Conferences, confidence and comfort zones

Once upon a time, there was a girl. She always got picked for the big parts in school assemblies and plays: always the narrator, never the lead with an actual good costume. She always spoke eloquently and confidently, and everybody said she would do great things. She was probably really bloody annoying, to be perfectly honest with you.

Fast forward a couple of decades, and that girl … well, she’s certainly not failing at life, but she hasn’t exactly done those great things either. Somewhere along the line, all that confidence she had drifted away, worn away by the comfort of a nice little job and a nice little life. And when she … okay, it’s me, we’ve figured that out now, right? So I can switch to first person? When I had to set up my own business and make it on my own, that lack of confidence, along with my well-documented fear of failure, meant imposter syndrome often came calling.

But gradually, I’ve been learning to fight that monster and get my groove back. So I was asked if I’d like to give a session about swearing at this year’s SfEP conference, I, being in the middle of my Saying Yes kick, said yes. (And also because you got a discount on the conference and I’m a notorious cheapskate.)

Almost the minute I’d agreed, I wondered what the hell I’d done. Giving a conference session? Me? An editor who’s only been in the game a couple of years? Who’s going to take me seriously? Why on earth should they? But I’d said yes now, so I started to prepare. It was hard. I had to learn how to use PowerPoint, which surprised me – how the hell do you work in an office for 11 years without ever having to use PowerPoint? I had to research and refine my thoughts and ideas into something coherent, entertaining and informative, and then I had to practise saying it. And the more I practised, the more I remembered that annoying, confident girl. And when I stood up in front of that room of people, I felt her back with me again.

The session went really well – not perfectly, but then nothing does, and I count it as a huge measure of personal growth that I’ve barely given the mistakes a second thought since (except for “fucktion”. That was pretty funny). And – and here’s the bit that keeps surprising me – people said, and continue to say, really nice things about it. People said they had fun, that my session was funny and entertaining, and I’m so grateful for that. But even better are the comments that picked up on the more serious points I was making (yes, there were a few. I can do serious sometimes). Yes, it was about swearing; yes, it was silly; yes, it involved the creation of a game which is basically Cards Against Humanity for word nerds. But I genuinely have to edit a lot of swear words, and those words deserve as much editorial care as any other word I deal with. So I was glad people recognized that and, even better, didn’t laugh at the fact it was little old me telling them about it. It’s boosted my confidence, in both my editing and my public speaking skills, immeasurably.

Comfort zones change over time. But unless we’re vigilant, they only grow inwards. They shrink, without us noticing, until they’re far too cosy to break out of easily. But breaking out of a comfort zone isn’t always trying new things. Sometimes it’s trying old things, breaking out of who you’ve become and reminding yourself of who you were. Of who you still can be. And of those great things that are still within your reach.


(Sorry, I get overexcited by these things.)

September, as I’ve said before on this blog, is a time of new beginnings for me. And what better way to start this new year than by attending my second Society for Editors and Proofreaders conference? When at the very beginning of last year’s conference I saw that the date of this year’s coincided with my birthday, I decided I wasn’t going to go. But by the end of the conference (recounted at great length here, here, here and here), I was already doubting that decision, and by the time this year’s conference rolled around, not only had I completely changed my mind, I’d also agreed to lead a short session.

I’ll talk more about the experience of swearing at a roomful of colleagues for forty-five minutes another time (my session was about swearing, by the way. I didn’t just forget what I was supposed to do and start being rude to people), but for now here are my probably not very coherent thoughts about the sessions I attended.

First up was the Whitcombe Lecture, delivered by Lynne Murphy. I love Lynne’s blog, and I am absolutely cursing myself for not having picked up a copy of her book, but I could hear my alarmingly large TBR pile shouting at me all the way across the Pennines. Her talk on the differences between US and UK editing cultures was fascinating. Although I interact with a lot of US editors online, I hadn’t realised there was such a difference in style, and I’d certainly never thought about how that might relate to the more general cultures of each country – Lynne discussed the US’s preference for written rules in general, compared to the UK’s reliance on tradition. I’d also underestimated just how much more grammar education people get in the US compared to the UK – my generation was lucky if we got told what a noun was.

