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How easy is your language?

Imagine that…

everywhere in Europe, it is easy to find information

it doesn’t matter how well you can read

writers make their message easy for everyone to understand.

The Handbook of Easy Languages in Europe imagines just that. It shows what works and what still needs doing to make language easy for everyone. Camilla Lindholm (University of Tampere) and Ulla Vanhatalo (University of Helsinki) edited it, and Alice Lehtinen (another fantastic Finn) is the copy editor. I was delighted when Frank & Timme sent me a review copy. (It’s volume 8 in their series on easy, plain, and accessible language.) So I was feeling favourable towards this tome before I even opened it.

At 658 pages, this is not for the faint-hearted. To read it, I had to break it down. So I started with my working languages. I’ve trained in Plain English (with the CIEP) and Polish (a workshop with Tomasz Piekot and the ITI Polish Network). I’m doing a course on accessible Finnish (at the University of Tampere). I want to learn more about how Germans use easy language to inform people about elections. And I know how useful easy language can be. Learning Finnish in Finland, some of the first books I read were easy reads. I started consuming easy news (Selkouutiset) long before I could cope with the “real thing.”

Except easy is the “real thing.” It is not dumbed down. It is for all sorts of people who find reading difficult. This includes language learners,  people with learning difficulties, and older or ill people. Easy language is for adults. I would suggest that if plain language is at about CEFR level B1, easy language is at level A1 to A2. But each country has a different classification system. One of the problems with this is that what is easy for one person is difficult for another.

The variety in this book is startling. “Europe” here doesn’t only mean the EU. After a few chapters, if you know a bit about a country, you can guess about how they handle easy language. Ex-empires Russia and the UK have made government communication clearer. Multilingual Switzerland has a patchwork of initiatives that don’t integrate. The Germans are big on theoretical research, but less good on user-led practice.

But the stereotypes don’t hold. Austria has produced some excellent practical resources in German. Bilingual Finland has learned from Sweden to join forces to promote easy language. Countries that take pride in their literary tradition can relax the rules. Easy Spanish guidelines recommend ditching the subjunctive. You can write literature in easy language – it works best if readers help you do it.

This book is worth it for the bibliographies alone. Each chapter includes a list of the latest theoretical literature and practical guidelines. This offers a great way in to easy writing in a particular language. Dipping into countries you do not know much about can give you ideas about what could work in your country.

The authors show that context matters. Socioeconomic and postcolonial factors influence how people learn to read. Reading and writing well mean different things in different languages. If you find reading difficult, you might find accessing the internet difficult too.

Yet there are some surprising omissions. No chapter on France – is easy language not used there? I’d like to know more. The editors give a brilliant overview in the introduction. But they did not collate recommendations from across the continent in a conclusion. In such a big book, was there no space?

Important questions for future research and practice come up in different chapters. Does easy language create an “information ghetto” or do easy reads meet real needs? Is giving people access to audio-visual information in apps or online more important?  Do readers with learning difficulties and reading difficulties need  different texts? Who should  make the rules for easy language? Researchers, translators, teachers, social workers… or service users and readers? How can countries honour international commitments to accessibility in practice?

On the principle of “nothing about us, without us,” some authors recommend writing abstracts on the topic in easy language. So I did that for this book here:

The Handbook of Easy Languages in Europe is a big book.

50 writers wrote it.

They say that easy language for everyone.

It is easy to read and understand.

It started 50 years ago in Sweden.

Now people use it in many countries.

This book has chapters about 21 countries.

It answers 5 questions about each country:

1. What is the language like?

2. Are there rules about easy language?

3. Who uses easy language?

4. Can people learn about easy language?

5. How can we make language easier for everyone?

If you want answers to these questions, (get your library to) buy the Handbook of Easy Languages in Europe. It will inspire you to make language easier for more people, wherever you are.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

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How plain is your English?

Clear writing has clear results. And I love helping writers say exactly what they mean so readers can understand. But I was sure I could write better myself. Then I started mentoring someone who specialized in plain English and I wanted to learn more.

If you’re interested in it, too, do the CIEP Plain English for Editors course. It costs about £200 (less for CIEP members) and takes about 30 hours depending on what you know already. It’s worth it for the reading list alone. I learned a lot in a very short time:

Did you know that technology can help make your English plainer? You can customize Word grammar checks, use macros, and make PerfectIt style sheets. I also tried some software. StyleWriter highlights words that “bog” a text down and “pep” a text up, making it harder or easier to read. Online, you can use the Hemingway Editor for free. But all these tools have their limits.

You can calculate how plain a document is by measuring it in different ways:

  • The Flesch Reading Ease score should be about 65/100 for plain English.
  • The Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level should not be higher than 9 (a reading age of 15) for plain English. In the UK, the average reading age is 13.
  • Both these measures count word length and sentence length. A plain English sentence should be shorter than 20 words.

But long words and sentences are only one problem. Sometimes, a short statement can be complex, e.g. “I think, therefore I am.” Sometimes, you need to use more difficult language, but you can explain what you mean.

You can use some excellent online guides to help you write in plain English:

But you won’t absorb everything by visiting the websites. On the course, you do exercises and can talk to your tutor or other students. The best way to write in plain English is to try it and see what real readers think. They will tell you whether they understand or not.

It’s most important to plan before you start writing. Wh-questions are a clear, easy way to organize a text – who is doing what, where, when, and why?

The CIEP Plain English course taught me 10 things:

1.        Plain English is flexible

You just need to ask: “what do I want to say?” and “who am I writing for?”

2.        Plain English is interesting

You can vary it. Complicated, official language can be much more boring!

3.        Plain English is for sharing complex ideas

What you say is not simple, but the way you say it is clear.

4.        Plain English is for formal writing

A clear message sounds strong. Trying to sound clever might not work.

5.        Plain English is for taking readers seriously

How often do people say “that’s too easy to read”?

6.        Plain English is for university

Researchers can reach more people if they explain their ideas well.

7.        Plain English is for law

People find it easier to keep and enforce clear laws.

8.        Plain English is useful for reaching readers

You can use it give many people large amounts of information briefly.

9.        Plain English is hard work

You need to check words and sentence length, plan, and test.

10.      Plain English is faster and cheaper

It takes time, but it can save time – and money. If your text is clear, you don’t need to explain it.

I tried to write this in plain English, using all the tools and links I learned about. Can you see where I could have made it plainer?

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

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A Room of Our Own

Virginia Woolf was clear: £500 a year and a room of one’s own is what one needs to write. More than a century later, more than a year in, we are still mostly stuck in our rooms, but whether those rooms are solely our own is another question.

Unlike many, for me the move to homeworking made my workspace much more noisy and crowded. I’d had a home office for years, with a standing desk and even a mini trampoline. It’s off the living room and doubles as a guest room, but – apart from the private income – I was living Virginia Woolf’s dream. Until everyone else started working from home, including my musician partner, and the internet got a lot louder. Now, if there’s a book launch in Poland, a new collaborator on the East Coast of the US, or a group to give a talk to in Germany, they’re a click away. Yesterday I was using all four of my working languages in different meetings and barely had time to write. Or get up and move. I should say “no” more – but BC (before covid) I would have done a lot of this anyway, travelling there and back to warm up and wind down, with more walking, more thinking time. I do some of my best writing on public transport, often in the notes on my phone. That’s gone now and won’t be back in the same way.

While writing together online has kept us sane, I’m still hearing from other writers, especially women with caring responsibilities, that logging on from home is not enough. It’s not just the internet pouring noisily in. It’s the domestic space invading. Other people in the house want to eat, talk, be cared for –you can’t shut them out. And when you log off, there is no transition time.

