Finding a new normal

What does ‘normal’ mean to you? If, like me, you studied physical sciences or engineering, ‘normal’ is clearly defined as a line or vector perpendicular to a surface, which light and other things veer to or from. If you’re an editor or proofreader, or some other kind of power MS Word user, the word ‘normal’ conjures up worrisome terms such as ‘template’ and ‘macro’. But if you are any, all or none of those – if you’re just a person, especially a freelance person – ‘normal’ is an illusion that’s dangling just beyond our grasp. Or is it?

As I write, it’s Saturday 29 February: a day for doing something out of the ordinary.

Instead, I’m working.[1]

For me, catching up on admin or putting in some extra hours on a client’s project is my freelance normal.

I quite enjoy it. There’s a different sort of quiet on Saturdays, when the rest of the world is out playing sport or grocery shopping or having a lie-in. BBC Radio 2, 3 and 4 abandon their weekday schedules, so my worktime accompaniment has a different tone, often featuring new works or re-recordings, or old, old favourites.

Working at my business, in my office rather than at the kitchen table on my phone or laptop, has been my normal for about a decade, pretty much ever since my son started being better able to fend for himself.

Scroll back 14 years or so and my normal Saturday was to walk my dog early then do family stuff and only work if something was urgent. Fast forward to 2014, since when my Saturdays have featured visiting my father, who had a major stroke that year, at which point I became his proxy (attorney) and his clear-speaking voice[2] as well as his daughter. For six years thereafter things chugged along in a samey-samey sort of way: a structured combination of work/business and family commitments, with the balance occasionally tipping slightly in one direction or t’other.[3]

What’s ‘normal’ for freelance editors?

Newcomers to publishing ask what it is like to be a freelance editor. There are as many answers as there are freelance editors, proofreaders and writers. For me, it’s tended to be a rollercoaster of good year, less good year.[4] Sometimes planned, sometimes not.

In 2018–19 I had my best, busiest year as a freelance. A highlight was delivering a two-hour workshop at the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) autumn conference on the theme Don’t Panic: How to stay calm in a crisis. I also gave a short talk about my research project, proofreading2020, which I had launched that April and which – at the time of the talk – was already well under way.

I had fun putting the workshop together, during the long, hot – very hot – summer of 2018. I even roped my husband in to dust off his cartooning skills: he created some super illustrations for my ‘Game of Editorial Life’. A full house of editorial colleagues signed up to play along, based on the blurb:

Don't_panic

Life happens. And it’s impossible to prevent life’s ups and downs leaking into your working day – whether by gradual osmosis or a sudden deluge. But unlike employees, we freelancers or small business owners have no IT department, company health insurance or ‘compassionate leave’ allowances to fall back on when disaster strikes. We’re on our own: and the worst might happen. Can you handle it?

The workshop was very well received by the participants (thank you all for lovely feedback), and I came home filled with enthusiasm and plans for follow-up work, and a busy diary of client work booked up into early 2019. Hubris is not my usual style (imposter syndrome is my go-to work emotion). But I should have counted my chickens.

Problems are like buses

Not long after the conference a colleague got in touch to say she’d had problems with her work computer and was glad that we’d talked about the importance of regular back-ups (among other things). It’s really satisfying to know that a workshop (or feedback provided to a trainee editor or proofreader) has been beneficial.

Meanwhile, I carried on with my client work and a small volunteering project helping SfEP to rewrite its rules and regulations in preparation for an exciting development.

But early in 2019 the stable earth underpinning my freelance world began to shift. An old friend’s husband died in tragic circumstances and I did my best to offer support. My son was in an accident (luckily without severe injury). I told my clients straight away, as I’d advised in the Don’t Panic workshop, and they were all fantastically supportive.

Not long after, my faithful office assistant, Matty – a regular feature of my Christmas round-robin greetings to clients and colleagues – began to succumb to his 14 doggie years and needed increasingly close care.[5]

And from then on my days and weeks changed tempo from allegro to rallentando – as if my world view shifted to slow-mo in time with his laboured twice-daily plods to the nearby park.

By the time of the 2019 SfEP conference (the final one!) poor Matty was no more. Not long after, my son set off to university after a two-year gap year and my husband changed jobs to one with an extended commute, meaning I was left to my own devices as never before in my freelance career.