After coffee and biscuits (cherry cookie, pretty nice) I attended Eleanor Collins’s session on editing narrative openings. As a writer, I think I’m quite good at writing openings – for me, they’re often where the whole idea for the rest of the story grows from – but it’s clear that a lot of authors struggle with where and how to start their books. When editing, I can usually spot a problem with an opening and identify a better solution, but Eleanor’s session has given me a stronger framework and vocabulary to better explain the solutions to clients. Although it seems I’m in the minority in absolutely hating the opening to Enduring Love by Ian McEwan. I don’t care about your bloody salad, mate, tell me what’s happened to this balloon!

Lunch was next (controversial opinion: the dumplings weren’t really all that bad, once you knew they were dumplings), and then it was time for Maya Berger’s session on editing erotic fiction. As someone who regularly edits erotic romance, there wasn’t a great deal that was new for me here – this is the eternal conference dilemma: go to sessions that are relevant to your work and risk going over old ground, or learn something new that you might never need. But I really enjoyed the session anyway – Maya discussed what can be a delicate or embarrassing subject with tact, wit and professionalism, and there is always something to learn – for example, Maya had useful resources and tips for finding work editing erotica.

The last session of the day was mine, and once that was over I popped briefly in to the social media social, which is a lovely way to put real live faces to the names and avatars you’ve spent all year chatting online with. That evening was the gala dinner, including a great speech by Sam Leith, a hilarious performance by the Linnets, and friendly and funny conversation with my table-mates. And wine.

On Sunday morning, after packing up my titchy little room (it was very weird sleeping in student halls for the first time in…more years than I care to think about) I headed for Laura Poole’s session on making more money. I was very much looking forward to this one, as it’s the part of my business I need to do the most work on. Laura has so much energy that you can’t help but feel inspired by it, and the session definitely encouraged me to think more carefully about what my financial goals are and how I might achieve them. It’ll take work though – as Laura started her session by saying, “The dream is free; the hustle is sold separately.”

Next was Erin Brenner’s session on using business data to increase profits. I really enjoyed this session, although it did make me wonder: Why aren’t I better at data? A huge part of my old job was about capturing data and trying to make people use it to make better decisions, so I don’t really know why I’ve neglected to do this for my own business. I do track my time, but Erin’s session also looked at tracking and analysing enquiry and client information, which I currently don’t do anything with. I feel a new spreadsheet coming on…

The last elective session of the conference was Sarah Grey on inclusive language. This session was amazing, although sadly cut short due to time constraints and technical gremlins. Sarah’s main point was the radical notion that we should treat people – ALL people – as though they are people. Inclusive language welcomes people into a text, while exclusive language makes people feel as if it is not for them, and surely that’s something most authors would want to avoid. I’ve always felt that knowing when to flag problematic language can be a difficult line to walk in fiction – there are considerations of character voice to take into account – but as editors it’s important to think about what our responsibilities are not just to our client, but to their readers, and in particular any who may be hurt by the words the author has chosen.

The final session was the joint plenary with the Society of Indexers conference, given by Kathryn Munt of the Publishing Training Centre. She gave us a really interesting insight into offshoring in the publishing industry. I could feel a few hackles around the room being raised, but Kathryn was keen to point out she wasn’t trying to sell an idea – this is something that is already happening. It raised interesting questions about how we as editors – both collectively and individually – can engage with this process, and encourage the outsourcing companies to engage with us to ensure that quality doesn’t suffer.

It was a thought-provoking end to a fantastic conference. I learned a lot, I was inspired to do things differently in my business, and, of course, I loved meeting up with online friends old and new and making connections with people I’d never interacted with before. I’ve said it before, ad nauseum, but I’ll say it again, the SfEP community is incredible and I’m so proud to be a part of it.

And I’m especially proud that I was on the winning quiz team. Granted, I knew absolutely nothing about any of the literature questions and had to leave all those to my friend Nikki and the incredibly brainy Society of Indexers members who were on our team, but I knew my encyclopaedic knowledge of cheesey pop lyrics would come in handy some day. The next quiz (and, you know, the next conference) will take place in Birmingham on 14th September 2019. I’ll see you there.