“you know the little tug – the sudden conglomeration of an idea at the end of one’s line: and then the cautious hauling of it in, and the careful laying of it out?”*

That’s the thread women lose all the time. It happens to a man once, he writes about that, and everyone remembers it – the Person from Porlock. It happens to women numerous times a day.

Jane Austen wrote all her novels like this, in the shared sitting room, taking the manuscript out when she had a moment and tucking it away to be brightly social (and searingly observant) or dutifully domestic as the need demanded. But she, the Brontës, Eliot and Gaskell did not have children (nor do I, but plenty of women who write do, and yes, not all men, but it mostly affects women).

What those women writing before Woolf did have, though, was the money to write. And when Woolf’s aunt left her £500 a year – about £30k these days, the average UK schoolteacher salary – she could do the same. “Before that I had made my living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there; I had earned a few pounds by addressing envelopes, reading to old ladies, making artificial flowers, teaching the alphabet to small children in a kindergarten. Such were the chief occupations that were open to women before 1918.”*

Woolf is clear that material conditions make writing possible. As she notes, almost all the men who had done well from writing in her day were rich. Her comparison of the Oxbridge colleges with money (for men) and without (for women) is biting. Literally. The difference is in the dinner they get served, which makes for a different postprandial mood. “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”* I had that on a postcard on my student bedroom wall once – I didn’t think how political it was.

What the income gave Woolf was freedom:

“No force in the world can take from me my five hundred pounds. Food, house and clothing are mine forever. Therefore not merely do effort and labour cease, but also hatred and bitterness. I need not hate any man; he cannot hurt me. I need not flatter any man; he has nothing to give me.”*

She was aware of how rare that was. Shakespeare’s sister (not the band), she imagined, would not have even got to London as a woman alone, never mind got her plays on stage. But in two lectures at Newnham and Girton, Cambridge in 1928, Woolf asked her audience to remember that things were looking up for many Englishwomen:

“there have been at least two colleges for women in existence in England since the year 1866; that after the year 1880 a married woman was allowed by law to possess her own property; and that in 1919 – which is a whole nine years ago she was given a vote? May I also remind you that most of the professions have been open to you for close on ten years now?”*

This gave her and her listeners a responsibility to make it easier for the women who came after them to write, by working for it, and by writing themselves. A century later, Woolf predicted, things would look very different.

She was right. For the centenary of Woolf’s essay based on those lectures, the Royal Society of Literature asked its fellows to return to her theme. Some contributors did not even have a desk until their mid-twenties. Or books in the house at all. Or two coins to rub together – though one made the deliberate choice to teach full time, then part time, to have both time and money to write on. All these RSL Fellows say that waiting for the perfect conditions may well mean you never start writing. Their essays, collected in A Room of Our Own, are brilliant. In the closing one, Nadifa Mohamed gets to the point:

“But, what do feel you need to write? A room… privacy and silence… a trust fund, a mother with a PhD who read books to you in the womb… an aunt… who knows someone who knows someone in publishing… long dinners with intellectuals you don’t like very much…

But, what have you got? A shared room, no privacy, no silence… a dead-end job, an illiterate mother who recites long, ancient poems, an angry god… long bus rides that feel like free theatre… a best friend, a council house, city parks and library books, a childhood spent translating letters…

Do you need more? No.

And what is there to write? The world.”

But Mohammed was writing BC. What about now, when the public parks, libraries and transport have been largely off limits for so long? Shared spaces that could be rooms of our own have shut and may not reopen in the same way. We’re not as far from Jane Austen as we’d like to think.

Woolf and Mohammed were talking about fiction. But much of what they say applies to nonfiction and academic writing. “Being productive” in an academic context today often means “doing everything except writing, but still somehow also writing up your research to great acclaim in high-impact journals on top of a full teaching, admin and public engagement schedule – oh and do you have a personal life and family? How quaint.” The tyranny of Zoom meetings takes away your time to think, let alone write. Some Finnish universities declared a “summer peace” with no meetings for the last two months, but that didn’t cover what was deemed “essential.” It’s up to us to decide what’s essential and prioritise our writing. If all else fails, call your writing time a meeting, and meet to do just that.

Without people popping in from Porlock – except your best friend? – you’re more likely to get that writing done. With food and a house, ancient poems and a public library, you’re more likely to get that writing done. With the right people, perhaps a (Zoom?) room of our own, we can balance the writing and the rest (in both senses of the word). As Woolf said, it’s up to us. For me that means still going online, regularly, often in very short bursts, often inevitably interrupted, but more quietly. Muting all other notifications, and then the volume button, together, to write.

* All citations (except the last one) from “A Room of One’s Own,” Delphi Complete Works of Virginia Woolf (2012). Thanks to The Feminist Association Unioni (Naisasialiitto Unioni ry) for the opportunity to return to classics like these.

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The Writer’s Map

Portolan of Granada by Ottoman Admiral Piri Reis, 1525, from The Writer’s Map (Thames and Hudson, 2018)

A beautiful illustrated book from Thames and Hudson is always a delight, but if that was all The Writers Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands was, I wouldn’t be writing about it here. It’s a map to, by, with, from, and for writers.

The maps themselves are truly glorious and transport you across space and time – from the Mappa Mundi to the moon landings. They lead you into other worlds – from Atlantis to Westeros. They chart lands we’ve loved since childhood – from Neverland to Narnia. They were written by colonizers and colonized peoples – from explorers plotting portolans to Shanawdithit, the last Beothuk woman in Newfoundland. I defy you not to get lost in this book for hours, if not days, exclaiming over old favourites and new ones.

Map by Shanawdithit telling the story of European violence against her Beothuk people in Newfoundland, 1915
from The Writer’s Map (Thames and Hudson, 2018)

The most important thing I took from all this is the connection between map and story. Joanne Harris reminds readers that a plot can be both the way the story goes, and the marking of the journey. Charting it, mapping it out, is the beginning of the telling. She quotes Joan Aiken: “Why do we want to have alternate worlds? It’s a way of making progress. You have to imagine something before you do it.”

Some writers need a map to work out how the story is going to happen and how to make sure it works. Can the heroine get over the mountains and down to the sea in two days on foot, for instance? As Tolkien put it, “if you’re going to have a complicated story, you must work to a map.” Stevenson started Treasure Island by drawing a map to cheer up his stepson on a rainy holiday. You don’t have to draw your own: Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s partner gave him Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands to get him writing again.

Part of Tolkien’s own sketch map of Middle Earth, from The Writer’s Map (Thames and Hudson, 2018)

The mapmakers faced the same distractions and trials that other writers do. Ursula le Guin, the navigator of the sea of story, mapped Earthsea “on butcher’s paper in a house full of children.” Miraphora Mina, who made the Marauder’s Map for the Harry Potter films, had to make multiple copies for different stages of filming; getting your props burned, dowsed, or otherwise destroyed was something she just had to accept.

And in mapmaking, as in storytelling, what you leave out is as important as what you put in. The art is in the selectivity. This doesn’t mean that all maps should be like the blank ocean chart in Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. It is more, as Isabel Greenberg puts it, that you need to leave room for the unexplored. Carroll (in Sylvia and Bruno Concluded) also who gave Borges the idea of one-to-one scale map that would cover the earth and block out the sun.

Yet in storytelling, as in mapmaking, what you put in is as important as what you leave out. As Sandi Toksvig reminds us, the women got left out too often. The indomitable “queen of the desert” Gertrude Bell wrote and mapped Arabia. Phyllis Pearsall wrote the London A to Z and self-published it when nobody else would.

Constellations of illustrators and writers fill these pages with ideas. Robert McFarlane, self-confessed “cartomaniac and islomaniac,” is one of them. He draws a distinction between grid-maps (modern cartography?) that gridlock, and story-maps (older cartography?) that chart memory and culture.

