Conferencing for the self-conscious

Wyboston is nearly 400 miles away.

I’ll have to get three trains and a taxi.

I don’t know how to pronounce St Neots.

Such were the reasons my introvert half was trying to come up with to not go to the SfEP  2017 Conference. My extrovert half booked it anyway, telling my introvert half to go and eat some chill-cake.

I get really anxious about things like this and the potential awkwardness of meeting people you don’t know and maybe making an arse of yourself. Or worse, meeting people you slightly know and maybe making an arse of yourself. Or worse, meeting David Crystal and maybe making an arse of yourself.

Friday: Travelling day.

I met an antiquarian book dealer on the train (my second train) going down. She wasn’t going to the conference but she was pleasant company and a nice, friendly, book-orientated good omen for the weekend to come.

Within seconds of arriving at St Neots Station, I’d bumped into editing royalty (extreme-name-dropping warning for this blog post): fiction editor Katherine Trail, Margaret Hunter of the SfEP Council, and, all the way from Canada, Kelly Lamb and the godlike Janet MacMillan! Margaret very kindly shared a taxi with me to the hotel, where we soon spotted more friendly faces, the whole of the SfEP office team who, with Beth Hamer leading, had organised the conference, and my lovely Glasgow colleagues Sabine Citron (SfEP chairman) and Merle Reid. I finally relaxed. We were all staying at the training centre of the Wyboston Lakes Hotel and it was extremely convenient and comfortable. (So many opportunities for free coffee and biscuits.) Over dinner at the hotel, I also enjoyed meeting Edinburgh editors, Gillian Haggart and Hilda Hermann. The strong Scottish contingent was also making me feel at home.

I really must stop there with the name-dropping – the potential here is obnoxiously excessive. I met so many nice people over the weekend. It was really wonderful.
(Spoiler: I keep name-dropping.)

Saturday: Day One

The day started with Speed Networking – which, at just under two hours, was intense and slightly draining, but a good experience. The quickest two hours of the day. I spoke to some really fascinating people. Given that I was gutted I was going miss Digital Nomad Kate Haigh’s talk I was chuffed to get a five-minute summary all to myself.
The SfEP AGM followed and passed smoothly and without incident.

At some point in the proceedings, 15 of us ended up in Janet MacMillan’s bedroom. I drank tea, talked tarot and corgis with Sara Donaldson … and my name-dropping Firewall has given me a dire warning to not list everyone.

Conference newbies (i.e. me) then got treated to free wine and the chance to meet the SfEP council. John Firth had the dubious pleasure of my opinions on publishing and was polite enough to look interested.

Dinner and a pub quiz made a very fun end to the day. I got to chat some more to Howard who I had met at Speed Networking and whose knowledge of 1990s pop music was superb. The delightful Sue Browning was our quiz team leader.

Bedtime – and my head was swirling in a good way with all the new faces and names and the fact I hadn’t recognised XTC in the pub quiz. One more cup of tea, and I barely got through five words of the chapter I attempted to read before I was asleep.

Sunday: Day Two

Giving the Whitcomb Lecture was journalist and language writer Oliver Kamm. It was a very humorous talk that went down really well with the crowd. I managed to get a signed book afterwards.

My first workshop of the day was Louise Harnby and John Espirian’s Content Marketing. Very enlightening. Both are admirable and very generous with their time and advice. I have lots of work to do in content marketing. Slightly scarily, I had to speak in front of people, but I survived. Kia and Kate won a cracking set of books as a result of the hilarious Human Scarecrow company they came up with during this session. Worthy winners.

After lunch was Katherine Trail’s Introduction to Fiction Editing which was enormously practical and useful. Katherine’s a real pragmatist and very good at what she does – it really comes across. I came away with lots of good advice.

Next, PerfectIt for Mac. An exclusive preview of the Beta for PerfectIt in the cloud. It’s happening, guys! Very exciting. And a useful session for me as a PerfectIt newbie.

I was wilting a little by now but managed to attend the social media meet-up and put some Twitter names to faces.