Hi, everyone! It’s back-to-school time already. If you need me, I’ll be trying to figure out what happened to 2018.

One of the many things I did over the summer was sort out my garden. My garden isn’t the greatest. A combination of terrible soil, lack of sunlight in key areas, and an owner who knows the square root of fuck all about plants (I mean, what idiot plants mint in a flowerbed?) means that it usually looks like a random mess of vaguely green things that may or may not be there on purpose. Now it looks like this:


Editing’s a bit like gardening. There comes a time when you need to pull out all the dead and dying bits, the weeds that crept in while you weren’t paying attention, and the unruly plants that will take over given half a chance, so the flowers can flourish. Some gardens require a little delicate trimming with secateurs; for others you need to get out the heavy-duty lopping shears.

Mine was edging towards the latter, so I called in reinforcements. My mum and dad came over, armed with tools and superior knowledge of how to bring my poor battered hebe back to life (it never really recovered from the Beast from the East). My mum’s the developmental editor: she’s the one who tells me what has to go completely and what just needs a bit of pruning. She knows what will happen if I hack off all the branches that look slightly damaged (I did not consult her before doing this, and my once glorious ceanothus is now extremely lopsided), and can help me transplant my pieris to somewhere it’s not going to be choked to death by the Japanese anemones.

My dad’s the copy-editor. He likes to get things looking neat and perfect. He spent hours on my lawn, mowing it to a nice consistent length, then tidying the edges until they were straight and pristine, making sure that all my mum’s hard work in sorting out the plants wasn’t spoiled by straggly, unkempt grass.

And then there’s the giant phormium. This lives just outside my garden, in the communal parking area. Like the hebe, it did not enjoy the extreme winter, and it ended up with half its leaves dying, while simultaneously growing twelve-foot high stems that lurched menacingly in the breeze. One day, bored of looking at it through my office window, I decided I was going to sort it out.

I didn’t know where to start. This thing was huge. There were dead bits everywhere. I couldn’t even begin to think about making it look nice until I’d made it more manageable. So out came the loppers, and off came anything that obviously didn’t need to be there. Now I can see what I’m actually dealing with, and as soon as I remember to put my garden bin out so there’s room in it, I can focus on making it look pretty again.


Granted, this is a lot easier to do with a plant than a story. You can see which bits of a plant you need to get rid of by the fact that they’ve turned brown and shrivelled up. Elements of a story which no longer belong there aren’t so easily identified. And you didn’t spend hours of your life slaving and agonising over each bit of the plant (unless you did. Some people are really into plants.). So this is where you need other people to help you wield your shears. Critique partners, writing groups, alpha/beta readers, professional editors – all can help you see what can be so hard for an author to see, that some of your beloved words need to be trimmed. As an author, it’s easy to lose sight of what is and isn’t helping your garden grow.

So, the morals of this blog post are: stories are like gardens, editors can help you prune, and don’t plant mint in a flowerbed.

My foray into self-publishing

I’ll tell you a secret: I am in awe of anyone who writes a novel. Anyone. Even if the book is terrible. Even if it’s barely readable. I’m still in awe. Because they sat down and they wrote a damn book.

I’ve been trying to do that for years, but the longest thing I’ve managed to write so far was about 15,000 words long. In my head it was originally going to be a novel, but apparently writing that many words is not yet something I can do. But I was proud of my little story, and I wanted to do something with it. I don’t really have the patience for the long process of querying, especially for something that’s such an awkward length, so I decided: why not become one of those indie authors I work with every day?

So I did. I am now an actual author! This is very exciting. I’ve wanted to be an author since I was little, and now I can finally say I am one. And here’s what I learned along the way.


Cover by Elizabeth Grey.


