Editing in times of darkness

black-wallpapers-desktop-wallpapers-black-windows-7-wallpaperI try not to do politics on the blog, and for that matter I don’t usually swear here either. So if these things might bother you, please look away now – come back next time, when I’ll be discussing the merits of standing desks, or the pros and cons of the Oxford comma! [The comma one’ll never happen – Ed.]

As editors, we quickly discover that one of the main aspects of our job is the ability to fade into the background. We learn to channel other people’s words and thoughts, helping them to express their meaning, while avoiding imposing our own preferences or message. For this reason, usually I try to steer clear of politics when writing here and in my dealings with clients. If I were returning an urgent assignment on the day the world was about to end, say, it’s possible I might refer to it obliquely in my sign-off, but qualified with a smiley face just in case my client happens to think that Armageddon is totally cool.

This morning, though, I woke up with my heart pounding and my head buzzing. For once, I hadn’t had a nightmare about Donald Trump, which was nice. Instead I was fizzing with the need to write about what it feels like to be holding a red pen up against a torrent of bullshit. What it feels like to be editing in times of extreme darkness.

For the record, I’ll briefly nail my colours to the mast. I wish I lived in a world with no borders, where everyone was considered equal, everyone was allowed to live a life following their dreams and interests, there were no weapons, and everyone worried about the environment. Oh, and people wouldn’t die in hospital corridors while they waited for a bed in one of the richest countries in the world. That’s pretty much it. (I know – deluded, right? You can see why I ended up floundering around in a soppy career like editing.)

I could be wrong, but it seems to me that there are riches to go around for everyone, if we only had the will to share them. (Eight richest guys, I’m looking at you.) Surely, too, between us we have the expertise to figure out how to live more sustainably and stop completely fucking up our planet? Of course we do; we’re just prevented from doing this. We’re basically prevented from doing anything that deviates from the commonly understood good of making money and contributing to economic growth. Oh, and building walls around what we have to keep it safe from others.

Against this backdrop, it can sometimes be difficult to buckle down to editing. I climb upstairs to my office, one part of me raring to get stuck in to this book about architectural theory, or that article on multi-coloured lighting solutions … and another part of me is wilting already, and thinking that my job is utterly futile. Outside, the world burns.

And yet. perhaps now is as good a time as any to be working with words. At the moment, it can feel as if words are losing their meanings. Things aren’t what they used to be, that’s for sure, and they’re still changing fast.

For example, back in the summer I discovered that I was one of ‘the 48%’. ‘48% of what?’ you might well ask. Honestly – it hardly matters now. Like everyone else on 23 June 2016, I voted for something, but it sure as hell bore no relation either to the question on the ballot paper, or where we seem to be right now.

Anyway, no one really talks about the 48% any more. I’ve since been rebranded, as a Remainer, or a Remoaner, depending which newspaper you read. In the past few days, though, I have been urged by our great leader (don’t get me started) to desist from using this terminology, too. I think, if I understand correctly, I have now been repurposed as a Loser, and my task as a Loser is to give in gracefully, accept The Will of the People, set aside my actual thoughts and feelings and deep misgivings, turn a blind eye to the rampant xenophobia, coat myself in Union Jacks and pull together with all the other 65 million people on this bloody stupid little island and make this thing work. Take Back Control – yeah! Or something.

I’ve probably digressed, but you get my drift. Words matter, perhaps more now than ever. They are being appropriated and used against us. To provoke us into action and reaction; to shape our beliefs. We are told, for example, that something can be great again – not that, in many ways, it already was. We are told that the people have spoken – when strictly speaking, a great many of them are muttering confusedly on the sidelines. We are urged to ignore the pronouncements of experts. We are encouraged to overthrow the ‘elites’ – bearing in mind that elite doesn’t seem to mean what it did two years ago; I’m sure I didn’t used to be an elite, but now I think I’ve been promoted. Words are being used to steamroller our individual feelings and make us conform.

Some people think editors are ‘guardians of language’. I’ve never felt that – I’m not a prescriptivist – but perhaps in these dark times, when words seem to matter so much, and precise meanings matter more than ever, we could instead be vigilantes of nuance, helping in our small way to guard against against the obliteration of free thought and self-expression.

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Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She worries a lot.

Crunching the numbers

pie-chartI’ll start this post with a confession. I’ve been freelancing almost exactly nine years, and I’ve sort of been making it up as I go along.

