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Apr 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

A Day in the Life of an ELT Editor

Lyn Strutt is an ELT editorial professional. She worked in Finland, Germany, Hong Kong and the UK as a teacher and teacher trainer for 15 years, before retraining as a proofreader and editor. She was on the committee of the IATEFL Materials Writing Special Interest Group (MaWSIG) for its first three years of existence. She holds a Licentiateship of the City and Guilds of London Institute in Editorial Skills and is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP).


8 am – at my desk

Before breakfast, I sit down and spend an hour checking the third proofs of a workbook for an adult course.

For me, proofreading or proof checking usually involves looking at the latest proofs for a book I copyedited (ELT books generally have between three and five proof stages). This means I look to see that the designer has made all the corrections I requested on the last set of proofs, marking where they have been missed or misunderstood (by either party). If they are first proofs, I’m checking that my copyedited manuscript has come out as I intended and fits on the pages, so I’m looking at them alongside that manuscript rather than proofreading.

Today I’m cold proofreading a book that was copyedited by someone else, because eventually a copyeditor becomes somewhat blind to errors in material they have been looking at for months. I don’t see the manuscript of the book, just the proofs. My corrections will be sent to the copyeditor who will collate them with their own corrections before sending the proofs back to the designer.

When I started out in publishing, I first offered myself as a proofreader, and then moved into copyediting. Editing involves both skills, but I still enjoy ‘straight’ proofreading and it can feel like light relief after a long spell of copyediting, because the decisions are clearer and more immediate – there is already a sample design and a style sheet that were developed earlier on in the editing process and you are making sure the material follows that (and pointing out any issues that might not have been foreseen, or which arise from later decisions). With ELT coursebooks being so visual and highly illustrated, the design is very important. The sample design indicates typefaces, font sizes, colours and special features that make up the look of the book. The style sheet is where you find out whether British or American English is being used, how we are using capitals in headings and whether we are using an accent on café.

It was my feeling that I had a natural talent for proofreading that made me decide to move into publishing in 2003, after 15 years as a teacher. At the time, I didn’t really know what copyediting was, or how ELT books were produced. I just knew I was good at spotting mistakes, and I knew that published materials should not contain mistakes. My first step was to join the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP). I took their one-day Introduction to Proofreading course to get an idea of whether the work was right for me (clearly it was), and then I took some slightly longer intensive courses in proofreading and copyediting with other organisations. I wanted to get a lot of training fast because I had just returned to the UK from overseas, was out of work and was keen to get started in my new career. Nowadays the SfEP offers a range of courses, both via workshops and online, which also makes it possible to train while you are still in a job and at your own speed.

It takes longer than an hour to proofread a book! This one will take me between 15 and 20 hours. Of course, I’m always looking for ‘typos’, but I’m also checking that the exercises work (usually against a key) and that they match the audio and/or video scripts. Are instructions for similar tasks expressed in different ways? This is confusing for students, so they should be standardised. I check the style sheet for guidance. Do the headings and subheadings match those in the corresponding student’s book? Anything that interrupts the successful use of the book – through ambiguity or lack of clarity – is queried, as it could cause both teachers and students problems.

It’s here where I add value by being an ex-teacher. The job of checking that the content is correct falls to the copyeditor, but things get missed and a proofreader who is aware of ELT practices is always going to be more useful than one who doesn’t. If an example for a grammatical explanation has been accidentally misplaced, I’m likely to know and to notice. If I’m checking a reading text it can be on one of a huge range of subjects, and I often learn a lot! If I’m not knowledgeable on that subject, I like to check anything that I find surprising, just in case. None of this means that anyone before me in the process was not doing their job properly – just that we are all human. And it is very satisfying to catch an error that you know everyone would have hated to see in the published material. The last thing that happens (at each stage, and at the very end) is proofreading, so your work can have a big impact.

The reason I am doing just one hour is that it can be physically demanding staring at a screen (or two screens) for long periods of time. I rarely get paper proofs now, so I am looking at PDFs and marking them onscreen. I have therefore built in my breakfast as a break. However, I notice I have been so engrossed in solving the mystery of a missing audio track that I’ve overrun and now need to have breakfast rather urgently!


10 am – Check messages and email

For ongoing projects I often use a team messaging app like Slack, to reduce the amount of email coming in and for quicker responses. So my email is more likely to contain new job offers or enquiries, as well as links to download new proofs or images.

As an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP, I can have a listing in their Directory. This means companies and individuals can find me through a keyword search. While most of my work is from repeat clients in ELT publishing, I do get some interesting offers via the Directory. Last year I proofread a Linguistics thesis for an undergraduate speech therapy student and also copyedited a self-published language book. Those two clients were my quickest payers ever! It was a very different experience from working with authors via a publishing house; it felt like a very personal service. It was also quite different from working to a publishing house’s standards. I think if I decided to do more of this kind of work, I would consider taking a specialist course, such as the SfEP’s Proofreading Theses and Dissertations.

Today I have an email from a publisher asking if I am available to copyedit a coursebook in a new series. The manuscript is due to be handed over by the author at the end of the month. It will be supplied to me as a Word document, and in theory will be ready to be styled up for the designer. This usually means applying Word styles onscreen, to indicate each feature of each page: headings and subheadings, numbering, rubrics, exercise text, tables, any special treatments such as realia texts and coded references for images.

I say ‘in theory’ because it’s rare that there are no queries on the content. The copyeditor is also responsible for ensuring that no material is missing, that the material flows appropriately, that headings are correct for what follows, that the exercise types are suitable for the tasks, that there are no potential legal issues (such as whether a trademark symbol is needed) and that the material can be expected to fit on the page without too much empty space or overmatter.