Books won’t write themselves

I know, right? What a revelation. But I think part of me was somehow hoping this wasn’t really true. This story had been floating around my head for ages, but the actual getting-it-down part was the thing I kept never getting around to. But no one else is going to do that for you, as I discovered. And then once it’s down, there are the editing, feedback and more editing stages, which are crucial. So now it’s done, I wish I’d started sooner, and kept going with it. You’ll never achieve something if you don’t actually do the thing. (Deep, I know.)

Even editors need editors

I knew this, and so I asked another editor I know to copyedit for me. And I knew I was sending her tight, clean copy that wouldn’t need too much doing to it. But there were still errors, and still stupid sentences like “He shook his head to clear such a ridiculous thought from his head”. There comes a point where you can’t see your own work, so a fresh pair of eyes on it is an absolute must.

I am “that” client.

Turns out, I’m a pain in the arse. I’m that client, the one who insists her words are too precious to mess with. My editor did a great job, and I took lots of her advice. But I also ignored some of it, just because I didn’t like it. And you know what? It was my right as the author to do this. This is one of the first lessons an editor needs to learn. As editors, all we can do is suggest. If the author wants to put something out there that’s less than perfect, or even downright wrong, there’s nothing we can do about it. It’s not our name on the cover. But it’s my name on this cover, and I needed to feel completely comfortable with every change that was made to my work. In the best author–editor relationships, both parties totally understand that, and I hope I have those with my clients, because I know I did with my editor.

It might surprise you who will buy your book

I’ve had some lovely and surprising messages from people I haven’t seen in years, people I only know from social media, and friends of my husband’s who I’ve never met, saying they bought my book and enjoyed it. Nothing makes you feel like a Proper Author more than knowing someone other than your mum is reading your work (to be honest, I’m not totally sure my mother has read it).

I have the best cheerleaders

I’m not sure I ever would have got this story out into the world without lots of encouragement and love from my friends and family. Many of them gave up their time to read my story and tell me their thoughts, and without their kindness my story would still be languishing on my computer. I’m sure there are people who would say it should probably stay there (I was once told not to even think of publishing anything until I’d written a million words), but that was never what I wanted for this story. I wanted to share it, and now I have, thanks to the people who believed in me.

I’m really glad I published my story. It was so interesting to be on the other end of editing, and to see the rest of the self-publishing process that I’m not normally involved in. I hope it’s going to make me a better editor, and I hope the buzz of doing it will motivate me to get on with some of my other writing projects. And hopefully it won’t be another five years until the next one’s finished. Honestly, I’m worse than George RR Martin. And I don’t even have flying dragons or incest to worry about.

If, by the way, you’d like to buy said (extremely tiny) book, it is available on Amazon in e-book or paperback formats. And if you’d like to leave me a review, I’d probably squeal with excitement.

Accountability and Getting Shit Done

I have an accountability group on Facebook. Well, I say a group; it’s really just me and my friend Jill. We did have a couple more members, but one wasn’t on Facebook much, and the other had the audacity to go and have a baby, and even though I am a fan of accountability and efficiency, I think hassling the mother of a newborn about why she hasn’t done stuff is a little harsh.

The accountability group is great because one of the drawbacks of working on your own is that there is no one to notice or care how productive (or otherwise) you’re being. I don’t have a problem with getting on with my core business activities, like actual editing, because I have clients and I will not let them down. But making sure all the other stuff gets done, the training, the marketing, the admin – the stuff that nobody but me is counting on – that’s a little trickier.

So, every Monday (or thereabouts – one of the problems I have with freelance life is that I used to use my meeting schedule to keep track of what day it was, and now I never have a clue), Jill and I post our to-do lists in the group and encourage each other to do the things on it. That’s pretty much it – I’m sure there are much more effective and rigorous ways in which proper accountability groups should operate, but if we were better at being rigorous, maybe we wouldn’t need the accountability group – but since we’ve been doing this I’ve found it a whole lot easier to actually do the things I want to do.

It might seem silly – there’s only the two of us, and we live in different countries so it’s not like we can physically check that the other is doing what they’re supposed to – but it really does help me to put my goals out there, even if ‘out there’ is only to one other person. Seeing them written down, knowing someone else will know if I don’t achieve them, gives me that little bit of a push I need to make sure shit gets done. They’re very often not particularly big or important or even work-related things (Jill laughs at how often ‘Make granola’ is on my list), but that’s not the point. The point is to get into that mindset: decide what to do, tell someone you’re doing it, then just bloody do it.

