Reflective practice for editors


I’m a little bit odd. I quite like waiting for the green man to appear before I cross the road at traffic lights. (I got some funny looks when I lived in London, I can tell you.) I don’t mind having to queue at supermarket checkouts. I actually enjoy going for long runs, with no music filling my ears. Sometimes I just like to take a bit of time to think about things.

Like all editors, I read a lot of books. In the course of my work I must read between one and two hundred titles a year, and then there are the myriad other published materials I read for pleasure. And yet, every one brings me something new to learn: an unknown fact, a new word or phrase, a quirk of usage not previously encountered. With the work projects, it’s not just what’s contained in the book itself, of course. There is always a different way of managing the process, a new piece of software or trick of the trade to pick up.

Recently I have been thinking about how to formalise this ongoing process of learning. The need to maintain a high project churn rate to pay the bills means that the less memorable ones tend to go in one eye and out the other. A project can be memorable for all the wrong reasons, too, and often the projects that go well are the ones that are forgotten.

Educational publishing is one of my specialisms, and a theme that emerges across these projects is the idea of reflective practice; a concept that is well established in the teaching profession, as well as in other areas such as health and social care. In the editorial profession, experience is highly prized – and rightly so – but reflective practice is based on the idea that it’s not just experience that counts. It’s not only about putting in the hours – it’s about analysing our performance so we can do better next time.

The drive to be better

Why should we want to get better? Surely once we reach an adequate standard, and have amassed a collection of clients that we are happy with, we can relax and just keep doing what we do, getting paid for it, and spending the rest of our time doing other things?

For me, trying to be better is partly selfish. I want to improve because I am quite competitive. I enjoy helping others very much, but I also want to do well for myself. I don’t think this is a bad thing, or something to be ashamed of – I think it’s the thing that makes my business a success. I also get bored quite easily (usually not in the middle of a job – honest!). I love editing, but the thought of doing exactly the same thing, over and over again, for the next thirty or so years, does not fill me with wild enthusiasm. I want things to keep evolving.

I often talk about being paid properly by clients – I think this is really important, and we should aim to not settle for less – but if I expect my clients to pay a good rate for an experienced professional, I have to provide a service commensurate with that. That means not allowing my skills or my attitude to stagnate.

Finally, the drive to get better helps the editorial profession as a whole. I am fortunate in that I rarely have to deal with anyone who thinks that editing is a skill you can acquire in five minutes or replace with a spellchecker, or who believes that it can be bought on the cheap. However, I know such people do exist, and we still have more to do in terms of raising the profile of our profession. With this in mind, I think that every time each of us delivers an exemplary result to a client, we are improving the image of good editors everywhere. What we do is hard, it matters, and it is worth it.

How to reflect

At present, my own reflective practice takes several forms.

  • Of course I track every project. I record what kind of editorial service I provided, how long it took, how many words I edited in that time, and how that worked out in terms of an hourly rate. Armed with this information I can figure out how to keep improving my working conditions. (John Espirian blogged recently about saving time and improving workflows.)
  • I follow, and sometimes participate in, online discussion between editors in several places. We are lucky as editors that we work alongside so many colleagues who are happy to share their own experiences and advice. (Julia Sandford-Cooke wrote on this subject on the SfEP blog.)
  • I work as a mentor for the SfEP. I chose this rather formal route to mentoring several years ago and – as a beneficial side-effect – have found it incredibly helpful in terms of making my own work more accurate. Of course there are other ways of mentoring colleagues … Participating in online discussions is one, subcontracting may be another, or you might simply choose to help editorial colleagues and friends on an ad hoc basis. Something I read a while ago has stuck with me – I have never had a chance to try it for myself, but I think this is a brilliant idea: co-mentoring, as envisioned by Hazel Bird.
  • I touched on another method in my post last week – I write. Writing about things is my favourite way of making sense of them, and sometimes it enables me retrospectively to put a positive spin on projects or situations that have challenged me.

The thing that’s most important for me about any kind of reflective practice is that it should focus on the positive. There have been projects that have been difficult, and it’s probable that I have learned the most important lessons from these. But I don’t find it helps me to dwell on the bad things. Yes, the hourly rate might have dropped below an ideal level, and I might have lost sleep and gained grey hairs … but on the flip side I know that next time, I need to agree a day rate for that type of work and be stricter with some ground rules, or else avoid it altogether in favour of something that is a better fit.

One new thing I am going to try is keeping a diary of specific things I learn on each project. There isn’t much to say about every single project that crosses my desk, but perhaps if I keep a note of at least one useful nugget I have gleaned as I go, that could be useful. (Of course, it’s possible that this might simply have been an elaborate excuse to go and invest in a new Moleskine notebook …)

Photo on 02-09-2015 at 13.12Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She likes reflecting on all sorts of things, and buying new notebooks.





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