Twenty-five years and counting

This is an exciting time of year for many young people who, if they are lucky, will shortly be entering the ‘real world’ of work. It’s twenty-five years since I took the same tentative steps, and in this post I share a few thoughts for would-be editors, proofreaders and journalists, and some reflections for those of us who are at the ‘peak’ of our careers.

As last month’s undergraduates posed, capped and gowned, for the obligatory pre-graduation ceremony portrait, and Year 13s blitzed through schools or sixth-form colleges dressed as superheroes (at our local, anyway) before packing their bags for summer camps or gap years, I was ‘fondly’* remembering my own first day at ‘proper work’ as one of three new sub-editors in the journals office of Chapman & Hall, New Fetter Lane.

The weather in July 1988 was, if I remember correctly, pretty similar to that of 2013. Immediately post-graduation ceremony we were driven (thanks to my future in-laws) from Keele University in a massive thunder storm all the way down south to ‘that London’ – the scary metropolis I had only visited a couple of times before – but the sun began to shine when we arrived and hung around for several blisteringly hot weeks.

We were lucky to have both secured our first jobs before we had left campus, something many of today’s graduates can only dream of; luckier still that my future husband’s grandparents had a spare room in their south London home so we didn’t need to suffer the stress of finding a place to rent or stumping up a deposit (not for a couple of weeks, anyway).

Photocopier blues

Although I had plenty of work experience on my CV, thanks to some editorial work on a medical journal I had wangled through a family connection, and lengthy stints of waitressing and temping in an office during university vacations (and various other distinctly odd jobs before that), nothing quite prepared me for what turned out to be the first day of a twenty-five year (and counting) career in publishing.

What do I remember about my first day?

It was hot; I was over-dressed; I had an embarrassingly unfashionable handbag; and I couldn’t speak Kiwi. On the plus side, I did successfully manage to jam the photocopier, as is obligatory on one’s first day at work.

Let’s not forget this was the late 1980s and Mrs Thatcher was still very much at the helm of the country and regarded as a role model for modern working women (yes, even by me, I’m ashamed to admit). So my sartorial preparations for the big day comprised the purchase of a dress (a novelty item in my wardrobe), tights, smart white court shoes and a big white handbag, large enough to stow a round of sandwiches, a couple of spare red pens and a Filofax (that’s 1980s-speak for iPhone, for any youngsters reading this!). I arrived, Pollyannaish, at the New Fetter Lane office by Tube (my first experience of commuting in the summer heat) to find a boisterous office populated by – shock, horror – jeans-wearers. Even the women were wearing trousers.

I didn’t need the sweaty sandwiches, because we three new recruits (two dress-wearing females and a male in a suit) were treated to lunch out with our new colleagues at a typical London greasy spoon cafe, just off Fleet Street. But I did need, and should have made much better use of, the Filofax, because the whole area was seething with journalists and publishing types – a networking paradise that I naively ignored in favour of keeping my head down and getting on with the daily grind. I didn’t even take much notice of the helicopters delivering Robert Maxwell to the Daily Mirror headquarters next door. Clearly, I didn’t have Investigative Journalist on my career plan … Actually, I didn’t have a career plan, and that’s probably where we 1980s graduates differ so much from today’s first jobbers.

At the time, my main plan was to have a job and get paid; end of. As it happens, I landed on my feet because Chapman & Hall gave me an excellent grounding in basic editorial skills. This began on the first day, when I was seated next to Nelly (whose actual name I’m afraid I can’t remember), a lovely lady from New Zealand who was keen to share her skills, knowledge and experience with me before her work permit ran out in a few months’ time. We began, there and then, with some simple proofreading – on paper and against copy.

On your marks!

She showed me how to read the typeset journal article (Journal of Materials Science) word by word, line by line, and compare it with the copy-editor’s mark-up. She showed me the ‘delete’ symbol, and I duly crossed out a word in the body text and wrote a squiggle in the margin.

‘No, no, that’s not right. That word shouldn’t be deleted,’ said Nelly. ‘Put a dotted line under the word and write stit in the margin in a circle.’ So I followed her instructions, wrote ‘stit’, put a circle round it … and carried on.

‘No, no, that’s not right. I said write stit in the margin,’ she laughed, as she checked my work later. I must have looked puzzled, so she spelt it out: ‘S  T  E  T.’

It wasn’t until the following week, on the first day of an Introduction to Publishing course run jointly by Book House (now PTC) and Leicester School of Printing that the penny finally dropped. ‘Stet,’ said the tutor, ‘from the Latin.’ Ah, now you’re talking my language!

And that, dear readers, is why we are grateful to the members of the BSI committee who, in its 2005 version of ‘Proof-correction marks – BS 5261C:2005’ (available via SfEP) introduced the use of the encircled tick in the margin to represent ‘stet’ (let it stand) and henceforward we have all been able to avoid potential antipodean-accent-related confusions.

Yes, I learnt a great deal in my first year in the publishing industry – not least that I wanted to gain broader skills and work for different companies and on different materials, and therefore only stayed at Chapman & Hall for a year. Some of the lessons are no longer relevant (women can wear trousers to work after all, it seems!), but here are three key points for publishing newbies to bear in mind:

  • Do your homework. Use your networking skills to find out about your future colleagues before you even go to the interview (e.g. check them out via Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn). If the office culture doesn’t fit your expectations, you’ll be miserable. (Diligent proofreaders who like peace and quiet may hate the idea of working next to the marketing department’s ping-pong table.)
  • Don’t dress to impress on your first day – dress to be comfortable. Sure; be smart, or if that’s not strictly necessary, be appropriate. But if you spend all day worrying about the length of your skirt or the presence/absence of tie you’ll give off nervous vibes and be distracted at exactly the time when you should be concentrating on learning new names and faces.
  • Don’t panic if you don’t like it. It is acceptable to admit you’ve made a mistake and wish you were working somewhere else, or doing a different job altogether. (We all have our dreams!) Use your time at the company to your advantage, always remembering to work as hard as you can – it’s all useful experience, after all.

There is only one lesson I would pass on to my fellow experienced editors, proofreaders and writers, but I think most of my colleagues already know it: there is always something new to learn.

And what of my future? Twenty-five years ago, I didn’t have a clear-cut career path, and I still don’t. But one of the great things about a life in publishing – especially if you are freelance – is that there are many opportunities, and every day is different. I would not begin to compare my career with that of Diana Athill, whose must-read autobiography is named after a well-known but now defunct proofreading symbol … but if I’m still going when I reach my fiftieth year, I’ll come back and tell you all about it!

* Quiz: how many sets of sarcasm scare quotes can you find in this article?