Ursula le Guin’s once asked “are Americans afraid of dragons?” since they seemed to be afraid of reading fiction. Editor Huw Lewis Jones takes up the “here be dragons” aspect of mapping to conclude:

“Maps remind us that there is so much more out there, and so much more at stake.”

What more could you hope to achieve your writing?

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The Tender Narrator

Czuły narrator is the book Olga Tokarczuk finally had time to write in 2020. When the world slowed down, she could, too (her beautiful picture book The Lost Soul, also illustrated by Joanna Concejo, was ever so prescient about slowing down). Much of her writing in this collection premiered for a different audience, including political essays (in Polityka and Krytyka Polityczna) and lectures to students of philology at the University of Łodź. Yet Tokarczuk sees things so clearly and often so far ahead of most other people, that those pieces have become all the more relevant in 2021.

If you already a fan, you will enjoy this collection enormously, as it gives you insight into Tokarczuk’s ideas and experiences before, during, and after writing her novels. Even if you haven’t read a word of hers before, she has a lot of interesting things to say about the writing process itself, how it works, and why it matters: “Language is the knife and fork we use to consume reality.”

Reading shapes our writing, as Tokarczuk is well aware. I didn’t know – but wasn’t surprised – that her father was a librarian, and she learned to read sitting on the floor between the shelves of the library where he worked. Reading her book, I learned some splendid new words – “ognosia” (the opposite of agnosia) and metaxy ( “in-betweenness”). And she gets you thinking about some very interesting questions.

Do we change the books we read, and the characters in them? Do they learn from us, because we read them? Who are those characters and most interestingly, who is the narrator? If writing is making the word flesh,the act of creating a story, who is the “I” telling that story?

Culture, for Tokarczuk, is a delicate balancing act between personal and collective languages. Literature is so important because it shows us that shared language works differently in other times and places, giving us different visions of the world. And now, more than ever, we need not only shared stories, but stories to help us understand why others’ visions are different.

We’ll have to wait a little while for The Tender Narrator to be translated into English – her epic, extraordinary The Books of Jacob is coming first – but while you’re waiting, you could do a lot worse than return to Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Lecture, translated by Jennifer Croft and Antonia Lloyd-Jones. As Tokarczuk concludes in that lecture, also entitled The Tender Narrator: “I must tell stories as if the world were a living, single entity, constantly forming before our eyes, and as if we were a small and at the same time powerful part of it.”

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The Writer at Work

A lot of writing about writing is about you, the writer. Which is understandable, and done well, incredibly useful, but can shift the focus away from the broader structures that keep you down and hold you up. Who helps you write, and who hinders you? What needs to change, what can you let be, and what are your sources for knowing the difference? bell hooks gives some answers in Remembered Rapture: The Writer at Work, as she looks back on her writing life.

Every time I facilitate a retreat, most of us are women and White people of different sexualities, different linguistic and class backgrounds, writing together. I’m aware that this is partly because of who is facilitating – me, a queer, middle-class, immigrant, White, multilingual woman. But it is also is because of the structures at work, in writing, in academia, in publishing, in society. And bell hooks has plenty to say about those structures.

She grew up knowing that stories are essential, and storytelling, powerful. But writing those stories down was not for everyone. Keeping a diary was ok, for a teenage girl: nobody was going to read it and she’d grow out of it. Elder members of her family could not read or write, because of structural racism. But using those skills to make a living was not realistic. Jobs came before careers and being a teacher would provide a secure income. Writing would not. Anyhow, who would want to read what she’d written? Publishers are not willing to sell a Black woman’s ideas, unless they fit into a narrow “marketable” category. She is scathing about the publishing industry, particularly how it commodifies writing. Writing at the end of the last millennium, bell hooks is wary of “inclusive tokenism” and asks a question that still needs an answer: how many Black women writers of nonfiction are there? Who publishes them? Who takes them seriously as authorities on any topic other than, perhaps, “being a Black woman”?

bell hooks revels in the form of the critical essay, a chance to “talk back” to the writer she’s been reading. She has harsh words for critical theory however; it is too “colonial”. We need to acknowledge our identities – to be conscious about our biases – as much as we need critical rigour. But for her, academia was a censor, forced careerism, and a hindrance. Her “day job” teaching at institutions like Yale encroached on her time and space to write, but also paid for it.

Writing, for bell hooks, is sacrament and vocation. She describes her process in terms of spiritual practice, encounter with the divine, and “remembered rapture” of that encounter, when the words go right. If male poets in the past could have their muses, she can have her spirit to sustain her on the hard road to publication. She believes we are called to love, but this call is not just personal: it is political and intellectual, and leads to action.

Public, free spaces where writers can meet readers and share ideas without cost were few and far between when bell hooks was writing Remembered Rapture (published 1999), and they are even rarer now. Libraries and bookshops need us more than ever, and we need them. Women still need rooms of their own to write in. Some of the women hooks writes about in this book shared solidarity through that solitude, from their own rooms, like Emily Dickinson. Others – like Ann Petry, Lorraine Hansberry, Toni Morrison, and Toni Cade Bambara – came out of their rooms to support other writers. We need to create and sustain more spaces for those conversations to happen.

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Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well

Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well (King Lear, Act 1 scene 4)

Shakespeare said it first, but it’s worth saying again and it’s probably every editor’s or reviser’s biggest fear. If revisers are like doctors, aiming to make a text better, should they be bound by the Hippocratic oath – or at least “first, do no harm”?* If in doubt, don’t change it. If you do change something, be prepared to justify it. That is the main message of Brian Mossop’s revision course, hosted by the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (I did it this February, it’s rerunning this July but already sold out).

The key question we asked on the course was: what level of readability do we want? Quality is not absolute, but relative to needs. It is the “degree to which a set of inherent characteristics of an object fulfils requirements” (ISO 9000, 2015: 3.6.2). So what do you (or your client, author, and most importantly your reader) need? Do you want the text to be intelligible, informative, publishable, or polished? People like me, who mostly work with publishable and polished texts, can find it hard to accept that for some readers, intelligible is just fine. Readers often care more about the subject and content of a text than the language and style. Of course it makes a diffference whether you’re revising your own work or someone else’s. While it was wonderful to see colleagues on the course, to discuss these issues and compare our own revision techniques, I felt that we could have interacted even more (even on Zoom).

Which prompted me to return to the book.

Brian Mossop’s Revising for Editors and Translators (4th edition Routledge 2020) is an essential handbook for any translator editing monolingual texts or revising bilingually to compare a source to its translation. For students and early-career translators, it is a map of everything you need to know, with plenty of examples and an exhaustive reading list. For experienced translators and teachers, it updates you, shows you how to turn the content into a course, and reminds you not to be overconfident in your own trusted solutions and habits. For everyone, it offers useful parameters and procedures – what are you actually doing when you revise or edit, and how do you measure that?

Two new chapters have been added to the fourth edition, one on post-editing machine translation (much discussed elsewhere) and the other on trans-editing. Trans-editors are journalists who transform news in one language into stories relevant for readers in another language. This involves prioritising, maybe adding information for the new audience, and taking a lot out. While the techniques mentioned are interesting, in Finland at least, translators have been very concerned about how journalists actually do this. Recently the biggest Finnish daily literally translated then Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow,** telling Mr Stewart that he “didn’t give a flying flamingo” about something (let’s face it, it could have been anything). In another lanaguage, without the alliteration or connotations to an idiom and a swearword, airborne pink birds make NO sense. A reviser’s or editor’s job is to notice things like this before they get to print.

