by Michael McCann
Before becoming a proofreader, copywriter and editor, my first job after university was that of an Academic Coordinator at a small private university in charge of the undergraduate Freshman intake for eight Faculties and the allocation of the scholarship fund. My only writing was to see to the preparation of course brochures. What is perfectly clear in one’s mind can frequently be at odds with the fact that other people think differently and printers have not just a vocabulary of their own, taken from a centuries-past jargon of publishing, but a way of doing their own thing in their own time!
My first job was an enlightening experience in that it taught me that business (even the business of education), just as editing in later life, involves three steps: Preparation, Process and Delivery.
An axiom is a self‑evident truth, and in the business of editing business texts, there are four business editing ‘axioms’.
The whole concept of editing a business text is akin to making a jigsaw puzzle. One has to first find the four corner pieces and work inwards thereafter. Once the outlying parameters are in place, a start has been made. What are these four corner pieces, these four axioms?
1. Know the client, who is always right (perhaps!), and agree to deal with one person, not with a committee.
2. Know with humility your own limitations and the fields in which you operate.
3. Agree with the utmost clarity (claritas in omnibus!) with the client the time frame needed for delivery of the final text; the fee for the job or the rate per word if staggered sections of the text are to arrive; the language variant and spelling of your native tongue; and the format of the source text and of the target text, if different.
4. Prepare a Job Sheet of what has to be done. Do not rely on your unfailing memory. The Job Sheet will record a specific number for the project; the date and time when you received the job; the date and time when you confirmed matters to the client; the client’s contact person; their business name and address(es); phone and mobile numbers; VAT number; website; email address(es); format of the originals; format for the target text; number of pages; number of words; rate or fee agreed; discount for regular clients to show your appreciation for repeat work; the date and time of delivery; the number of the invoice raised; and in due course, the date on which the invoice is actually paid.
One must take a very broad‑church acceptance of the word ‘editing’. The client’s instructions are generally nowadays in an email with the request to ‘check’ the attached text. The nuances of proofing, copy‑editing and editing proper are totally lost on the majority of business clients, for some of whom the use of the newly discovered spellchecker appears to be magic.
If the above can be observed, the Process of business editing can begin.
There are different steps to take in editing a document, which nowadays usually arrives electronically as an email attachment. All electronic documents require the same first step which is to clearly name the file received as the ‘original’. The editor will make an immediate working copy with an appropriate different suffix.
It is important not to rename the client’s document, as it may well have a code or recognisable name built into its nomenclature. By having a working copy, the editor will never suffer the misfortune of overwriting the client’s original. In a second step, the editor will follow the client’s instructions, which can be the simple command ‘Please check the attached document’.
The text may range from simple business correspondence or newsletters, to lengthier brochures or guides to working rules and regulations. It is the editor’s job to make the client look the client’s best. Nothing of the substance must be changed, but after a simple check of the variant of the English language (normally UK English) which the client requires and ensuring that the entire document has been saved in that correct language variant, an initial spellcheck should be carried out.
Unless a cascading style sheet (a .CSS) has been received from the client, the business editor is free to choose a readable size of a standard modern font, choosing clear margins for the text, knowing that the text will be office-printed, or sent for publication to a professional printer, who will have received a separate set of client instructions.
A second skill which the business editor can employ is to use simple words to express simple thoughts. Plain English is not just a writing movement, but very often sound common sense. The editor must always be aware that the modern reader is generally incapable of reading paragraphs of more than a hundred and fifty words without losing interest.
An increasing annoying trend in business writing is the incorrect use of capital (upper-case) letters and worse still the writing of entire sentences if not paragraphs in capital letters. Incorrect usage is more a question of lack of education and an attempt to appear more learned than the writer really is. Entire paragraphs in capital letters have a more subtle reasoning behind them. The human eye for some reason has difficulty reading such written matter, and in the past, it has been a clever ploy for some legal and insurance documents to be so written with the intention that the reader will avoid reading such texts altogether.
The business editor will apply two virtues, with a light touch, in equal measure to the improvement of business texts, namely patience and polish, steadily advancing towards the final stage of the work, namely the Delivery of the final or clean text (plus invoice).
There is a Latin adage which mandates festina lente – hasten slowly. Many an editor has come a cropper by rushing the final steps in the editing of a business text. Business people love to have deadlines – not a bad thing in general or as an aim in life, but a bad thing specifically if an editor allows a deadline to be imposed by the client who has no idea of the ins and outs and timelines of our bread-and-butter métier.
It is one of the reasons why a text should never be delivered at the end of the working day, but rather should be left to rest overnight.
A final run of PerfectIT or other editing software which has been customised to all one’s most brilliant ideas in conformity with internationally agreed style sheets, and a final spellcheck of the correct language variant will ensure overall conformity.
Most clients simply want the text not just to be well edited, but to look well. A personal tip is to always to view the text as Multiple Pages onscreen. This will immediately show up any widow or orphan lines, or unexpected blank lines at the top of a page, or incorrect headers. A second tip, unless it has been forbidden by the client’s instructions, is to justify the text so that nothing can accidentally be inserted at the end of a line. It also gives a neat and tidy expression to the client’s initial draft and shows clearly that things have been changed for the better.
Most deliveries are made in Microsoft Word nowadays, as opposed to a technically unchangeable portable document format (.pdf), and this is a happy event. Why? Because in all one’s years of experience, there is not a client, or a client’s manager, or a client’s staff member, who will not change a comma or a word, delete a sentence, amend a paragraph, and so on. And why is this a happy event for the editor? Simply because this exonerates the business editor from any further responsibility or professional liability over the text. In a word, the text amended by the client – and the business editor must never object to this – becomes another text which is not the one submitted by the editor.
In business editing, there can be just one last thought. A goodly portion of our lives is taken up with just trying to live and support a lifestyle. However, the school of hard knocks is the melting pot where all our editing skills, be they in business or other editing, are put to the daily test.
Michael McCann is an editor, proofreader and translator living in Celbridge, Co. Kildare. A former treasurer of AFEPI, former chair of the Irish Writers’ Centre and of the Irish Translators and Interpreters’ Association, he specialises in business and financial documents as well as the transcreation of translated texts.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AFEPI Ireland.