It also forces me to think more carefully about the tasks on my list. I can have ‘Maybe look into training’ on my paper list for literally months, but I try to be more specific for the group (SMART targets, if we’re going to go all management-speak about it). So I have to break it down into chunks, and those chunks are much more manageable than that bigger, vaguer task: “Look into training” becomes “Today, look at the SfEP website to see what courses are available,” and “Tomorrow, decide on which course I should do” and “The next day, sign up and pay for course”, and before I know it I’ve actually started some training. And then I get to air how ridiculously proud of myself I am to someone who won’t think I’m pathetic. Or at least if she does, she would never tell me so, because she’s very lovely.

So, if you struggle with your motivation and the general daily struggle that is Getting Shit Done, I’d definitely recommend trying to find or create an accountability group. We may work on our own, but we don’t have to do everything alone.

And look, Jill, another thing ticked off this week’s list 😊

I Stopped Going On Social Media Before Lunch And Guess What Happened.

I Went On Buzzfeed Instead And Learned How To Write Amazing Titles For My Posts.

Not really. OK, maybe a bit really, but that’s honestly not the point of this post.

My love–hate relationship with social media is well documented. Mostly it’s love, but I can’t deny it takes up a hell of a lot of time I could probably use more productively. I usually start my day with social media. I check in on my personal friends and family on Facebook while I’m having my breakfast. Then I start looking at Twitter while I’m brushing my teeth, and depending on how active my US Tweetmates have been overnight, that can continue after I’ve dropped the kids off at school. Then I check in on my work-related Facebook groups. And then, finally, I start work.

I enjoy this routine, but I’m pretty sure it’s not the healthiest thing. When I’ve been on a difficult deadline, I often forego those a.m. checks and dive straight in to editing, and I have to admit I seem much more productive when I do – not only do I have more time available to me, I seem to get more work done in that time, meaning I also get chances to do all those things that so often fall by the wayside, such as housework, life admin, and occasionally having conversations with my children that aren’t me just yelling at them to put their shoes on.

And as much as I love social media, I can’t deny that it doesn’t always affect my mood for the better. No matter how efficient you are with lists and filters, you can’t escape the odd bit of real-life news, and so much of it is often enraging. And the sheer amount of information that fills my timeline takes an enormous amount of energy to process. Social media makes me feel happy, entertained and supported, but it can also make me feel angry and tired.

Last week, I had quite a lot of work to do, and also a few family commitments. I needed to get stuff done, and have enough energy left to really enjoy my downtime. So, a challenge: how will I feel, and how productive will I be, if I stay off social media every morning for a week? Absolutely no Facebook or Twitter before the clock strikes 12. For any reason. The thought of it made me shake a little. Which is probably exactly why I needed to do it.


OK, so not a great start, as the actual first thing I do is pick up my Kindle, see I have Facebook notifications, and immediately go to check them. I’m in the middle of reading a post I’ve been tagged in (an edibuddy sharing my sweary dictionary), when I remember that I’m supposed to be staying off until lunchtime. I immediately put it down and go to wake the children.

I manage to leave the house a whole two minutes earlier than normal. Go me.

Coming back from the school run and resisting the temptation of my usual routine is hard, but I the mild panic over how much work I have to do this week is a good motivator. I have a really productive morning and felt great.

But it’s slightly shameful how excited I am to log on after lunch. And how easily distracted I am once those browser tabs are open. Safe to say the afternoon is not quite as productive as the morning. Oh well. It’s still only the first day, right?


Oh, it’s a struggle today. I’m very tired, having stayed up late wrapping birthday presents for my elder daughter. So I don’t really want to start work until I’ve woken up a little more, and the urge to faff about a bit until my brain is ready is very strong. But we’re going out for birthday tea after school, so I have less time than normal today, so I don’t really have time to wait to be ready. I do a little bit of internet banking instead, and I promise myself if I have a good morning and get to the end of the task I’m in the middle of, I can have a nice curl up on the couch with Twitter at lunchtime.

