Keep Calm and Carry on Editing: SfEP Conference Report

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Ron Thiele was inspired by the lovely people at the SfEP (Society for Editors and Proofreaders) conference in the UK in September. They are dealing with many of the issues also facing Editors Victoria. Ron reports back for us.

The Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) two-day 2014 annual conference was held at the beautiful Royal Holloway, University of London campus, on the outskirts of London and a short walk from Runnymede where, in 1215, King John sealed the Magna Carta.

Some 130 friendly, engaging and well-informed editors and proofreaders attended. Most were from the United Kingdom, with a few from Australia, South Africa and Canada. My partner Freddie observed, 'it takes a particular type of person to be an editor' and with that I realised that, despite 40 years as an editor, I had never appreciated our profession is so strongly characterised by the type of people who choose it.

The keynote speech - by writer and editor Robert McCrum - overviewed the dramatic changes in the publishing and newspaper industries over the last 50 years. A surprisingly high percentage of participants (and, I suspect, SfEP members) were editors who were retrenched from the industry, then hired back as freelancers. McCrum described the evolution of the industries from the 'lost world of smoke, ink and paper, long lunches and hard drink' to the present, a 'plunge into darkness and uncertainty'. Unfortunately, none of the conference speakers provided notes, so I may have missed his finer points, but one stuck out. We are now at the end of the beginning, he thinks. At last, some of the issues that have been so up-in-the-air in recent years are now settling down, and becoming understandable.

We should 'keep calm and carry on', he advises. Technological upheaval has resulted in a vast increase in the amount of information being created, and in the number of people creating it. This has raised fundamental issues about quality control: its costs, benefits, relevance and context. What does it ultimately matter if expression and grammar are poor quality, if the meaning is clear enough? Who suffers, and how do they suffer, if commas are misplaced or hyphens are missing? As the consensus about what's proper and what's not collapses, where is the return for the editing dollar? These are the serious questions we must address, find answers to, and communicate. But McCrum felt it was working out: the market would eventually fragment along quality lines and the role of editing would be reinstated to its former glory.

Two workshops were particularly noteworthy. My first workshop - Marketing tools for the freelance editor, led by Mary McCauley - was a thoughtful and engaging primer covering customer service, networking, and the importance of a website and social media, and of linking the two. Mary told us a third of website traffic now comes from mobile devices, mostly via social media, and that it drives traffic to your website.

There seemed to be quite a push among participants, and even some presenters, for editors to muck in and develop their website themselves. Why, after all, it's cheaper! Perhaps website developers are sitting around having the same conversations about using editors!

I found I needed to be told what to do when someone presents me with a business card. Mary said people tend to glance at it and fumble and put it in their pocket and change the topic. What you're meant to do is look at it, admire and compliment the design, and register the face of the person who gave it to you!

My second workshop - What next for the SfEP?, facilitated by SfEP Chair Sara Peacock - talked over some key issues for the society.

The society itself is a substantial enterprise: some 1700 members, 38 regional groups, and special interest groups. It is a company, governed by a board of directors, who are called councillors. By convention, they serve two-year terms and are paid for their time (after exceeding a base workload). At the AGM, one councillor retired after 15 years in the position!

Last year, the society conducted 51 classroom courses for 500 students, plus online courses with similar numbers, plus in-house training programs. Initially administered by volunteers, it now has three staff and plans to employ a fourth. The society turns over half a million pounds a year, and made over 50,000 pounds profit last year.

Most members join the society as associates and, by testing and satisfying particular criteria, become ordinary, and then advanced, members. This arrangement has led to the rise of the 'permanent skilled associate' and the society now has a disproportionately large ratio of associate to ordinary and advanced members. It is now restructuring its membership categories, and its process for upgrading from ordinary to advanced membership.

The society sets high standards for membership. Its new system is far more thorough than ours. The changes it is proposing recognise a wider range of editorial experience; include an optional editorial test; allow for experience and referees; and will be online.

The annual general meeting held in conjunction with the conference decided to make these changes in principle, with the details to be worked out before final arrangements are decided by the society's Council. Longstanding associate members will then be urged to upgrade their membership. The aim is to get all members on an upgrade path to advanced membership, with time limits at each level. What will actually happen is uncertain: like us, and for similar reasons, significant numbers of associates don't renew each year. They expected to launch the system by 1 November.

My own contribution was a 'lightning talk': five minutes to explain some of the issues behind my new website business and the service definition and job costing concepts underlying it. Being an antipodean assured me of an engaged and attentive audience! Other highlights were a hilarious and completely (seemingly) unscripted after-dinner speech by radio host Mark Forsythe at the Gala dinner, and frequent chats with Elizabeth Manning Murphy hard at work bringing her latest book to market. In all, a delightful two days spent with very friendly people, talking about our common passion: editing.

Ron Thiele

Some useful resources:

  • Social Media Video 2013: Why social media matters for your business ... in 3 minutes 50 seconds
  • The unofficial SfEP Facebook group for SfEP members, or the SfEP Facebook page, which is open to all
  • Google Alerts: Set up alerts so that Google will email you whenever you or your business are mentioned on the web. Also useful for keeping track of other topics of interest
  • Louise Harnby's Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading BusinessApparently the 'must have' book on the topic
  • Cold Turkey: A program that temporarily blocks you off of social media sites, addictive websites, games and even programs. As its website says, 'Imagine how fast you could do your work without all those distractions!'