It all began when I woke up one morning in late 2007 and decided that, although I liked my job (as a senior editor for a book packager), I didn’t want to spend as much time in meetings or fighting fires that I didn’t light. I was also earning a name for myself as the slightly odd one in the office who kept muttering expletives under her breath and sighing, and I thought it might be time to start doing those things in the privacy of my own room. Without further ado I handed in my notice, bought a tiny MacBook and took a bus to my local Ikea to kit out my home office. (The fact that I managed single-handedly to wrestle a chair, a lamp, a bin, an in-tray and a small desk from Tottenham to Islington on public transport I took as proof of my tenacity and therefore suitability for the freelance life.)

Fast forward nine years, and instinct has got me a long way, but I can’t trust to luck forever: I need to stay competitive; I need to understand what I do well, and what I could do better. I need to have a firm grasp of where most of my money comes from, and where most of my time goes, beyond a lot of gut feelings. It’s time to figure out exactly where I am and decide where I want to go next. Then go there. (This time not on a bus laden down with furniture.) I decided 2017 was going to be the year I carried out a proper, disciplined marketing exercise, with 15–30 minutes set aside for it each day.

I started on 1 January, so I have completed nearly two weeks of my new regime. I’m starting this month with analysis, before moving on to more active marketing. I’ve marketed myself before, of course, and to some extent it’s built into my regular working day already – but it’s always been rather reactive, a bit ad hoc. This time I aim to do it all with more precision … more mindfulness, if you like.

Drilling down into my business

Excitingly, the analysis has already confirmed some things I did know … and told me others I didn’t. The good news is that many of my gut feelings were right. Although two clients stood out as being particularly significant in terms of earnings in 2016, in general the income is quite well distributed between clients, which minimises risk for me. However, it’s always possible to ensure a better spread, and I can now focus my marketing with this in mind.

The figures also helped me to identify which clients occupied more time than they paid for … and vice versa. Of course I was tracking my hours carefully anyway, and working out the rate achieved per project, but it was interesting to look at the broader trends associated with each client, and each client type. For example, it’s often said that publishers don’t pay as well as non-publishers. In my experience, this isn’t necessarily true. There isn’t much difference in the mid-range, and fewer of my non-publishers feature at the low end, but my highest payers in 2016 were still publishers. What this also tells me, though, is that I need to continue to develop the non-publishing side of things; my ways of working have tended in the past to be more geared towards publishers, and perhaps the figures reflect this.

Perhaps the strongest reason I have for carrying out this analysis now is that I want to be able to measure my progress in six months or a year. Those who know me well would recognise that I have a tendency to be impulsive – to not look before I leap. Often it works out! But this year, I want to have a clearer idea of exactly where I’m jumping before lift-off, and be able to accurately compare where I land with where I’ve come from.

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Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She’s beginning to appreciate the joy of graphs. 

New year, new challenges … new clingfilm

img_1325On 30 December, on a slow news day (for me), I tweeted about clingfilm. The story behind the image goes that last summer we spent a week or so camping in Germany, and while we were there we bought some clingfilm for packed lunches. Now, I love Germany, and tend to travel around it in awe of all the things that are effortlessly better than they are at home … White lines on the road that are actually visible, even after dark (especially after dark). Immaculate forests filled with castles and beautifully maintained rambling routes. Cycle paths. Pavements that don’t trip you over if you don’t keep a constant eye on them as you tread. Shower heads that don’t fall apart in your hands. That kind of thing. So I was almost gratified to discover that actually, there was one thing that seemed to be worse – this particular brand of German clingfilm that didn’t cling satisfactorily to anything, even to itself, yet at the same time was so tough that merely trying to tear a piece off would edge the box it came in closer to total destruction.

We came home with about 73.5 metres of the stuff left. I instantly began a campaign for a trip to Waitrose to replace it, but my husband insisted that we do the right thing (for the environment, for the upholding of basic human morality) and work our way through it all before replacing it. On 30 December, after a whole term of packed lunches for two children – and I can tell you, every time we reached into the cupboard for the dreaded roll, it almost hurt – this was finally achieved.

It’s an insignificant thing, I’m aware, and @espirian joked that my piece of good news didn’t quite rescue the shambles of 2016. However, my subsequent comment that it might take many clingfilm moments to build significant positive momentum took root in my mind, and I began to wonder if I could in fact learn some lessons from the clingfilm. It being New Year, my thoughts are naturally turning to what I have achieved in the past twelve months and what I hope to do differently and better in the next twelve. Here’s what the clingfilm told me.