Two new appendices have been added to the book, too. One is on grading revisions. Are the changes Good, making the text Worse, Retranslation, Unnecessary, Inadequate, or didn’t the reviser Notice something that should be changed? (good, worse, or ruining it, GWRUIN, is the best acronym I could get, let me know if you can do better). Once you have a number of these types of changes for a sample text, you can grade it.

The other new appendix is about research. Bilingual revision is not a natural reading process – reading two texts at once makes it doubly hard to stay focused and spot problems. Empirical research on this process falls into four types – think-aloud, keystroke-logging, video-recording and eye-tracking studies. I have participated in research like this – the researcher videoed me revising and talking about my choices. Because of the volume of data they generate, these studies usually have less than ten participants, and not repeated. This makes it difficult to draw conclusions about procedures that work on a larger scale. Mossop suggests investigating why revisers miss and introduce errors, what leads them to make unneeded changes, how they relate to others, how much revision costs, and how useful it is. He has done some of this work himself in a brand new book he co-edited with Maarit Koponen, Translation Revision and Post-editing: Industry Practices and Cognitive Processes (Routledge 2021).

In practice, a good reviser’s rule of thumb is that if you need to read a sentence twice to understand it, something needs to change. If you don’t have time for the book, or the course, you could ask yourself three questions and try three things.

Three questions to ask when revising or editing others’ work:

  • Can I justify 9 out of 10 of the changes I made?
  • Can I make a small change that is less invasive than a big one?
  • Have I imposed my own preferences?

Three things to try on your own and others’ work:

  • Save a draft separately, and revise the same draft six months later; did you make changes in the same places? If not, you might not be very systematic and may need to change your procedures (I am definitely going to try this).
  • Change the font to make the text look different so you can spot errors (I’ve not tried that one, but I have tried plenty more: start reading from the bottom, or get Word to read it to you, or print it out, or open it in a different programme, or leave it to ‘sit’ overnight; anything that will make the text feel new to you).
  • If you don’t do it already, read the translation first (before the source).

After all, a reviser or editor is a reader looking for things that might need changing, to make it easier for all the other readers that come after them.

* And what about “first, do no harm?” Turns out it isn’t in the Hippocratic oath at all, although Hippocrates said it in his (newly-apposite) Epidemics. You could translate part of the oath a bit like that, but that is not exactly what it said. As Robert Schmerling MD reminds us, doing no harm might mean doing nothing at all, and that won’t make anything better. You need to know why you’re intervening: assess the risks and benefits before you act.

** updated on 14 June 2021 with thanks to Isabelle Weiss, who spotted that Bercow said this, not Johnson.

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Air and Light and Time and Space

A sort of wood between the worlds,* Helen Sword’s book helps you jump in and out of academic writers’ minds, to see if their way of doing things could be yours, and why (not). Sometimes it’s like looking in a mirror – I recognized my own processes and enthusiasms in theirs. Sometimes it’s like browsing a library – this book undoubtedly leads to more books, and I ordered a few while I was still reading it. Sometimes it’s like a attending a conference – you’re meeting lots of people, buzzing with ideas, but it’s only after its all over that you’ll know what’s worth remembering.

Air and Light and Time and Space (Harvard UP, 2017) is already a classic. Sword surveyed a thousand people who attended her writing workshops and interviewed a hundred “successful academics.” Yes, many have published prolifically, but Sword also measures success as taking the field in new directions, representing underrepresented groups, helping others to write, and balancing writing with the rest of life. She’s as interested in creativity as productivity, in the pleasures of writing as much as the pain.

Sword’s ideas are not just beautifully expressed, but clearly structured, which makes her easy to read. In four sections, she covers the behaviours, artisanship, social side and emotions of writing (the obligatory acronym: BASE). The behaviours (time, space, and ritual), come first: when, where, and how do academics write? The artisanship (learning and honing your craft), come next, with a chapter on what everyone can learn from academics writing in English as a lingua franca. The social section asks who you are writing for, with, and among (which writing retreatants will know a lot about). And the emotional end is about pleasures, pains, and metaphors to write by. Each chapter is broken up by one-page portraits of individuals, ending with further reading and practical things to try.

Things to try: write at the “wrong” time for you; write where you read; discipline yourself with writeordie.com or 750words.com; leave Word a while for Scrivener; write as a letter, not a diary; find – and be – a critical friend; restory your metaphors; dance as you write. Taken out of context, this is random list of tips; taken in context, they can turn your reading about other writers into strategies for your own writing.

The voices of people I edit, translate, and facilitate retreats for resonated through the pages of this book. I especially enjoyed their metaphors. Academics writing in English as a second, fourth, or fifth language describe the process as “like making pizza for Italians.” Writing a PhD is like “trying to peel an onion layer by layer while it’s rolling around on the floor and then reconstructing it layer by layer and then offering it to people and saying, ‘here, take a bite.’” A co-authored book can also be a party, with “a variety of people,” sharing “incredibly good food,” and everyone feeling “welcome and at ease.”

If you are looking for new ways of writing and would like some company, this book is for you. There’s no need to read it straight through (though I got caught up in it, and did). You can dip in and out of it, diving into the writers’ different worlds. For sure, you’ll want to come back to it at a different time in your writing life, to see whose voices speak to you. It’s a rich book: as rich as plum cake.*

* Image from my 1981 edition of The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

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New year, new skill: copywriting

In a “normal” year – remember those? – I would go to Helsinki about once a month and abroad about every other month to meet colleagues and authors. Not doing this has been an enormous loss, professionally but above all personally. But it’s been good for my carbon footprint, and in 2020 I had time to try new kinds of writing, from fiction to poetry.

Including copywriting.

Six months ago, I joined an accountability group with six colleagues doing the College of Media and Publishing Copywriting Course. Since I mostly work with academics, I wasn’t sure how useful it would be. Even researchers have to write short snappy texts to “sell” their findings though, so I thought this might help.

If you have never done any copywriting, the CMP course is a good introduction to the basics. In 20 lessons, you cover everything from industry codes of practice to SEO to finding work as a copywriter. You write a wide range of copy from headings and tweets to press releases and brochures. Some I’d never tried before and may never use, like pay-per-click ads. Others were directly relevant, like newsletters, as I’d recently begun editing the ITI Polish Network newsletter. You can only start the next lesson when you’ve passed the previous one, so you can’t skim or rush.

The course materials point you to some useful resources but you get out what you put in. Our group felt that it’s up to you to write to your own standards. We found some of the course materials could have been more clearly related to the end task and that all of them were pitched at people with less writing experience than we had. As Andrea put it, you might not need an accredited copywriting qualification, but if you do, the CMP course is for you.

What I enjoyed most about the process was the accountability group. Every week without fail, Jane posted on our forum asking, “what did you do this week?” If I hadn’t had to account for my (lack of) progress on Fridays, I wouldn’t have finished. We learned from and helped each other.

The greatest strength of the CMP course is the tutor support. Within three working days, someone will read what you’ve written and give you graded, constructive feedback. Nobody has done this for me since I was at school. The sheer discipline of writing a few hundred words (or, even harder, a few hundred characters!) on wildly varying topics every week for half a year and knowing someone will cast a critical eye over it is worth the investment. Justine Holman was extremely responsive and able to show me what was missing (or perhaps shouldn’t be there) in my own copy.

If you’d like to try that for yourself in 2021, you can sign up to the CMP course here.

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How to grow your own poem

Don’t run away from that title – stay and see what Kate Clanchy has to say. She absolutely knows her stuff. She’s spent decades teaching people how to get their poems into and out of their imaginations, up to standard and down onto paper. And just because she teaches in high school, which is quite likely the last time most adults including myself even attempted to write anything one might dare to call poetry, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t got something to say to you.

