by Pamela Smith
As a freelance proofreader and copy-editor, I am used to the ebb and flow of work. It has its frustrations, of course – as with the proverbial buses, you get nothing for a while and then several suitable jobs all come at once – but I have learnt to cope with that by building admin, marketing and other necessary evils into the gaps, and by learning to enjoy the flexibility that being a freelancer brings. Sometimes I even plan the gaps, to allow time for some CPD (continuing professional development), of which more later.
My experience of the Covid-19 lockdown has been different, though. Work seemed to dry up overnight. At first, I noticed but tried not to worry: there were enough other things to fret about, after all, and heightened anxiety does not help anyone’s productivity. And, as I said, it goes with the job and I was used to it. But this felt different. A number of editors, including Liz Jones and Hazel Bird, responded to the ‘unprecedented situation’ of the pandemic by reflecting on issues other than editing, such as protecting mental health at times of crisis, supporting one another to keep projects moving when timetables go to pot, or just being kind to ourselves when work is unavoidably affected by drastically altered circumstances.
My work drought lasted eight weeks, and during that time I did start to become concerned, not just at the prospect of less work but also at the thought that I would get out of practice.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.
Before becoming a proofreader and copy-editor, I worked in music. (I still keep my hand in, running a small chamber music organisation in Belfast.) Many musicians saw their motivation (not to mention their incomes) evaporate in the pandemic-induced absence of opportunities to make music with and for other people. One needs a goal, a sense of purpose. (My brother, a violinist with the London Mozart Players, wrote about the difficulty and distress of not knowing what he is ‘for’ when he can’t make music.)
At home, my husband started to produce online concerts for one of the brass bands he conducts in his spare time. Something was needed to fill the void of cancelled rehearsals, concerts and contests. Rather than jump on the bandwagon of public, Zoom-laden virtual ensembles, he encouraged each band member to record a solo piece, at home, on their phone. He stitched the programmes together from the individual recordings to create short broadcasts for band members to view together, remotely, at a set time using a private link.
The concerts have been fun to watch. Through them, the band have also been reminded of their sense of community, one of the things that has been so sorely missed by many people in the isolation of lockdown. Crucially, the concerts have galvanised people into getting their instruments out of their cases again. Like any highly skilled activity, playing an instrument well requires practice (as the old Carnegie Hall joke reminds us), not just to achieve a high standard but to maintain it. Without it, your hands lose strength, your muscles lose memory, your fingers lose elasticity, and your mind loses focus. If you’re a brass player, you lose your lip.
Over the weeks of my work hiatus, I started to worry that I might lose my editorial ‘lip’. Proofreading and editing are highly skilled professions. Loving books, knowing grammar ‘rules’ or being great at spelling are not enough: professional editors and proofreaders undertake specialist training, which is continuously refined, extended and deepened through experience, through CPD, through mentorship, through discussion (even disagreement) with other editorial professionals – and through the development of specific techniques that underpin the execution of our craft. To become fluent in those techniques, and to use them in a way that is flexible and responsive to context, takes practice.
Choosing priorities: what to practise and why
It’s one thing to need to practise, and another thing to want to (as most parents of instrument-learning children know). I could think of plenty of techniques to work on and new areas of specialism to explore, but I needed to find motivation. There was no equivalent to the virtual concert to galvanise me to practise editing or proofreading in the absence of work.
When you have time on your hands and no specific, short-term goal, it can be hard to decide what to prioritise. CPD opportunities abound: even when classroom-based activity is not an option, an extraordinary amount and variety of content is available, especially now that so many courses have moved online. Like many editors, I keep a wish list of training courses that amounts to a rough plan of continuing learning – but which to choose at any given time?
Belonging to an editorial community, made up of supportive and energising networks of editorial professionals, such as AFEPI Ireland and the CIEP, has been a great help. I came across Sara Donaldson’s suggestions about how to prioritise when faced with CPD choices.
Music practice happens within a piece and around it. You work to perfect a passage in the music, in context, but you also use separate targeted exercises to improve a particular aspect of technique – agility or strength, for example – that will feed into your playing of the music. Practice needs to be focused and relevant. If I was going to practise an aspect of editing, I wanted to focus on something that would be relevant to my existing clients and give me a new skill to offer to new clients in due course (especially if the work drought was to continue). My motivation, in the end, was practical: what training would be useful to me now, and how would it benefit my clients?
I work almost exclusively in non-fiction, with academics, students, public sector bodies, arts organisations and businesses. It’s a stimulating mixture. Although the material varies enormously (recent jobs have included an article on tuning systems for bagpipes and a social housing website), the writers often face the same issues. These might include communicating specialist information to non-specialist readers; combining accuracy and technical language with approachability; and articulating a complex argument clearly and persuasively. In turn, the texts can share similar problems, such as impenetrable academese, wordiness or jargon.
A course on Plain English had been on my wish list for a while. Coincidentally, a couple of recent blogs on the subject underlined the relevance of Plain English, especially now (did I mention these ‘unprecedented times’?) when there is particular public need for clear, unambiguous information and advice. For example, Claire Beveridge wrote about the importance of Plain English for communicating scientific information. (AFEPI Ireland’s Mary McCauley has also written an informative blog about Plain English, including some useful suggestions for further reading.)
Plain English editors Luke Finley and Laura Ripper had jointly presented a session on the subject at an SfEP (now CIEP) conference a couple of years ago, which I attended, and have since produced an online course. For me, it was the right course at the right time. I’m about halfway through: the course is giving me food for thought, new knowledge, and new editorial techniques (shortening sentences, identifying and avoiding ‘hidden’ verbs, re-wording using everyday language). It is helping me to hone skills that I know I will be able to use immediately to help the kinds of clients I work with. I can see its relevance to potential future clients, too. Plain English doesn’t just facilitate communication: it can help people to engage, improve inclusivity and empower people.
On a personal level, the course is also giving me just what I needed – a series of editing exercises to do. It’s helping me to keep my lip in.
Pamela Smith is a proofreader and copy-editor based in Belfast. She has 30 years’ experience of working in music and the arts. She established PS Proofreading in 2016 and works in a variety of fields including the arts, humanities and social sciences, and on business and corporate documents. She is a full member of AFEPI Ireland, a member of EPANI and a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading. Connect with Pam on Twitter (@psproofreading), Facebook (@psproofreading) or via her website at psproofreading.com.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of AFEPI Ireland.