After a tiny nap, I “glammed” myself up for the Gala dinner. I nearly fainted to find out David Crystal was seated at our table and regretted my decision to travel light and not bring any books to get signed. (Perhaps this was a blessing, referring the reader back to paragraph five of this blog and “making an arse” of oneself. Though I may have gushed at him that I’ve got all his books.)

The Linnets sang beautifully and the lyrics (by John Firth) were really funny. Well done all.

Louise Harnby won the Judith Butcher award, to great delight all round, and my new best friend, David Crystal, delighted us all with Ogden Nash rhymes.

Looking after us at our table was another Glasgow pal and SfEP board member, Lucy Metzger. And I was sitting next to Jessie Cox (who I’d chatted to earlier before the Oliver Kamm talk) who was lovely, and we joined quite a few diehards in the bar afterwards for some stimulating and intellectual drinking.

Monday: Last Day

Feeling miraculously fresh after all the excitement (wine) of the Gala Dinner, my first session of the day was Rates: reaching for the stars, given by Janet MacMillan, Erin Brenner (of and all the way from Boston) and Katherine Trail. Very useful and a bit of a wake-up call for people not charging what they’re worth.

A quick break for coffee and then on to the Plain English workshop presented by the very brainy Luke Finley. He gave a very informed counter to Oliver Kamm’s earlier criticism of plain English (or more accurately, his criticism of The Plain English Society) and also reminded us that even though Orwell was too sweeping in his writing “rules”, his warnings against deliberate misuse of language in areas such as politics are still very relevant. Being inflexibly prescriptive about anything is a bad thing. Luke was very much more articulate than I have managed to hint at here and I found this session very useful.

The last session of the day for me was Loulou Brown’s talk on editing biographies and autobiographies. In fact, Loulou gave some very good advice regarding editing in general and I was wishing I could have heard a few more juicy snippets about editing Richard Burton’s biography.

The closing lecture was by journalist and writer Mark Forsyth, and his extreme editing of Hamlet’s soliloquy was a very humorous warning to editors to be sympathetic to the poetry of words and the writer’s voice. Really enjoyable talk.

The end of the conference. Some quick goodbyes to departing new friends … and another nap for me.

Denise Cowle (the new Marketing Director of the SfEP board!) had the bright idea of eating out in St Neots, and myself, Erin, Sabine and Jessie joined her for some very fine pizza. It was good to get out of the conference centre for a while and see the town.


I slept really well, and next day I enjoyed Denise’s company all the way home to Glasgow. At the conference, Denise had given talks on Accountability Groups and Bullet Journaling which I really want to investigate. There were lots of talks happening simultaneously. It really was hard to choose between them.

So – what a weekend that was.

So much chatting. So many new faces. So much new stuff to think about. Afterwards, many editors in the SfEP forum reported the syndrome of randomly wanting to talk to strangers in the supermarket about editing, or the unsettling feeling of going all day without being asked: “So what do you do?”

What did I learn? Loads.

More specific? Too much to mention here, but I think I will take Louise and John’s advice on content marketing and split the material into several blogs. There were several subjects that came up at the conference that really made me think.

What would I do differently next time? Pack nicer shoes. Maybe some Febreeze to counter hotel buffet aromas. Maybe speak up a bit more in the discussions.

Will I go again? Absolutely. It is the friendliest conference. If you are at all nervous about these types of things (like I am) let me put your mind at rest. If you know no-one when you arrive this will not be the case when you leave.

Should you be scared of going to a conference? No, especially not this one. Go for it.

Getting very angry about … grammar

People get very angry on the internets. Films, music, cake, sport, fitness, make-up, knitting – with ease, people can now be extraordinarily rude to complete strangers on any deceptively benign subject. Online, it is safe to be rude, judgmental and unpleasant without justifying what you’re writing.

And users of grammar-and-usage discussion groups can send the insults flying just as rapidly as on any football forum. On a thread in a writers’ group that I’m in, someone asked if it was OK to use “alright”, or if “all right” was the correct usage. One writer responded that anyone who used “alright” was clearly illiterate, and things degenerated from there. Continue reading “Getting very angry about … grammar”

Stripping off the layers

It has been heartening to see reporters supporting their production-desk colleagues as around 50 New York Times copy-editors face being laid off. This news has left editors all over the world smarting, not because it is unusual to hear of redundancies in journalism  – are you kidding? – but because this round of lay-offs has been sold as positive progress. Reducing “layers of editors”. Getting rid of dead wood.

