Eva van Emden, Freelance Editor

Certified Copy Editor and Proofreader

eva@vancouvereditor.com

June 4, 2021

Perfectionism and editing: getting unstuck

I recently attended an Editors Canada webinar “Taming the Inner Perfectionist” by Suzy Bills. Perfectionism is common among editors, and it has its good side: motivation to do great work, and its bad side: fear of failure. Bills outlined a wise strategy for setting realistic expectations and at the same time supporting yourself so that you can do the best work possible. In particular, the discussion of how perfectionism can lead to procrastination made me think about what makes me procrastinate on a project.

For me, editing insecurity sometimes strikes at the start and finish of the project, and it can lead to inefficiency. At the start of the project sometimes I find it difficult to prioritize all of the tasks, or I feel as if I have to decide every possible style issue before starting to edit the first page. At the end of the project, I’m tempted to re-check my work or I worry that I’ve forgotten to do something.

Getting started

My two main strategies for getting going on a new project when I’m feeling some uncertainty are building momentum and reducing the pressure. This is how I build momentum:
  • Starting with housekeeping tasks such as adding the client and project to my spreadsheet and time tracking software. These routine tasks are soothing, make me feel I’m making progress, and build confidence by reminding me of my past successes.
  • Starting a project notes document with any special instructions from the client. This is a way to break the project down into tasks and gives me confidence that I won’t forget a crucial requirement.
  • Doing easy tasks in the manuscript: removing extra spaces and paragraph breaks, setting the correct styles and formatting on the body text and headings. Again, these are easy tasks that make progress. Not only does it make sense to do them first, but they also give me a sense of familiarity with the manuscript.
To reduce the pressure, I often do the following:
  • Tell myself that I’ll return to the first chapter to check my work and make sure it is consistent with the editing in the rest of the manuscript.
  • Write down tasks to do later and questions that arise on a to-do list in the project notes file so that I don’t get bogged down making too many decisions or worry about forgetting to do something later. Many decisions are easier to make once I’ve seen more of the manuscript, and if the question is written down, I can move on.
  • If I feel I’m working very slowly on a particular task or section of the manuscript, I turn off my work timer to remove the pressure to work “fast enough.” Once I finish the task, I can judge how much time I think it should have taken and log that.

Delivering the work

At the end of the project, it can be hard to let go. At this point, being systematic about making sure I’ve met all of the job requirements builds my confidence that I’m delivering good work. I use notes and to-do lists to keep things from falling through the cracks.
  • I check my project notes file or the client’s original email for special instructions about delivery (and invoicing).
  • Most importantly, I go through my to-do list in the project notes file to make sure all tasks are completed. At a minimum, my to-do list generally has reminders to check the table of contents, reread all of the comments in the file, and spell check. Ticking off the items gives me confidence that the work is finished.
  • Other checklists: the client may have a house checklist, especially for proofreading. I also have a standard checklist for proofreading that I go through.

February 10, 2021

From Contact to Contract: How Editors Get Clients to Work with Them

From Contact to Contract: How Editors Get Clients to Work with Them, edited by Karin Cather, is the first in Editors Canada’s new series on the business of editing. In this short book, nine highly experienced editors offer their advice and perspectives on how to find clients and build agreements with them. Some of the topics covered include the following:
  • Cold calling
  • Networking
  • Applying for jobs effectively
  • Building a relationship with a prospective client, including ways to build trust
  • When and how to do a sample edit
  • Deciding whether to accept a client or refer them to a colleague
  • Estimating a project

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Evaluating the client
  3. How to respond to potential clients: Three case studies
  4. How to impress a client from the first email
  5. Considering the client’s needs
  6. Choosing clients based on mutual interests
  7. Sample edits: Are they necessary and should you charge for them?
  8. From another author’s perspective
  9. Closing the sale: A semi-cautionary tale
  10. Not closing the sale
  11. Conclusion
The book isn’t a textbook of how-to instructions for these skills, but instead focuses on strategies for making the best use of your time and showing yourself to your best advantage. I would recommend it for intermediate to advanced editors who are looking for ideas about how to sharpen up their business practices. I found a number of ideas for things I could do better.

Available as a paperback or ebook.

January 12, 2021

The Art and Science of Editing

“The Art and Science of Editing” is one of the courses in the Poynter ACES Certificate in Editing, an excellent and affordable introduction to editing. Here are some notes from when I took the course a few years ago.

Who are you editing for?

Know your readers, boss, self, publication, and writer.

What is editing?

Making things better.
  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the goal?
  • What is the reader hearing? Can the reader hear what the writer is saying? If background information is missing, or the writer is using language that the reader can’t understand easily, the message won’t get through.

Hippocratic oath of editing

  1. Don’t go looking for errors, because when you’re looking for errors, you’re not experiencing the writing in the way a reader does. Most readers are looking for information, not for errors to pounce on. Instead, pay attention to what happens when you read. Alertness and healthy skepticism are good, but suspicion is the wrong attitude.
  2. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
  3. A good doctor leaves few visible scars. Try to be invisible.

Changing versus editing

A change is something you want to do. An edit allows the copy to meet the needs of the reader. An edit focuses on the reader, but a change is done for convenience, or to conform with a rule. A habit of making changes is what can give editors a bad reputation sometimes.

Ask yourself:

  1. What is it that bothers me? What’s the fix that does the minimum damage?
  2. Does the rule I’m applying actually fit here? For example, a reporter whose style guide mandated using “to dismiss” instead of “to fire” changed a reference to “Last hired, first fired” policy to “Last hired, first dismissed,” applying a rule inappropriately.