Empty nests and baskets

My work–life balance swung heavily in the ‘life’ direction when, only a few weeks later, my dad was hospitalised for a week following an accident; then again, in November, when he returned to A&E gripped by not one but three life-threatening conditions that kept us all on tenterhooks for about eight weeks. (He’s doing well, for now, in case you’re worried.)

Though sadness seemed ubiquitous, I had to carry on working but by ‘luck’ or, more precisely, by my own lack of planned marketing[6] I had hit a seriously slack period so the work pressure was temporarily off. Thank goodness. Yet I was comforted that I knew who to call on for editorial support if I had needed to pass on half-finished projects with looming deadlines (another strategy discussed in the workshop).

Nevertheless, for much of the past winter I was decidedly not myself, and struggled to find a new normal. My daily cycle of dog-walking, working,[7] chores, family stuff, dog-walking was broken. I just about managed to send family seasonal greetings, but failed to send my usual annual round-up and therefore missed the chance to catch up with colleagues and clients.

Springing back

It’s more than six months, now, since Matty took his last walk to the local windmill and, although I still miss him enormously, I have begun to chisel out a new normal.

  • Most days still begin with a walk – not accompanied by a four-legged friend, but by my iPhone, which is helping me to complete a year-long photographic project. (Results will be published in September.)
  • I still walk at lunchtime too, because fresh air, movement and a change of scenery are essential to refresh the mind and body between stints at the screen and keyboard. (I also have a standing desk.)
  • If I don’t walk in the morning, I do a quick yoga session to get me moving. (I’ve found a good no-nonsense all-over yoga routine.)
  • I joined an adult swimming class and learned to do front crawl properly. Making it from end to end of the pool for the first time with properly coordinated breathing was a proper high-five moment.
  • As the too-early daffodils poked their heads through the weeds of my neglected garden my work mojo sprang back, with bookings enough to cover my costs for the few months ahead[8] and give me time – just in time – to finally complete my proofreading2020 project (by the Autumn, barring further disasters).

On top of that, I’m signed up for three work-related distance learning courses to refresh my editing and writing skills, and I’m helping out with preparations for this year’s conference for editorial professionals in Milton Keynes.

CPD (continuing professional development) never goes out of fashion, and is one of the core principles of the newly minted Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading that launches in March 2020.[9] I’m delighted to have played a small part in its foundation. The support, friendship, professionalism and editorial expertise of colleagues in the old SfEP and new CIEP (see-eye-ee-pea) have helped to keep me going throughout my freelance career, particularly in the last few months. Many thanks to all of you

They say, in life, everything is a lesson. My recent experience has revised a lesson I’ve always known but often overlooked: expect the unexpected.

That’s my new normal. What’s yours?

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Belatedly, my 2019-20 charity donation is heading off to the Blue Cross. In memory of Matty, in the hope it will bring comfort and health to ill pets and their owners who are struggling to afford their care.

Photo of Matty, English Springer Spaniel, splashing through a river

Matty Dyett, 2005–2019

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Notes:

[1] This article has been six months or twenty years in the making, depending on your viewpoint. (My 20th anniversary of turning freelance is on 1 April 2020.)

[2] The stroke left my dad (formerly fit, well and self-sufficient) paralysed down his right-hand side and struggling to form sentences, though still with a huge capacity to take in all the details of the world around him.

[3] Yorkshire dialect: hanging in here by a thread.

[4] Touch wood – and I really am doing just that while typing with the other hand – I’ve not yet had to work through a properly bad business year. (Science/music grad me: hedging my bets on superstition.)

[5] Top tip for carers of old, incontinent male dogs: Vet’s Best washable wrap (get two) + Boots own- brand (human) female incontinence pads = an extra few months of active life for an old dog.

[6] It is a truth universally acknowledged that a freelancer in possession of an empty diary must be in want of a marketing plan. Great guidance on that here.

[7] Target = 6 hrs at max. concentration. Office workers achieve only about 3.1 hrs, according to Evan Davis’ guests on ‘The working week’ (BBC Radio 4 In Business; 27 February 2019). Well worth a listen.

[8] Including writing a Disaster Plan Checklist for CIEP.

[9] Eagle-eyed editors and proofreaders will have spotted an important little change therein: for has become of. (For now, I need to recheck every time I type it!)