SfEP and Society of Indexers conferences, September 2018

This year the SfEP and SI conferences were co-located at the University of Lancaster, and organised so that it was possible to go to most of both, with a joint gala dinner in the middle. I’ve been to two previous SI conferences but this was my first SfEP event – it was good to be able to get the benefit of both in one trip.

The SfEP conference began on Sunday with Lynne Murphy’s keynote on the different attitudes to grammar rules in the US and UK. Lynne is Professor of Linguistics at Sussex, born in the US but living in the UK since 2000, so well placed to consider this. In a very entertaining talk, Lynne highlighted some of the key differences: what I took away was that the US approach to grammar is much more based on a codified set of rules, whereas in the UK our rules are unspoken, learned by osmosis and class-related – we learn to speak and write correctly by knowing the right people, rather than through education. In America, however, learning the rules of grammar and writing is a formal, explicit part of education at school and university. Inevitably, this leads to differences in editing styles. Anecdotal evidence from Lynne’s colleagues suggests that UK editors work more from the ‘feel’ of a text and change less than their US counterparts do. Lynne’s publisher would have been proud of the graceful way in which she plugged her new book, The Prodigal Tongue (Oneworld, 2018): I really want to read this, but in the meantime have been enjoying Lynne’s blog, Separated by a Common Language.

My next session was with Alison Hughes, a freelance translator whose workshop looked at building a freelance business through networking and generally engaging with people. Alison was very frank about how a sudden dip in incoming work had led her to re-evaluate her approaches to finding it; making small changes might not yield a direct quantifiable return but did help build her reputation and increase her clients’ trust in her. The first suggested activity – go alone to local events (preferably free ones) relevant to your specialism or subject area and participate – is an attractive one. Events where you might meet fellow industry professionals or potential clients are ideal, and these can be found through local universities, Eventbrite and Groupon – a place I would not have thought of looking – as well as through industry-specific bodies. It’s not necessary or desirable to market yourself aggressively, but you can mention what you do – and it’s useful to have an address book of colleagues you can recommend for work you can’t do, and to pass on your business card. Alison also talked about using social media to develop your business – Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter and your own blog all allow you to connect with potential clients and build relationships with them. I particularly noted her advice on LinkedIn: ensure your specialisms are included in your job title, and use your profile to tell a story rather than as your online CV. We also discussed doing work for no fee: Alison suggested trying to get something in exchange, like published credit, an invitation to a related event or promotion at it, and considering how long it would take – a freebie that takes an hour but would give you various marketing opportunities might be worth it; a six-month all-consuming project, probably not. Alison’s key message was, whatever approach you take to marketing, that you should engage – this will build your confidence along with your reputation.

Paul Beverley‘s short session on using macros in editing was fun and interesting and I’ll definitely be exploring his e-book and macro pack before my next editing job. Paul explained and demonstrated some key macros, and showed us you they fit into two groups: analytical macros, which give you information about how words are used and formed, and can help construct a stylesheet; and change macros which can correct repeated problems or errors with a few keystrokes. Paul’s overarching theme was that macros take the dull legwork out of editing and allow you to concentrate on the enjoyable bits – and they can also speed up your workflow. Paul has an extensive YouTube channel with lots of videos showing how to make best use of his macros.

After a short break, it was time for the SI conference to start. Professor Tony McElroy’s keynote on the Corpus Linguistics project at Lancaster was fascinating. This computer-assisted language analysis project shows trends and tendencies in normal language usage. Volunteers’ daily speech is recorded, transcribed and then evaluated and can reveal unexpected things that, as daily language users, we don’t notice. Tony’s example was the word “cause” which, as noun or verb, almost always has a negative connotation – we don’t say “that caused me to win a free holiday” – but definitions of the word do not necessarily reflect this. The project is computer-assisted because while computer data analysis is quicker and more reliable, human input is still necessary to understand language context. There is a free online course based on the project at https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/corpus-linguistics.

The gala dinner was a grand affair in Lancaster’s Great Hall. I was delighted to join the Linnets, the scratch choir, for a short performance before dinner, and slightly appalled to discover part-way through dinner that I’d be receiving my certificate of commendation for the Betty Moys award from Sam Leith during his after-dinner speech. I’d vaguely assumed this would be happening quietly at the SI AGM. I managed to get up and collect it without tripping over, however. Sam Leith gave an excellent speech and we were well looked after by the catering staff.

On Monday, I attended an excellent session run by Ruth Ellis on client relationship management. Ruth encouraged us to think systematically about how we communicate with our customers, to streamline our admin and save ourselves time, and how to ensure we get paid. Thinking about the needs of different types of clients, the information and advice they might need, and developing standard approaches to this can help secure clients and retain them. Ruth also discussed disaster recovery plans – not just ensuring you have good backup systems, but making sure you have a disaster buddy. This should be someone who knows what you’re working on and how to contact them if, for any reason, you’re suddenly unable to complete your work. Inevitably the discussion turned to generating more work, and we discussed up- and cross-selling of other services, searching for forthcoming publications on Amazon and contacting editors about the index, and asking satisfied clients – especially authors – to recommend you to their colleagues. Ruth mentioned that she scores her work and clients according to a number of factors that she particularly values, to help her decide between projects and whether to accept future work, which is an interesting idea. I came away from this workshop with a list of things to do to my email templates and a resolution not to be so coy about asking for recommendations and testimonials.

The joint SI/SfEP keynote was from Kathryn Munt, CEO of the Publishing Training Centre. Kathryn gave a rather sobering account of outsourcing in UK publishing and its impact on the availability of work, workflow and process, and payment rates. There was a sharp intake of breath in the room when she explained that a well-known UK publisher had outsourced all its activities apart from brand management – including commissioning and developmental editing – to a partner company, effectively making that company a publisher in all but name.. Kathryn’s slide on publishing industry expectations of freelancers – including flexibility, willingness to learn new skills, and to work in partnership with publishers and outsourcers – don’t, as Anna Nicholson (@axnicho) points out in her tweet, necessarily mesh well with the actual skills of editors, proofreaders or indexers.

The final SI event was a really clear and helpful talk on indexing in the context of digital publication and e-books by Jan Worrall and Paula Clarke Bain. I’ve had XML explained to me before but never so clearly, and the explanation of how various indexing tools like WordEmbed, IndexManager and  IndexLinker can (and sometimes don’t) work for digital texts was incredibly useful. Jan is working to make this talk into an online SI workshop, which will be an excellent development.

Lancaster was a good place for the conference – it’s a nice campus and the train from London was quick – although the drop in temperature was a bit of a shock to a soft Southerner. I enjoyed both conferences, although wasn’t really prepared for the sheer force of numbers at the SfEP conference; the main building for the SfEP got crowded quickly, especially at meals and breaks.  But it was good to meet other editors as I try to develop that aspect of my work, including some Sussex-based SfEP members who encouraged me to come along to the next local group meeting, and I always enjoy talking to other indexers. After such a stimulating couple of days, I was grateful that I’d planned a few days of solo walking in the Lakes where I could process and decompress – and refine my list of post-conference jobs to something a little more manageable.

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