I find myself distracted anyway. I usually blame social media for distracting me, but perhaps it’s also true that some days I am just too tired to focus properly. However, without social media, when my mind wanders, I’m forced to make it wander towards things like changing my energy supplier, which I really need to do if I don’t want my bills to jump up by £30 a month, so I suppose it’s a win.


Today I have a gap between dropping the kids off at school and my hair appointment, so instead of going somewhere to get a coffee and look at Twitter, I go swimming, which I haven’t done in months. So that feels good. Then I go to the library to work, and even though they do have wi-fi, for some reason I am less easily distracted when I’m there. By the time I get home I’m strangely not really bothered about “catching up” with Twitter, so I have a quick check in and get back to work. Although when I log on again later in the evening, I spend far too long blankly looking at Tweets about Love Island (I don’t even watch it) and go to bed far too late.


I slip up today. Probably because I’m so tired after last night’s Twitter fail. I get a twitter notification on my phone and immediately go to check it. Oops. I practically throw my phone across the room and start work. At 11.47, I’m waiting for PerfectIt to do its thing, and I saw a notification earlier from my accountability buddy, so I decide to check Facebook. I figure this is me being efficient and using dead time.

And I feel OK about this slight bending of the rules, because I am much further forward with work than I expected to be this week. And I feel like I’ve broken that spell, the one that makes me need to read every single tweet since I last logged on. Because a lot of the people I follow are in different time zones, this takes ages if I do it first thing. If I wait until lunchtime it’s pretty much impossible, so I’m learning to let go. I’m actually kind of thankful for the feature that shows me random stuff from hours ago now. Dear God, what have I become?


Really easy today. Helped by the fact I’m doing a first read-through of a developmental edit on my Kindle, so I’m not at my desk. In fact, it’s 3.45 and I’ve had to make myself go and check Twitter, because I know I’ve been tagged in a thread and I want to get my mentions under control, and I know if I don’t have a quick check-in now, and I’ll end up on here all night. This morning, I used the time that ordinarily would have been social media time to wander round Home Bargains, which is much better for the soul. But more expensive.


I think about not sticking to this for the weekend, because hey, it’s the weekend. But then I remember I’m freelance and very often work weekends, although I’m not working much this one, so I might as well keep it up. Although I do slip up again by checking a Twitter notification out of habit (why didn’t I turn those off?) But instead of scrolling through Twitter during my daughters’ swimming lesson, I read a little of the work-related book I’ve been slowly reading for ages (Into the Woods, by John Yorke, if you’re interested), and I feel it’s a much better use of my time


Today is even easier than it has been, because I don’t actually get out of bed until 10am, and then I have a few errands to run before my daughter’s birthday party. I take a quick half an hour to flick through Twitter after lunch, and while it’s nice to sit and have some time that isn’t running around after the kids or working, I actually lose interest quite quickly. I go on Facebook and Twitter again later on, but I decide to go and have a glass of wine and watch The Handmaid’s Tale instead.

And now it’s Monday again. I did it! (Mostly.) Yay me. So did I celebrate by hopping straight onto Facebook this morning?

Actually, no I didn’t. And I didn’t even have to try to stop myself.

Every time I make a conscious effort to cut down my social media use by developing a new routine, I realise something slightly scary – Twitter, especially, has such a hold on me. But it’s breakable, and once I do break it, I regain so much more time, energy, and productivity. The problem is it’s easy to slip back into bad habits, especially as giving up social media completely would probably have a detrimental effect on my business (aside from the invaluable support of the online editing community, I can trace most of my clients either directly or indirectly to social media). So I need to stay engaged, but I need to do it in a healthy way, and I think not starting my day with it is probably the way to do that. If I start my day distracted by all the funny/weird/sad/happy/frustrating/terrifying things social media can throw my way, it’s much harder to find the focus I need to get all my work done, engage with the people who are actually in the house with me, and do things like housework.

Well, maybe. I’m not going to hold my breath on the housework thing.