A lot of Clanchy’s writing advice is as good or better than many abstract academic analyses of approaches to articulation. She won the 2020 Orwell Prize for Political Writing for her book about teaching, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. This book tells you some of what they taught her – and what she taught them.

Read work by people you admire, people you’ve never heard of whose experience is very different from your own, people who are acknowledged stars of their craft. And join the conversation about what you’ve read. It’ll help you get ready to start a conversation about what you’ve written.

Don’t hang around with the gerunds (the title of just one splendid practical section sprinkled throughout which is useful for many kinds of writing).

Give your work time to rise like bread, come back and see what’s happened to it while you were away.

How to Grow Your Own Poem shows you how to do this and more by sharing brilliant poems that world-famous, not as well-known as they should be, and written by Clanchy’s students, many of whom were learning to write in English. She shows how particular poems work and how you can make them work for you. Not by too much analysis of literary terminology, but by getting you to try the forms and patterns and strategies. Following each poem is another poem or two modelled on it, some pointers as to how it works, and then a “your turn” section. The pairings are startling and effective:

This is a book to get on paper and work with on paper. I know I still draw like a twelve-year-old, because that’s about when I stopped believing that I could draw anything that was “any good”. I’m sure I’m not the only one who believes the same about poems. But these holidays, I’m going to try more of Clanchy’s exercises in a notebook, with a pencil, in my own time. Even if they never see the light of day, it will help my other writing.

Clanchy stresses what has become something of a mantra for me: you need to fiercely protect the space and time to do your own writing. How and where you do that is up to you, but with this book, you can do it, and take some steps to opening up that space to share what you’ve written.

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Writing in a Winter Wonderland

Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but writing is so delightful… in good company, that is. This time last year, I facilitated my first in-person retreat and since then, a lot has changed. We had no idea then that if we wanted to meet to write, we would have to do so online. But now we’ve realised that our collective energy makes it work.

A small group of writers has been meeting online every Wednesday morning since the beginning of March. We wrote through the first lockdown together. In the summer and autumn, others joined us to write together all day. Some writers came for just one day, others wrote a four-day marathon over two weeks. This year, writers in the group have performed plays, given conference presentations, edited books and defended PhDs they wrote with us – and much more.

Writers who came to my all-day retreats this autumn said:

This works really well for me. Knowing that other people are writing “with” me, and disciplining myself to sit and write. Kate you are an excellent facilitator – just the right mix of chatty and firm. Anyone who writes should join your retreats!

It was really good, I’m glad I didn’t get that “zoom fatigue” that I do in lessons and things. I was quite exhausted at the end of the day but it felt like I had got a lot done.

The facilitation was great. The material that was shared with us was fantastic. I really love the list of writing tips we all came up with during the retreat that was emailed to the participants at the end. It’s so great I am thinking about printing it out and keep it on my desk for emergencies!

A wonderful experience where I can truly say I got something done! Having others there to share your goals with really helps you to achieve them.

We will be writing together again on Thursday and Friday 26&27 November and 3&4 December. All-day writing retreats run from 10 am to 530 pm EET.

A facilitated day retreat includes four hours of writing with plenty of breaks to talk to other writers, share strategies, and take time away from the screen to exercise and re-energise. Writers who come to an all-day retreat can join our online community Facebook group and Wednesday writing sessions. And I’ll send you a resource pack to support your writing.

Numbers are limited to 12 writers. Not sure yet? Sign up here to find out more. Looking forward to writing with you!

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Pitch perfect

Writing is a long, hard process; but even if you craft the perfect manuscript, you still need to persuade people to read it! That’s a very different skill, and the opportunities come and go suddenly: in a hallway, over tea or coffee, even in an elevator.

Can you sum up months or years of work in a moment? To do so, you need a pitch. It has to sound natural; these situations are conversations, not speeches. Take some time to write what you want to say, test it on someone to see how it works, and tweak your message as needed. Finding the time and space to do all that isn’t easy.

A few weeks ago in the co-working space at Crazy Town Jyväskylä, we got pitch perfect. In collaboration with Dave Sayers, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Jyväskylä, we are developing an independent training service to help organizations refine their communication skills. Our launch event was a short training session on persuasion in practice, called “Pitch Perfect: 30 seconds in 30 minutes.” Dave started by showing everyone how to use voice, pace, and gesture to deliver a message effectively. Then I got people to write, practice, and hone their elevator pitch.

It was constructive, productive, and fun as you can see.

How did everyone write and deliver a 30-second elevator pitch in just 30 minutes?

We did snack writing. This is Professor Rowena Murray’s term for writing in short sharp bursts. In this case, everyone “snack wrote” in two slots of just five minutes: first to brainstorm ideas; then to home in on the key message. I set the alarm on my phone, and when it rang, the time was up! You can do this for yourself at home, but it might work better in a group of people racing against the clock.

Once everyone had honed what they wanted to say, they tested it in pairs or threes. After just half an hour, everyone had a crafted, tried-and-tested message to deliver.

Participants said:

“This clarified my thoughts about pitching, that it’s not just about you but what the other person needs and why they would be interested in you. Very enjoyable short course.”

“We had a short time but it was very effective.”

“I think the session was really informative and engaging, and gave one the opportunity to use the language and to learn performing.”

“It was good to get out of my comfort zone and try to create an interesting elevator pitch in a short time. For me it worked and gave confidence. Useful training! I’m now more aware of my speech tempo and I’ve learned to make an interesting pitch in a reeeeally short time. Thank you!”

One group got into the actual elevator to practice. But you might need to seize the moment in any situation, including online meetings. A Zoom breakout room is actually quite similar to a lift – close quarters, limited time. And probably for some time to come, many of us will be meeting more new people online than off. So, right now Dave and I are working on ways to deliver this training both in person and through the internet. If you’d like to try either one, let us know.

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Unravelling Unconscious Bias

Check your privilege is easy to say, but are you doing it?

When you’re a queer immigrant woman like me you can get complacent, until you – I – remember that you’re a white, middle class “native speaker” of the language everyone feels they have to communicate in, which gives you power. To put it another way, if history is written by the winners, the “winner” at any meeting is the minute-taker, and believe me, I’ve taken a lot of minutes.

It’s time to think hard about how to use the power you have, including in your writing.

You could look for a style guide. Many groups have their own, like the US Trans Journalists Association. Following the killing of George Floyd, the big US style guides (APA, then Chicago, then AMA) woke up to Black Lives Matter, but the wordsmiths are still wrangling about the rights and wrongs of capitalizing not only Black, but White. Or about how to say People of Colour in Finnish without an English acronym (“poc-ihmiset” won’t make sense to most). The UK equivalents, like the Oxford Style Guide, change much more slowly, but will get there.

You could get some training. Sarah Grey has been offering inclusive editing courses for years but seen a surge of interest. She frames the case for inclusive language impeccably, in terms of ethics, etiquette, and customer service: who could possibly object? Her ACES webinar series, while US-focused, pointed me to some great resources. The one I’ve used most often is the Conscious Style Guide. And I took her advice in writing about her here; if you aren’t sure how to describe someone, ask them.

You could read a book. Because it’s the English I write in, I make a point of looking for British resources like Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. You can see why half a million people want to make it a set text (sign their petition). Reading it, I learned from Reni Eddo-Lodge that there was a bus boycott in Bristol, UK, as well as Montgomery, USA, and from Darren Chetty that the catch-all Black Asian and Minority Ethnic could be replaced by better terms like racially minoritized or – my favourite – global majority.

There’s an awful lot of books to choose from, but if you read one, read this. Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias by Pragaya Agarwal. What I loved about this book is that it breaks down big biases around gender, race, and sexuality but doesn’t stop there.