In a letter to staff: “This system is a vestige of an assembly-line structure held over from a newspaper-only newsroom built around multiple print deadlines. It is costly and slows us down.

“Our goal is to significantly shift the balance of editors to reporters at The Times, giving us more on-the-ground journalists developing original work than ever before.”

So they gently strip off those flaky, chipped old layers of pedant using the HR equivalent of Nitromors, and replace with a shiny new glossy coat of vibrant reporter. Getting more reporters means getting better content, they suggest. The people who check those stories? Meh … they just slow things up with their annoying questions about legality, their dictionaries, and red pens, and … bow ties.

While I have no experience working for The New York Times, I was a newspaper sub for over ten years. That so-called “assembly line” has nothing to do with paper or digital newsrooms. It includes stages that ensure that your reporting is correct, unambiguous, not libellous … and any good. And, as subs become rarer than a day without hearing the words “hard Brexit”, you see the errors creep in – even in formerly quality news sources.

Copy-editors – sub-editors – do more than check for typos. We’re drawing pages; checking facts; spelling names correctly; making sure photos match stories and captions; cutting massive stories in half, to fit, on the page; condensing massive stories that have been consigned to a NIB; asking for facts to back stuff up and phoning writers; asking if things are legal; making ambiguous writing make sense; writing headlines, captions, choosing pull quotes … So you’re doing all that AND checking for typos. One person (or even two people) cannot check all that and get it 100% perfect. You need the “assembly line”.

Subs are getting laid off all over the world. The shrinking of newspaper production desks is not news at all. It has been happening for over a decade, and not gradually. The minute it was possible to get news for free, the prognosis for the business model of print journalism was terminal. Rather than rethink, and bring the internet into that business, most newspaper owners didn’t move fast enough, and have faced declining sales year on year. Rather like a sub faced with a page full of adverbs, they have been enthusiastically cutting ever since. Lose readers. Cut staff. Make journalists sub each other’s work – or their own work. Continue to fail to properly monetise your online content. Lose ad revenue. Cut staff. Reduce quality of work. Reduce reader loyalty. Lose more readers. Cut more staff …

It’s nothing like a surprise that lay-offs are happening – but to claim it is modernising and progressive to get rid of the very people who put your newspaper together is offensive corporate bullshit. From a high quality paper whose existence has never been more important in this political climate of … well … you know what this climate is. You couldn’t make this climate up. New York Times subscriptions are up. There is a 62% rise in digital subscriptions since last year, and yet advertising revenues are down. This to me says “look to improving your ad sales division, not to decimating your back bench”.

That rise in subscriptions says “people are desperate for sources they can trust”. It says “invest in that digital content and invest in that trustworthiness”. It does not say “sack half of the people who check your facts”.

When asked what I do, a common response I get when I say “I’m an editor”, is “Oh I’d be a good editor, I’m always spotting mistakes in [insert newspaper of choice].”

You might notice a typo in your newspaper but what did it take to get that story there? Has it been cut from 8000 words to 2000 words? Has the emphasis of the story been changed at editorial insistence at the last minute? How many errors were in it to begin with? How well was it written? How many subs are actually left in that paper after redundancy after redundancy?

Editing is undervalued. Everyone thinks they can do my job. Well, it’s just reading, isn’t it?

Partly it is akin to why I made my own wedding cake. I severely underestimated the skill and effort involved. (Any excuse to mention that cake again, sorry.)

So, us usually silent editors are angry. We are unnecessary layers? No, we are a writer’s last line of defence. We want the words that appear on paper, on the internet, in ebooks – wherever – to be the best possible version of the writer’s intent. You get rid of us and you create even more opportunities to hear readers say: “Oh I’d be a good editor, I’m always spotting mistakes in [insert newspaper of choice].”)