CPD for editors and writers

If you want to learn how to do something, try teaching someone else. I don’t know who first said this, and they probably phrased it with greater elegance, but the sentiment is spot on. From revising for a class test to taking on the role of Nelly in the low-budget business classic ‘Sitting next to …’, I have found that teaching a skill is a fantastic way to consolidate your own knowledge. For this post, I share some thoughts on courses and informal training for editors and writers, with a few editors notes sprinkled throughout, in the spirit of lifelong learning.

I am in the throes[1] of revising my lesson plans and notes in preparation for delivering the three-day Copy-Editing Skills (CES) course for the Publishing Training Centre (PTC) in mid-July. I have taught this course a couple of times a year for three or four years now, but each time the delegates – nearly all totally new to copy-editing – challenge me in a different way; from clarifying a grammatical point that is baffling an individual, to explaining the origins of hard copy mark-up to keen young editors who have never encountered a typewriter, let alone a ‘galley’ or, heaven forfend, an Ozalid[2] proof and a chinagraph pencil!

I am an enthusiastic participant in continuous/continuing professional development[3] (CPD). Before I became a ‘professional’, I was a certificate collector, amassing a fistful of ‘awards’ for all sorts of activities, from A levels to public speaking via Brownie badges and the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award[4] (bronze was tough enough, thanks!). In fact, I’m still at it. Just this week I very nervously sat a Grade 5 music exam (piano). To mangle a favourite cliché[5]: been there, done that, got the certificate.

CPD is a huge topic, which I shall definitely return to in future posts, but for now here are my top tips for CPD for editors and writers:

  • Editorial and writing courses
  • Qualifications
  • Freelancing
  • Training
  • Keep on keeping on
  • A lesson a day …

Editorial and writing courses

Here are a couple of caveats before I go further: ‘other training providers are available’ and ‘any course is only as good as the effort you put in’.

As an active (Advanced) member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) and a visiting tutor for PTC, I can’t help but recommend their courses very highly. But I would say that, regardless. PTC and SfEP were created by the publishing industry and experienced practitioners respectively, and their courses have an established track record of being good value for money and directly relevant to anyone involved in the ‘activity of publishing’ – by which I mean not just conventional publishing companies but any organisation, business or individual who needs to communicate through the written word.

Both PTC and SfEP provide entry-level courses in editorial skills such as proofreading and copy-editing, plus training in the software tools we rely on, including Word, InDesign and the Adobe Acrobat suite. Tailor-made in-house courses are also offered by both providers.

There is a tendency for those on the outside to think that proofreaders and editors do little more than check for spelling errors and grammatical glitches. They couldn’t be more wrong, as anyone who has completed the PTC’s popular distance learning courses – Basic Proofreading or Copy-Editing – will testify.

Armed with the basics, it is virtually impossible to progress without a firm grasp of working in Word. Such training is not just about improving productivity (for example, using Word tools or macros to automate repetitive tasks) but knowing how to provide an edited file that can be carried forward cleanly to the next stage of the publishing process – be that a typesetting program, a PDF or a web page. On-Screen Editing, parts I and II, run by the SfEP and delivered by Anne Waddingham, are the rights rites[6] of passage all editors should complete.

Then there are the various top-up courses that focus on particular aspects of an editor’s job – Grappling with Grammar is one of my favourites.

On the writing side, I want to put in a word for a couple of the journalism-based courses I’ve taken over the years. In particular, PMA Training offers high-quality short courses on news and feature writing, as well as teaching editorial skills tailored for newspapers and magazines (sub-editing is subtly different from ‘traditional’ copy-editing).

I have also dipped my toe into the world of creative writing, via the Faber Academy, joining the six-month ‘Writing a Novel from Start to Finish’ course after its first highly successful year. (And before you ask, no, I haven’t reached the ‘finish’ part yet!) As well as some excellent professional feedback on my proto-novel, I gained, without expecting to, an inkling of how it feels to be on the receiving end of an editor’s red pen. Whether it has left me more or less sympathetic to authors, I’m not telling. Suffice to say I had never had a secret desire to edit fiction, and now I know I definitely don’t want to. Writing fiction though … well, wait and see.

Qualifications

Editors come from all walks of life and generally have a good standard of education, a bachelor’s degree[7] being regarded as the minimum qualification for most work. Science editors, especially those working in the medical/pharmaceuticals sector, may be expected to be qualified to PhD level, though there are plenty of highly qualified editors working in humanities and social sciences too.

There are several universities offering first degrees in publishing and related subjects. Oxford Brookes University’s publishing degree courses were the first and are considered to be the best; London College of Communications also has a good reputation. Then there is the BA programme at Loughborough University’s Department of Information Science/Department of English and Drama, which covers both the traditional English/publishing syllabus and new media including advanced web design and web analytics.

I took a slightly different route; studying for a post-graduate diploma in science communication after several years of on-the-job editorial and journalism training and short courses. The course I took at Birkbeck (University of London) is no more, but at that time it was equivalent to the first year of the Science Communication MA offered by Imperial College London. The Birkbeck version included several long writing projects, and TV and radio production, which was great fun.

But there are other relevant qualifications that you may like to consider. SfEP, for instance, operates both an accreditation/registration system for proofreaders (by examination and evidence of experience) and a professional ‘grade’ system open to all members. The latter enables members to move through the ranks from Associate to Ordinary and finally to Advanced member status by providing evidence of training completed, practical experience obtained and references from clients. The SfEP also helped to develop the City & Guilds Licentiateship in Editorial Skills, which is a Level 4 qualification, equivalent to a Higher National Diploma (HND).