Did you make it better?

  • You don’t have to make changes to justify your existence.
  • Compare the text before and after. This is one of the reasons you should use track changes.
  • Look at it fresh. Make another pass, and consider changing the font, letter size, or format you help you see the text afresh.
  • Look at the effect of the change. Did it introduce an error?
  • Don’t congratulate yourself—you’ll miss the next problem.

Keeping a good relationship with the writer

  • Don’t be aggressive or defensive.
  • Start with a compliment.
  • Don’t let it get personal: talk in terms of the copy and the reader. Avoid saying “you wrote” because another editor may have introduced that wording. Avoid saying “I fixed” because that means it was broken. Say, “The story says this.”
  • Always have a suggestion ready. “Could we make it say X?”
  • Use language that the writer understands. Avoid technical grammatical terms.

Negotiating changes with the writer

  • It’s OK to make some concessions for the sake of preserving your relationship with the author, as long as it doesn’t hurt the reader.
  • Start with the easy stuff, like clear-cut errors like typos and spelling mistakes.
  • Once you’ve built some confidence, move on to less obvious errors. Be prepared to let some of these go. Maybe you’re wrong about them.
  • Save the most difficult issues for last.
  • In a tie, the writer always wins. The writer is the one whose name and reputation are on the line. Never be the editor who makes changes behind the writer’s back.

Empathy

Try to put yourself in the writer’s place: understand what they’re trying to do, and when you make edits, do them the way the writer would.

Editor’s role

Aim to be respected, not liked or feared. The editor is the writer’s safety net or spotter. The editor stands up for the reader.

January 22, 2018

Editing for accessibility: Editors BC

At the last Editors BC monthly meeting, Iva Cheung gave a fascinating presentation about editing for accessibility. To begin with, she made an important point about how to look at this issue: instead of seeing accessibility as being about making accommodations for certain groups, she prefers to think of it as being about removing barriers for everyone.

The basics

Some ways to improve accessibility are fairly well known:
  • Watch out for small fonts and low colour contrast. And when you provide documents on the web, make sure they still work if readers magnify the text size or change the background colour.
  • Don’t rely on colour as the only way to convey important information.
  • Add captions or transcripts to videos. Transcripts have the added benefit of making the video content indexable by search engines.
Weather hazard map in colour Weather hazard map with red-green colour-blindness filter applied
Storm danger levels by region. The image on the right simulates what someone with reduced red-green colour perception sees: it is difficult to distinguish between the highest and lowest danger levels.

Reducing cognitive load

Cognitive load refers to the amount of effort it takes to understand something. For some readers, small changes in cognitive load can have a big effect. In her amazing article “The Spoon Theory,” Christine Miserandino explains that people with chronic illness have to budget their energy very carefully. If a document is hard to access and understand, it may be too expensive in time and energy for some readers. You can reduce cognitive load by keeping documents short and well organized, and by using plain language. Plain language, which is too big a topic cover here, is a well-defined set of guidelines for clear writing, based on knowledge of how people process language.

Screen readers

People who are visually impaired or who have reading disabilities often use screen readers. Consider the following points to make sure a screen reader will read your text correctly:
  • Use the correct symbol in your text. A minus sign looks like an en dash, but the screen reader will read them differently.
  • Consider using words instead of symbols. “Approximately 5 grams” will be read correctly, while “~5 g” may not.
  • Check that the reader reads the document elements in the correct order. In a PDF file with multiple columns, a screen reader may read straight across.
If your audience is likely to be using a screen reader on the document, run the document through a screen reader.

The web

HTML provides reflowable text so that users can adjust font size and colour, it uses tags to indicate the relative importance of headings, there is “alt” text to describe the images for those who can’t see them. The web has the potential to be a haven of accessibility. But only if you use it right.
  • Keyword stuffing in your alt attribute is like parking in the handicapped spot. You can use a “title” attribute instead (part of the global attributes supported by the img tag).
  • Use meaningful alt text, but don’t repeat the caption.
  • Only write alt text for images that are important to understanding the document, but don’t leave any alt attributes empty, because in that case a screen reader will read the file name. Insert an empty string (“”).
  • Try to keep the text in the HTML flowing in logical order, regardless of your layout. This way a screen reader will read it in the right order.
  • Indicate headings with h tags instead of using font size, colour, or weight (this is also good for your search engine optimization, which helps people find your document, improving accessibility).
  • Try the Web Disability Simulator Google Chrome extension to try navigating your web page with filters like reduced colour vision or hand tremor applied.

Sensitivity

Wording that is disrespectful of people’s dignity throws up a barrier. A sensitivity reader can help you avoid unintentional gaffes. One area of sensitivity that not everyone thinks about is sanist language. People living with mental illness don’t always appreciate seeing chaos or irrationality labelled as “craziness.” Likewise, preoccupation with tidiness is not necessarily obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Where to use this

There’s value in removing barriers whenever you can. But if you are creating a document for a specific group, it’s extra important to consider the needs of that group. Nothing says “This isn’t for you” like a barrier that affects your target audience.

September 29, 2017

Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition

I got my new copy of the Chicago Manual of Style yesterday. After working with my copy of CMOS 16 for seven years and studying with it for two certification exams, my old copy has highlighting, pencilling, and sticky tags—also a few folds and wrinkles, and a faint tea stain across the bottom. The updated book promises to provide better guidance for things like gender-neutral language and citing electronic sources. And although it’s daunting to have to re-read so much material, it’s extremely helpful that the breakdown into chapters is the same in this edition.

Resources