Using her expertise as a behavioural and data scientist, Pragaya Agarwal attacks the algorithms and calls their programmers to account. Did you know that when YouTube started letting users upload videos, a tenth of them were upside down? It took them a while to realize that left-handed people were holding their devices the “other” way round. Did you know that in 2017, when iPhone introduced facial recognition, it couldn’t tell Chinese faces apart? In the country with the world’s largest population, everyone could unlock everyone else’s phones. You can see why using this technology in policing could cause problems, and it does.

You might think that ageism, colourism, dialectism, or heightism are less important, but are they? “Paradoxically, people who value their objectivity and fairness are particularly likely to fall prey to biases, mostly because they are not on guard against subtle bias” (Sway, p. 239). Pragaya Agarwal tackles this from all angles.

Take names. When I, a Wilson, married a Vuorinen, we both had highly ethnonormative names for our contexts, but wanted to take our mothers’ maiden names. Our maternal grandfathers gave us Szczepanik-Sotejeff. Try saying that without sneezing. Try spelling that on the phone. So we compromised, and Sotejeff-Wilson it is. None of it is easy for everyone, but bits of it are easy for some. And part of me hopes that the social and health care reform deal in Finland (sote-uudistus) never gets sealed, because it’s a lot easier to say “Sotejeff as in sote reform” in Finnish. It usually raises a smile, at least. It shows the person you’re spelling for that you’re one of them, you know what’s going on, you can speak the language. And it makes it easier for people. They have to do less work.

I don’t have to do this sort of thing much, but too many people do, every day.

So unravel some biases – you could go to Harvard first and test your unconscious biases in an online implicit association test. Your results might surprise you. As Pragaya Agarwal says (Sway, p. 349), “there are biases that we can control once we are aware of the way they influence our decisions.” With that awareness, we’ll all write better.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

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Steering the Craft

Lockdown is the time to write your first novel, they say, but I missed the boat. I spent the beginning of it finishing the CIEP Medical Editing Course – and then needed cheering up because I missed the crew I did it with, and though we weren’t locked down anymore, by that point EVERYTHING was cancelled. So I did the CIEP Fiction Editing Course, just for fun.

What fun it was. Tinkering with texts to see how they work and how you could make them work better is like being a ship’s engineer. After decades of working with academic style guides, it was terrifying and liberating to be out on the sea of story with the maps ripped up. A bit like starting out as a freelancer. Until I discovered a whole new set of conventions that not everyone agreed on, but were certainly entrenched in a lot of places (a bit like… you get the point).

I’d absolutely recommend CIEP courses if editing is your thing, and this one gave me the tools to become a ship’s engineer for fiction. But what I needed next was a treasure map.

Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story by Ursula le Guin was that map. It is very short, beautifully written and reinforced a lot (but not all!) of the fiction editing course material. The advice is very clear and backed up with solid evidence, part of which you create yourself.

Each chapter ends with exercises. You launch by writing one paragraph and navigate towards drafting a whole story. Then you go back into ship’s engineer mode to block leaks, to correct list and trim.

Le Guin gives examples from her own work and that of a host of other greats from Neale Hurston to Woolf, via Twain and Tolkien. She shows you how to work through this book in a writers’ group (you could write together online or offline) but stresses that if you’d rather go it alone, that’s fine. Even if you’re sailing through it in splendid isolation, her clear voice accompanies you throughout, asking difficult questions, reassuring, giving glimpses of how you could approach things from a completely different angle if you ran aground or got caught up in a storm.

I set out to work through this book to get a new feel for storytelling from the inside, to help me in my own work with writers. I ended up with a dozen story stubs that, if I kept at it, could expand into a whole novel.

If you normally do a very different kind of writing (copywriting, technical translation, academic research?) this book would be an investment. Not just because narrative nonfiction is becoming such a big thing, but because it will get you right down to the nuts and bolts of how you write, and how you could write.

If you’re starting to write fiction, or work with fiction authors, get hold of a copy. I found Steering the Craft difficult to put down because I wanted to find out what happened next – in the new stories I was starting to write.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit

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The collective energy makes it work

“The collective energy makes it work”

“You are responsible to the others during that time – even if you don’t feel like writing, you will”

“It gave me the needed spark to get back into the writing mode after a long break”

“An excellent way to actually get myself to sit down and write, something I keep pushing further and further ahead in my diary because of ‘real’ work”

(feedback from writers on our online retreat, 4 and 5 June 2020)

Times are [insert hyperbolic adjective of your choice], and that’s changing how we write

In the last three months, some people have more time to write than ever, but some have a lot less, especially women (see Nature), and early career researchers (see Vitae). How can we help each other through this? We can make time and space to write together online. And we did.

As soon as lockdown started in Finland (16 March) all teaching, from primary to postgraduate, moved online. That week I moved my weekly writing meeting from the library to Zoom. Gradually, a few more people joined us. Later, it was clear the writing retreat I wanted to run in June would have to go online. I don’t like to call this “virtual” because in the process, real things happen.

Online, every writer has to create the retreat in the space where they are. The lovely setting and uninterrupted quiet of an offline retreat are not a given. It might mean ordering food in or preparing meals in advance. It might mean writing out the programme for people you live with and putting it on your kitchen table. It might mean working harder not to “just go and check” on other things which are most definitely NOT writing but are within much easier reach. The boundary between dedicated time and working as normal is blurred.

You won’t get “Zoom fatigue” if you structure things carefully

Despite the challenges of being online, I wanted other writers to see what they could achieve on a good day. This meant starting punctually, together, to respect other people’s time. We wrote in four hour-long slots, two before and two after a 90-minute lunch break, with two half-hour coffee breaks morning and afternoon, and two half-hours at the beginning and end of the day to discuss our plans and progress. I do weekly drop-in writing sessions on Wednesday mornings which are more flexible; the schedule depends on who’s there that day. And we have a closed Facebook group to stay connected. But this retreat group wanted two whole days to get their teeth into big projects (a novel, a PhD, a new blog). It was tiring, but with a sense of achievement, like after long or intensive exercise.

If the group is small enough, online is still in person: you can have a conversation on one screen. The smaller the group, the more likely everyone is to speak. At the beginning of breaks, everyone has to get up and move, but we can come back to talk about anything and everything. When it’s time to home in on what to write next, we do.

Think hard about when you need to use video, audio, and chat

This group decided to write with our audio and video switched off. We only turned our cameras and mikes on when we were speaking to each other. The chat was open if people wanted to message the facilitator privately at any time, but not for group conversations while we were writing. We created a quiet and focused space with very clear boundaries. Respecting each other’s energy levels is important. This way, when it was time to, we were ready to see and hear each other, to talk and listen.

Writing online can make goal setting easier

We put our goals for each session in the chat, so everyone could see – ourselves included. At the end, we wrote an assessment to “close off” that block of writing. Formulating what you want to write for the next hour – or what you wrote in the last one – in one sentence is challenging, but focuses the mind wonderfully.

Does it work? Yes

You can create a retreat atmosphere, even on a platform famed for fatigue, if you set it up well and respect people’s time, space, and energy.

In the last few months, I’ve found that you can get to know people you’ve never met on video link; it’s not the same, but it’s possible, if you’re engaged in a common endeavour. You can create an online writing community. We’re still working out how to do that best, but putting writing first together works online.

