and recommend on to through friendship groups, friends of (editing) friends on social media and networking. Even I shy away from recommending clients to unknowns, but get to know people, chat to them about your industry, help them out and let them help you. In this way, you can build up a network of people who can support you, and who you can recommend clients to.

Rather than saying no straight out, recommend on

It happens to all of us: feast and famine. If you have a lot of work on, too much to take on that extra client, why not recommend them on to a trusted colleague? They will think better of you if you find them someone to work with rather than just saying no and leaving them to get on with it. Maybe your name will pop into their mind when they have the next job.

Help the client find their best fit

If a prospect comes to you with a particular type of work that isn’t your best offering, recommend them on to someone who will be a great fit. I don’t do a lot of fiction editing now, and certainly don’t edit certain genres. I will always seek to recommend the prospect on to someone else who I know will do a better job, making it clear that this is not where my specialism lies, but making sure they know what I do. Hopefully the warm, fuzzy feeling of being sent on to someone who can help will extend over into remembering me when they have that piece of work that’s better suited to me.

Reciprocity and karma

Even if those prospects you’ve recommended on don’t come back to you, I’m pretty well certain that the person you recommended them on to will do likewise when they’re busy or confronted with something in which you excel. I know this has happened for me.

Cover clients without stealing them

A friend and I cover each other’s regular clients when one of us is on holiday (this of course means that if we meet up with each other, all hell tends to let loose …) We wouldn’t dream of stealing those clients, of poaching clients, saying, “Why don’t you stay with me now”. What a relief to know you can go on holiday – or be ill – and have someone to look after – but not steal – your regulars!

If you’re nasty about a competitor, it’s likely to backfire on you

I’ve seen a few examples of either direct nastiness about a competitor’s services or people scoring points in industry forums. What I’ll say here is that if a potential customer or partner sees that kind of behaviour, I think they’re going to be much less likely to buy from you, and would be less likely to recommend you to others. If we’re in the same industry, I wouldn’t be inclined to pass work on to you.

This goes for being nasty about customers, too

Yes, we all need to let off steam, and have private places to do that. If you’re rude about a customer in public, you may well make people wonder how discreet you’re going to be about any work you do for them (what if they needed to do a return after a genuine problem?) and I’d have concerns about anyone I’d send over to you.

Be kind. Work with people not against them. Help others out.

That’s it, really. It’s just my thoughts, gleaned from 7 years in business working out how it all works: it’s called coopetition when people cooperate and work together rather than in conflict. I’ve felt happier and more comfortable working in this way, and I also know that people will recommend clients over to me and I can take the odd holiday!

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2016 in Business, Ethics

 

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Medalling, podiuming and singular they

Of course this isn't exactly what "medalling" means

Of course this isn’t exactly what “medalling” means

Languages change. If languages didn’t change, we’d be speaking like Chaucer, British and American English would be identical, or we’d still be using words like “chairman”, “crippled”, “omnibus” and all sorts. We also wouldn’t have a way to describe “selfies”, “Brexit” or “omnishambles”.

The verbs formed from nouns, “medalling” and “podiuming” have been heard again recently, as they are every four years in an event whose name is controlled so closely you’re not supposed to go around mentioning it in blog posts. Lots of people have been complaining about these, saying it’s an erosion of the English language, etc., etc.

Now, I’m one for making sure we retain two words with a close but not identical meaning in order to be able to distinguish between different concepts or things. But in this case, it’s not taking away the distinction between two different things, it’s just adding another word to say the same thing. And we form words in all sorts of ways – by blending, shortening, lengthening them and shifting the part of speech they belong to. Once, we weren’t even allowed to start sentences with and or but …

The other wordy thing I wanted to mention briefly was singular they. This is something editors and other wordy people are still arguing – quite bitterly – about. “They” used to be used just as a plural. But, just as we’ve removed words like chairman and dustman from the language to cover the fact that different genders of people do different jobs, over recent years there’s been an acceptance that binary genders – the idea that everyone is either “he” or “she”, has joined up with a common dislike of the clumsiness of using “he” and “she” in alternate chapters or “he/she”, “s/he”, etc. to promote the use of singular “they”, i.e. the use of “they” to refer to one person in the singular. An example would be, “When someone gets to the front of the queue, they should go to the first available window”.

Now, some people rail against this change, but I think that it can be made to work grammatically, it gets rid of clumsiness and it doesn’t exclude people to whom, for whatever reason, it’s not appropriate to refer using binary gender wording. This is standard in my editing, although I’d never make this kind of change without consultation if it appeared more than very sporadically.

I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind here; I’m just setting out my stall. These are my personal opinions, but these are interesting topics to think about and they’ve been at the front of my mind recently. Thank you for reading!

I generally talk about word stuff in my Troublesome Pairs posts which do distinguish meanings between pairs or triplets of words. Have a look at the index here!

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2016 in Be careful, Errors, Ethics, 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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