Freelancing

One of the most useful courses I’ve ever taken is run by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ). Getting Started as a Freelance  covers all the basics, from pitching for work to whether you need an accountant, and has been setting people off along the right road for well over a decade. The course is open to non-NUJ members, though don’t be surprised if they try to recruit you. The SfEP also runs a similar course, Going Freelance and Staying There.

The government-funded Business Link network provides a range of short courses and seminars on all aspects of managing a small business, plus well-structured online publications.

Unexpectedly, a course I took in 1995 while working in-house, called Sales and Marketing for Specialist Staff, has proved to be invaluable. It didn’t turn me into a hard-nosed Apprentice-style salesperson, but instead helped to build my confidence in talking to clients – finding out what they need, rather than simply saying ‘here I am; here are my skills’. The course was run by Invicta Training.

Training

Having trained and coached team members when I worked in-house, I assumed that teaching in a more formal environment would be straightforward: not so. There are new skills to learn, including lesson planning, facilitating different learning styles, and time and classroom ‘management’. The SfEP runs a useful one-day course Stand and Deliver, which is a good starting point if you are thinking of broadening your skills into training or need a boost to give you the confidence to deliver a conference seminar. But for a more in-depth approach, I recommend the City & Guilds-accredited course Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector (PTLLS), which is the entry-level course required if you wish to teach any subject in a further education college.

Keep on keeping on

Attending a professional conference is a CPD activity, as well as a networking opportunity. At SfEP Conference in 2011 I ran a half-day seminar for established freelances called ‘Keep on keeping on’. The session wasn’t just about CPD, but the title is apposite here, because training for editors is not an occasional indulgence – it’s a daily activity. These days many editors belong to social networks that are not purely for chit chat; there’s a lot of ‘knowledge transfer’ going on. Whether it’s a LinkedIn group or a closed discussion group such as SfEPLine or McEdit, there are not many days go by without a useful nugget being revealed – issues of style and grammar, techie fixes and business management – all life is there.

But there is another form of CPD that is even more often overlooked: reading.

After a long hard day at the keyboard, sitting down to more reading may be the last thing an editor or proofreader feels like doing, but it is essential to read fresh, well-edited materials. As most writers know, it is easy to unwittingly absorb the stylistic foibles of the author you are currently reading. Indeed, the Faber Academy specifically encourages participants to read widely from the canon[8] of authors/guest speakers on its courses. For writers, this osmotic process is a boon; for editors, it’s a problem. If all you ever read is unedited manuscripts, you are in danger of accidentally absorbing sloppy grammar and letting flouncy, flabbly sentences slip through the net. (See what I mean?)

People think you should turn off your editor brain when you settle down to read for ‘pleasure’. But why? Reading may be a pleasure, but it is always a learning opportunity. Ditto the daily crossword, helping your children with their homework, shopping for grocers’ apostrophes …

A lesson a day …

Just for fun (yes, some editors have a weird sense of humour), here are a few ‘learning points’ from the above post. If you find any more, please let me know.

[1] Ah, the English language – never a dull moment! Make a mental note: ‘in the throes… ‘ never ‘in the throws …’ [back]

[2] Checking the Ozalid proofs was one of the first tasks I was given as a trainee copy-editor at Chapman & Hall in the late 1980s. These proofs, which were made by the printer placing film over specially coated paper (a bit like the now old-fashioned process of developing a photographic film), arrived with a nasty whiff of ammonia, the thought of which still sends a shiver down my spine. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary (COED) reminds us that the term is a trademark and therefore needs a capital O. [back]

[3] Most people talk about CPD without wondering what the letters actually stand for. A quick Google search reveals a 7:1 majority in favour of continu-ing, aligning the activity with ‘continuing education’ (COED: ‘education provided for adults after they have left the formal education system’). But my personal preference is the adjectival –ous form, as this implies ‘without interruption’ i.e. continu-ous professional development is not something we attend once or twice a year in order to gain ‘points’, but an ongoing process of learning throughout the day, month … career. Good job we can all agree on using the abbreviation instead. [back]

[4] Always check the spelling and punctuation of titles, names and awards. It may be known as the DofE Award, but the ’s is not an option in the full version. [back]

[5] Many books on writing will tell you to ‘avoid clichés like the plague’, but we all know that rules are made to be broken, don’t we? The phrase is attributed to William Safire who was, among other things, a speechwriter for US President Richard Nixon. But I prefer George Orwell’s version from his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ (first published in 1946): “i. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. … vi. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous”. [back]

[6] It is very tricky to proofread your own writing, as I have illustrated here. Tips: leave your text and recheck it in the morning; change the font and size then read it through again; if it’s a short piece, read it backwards, or at least, from the final paragraph to the first. [back]

[7] In the UK we tend not to use the term a ‘bachelor’s degree’, preferring the abbreviated forms BA and BSc, but the question of where to put the apostrophe comes up from time to time. Although my COED is not specific on the undergraduate qualification, it is more prescriptive at post-graduate level: ‘a master’s degree’. Interestingly, the UK government’s general public website favours ‘bachelors degrees’ and ‘masters degrees’, as do some university style guides (see York) but others keep the apostrophe (see Leeds and Oxford). [back]

[8] Canon: one N for ‘list of literary works’; two Ns for weaponry/billiards manoeuvres. [back]