Ask people how they write, and you’ll have a goldmine of writing strategies

Here are our top ten from our June retreat:

  1. If you have to cut, but can’t bear to throw your words away, put them in a “cut file”: you might never use it, but it hurts less than deleting.
  2. Or move what you have to cut into comments, so they are connected to the relevant part of your writing.
  3. Or use an ideas file – even ten years later you can combine ideas you didn’t use then, to write something new.
  4. Use prompts and plan carefully, so you don’t generate text you will need to cut later.
  5. If you’re stuck, step back and think – how much do you want to write, can you break it down into mini goals, subsections, or questions to answer?
  6. Try the comment technique in reverse – if you add something but aren’t sure how to fit it in or don’t have the reference to hand, put a comment where you think it should go.
  7. Try having one session (e.g. the last-but-one) when you do something other than your main project, so you can finally return to it fresh.
  8. Stay offline during breaks and your brain will rest – you might have an idea you wouldn’t otherwise have had headspace for.
  9. Think about who you are writing for – who is going to read it?
  10. Aim for the sky and you might hit the top of a tree!

If you want to join us next time we’re doing a writing retreat online, sign up here. I can’t promise rainbows every time, but this was the view from my office window in the evening after our June retreat. Who knows what we’ll discover next time we meet to write…

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Write No Matter What

Now seemed like a good time to read this book, which a colleague recommended. And it was. It’s a very easy read. The style is anecdotal, the argument clear, and the evidence is there, but worn lightly – just as well, as the author says this is how academics should write nonfiction for a wider audience.

So Joli Jensen practises what she preaches. This makes Write No Matter What different from many self-help books, and I confess that I felt I was reading in that genre at first, which I didn’t much like. This is a key reason why academics are so reluctant to seek help with their writing – we’re supposed to know how to do it, we’ve done so well, come so far, jumped through all the hoops with apparent ease. What do you mean, we can’t write? Who on earth can we ask about it, without losing face?

Peers. I found Jensen’s chapter on peer review one of the most useful. She emphasized that peer reviewers are “an increasingly rare remnant of the gift economy” – reading your writing for free, and responding to it in detail. They are not attacking you personally: they are people too. Editors struggle to find them, and can overrule their choices. Knowing this, it’s easier to respond to their feedback, and Jensen makes concrete suggestions about how to. She stresses the need for a community of peers, not to critique your content, but to support your writing process. I was very lucky to have this from the first, starting my PhD in a house share with other doctoral students from different disciplines. Jensen didn’t have a peer community then, so she created it when she reached the tenured faculty stage of her career. Now she is helping her entire university – and her readers – to do the same.

One thing is clear: you will never suddenly have time, space, and energy to write. The demands are always there, always heavy, and won’t go away. So you have to fit writing into your life as it is now.

This means writing for 15 minutes a day, every workday. You can do that. Once you do, other things start falling into place. The first half of Jensen’s book covered familiar ground for me about focusing on your writing: techniques she calls brief daily contact (the 15 minutes), a project box, and a ventilation file. In the second half, Jensen outlines recovery strategies for when writing goes wrong. This means looking critically at the stories we tell ourselves about how we should be writing and why we aren’t – she calls it inviting our demons in for tea.

It also means using your energy efficiently. ABC energy isn’t a new idea – A is when you do your best thinking (like working out concepts); B is when you can focus, but not brilliantly (like preparing for a session you’ve taught before) and C is when routine is all you can manage (like whittling down your inbox). My A time is first thing in the morning, and my C time is after lunch if I haven’t had a proper break. To rephrase “translate drunk but edit sober,” I can translate in B if I must, but I have to revise the translation in A.

A reverse calendar imposes order when things are feeling out of control. This means writing down what you actually do all day for at least a week, so you know what can change. I’ve used this, but hadn’t thought of doing it at intervals throughout a long project or sabbatical to keep on track.

A buddy log is the smaller log that keeps the main log on a fire going. It fuels it and sparks energy, but it’s not the heart of the blaze. When you get very excited about a new project that is not related to your key task (which happens to me almost daily) you can do it, but it’s the buddy log. You can use B or C time for it, but keep your A time for the main event. When you have multiple projects on the go, they can move between the A, B, and C slots, depending on what stage they – and you – are at.

Sometimes you try absolutely everything, and the project – even a book you’ve got an advance for – is still not worth writing, or you shouldn’t be writing it, at least not now. This can be the “cracks of doom” moment when Gollum had to bite Frodo’s finger off for him to let go of the Ring. Hopefully it won’t go that far, and letting go of what Jensen calls a “toxic” project will make space for something better. But what? And how do you find it?

Find the lilt. For this you need someone to listen to your voice. I hope I do this as an editor and facilitator; we all need it. When you’re not sure why your writing isn’t working, or where you want to take it, another person can hear when your voice rises and warms because you’re interested in what you’re talking about. This is what you want to work on. This is worth finding out about. This is what you should be doing.

Jensen is realistic to the end, but not pessimistic: “There will always be too many demands, not enough resources, unfair practices, and distressing departmental politics. There will always be reasons to feel that our academic ideals have been betrayed. But whenever we work with each other to recognize writing obstacles and celebrate writing progress, we enact a version of the academic utopia I sought for so long. The suggestions in this book are designed to help you write, but they can also help you embody the most honourable elements of academic life, no matter what.”


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Bad English?

Whose English is right?

It’s rather more than just you say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to…

Who decides? The native speakers? Native of where (not just the US or UK, what about Canada, or Kerala?) What happens when the native speakers go native? (Language attrition is real.) Just as everyone is a foreigner almost everywhere, if everyone is a native speaker of something, somewhere, perhaps native speaker is not the most useful classification?

Elizabeth Peterson prefers to talk about mother-tongue speakers (which she defines very carefully) and multilinguals. In her new book, Making Sense of “Bad English” she does a fantastic job of unpicking the assumptions and power dynamics behind the decisions to call someone’s English good or bad. This is a matter of gender, class, and race, of course, as well as geography. To put it another way:

Since a language is a dialect with an army, if you say my English is bad, that’s you and whose army?

In separate chapters, Peterson looks at the grammar and structures of African American English, Singlish and Delhi English, giving them context and dignity, not least by comparing them to more “established” languages such as Swedish and Welsh. She launches her argument from Braj Kachru’s model of three concentric circles of English speakers: an inner core of about 380 million people in English-speaking countries, like New Zealand; an outer ring of up to 300 million people in countries where English has official status, like Nigeria; and an expanding circle of up to 1 billion people in countries where people speak English as a “foreign” language (EFL), like Norway. As Peterson makes clear, these circles and groups obviously overlap; on one street in a big city, you might find all three. But it’s a useful way of thinking about who English belongs to.

Twenty years of teaching and researching the social aspects of linguistics, or the science of language, as she calls it, fuel Peterson’s case. Her book is based on her course for undergraduate English students and each chapter ends with discussion questions. These are a useful way of digesting the new information and, if you have not formally studied linguistics, establishing some big concepts.

My favourite of these, and most relevant to my editing and translation work, is not EFL, but ELF: English as a Lingua Franca. This means English used to communicate between people with different mother tongues. The University of Helsinki, where Peterson teaches, is a centre for this growing field. Researchers such as Jennifer Jenkins have been arguing for a while that often-monolingual mother-tongue speakers of English have to adapt to the ELF reality. This does not just mean accepting pronunciation and expressions you would not view as standard. It also means learning more about the grammar and structure of some of those other Englishes out there.

Making sense of the “bad” English means realising that maybe your particular English isn’t as “good” as you thought it was. Or at least, how very particular it is. And that is a very good thing.

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Here comes the science bit – concentrate!

Even if the content of your work hasn’t changed that much lately, everything else has, so your concentration might be less than perfect. These ideas aren’t rocket science, but recently they helped me focus on writing (and editing and translating), so I hope they help you concentrate on your work too. And if you don’t recognise that headline, or even if you do, here’s the story behind it.