Persistence pays off

Sometimes, it feels like a particular project will never end. I like the work I do very much, but inevitably we all get hit by a tough assignment now and again, and things can drag on. At times like that it’s too easy to feel motivation ebb away, and worry that the business has taken a wrong turn and will never recover. In future, if this happens (with the best intentions in the world, it’s always possible), I will remind myself that just as we once came to the end of the clingfilm, I will reach the end of the project in question successfully, and very quickly it will be little more than a minor footnote in the history of my editorial business. The great thing about our job is that it is constantly evolving, and no working day, week, or year is ever quite the same. Onwards!

Little things can add up to big results

As I said, it would take a lot of clingfilm moments to add up to a truly exciting leap forward. But tiny triumphs are cumulative – just ask any termite, or coral polyp, if you don’t believe me. One of my business resolutions for 2017 is to carry out a direct marketing experiment to take my business in new directions. In the past few months I’ve noticed some changes on the client side of my business – some very welcome, others not so much. I know I need to respond to this, and now try to be proactive rather than reactive for my business to thrive – but if I think about the end goals I would like to achieve it can be overwhelming. So I need to break it down into a series of tiny clingfilm moments. I’m not going to attract fifteen new regular clients all at once with my current marketing strategy, and I don’t have the time or the budget to change this overnight. But I can make small changes, bit by bit, hour by hour, that will add up to that result over time. Small actions are cumulative.

Everything can be improved on

It looked like clingfilm, and the packet definitely said it was clingfilm. And yet, in certain essential ways, it was not clingfilm as I would understand it. It didn’t tear! It didn’t stick! In a similar way, anyone can call themselves an editor. I’ve been calling myself an editor for nearly nineteen years. But I know there are still ways I can improve as an editor. I’m made aware of them all the time, both by editors who have been practising longer than I have, and by editors who are new to the profession. If I am editorial clingfilm, now’s the time to reflect that I can always tear better, stick harder, and work to become the best clingfilm I can. With this in mind, CPD goals for this year will include continued reflection on how I can give better service to clients – both existing and new, an online course or two on top of attendance at the SfEP conference in September, and continued learning in my role as a mentor.

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Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She tries to find meaning in the little things – but honestly, all that waffling on about clingfilm, and she doesn’t even make the sandwiches …

A writer’s perspective on editing

lightbulb-png-824I haven’t blogged so much in the past few months. I’m quite relaxed about that – I don’t hold myself to a strict schedule, and prefer to put up a post when I have something particular to say. However, recently it fell by the wayside for another reason – I was finishing the first draft of my second novel, and that took all my spare time. (The first novel, written earlier this year, I am choosing to think of as a warm-up, unless anyone out there is actively looking for a tale of a drug-fuelled-yoga-weekend-cum-eco-apocalypse narrated by a middle-aged divorcée who thinks she’s Holden Caulfield. No?)

I’ve learned a lot of useful stuff from pursuing my own writing alongside regular editing work (no, I can’t yet afford to give up the day job). Much of what I have found out I hope to use to inform future creative writing endeavours. But some of my lightbulb moments will also feed back into my practice as an editor.

Here are five things I’ve learned:

  • WRITER LIGHTBULB: In a long manuscript, repetition is probably inevitable. This can happen at a macro level (themes and scenes that recur), and at a micro level (words and phrases that are overused, or unusual similes that are considerably less arresting on their third outing). As an editor I often encounter writerly tics in otherwise very clean, well-written manuscripts – certain constructions that just keep popping up. And in the past these would always puzzle me. ‘Can’t they see what they’re doing there?’ I would mutter under my breath. Well, the answer is, probably not. EDITOR LESSON: Repetition happens, no matter how careful the writer. Enjoy the frisson of doing your job, fix it … and get over it. 
  • WRITER LIGHTBULB: Continuity errors are completely normal. For example, I am amazed by the fact that even though the beginning parts of my novel only burst into existence back in the summer, there are stonking great passages that I have entirely forgotten writing. To me, this emphasises the near-certainty that there will be continuity errors in a manuscript of any kind above a certain length. I have quite a high capacity for retention of written information, as editors do, but even I simply can’t hold a whole novel in my head, even though it all came out of my head. There are just too many words, and I’m human. EDITOR LESSON: Be sympathetic to the differences between writing and editing. Writing fiction really can be a bit like being in a trance, but good editing is quite the opposite. It’s not possible to do both at the same time, and it’s important to get the best out of multiple passes.
  • WRITER LIGHTBULB: Distance from the work is essential. Never before have I felt so convinced of the need for psychological distance from a piece of work in order to edit it – either through time, or by being completely dissociated from the creation of the work, or preferably both. Case in point: right now I can hardly bear to look at the thing. It makes me feel positively queasy. And I’m not ready to show it to anyone else just yet either. EDITOR LESSON: If ever I need to sell my services to someone new, an important point is the complete objectivity I provide. People used to hiring editors know this already; those yet to be convinced might not.
  • WRITER LIGHTBULB: It’s hard to let go. Having said I can’t stand to look at it, it’s also my baby. In the past, in common with most editors, it’s just possible I might have been guilty of moaning about certain very difficult authors, or even being less than sympathetic about their reluctance to make changes. Well, those days are officially gone, I swear. Finally, I totally get it. If I ever get to the point of submitting my baby to the tender ministrations of a copy-editor, I just know I am going to morph into that nightmare author myself (though I’ll try my best to be nice; editors are people too). EDITOR LESSON: Always, always, be sensitive in dealings with authors. I know it’s hard to believe, but they’ve usually put a lot more into their work than we have, in terms of hours and soul.
  • WRITER LIGHTBULB: Coffee helps massively. But not just coffee; for me it’s part of a larger routine, which has helped me sit down and do it, day after day. Just like being a freelance editor, you have to show up and put in the time, whether you feel like it or not, if it’s got any hope of being viable. EDITOR LESSON: Mmm, coffee. Did someone say coffee? Are you making?

