Or … how to deal with longterm projects and avoid the temptation to Google “the top ten biscuits of 1974”.
I was at a political meeting. This constitutes a kind of date night for me and my husband. I got talking to an interesting older couple. The woman was a retired teacher. The man was an ex-fireman. They both told me some stories about their working lives. Both incredibly important jobs, and scary in their own ways.
“What do you do?” the man asked me.
“I edit books.”
“What kind of books? Stories? Novels?” (The standard response.)
“Well, yes. But all kinds of books, really. A lot of it is reference. Dictionaries…”
“That sounds boring.” (Not the standard response.)
I laughed. I couldn’t strongly disagree.
Compared with rescuing people, making sure a dictionary’s styles are consistent couldn’t be described as exciting.
And “that sounds boring” made a refreshing change from the usual “I’d be good at that, I’m always finding mistakes in [insert newspaper of choice]”.
But one person’s “boring” is another person’s “quite tolerable, thank you”. I rather like my job, usually. Occasionally over the years I’ve thought about a career change: a potter, a psychologist, a stained-glass-window maker, a wedding cake maker. But I try the new thing out and inevitably I keep coming back to working with words. This is what I was meant to do.
It isn’t suitable for everyone. I like my own company. A quiet working environment suits me. You need to be bothered enough about the small stuff to catch as many of a book’s flaws as humanly possible, but detached enough to see the bigger picture.
Let’s assume that you don’t feel so bored that you want to change jobs, but that you want to find ways to make it through the sometimes lengthy and repetitive work that can end up on our desks. Some edits could potentially drive you mad if you let them. So how do you keep focused?
Well, let me just emphasise that I am no life coach, and so anything below must be treated with extreme scepticism, but here is what I sometimes do to make the working day more tolerable. Everyone is different and there will no doubt be others with cleverer tips than me. (Which I look forward to hearing about in the comments, if possible).
Distract your monkey-brain
When I’m editing I find listening to spoken words distracting, but I like a bit of background noise: classical music, songs in another language, ambient noise (rain, whale noises). It is just enough to distract and occupy the bit of my brain that might want me to Google “Donald Trump’s favourite biscuit” or “what’s BA Robertson up to these days?”
Make lists and mini goals, and tick things off
Spreadsheets, notebooks, coloured pencils, stickers, wall planners, whiteboards – whatever floats your boat – use these to list the different aspects and stages of the job and tick them off as you progress. Add dates and times and hours worked. This will be useful for the future too, so that you can see what was involved and how long it took.
You’ll have a deadline to meet, so it makes sense to work towards numerous mini deadlines or goals as you progress. Break the task up into component parts – sections, chapters, number of words, whatever works – and tick them off as you finish them. You can only really properly focus one task at a time anyway – e.g. checking things like cross references or bibliographical references. Tick everything off on your list as you complete it. Admire those ticks.
Automate more tedious tasks
We all know spell- and grammar-checkers have their limits, but there are other tools – macros, scripts, GREP searches, and specialist editing software – that can make editing life easier. They can take care of some of the more tedious aspects of a job like keeping track of inconsistent usages or uniformly changing one spelling or style to another.
Do another task
If a job requires lots of concentration and you are lucky (or unlucky) enough to have other work to do as well, why not split up the tasks. If you concentrate better in the morning then do the harder task at that time. If you have a lighter or more creative task, do it in the afternoon. Or vice versa if you’re not a morning person. Even if the other job is also difficult, just a change of topic can refresh you a little.
If you don’t have other work to fit in, then schedule some time towards a task that promotes you. A marketing exercise. Write some emails. Tidy up your workspace. Do a Lynda or Udemy webinar for an hour. You’ll feel pleased that you haven’t wasted time and you’ll have had a break from the thing that was starting to bore you.
Organise emails, tidy files – do useful but mindless stuff that improves how you work and gives your brain a little rest.
Timetable some breaks and exercise into your day
For half an hour: go for a walk, make some soup, play with your cat, declutter. Write it on your list of things to do and tick it off. Think of it positively. It’s not skiving, it is scheduled in and time-restricted, and it is time that is allocated to taking a break and keeping mentally healthy.
Have things to look forward to, and bigger, wider goals to anticipate
Write your deadlines, holidays, conferences, time-specific goals, lunches out, and courses to sign up for on a wall planner. You have these to look forward to, you can look at them as you work, and the job will be over … one day!
Find something worse to do
Do your tax return/finances, find new car insurance, move your pension, do some housework: your current task takes on a new and shiny appeal in comparison to these chores. (Or is it the other way round?!)
Have a creative project on the go for when you have time off
Crafts, music making, baking, creative writing, gardening, woodwork, painting, knitting, quilting: editors can be a creative lot when they’re not correcting grammar. If you are working on a longstanding project, like a thousand-page dictionary edit or a massive index, knowing that you have a little creative outlet for down time can keep you going.
If you’re constantly telling yourself “this is the worst, most boring job in the world ever, ever, ever,” then you’ll end up believing yourself. Find something to be positive about. Repeat that to yourself instead.
With any job, taking pride in doing something well for its own sake will give you the motivation to keep going.
Smile pointlessly when no one is looking. In an office situation your co-workers will ridicule you relentlessly if you do this, and this will cheer them up, which is a good thing. But on your own, it’s easy to do, costs nothing, and it does lighten your mood.
If you work from home of course you can be smiling as madly as you like and no one will care. You can even sing! Have a dance!
These are methods that I have found useful. What are yours?