Stop before you start

Try doing something creative and nonverbal before starting to write – thank you Kalpana Shankar for this idea. Play music, exercise, stretch or sketch, get a different part of your brain working. Whatever suits you.

Snack first

How much of your time is really spent working when you’re “working”? Some people use time trackers to measure this and split their day into chunks – the Pomodoro method. If you find getting offline and into your work very hard, try it. Writing in short bursts of as little as five minutes is called “snack writing”. It’s a good place to start.

If you can’t write it, write about it

You can approach writing in three ways: 1) write it (the project), 2) write about it, or 3) write how you feel about it. So you are always writing something relevant to your work – thank you Jo Garrick for this approach. It can help to a separate document for writing about your project, or a diary to record and reflect on your whole situation. Some people keep a distraction diary. Notice what’s stopping you getting started and you’ll find ways of dealing with it. If you speak Finnish, try these suggestions from Finnish authors.

Protect your ears

If possible, get yourself some decent headphones for talking online and to muffle the noise of other people nearby. Thanks to Thomas Nyberg for this advice:

If more people put on headphones, it might reduce the feedback on conference calls.

Any headphones without a microphone make things better for you, without making things worse for others, though they might hurt after hours of wear. You might need to turn down the volume – in your Windows sound settings you might even have an audio equalizer or tone control. On a Mac, you can buy tools for this, like SoundSource.

Smartphone earbuds may be safest and cheapest. Apple’s EarPods (the ones with cords that came out before the wireless AirPods) are comfortable for long periods for some people, depending on your ear shape. If your laptop has a TTRS connector, you could pick up the microphone on the earbud cord and it can be surprisingly good.

The best way to get decent audio is a made-for-teleconferencing headset, like the Jabra Evolve 40 Ms. USB headsets for gaming are often better value for money, show up as a standalone audio device on your computer, and usually have mute buttons.

Top-range noise-cancelling headphones like the Bose QuietComfort 35s are wireless and comfortable for long periods, but don’t often have mute buttons, so you have to mute them in your software. Even cheap Bluetooth headsets like the JBL Tune 500BT can work with microphones, but are not as comfortable for several hours.

Choose your sounds

Some people like to listen to brain.fm and others like YouTube channels like Study Music Alpha Waves. I like classical music e.g. BBC Radio 3; I will pick a concert to listen to and write until it’s over (my favourite is the Early Music Show but that’s quite niche). Try the BBC’s special culture in quarantine programming, including Max Richter’s Sleep. (Thank you Susannah Goss for recommending writing to Max Richter!) Unlike the TV, you should be able to get BBC radio online wherever you are.

Lots of editors and translators love MyNoise; it is a fantastic app which allows you to enter a soundscape anywhere from an Amazon rainforest to the Irish sea coast. I have a few favourite channels and if I really can’t settle, I use this.

Enjoy the sound of silence

Increase silence offline when it’s noisy online: walk or open the window and listen to the birds and the wind. If you can’t get out of the house, take a break and go birdwatching in Scotland or Finland. Some people like to use meditation apps like Headspace.

Get moving

Make sure you move every hour. Don’t sit still for longer than that.

If you find yourself drifting online and into social media, it’s probably time to get up and move. I’ve noticed since lockdown that I need to move more and for longer during breaks, so I’m more likely to work for five one-hour slots than three to four 90-minute slots. In editor speak, “stet” means “leave it as it stands” and so a “StetWalk” is a walk when you get away from your text and leave it be. If you can’t get out for a StetWalk or want to save yours for the end of the day, try a StetDance. One song might be enough – or make a whole playlist, or go to your favourite radio station for a break. I use a mini trampoline and a hula hoop, too. Or go and do some housework for a bit and suddenly work looks more attractive again…

Stop in time

You can’t do more than about five hours of really concentrated work like writing in one day. If you do more, you’ll end up having to do less the next day, or the quality you’re producing will plummet pretty fast. Most importantly, now is not the time to push yourself too far, too soon, as Aisha Ahmad so brilliantly explains. If you quit while you’re ahead, you’ll be ready to start again tomorrow. Go easy on yourself.

Find your community

Thank you to the members of the Rowena Murray Writing Group, Wendy Baldwin and the MET Humanities and Social Sciences virtual co-writers, and the Ridge Writers Group, especially Chloe Wells, for your ideas and your friendship during my working day, and beyond. If you don’t want to write alone, why not set a time to talk about it with someone and write together?

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Retreat into Summer

Summer still seems a long way away, but it will be here before we know it, and you might be looking to carve out some more writing time when other commitments such as classes end. Kick-start your summer writing with Ridge Writing Retreats at our two-day writing retreats on Thursday and Friday 7&8 May and 4&5 June. I will be writing on those dates and hope you can join me.

Numbers are limited to 12 writers. Not sure yet? Read more about how writing retreats work in English or in Finnish and find out what people thought of our last retreat.

We are based in the Writers’ House, Kirjailijatalo in Jyväskylä and this summer we have planned a new catering partner: lovely local cafe and restaurant, Toivolan Vanha Piha, who now do home delivery. Since we cannot meet in person right now, we will meet online using Zoom.

Join us as and when you are able for just one or all four days. The cost of the facilitated online writing retreat is €30 per day +VAT and includes a resource pack to support your writing alone and with others in online community. Let me know if a whole day is difficult for you and we will work something out, whether it is a matter of time scheduling or cost: some student scholarships are available. When I receive your confirmation, I will invite you to join the community Facebook group and meet the other writers.

In-person retreats will resume as soon as we have the health advice that it is safe to do so.

Hope you can join us!

Sign up now to reserve a place or contact Kate, the facilitator, to find out more.

The Subversive Copy Editor

  1. Is this the book that will finally get me on Twitter?
  2. Do writers need to read a book for editors?
  3. Should you judge a book by its title?
  4. Why write about this classic now?

Carol Fisher Saller answers tricky questions for a living, as editor of the Q&A for the Chicago Manual of Style online. To answer the questions The Subversive Copy Editor raised for me in reverse order:

4. Saller’s book is an absolute classic, well into its second edition. Any editor should read it: it’s about your relationships with writers, colleagues, and yourself. It’s from an in-house perspective, so some of it won’t apply to freelancers, but Saller is the woman who knows about how editing works and if you haven’t read her book yet, you should; you will learn a lot.

3. The subversive in the title absolutely had me sold. I know that writing the story down (from histories to minutes) puts you in a position of power. Editing the story once it’s written is also a position of power, as Saller is very aware. She shows you how you can be a force for positive change in the texts you work on and in the relationships around them. This sometimes means breaking conventions and rules – so long as you know why you’re doing so.

2. Yes, this book is for writers too. It’s a concise, clear introduction to what copyeditors do (I prefer closing them up and I’m not alone), how they can do it better, and why it matters. Saller’s key message is that copyeditors work with writers for readers. I often tell authors that I’m their “first reader”; if I notice that something jars, a reader will too, and we can sort it out before they ever notice. Writers have their own chapter in the book on getting the most out of your relationship with your copyeditor. Saller stresses that copyediting is not meant as an insult, but a gift.

1. I’m writing this just after a large online conference (ITI 2021) where the parallel conversation was on Twitter. I’m not, because I’m fierce about protecting my headspace to write and given my magpie personality, I’m not sure I’d have that space between tweets. If we aren’t back to in-person events in 2022, I will stop teetering and try it. Saller makes very a good case for doing so – it’s where the wordsmiths are – but there are other places for us to meet.

Good relationships around your text are good for you. By being careful, transparent and flexible, copyeditors can help subvert the power imbalances in publishing and writing. Done well, copyediting makes for better texts, happy authors, and happy readers.

new retreat dates – seuraavat retriitit