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Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. When she grows up she also wants to be an author.

Recapitating the chicken

chickenRecently I’ve been running around like the proverbial headless chicken, worrying about work and various personal projects – finding too much to do in the time, feeling at the mercy of external forces in terms of how I organise things, and succumbing to the pressures that seemingly make it difficult for all involved to produce a good end result … you get the picture.

Working alone suits me brilliantly in all sorts of ways, but I confess that I’m not always the best at not letting things get to me. I care deeply about the things I do, and doing a good job – which is generally positive, but it also makes me extremely hard on myself, and I know a lot of my friends and colleagues are the same.

It got to the point where I was considering setting up a whole new project in Toggl devoted to worrying about other projects rather than actually doing them … which was perhaps the wake-up call I needed to chill out and take it all a little less seriously. (And not only because I would have descended into some kind of stressed tailspin thinking about what colour to make the worrying project, honest.)

Instead I had another cup of coffee, moaned to my long-suffering in-house barista/IT department, chatted to some friends about it on Facebook, and came up with a list of strategies to put the hapless chicken back together.

1. Breathe

This is going to sound a bit silly, but I did at one low point stand in the kitchen trying to remember everything I learnt at NCT antenatal classes seven years ago. And it turned out that a bit of slow, careful breathing did actually calm me down in the short term. At this rate I might even think about trying meditation again.

2. Rewrite the to-do list

I’m a lover of to-do lists (hard copy, in nice notebooks), but recently I’ve noticed that the lists have turned into a nightmarish scrawl of randomly ordered and crazily angled items, often with no clear order or hierarchy. I try to number them retrospectively, but the whole thing turns into a frantic mess, with decimal points for afterthought items that need to be slotted in, sub-bullets, and furious rings and highlights for Things That Must Definitely Be Done Now Or All Hell Will Break Loose.

I already use iCal for deadlines and appointments, but for the day-to-day things I do like a list … however, it’s no use if the list becomes a source of stress in itself, and the longer-term (and arguably more important) strategic stuff inevitably gets overtaken by the more urgent tasks. A friend suggested I look at Trello, and I could certainly see it working well for some of the more fun, inspiring goals that otherwise get crowded out. Perhaps I can learn to use it for daily and weekly work deadlines, too. And then if there were just a button I could click to instruct it to do everything, too, that would be splendid …

3. Share problems

I always think I’m quite good at communicating when it comes to work. I keep clients updated regularly on longer projects, and try to keep on top of all the little details with larger projects so that I can keep everyone in the loop. But I know that I also have a tendency to play up the idea that everything’s fine and I can cope, when perhaps I should be pointing out that certain aspects are beginning to be problematic. The sooner small problems are addressed, the less likely they are to escalate into massive ones. There is no shame in asking for more support when you need it. And there is no use in battling on alone and keeping problems hidden until the point at which it’s much harder to sort them out.

4. Be realistic

Coming back to my beloved lists, another bad habit I know I need to break is writing too many things on the list. If I never get to the end of a list, I am bound to feel bad. If I do nothing else from this point forward, I have to stop routinely giving myself almost impossible goals. I will break things down into smaller, more manageable chunks with sufficient time devoted to them, and conquer them that way. Piece by piece.

