It's September – which means a new term, a new start, and time for the Society for Editors and Proofreaders’ annual conference!
The SfEP conference is an intense weekend of discussion and learning about the art, craft and business of editing and proofreading, attended by newcomers to the profession and old hands alike. I went to the conference last year for the first time, and was surprised and impressed: the atmosphere was welcoming, and the experience invigorating. Would this year's event, to be held in Lancaster, be as good?
First impressions of the accommodation were not entirely positive. A bumpy bed and a shower that flooded the compact ensuite bathroom did not make for the most comfortable lodgings. But there was no time to quibble: speed networking was about to start! What a way to break the ice. In less than an hour, I met and chatted to seven editors, all from different backgrounds (nursing, finance, business, fiction, manuscript evaluation, travel, music) – a reminder that we all bring something unique to the job, and have much to share with and learn from one another. Sarah, Pip, Victoria, Agnès, Catherine, Eleanor and Melanie, it was great to meet you all!
Having become a Professional Member of the society earlier in the year, I had voting rights at the SfEP AGM, which was next on the agenda. Business was conducted smoothly, retiring directors were thanked and warmly applauded, new ones were elected, and I was struck both by the calm efficiency of the proceedings and by the huge amount of work that the directors do, voluntarily, for the society every year.
After that, I had a rehearsal to go to. The Linnets, official conference songsters, needed to put the finishing touches to The Editor’s Psalm, which was to be premiered at the conference dinner the next day. Being a music bod, I had had a hand in preparing the score and parts, along with Melanie Thompson and Sarah Patey, setting Julia Sandford-Cooke’s superb words to some carefully chosen chants (courtesy of my organist friend, Gregory Oboe). Notes were bashed, rhythms were accented; Karen Cox provided keyboard support. Never underestimate the power of singing in a choir – it frees the mind of worry, floods the system with endorphins and works up an appetite. And off to dinner (and quiz) we went.
Theme and variations
The conference proper started the next day. The theme was Education, education, education. Parallel sessions were scheduled across the whole weekend to cater for the volume of information to be shared, which meant that I had to make some hard choices. I decided to forgo Kia Thomas’s sweary session on how to style rude words – which I sincerely hope she runs again at some point – but made up for it with the lightning talks (of which more later). Live tweeting from Anna Nicholson (@axnicho), Louise Bolotin (@louisebolotin ) and Liz Jones (@ljedit) helped a great deal to fill in the gaps from sessions on editing erotic fiction, corpus linguistics, editing theses and dissertations, working in an editorial collective, e-Editing, and many others that I had to miss.
I work mainly in non-fiction, for businesses, public bodies, academic institutions and others, so Luke Finley and Laura Ripper’s talk on plain English for editors was a must. We discussed causes and symptoms of unclear text (my favourite was 'smothering' verbs, which I'll write about another time), identified reasons for using plain English (empowering people, making information accessible, saving the writer time and money, even saving lives), and spent time disentangling some convoluted examples of very un-plain English that had us all scratching our heads. The essence of the session for me was that plain English does not patronise the reader or 'dumb down' the writer's message; rather, the opposite – it helps the reader find the information they need, helps them to understand it, and helps them to use what they have learned. All of which has to be good for business. I'll be looking out for Luke and Laura's SfEP course on plain English when it goes live in the coming months.
After lunch (a slightly odd red cabbage slaw with tagine; or was it the other way round?), I was off to Paul Beverley’s session What can macros do for you? Paul is the maestro of macros and has an infectious enthusiasm for these nuggets of computer code that speed up the mechanical aspects of editing. Dry, you might think. Anything but. His message was simple: don’t be afraid! Paul’s own macros, over 600 of them, are available FOR FREE and are as easy to install and run as an app would be on your smartphone. (After the conference, I had reason to use his ProperNounAlyse macro, among others, on a text full of Irish names; it saved me hours of work and improved my accuracy enormously – worth the conference fee on its own.)
The lightning talks, as you might expect, packed a punch. Twelve speakers, in five minutes each, gave us glimpses of other editorial worlds: from captions on Science Museum exhibits to tomes of board game rules; from musings on the Manhattan High Line (and reflections on one’s individual editorial path) to wonderings and wanderings of another kind – those of the digital nomad. Melanie Thompson reported on the results of her recent 'Proofreading 2020' survey, but didn't reveal all (we'll have to wait for the book); and Gail Winskill had to wing it, beset by technical glitches, through her talk on ... you guessed it, making a career out of 'Winging It'. By turns fascinating, funny and thought-provoking, these short flashes of brilliance may just have been my favourite part of the conference.
An hour later, a speedy warm-up, some vocal lubrication (ahem), and the Linnets took to the stage as the prelude to the conference dinner. Howard Walwyn and Ian Spackman were heroic as the only basses (Howard, you will be sorely missed next year). Julia's words went down a storm. The words are what matter, after all, to a room full of editors. But context is important, too, so I'll share what was a private joke: the third chant was Levavi oculos ('I will lift up mine eyes'), a nod to the many eye-rolling moments there are in an editor’s daily wrangle with text. It made me smile, anyway.
And so to Day 2. Louise Harnby’s session on building a brilliant editorial brand, complete with personalised chocolate bribe (mine was a Bounty), needed to hit the mark to pep me up after another bumpy night in the student bed and another breakfast on cold plates. Which it did: great advice (identify your editorial ‘nemesis’ and work out from that the kind of editor you really are), combined with her hallmark friendliness and encouragement and a really helpful question-and-answer session, got each of us – even the branding-phobic – thinking about ways to define and refine our unique business 'flavour'.
I had planned a gap in my conference schedule at this point. I thought I might need time out to think, maybe to catch up on notes. But there was a space available in Denise Cowle’s session on the healthy editor, so I headed for that (Bounty in hand). Denise started with physical health – correct posture at the desk (whether standing or sitting), taking breaks, stretching exercises for chest, neck and back, and screen amnesties (gasp!). She moved on to talk about a healthy mindset (if you say 'yes' to a project, does that mean saying ‘no’ to the family? to a walk round the block? to peace of mind?); and finished by reminding us that it's healthier to ask ‘Can I?’ than to say ‘I can’t’ to the things that challenge us.
Speaking of challenges, Kathryn Munt, of the Publishing Training Centre (PTC), presented a sobering plenary session on important changes in the publishing profession, specifically outsourcing and its implications for freelance editors, proofreaders and indexers. As publishers push more and more of the traditional publishing functions offshore and insist on ever tighter budgetary restraint, the potential for quality to be sacrificed is very high. We will all – freelancers and in-house staff, publishers and 'outsourcees' – need to adapt to these changes which, as Kathryn reminded us, are happening right now. Let's hope we can do it together.
Sarah Grey's talk, Inclusive language: the ethics of conscious editing, was the closing session of the conference for me. Her three bullet points – that inclusive language is about etiquette (being kind, giving a good service), ethics (doing right by both client and reader), and customer focus (which speaks for itself) – neatly summarised my thoughts on editing in general. I'm still developing my own sensitivity to potentially hurtful language in the texts I edit, and I took away a long list of things to consider in future (is everyone identified equally? is the language condescending? is the terminology accurate? is the description of a person relevant?). Ultimately, Sarah's message was simple: inclusive language brings the reader in; exclusive language pushes them away. And we're not in the business of pushing readers away.
So was it as good as last year's conference? A resounding yes! (Especially as I won a stonking raffle prize, pictured below.)
More to the point, what did I learn?