5. Do something else

This is the classic, of course, but it works. Go for a walk (I walk to pick the children up from school every day). Go for a run (I haven’t done this for ages, and I really should!) …

This week, too, I have been particularly worried about various things I need to do or organise for the children for school, as well as work. At one point I was getting way too worked up about sorting out costumes for them to dress up as Sendakian Wild Things (as you do) … but then I started making some masks, got really carried away with white card and masking tape (it was like being back at architecture school) and it turned out to be incredibly therapeutic, even if not chargeable by the hour. Especially because it wasn’t chargeable by the hour. Then another day I picked up my poor, neglected trumpet and played for 30 minutes. It sounded terrible (with apologies to our lovely next-door neighbour), but it felt great. Both things totally cleared my head and enabled me to return to work refreshed.

And right now, once I post this blog, I am going to go out for half an hour … with no fixed idea of where I might go, and nothing special to get done. And I feel better already, just typing it!

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Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She sometimes does need to be reminded to chill out.   


Bang for a limited buck

8038-illustration-of-bang-text-pvAs freelance editors we’ve all been there: a prospective client has a list of things they would like you to do, and they also have a budget, and the two don’t appear to be related. So what practical steps can you take to ensure that you are paid a decent rate, and that the client is happy with the service they have received?

Usually I’d be quick to advise simply not taking on less well-paid work if you could spend the time looking for a more lucrative gig. But what I’m talking about here is not dismal, badly paid editorial grind, or outright exploitation, but rather work that needs to be approached with a bit of creativity and pragmatism to get the best out of it in terms of pay while still providing a valuable service – and it’s not the same thing at all. There are valid reasons for clients of all kinds not having unlimited budgets, and there are also valid reasons for taking on jobs that might not seem like big earners at first glance, but if tackled carefully can result in a perfectly acceptable – sometimes very good – rate. These reasons to persist might include subject matter that interests you, a longstanding client you like, a client who always pays quickly, or a job that turns up just at that moment when you have a little unexpected time to fill.

When faced with a job with a tight budget, here’s how I would approach it.

Assess the work

This is the first thing to do whatever kind of work you are offered. But with a job that seems to have a limited budget, it’s vital. On closer inspection you might conclude that the client is having a laugh in terms of what they expect for the money. On the other hand, it might become clear that the brief is realistic, and in proportion to the budget offered. Perhaps the text is already in extremely good shape. Or maybe the client is asking for a restricted service. You might even be able to advise them on exactly what they do need (and what they don’t), if they are unsure. What at first glance looks unreasonable, might not be.


Having said that the budget might turn out to be realistic, there’s always the possibility that it really isn’t. If it’s nowhere near (you suspected the client missed off a zero somewhere; turns out they didn’t), now’s the time to walk away and not look back. The hardest situations I find, though, are where I conclude that the money on offer is very nearly enough. But still not quite.

Don’t panic – work out what you would want to charge for the work, and see if you can get the client to pay the extra. If they really want you to do the job, and do it properly, the chances are they’ll be able to squeeze a bit more out of the budget.

Don’t deviate from the brief

Editors are renowned perfectionists … and it’s just possible that some clients use this fact to get away with asking too much of us for too little. If you’re working on a project with a limited budget, it’s vital for your bottom line and your sanity to focus, stick to the brief, and not do more than you are being asked to do. Don’t give the client the gold valet service if they’ve only paid for the jet wash. It’s not fair on you – and also, you might end up missing things the client feels are most important in pursuit of perfection elsewhere.

Be strict

Figure out how much time you have to spend on the work, and don’t exceed this. It sounds obvious, but it’s all too easy to be seduced into going the extra mile – we are programmed to do this. As business owners we know we have to go above and beyond, and provide excellent service to ensure repeat business – but still, this doesn’t mean doing work we should be being paid for, but aren’t.

Monitor progress: break the job down into smaller chunks, and ensure as you go that you’re not taking longer than you should to reach critical milestones. If you are, you need to reassess what you are doing in order to speed up, or alert the client – if they can’t up the budget, they can decide where they would like you to concentrate your efforts.

Be particularly wary of things being added to the job after you’ve started, just as you always would. On a well-paid job it might be possible to be more relaxed about minor infractions (discuss!), but if the budget’s already tight and non-negotiable, it is simply not your responsibility to accommodate extra, unexpected work.

Evaluate your practice

Working within tight constraints (schedule or budget) can provide an excellent opportunity to evaluate your working methods. Could you work smarter? Could you do anything differently? Do you have bad habits that are slowing you down? Are you making changes that are non-essential – not in the brief, not in the house style, just matters of personal taste? (Naughty, naughty …) This is the perfect chance to assess whether you are operating in a lean, efficient way – which will pay off big time on all the jobs you do, not just the ones with restricted budgets.


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Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008.  



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