I will also produce a page plan showing what appears on each page of the finished book and an art brief describing the images needed (stock photos, commissioned photos and illustrations), which will be sourced by a picture editor. Finally, a permissions list is needed for any third-party texts the author wants to use – for example, an article from The Times ­– so that the publisher’s in-house team can check on the feasibility and cost.

Part of copyediting is quite mechanical, and a proportion of it can be done with software, both basic (find and replace, Word macros) and specialist. But it can prove to be quite like a big jigsaw puzzle, as you find exercises that don’t quite conform to the general design and style, or things that perhaps someone thought they would go back to later and then forgot. You have to decide how to rejig them so they work in the book. Once you have found the edges of your jigsaw it’s much clearer.

I don’t have much experience of copyediting non-ELT books, but I imagine it’s more straightforward. A novel usually has just a few typefaces (chapter headings and body text) and the flows through the pages. The copyeditor still has work to do, but in ELT coursebooks it’s more like laying out a magazine. Even teacher methodology books can have quite a lot of diagrams and images. The designer does the heavy lifting, but the copyeditor will need to check to make sure that an exercise isn’t split over a page turn, that a realia treatment is appropriate for the text, or that an image is in the right place for the text it relates to and is suitably sized for its purpose. Work done well at this stage makes dealing with the proofs much easier, and many of the decisions made here are not ones that can be made later on when the proofs have been produced, because that increases the costs.

A lot of what I know about copyediting ELT has been learned on the job, including two spells as an in-house editor. However, the techniques of copyediting – how to style a Word document, how to use macros, how to deal with a range of likely issues – can be learned on training courses. The SfEP has a suite of copyediting courses to work through, and some of these can be done online. There is also a mentoring scheme, where experienced editors give supervised, practical training and feedback.


11 am – Skype call with commissioning editor

The commissioning editor (CE) role is one a lot of teachers envisage when they are thinking of a move into publishing. The CE works with authors, designers and marketing teams to research and develop plans for new courses and books, new editions of existing books and other educational products such as online courses and mobile apps. In conjunction with the in-house development and production teams, the CE ensures the product is delivered to market as briefed, on budget and on time.

In larger publishing houses the CEs don’t usually work directly with freelance editors; I would normally be Skyping with a freelance project manager or an in-house development editor. In smaller publishing houses the person doing the CE role may also be the one who communicates with freelancers. Today’s call is to discuss some issues with a series of books I have been content editing.

Content editing means working on the material prior to the copyedit. It generally refers to what happens after the manuscript has been handed over by the author, and usually does not involve the author. This is more common if the author has been paid a fixed fee for supplying a manuscript, and does not have a longer-term relationship such as would exist if a whole series of coursebooks were being written over several years.

Understanding how teaching materials are used in classrooms and for self-study, how English is generally taught in the target market and age group – and what types of activity and exercise are appropriate and effective – are all crucial for content editing, so this is another time when my experience in the classroom is relevant. This type of editing for ELT is harder to learn on a public course because the subject matter is so specific, but in-house editors usually receive training as well as hands-on experience. So while publishers like their in-house editors to have teaching experience, they like their freelance editors to have both teaching experience and some editorial experience in-house.

When editing the content, you focus not on layout or appearance but the words and tasks. Is the material the right level for the students? Is the vocabulary and grammar being taught in the right place? Are all four skills being practised? Is there enough balance of ‘heads up’ and ‘heads down’ tasks? Is there any duplication of topics and task types between the student’s book and the workbook, or are they connected but sufficiently different?


12 noon – Google hangout with ed-tech company

This is a regular team meeting I have for development editing I am doing for an online course. In development editing you are again working on the material prior to copyedit – in the same way as content editing – but usually working with the author as they write, often receiving their drafts in batches, commenting and returning them for a second draft.

In development editing, an important skill is good communication. This applies to editing any writer’s work in any genre, and different levels of sensitivity and tact are required according to the author and your relationship. You can expect some resistance to change, and the way you communicate your ideas and alternatives is key. You need to be respectful of the author’s work, but you also need to be clear on what you are unhappy with. A vague query is more likely to receive a negative response than a brief explanation of the issues you see and a clear suggestion of an alternative approach.

You are there to improve the writer’s work, not to change it to suit your own personal preferences, and a good and experienced author will generally understand that. To quote an esteemed editor, the late Diana Athill, on the subject of being edited herself, the role of a good editor is ‘to make your book even more yours’. In ELT, both author and editor are working to a brief supplied by the publisher, so the editor’s role is sometimes to find a balance between what the publisher would like from the author and what the author would like to produce! In SfEP courses, raising queries with authors is also covered at the later levels of copyediting training.

The authors for this online project are writing into templates and we are using an online authoring tool. The fun part of this kind of work is that you can often see the output immediately (rather than waiting for proofs) and also change it yourself. Whilst I don’t have the skills required of a designer to produce pages for print books, I like feeling creative and being able to see changes I make immediately. It’s also a change of pace (you might wait a year to finally hold a print coursebook in your hands) and it’s personally developmental as I learn to use different technology and tools.

The team meeting is between editors, and afterwards I email my authors to tell them about some decisions we have made to make the process a bit smoother for all.


12.30 pm until the end of my working day (which varies!)

I’m back to the proofreading that I started the day with. The client has messaged to ask me if I can return the proofs a bit earlier than we originally agreed, so I’m going to try to finish them today, even if that means a long day. I love finishing things, so it’s worth putting in the hours.

As you can see, there is a degree of overlap in the various roles of a freelance ELT editor, and my own experience may not be the same as everyone else’s. For more information about proofreading and editing, I recommend you have a look at the SfEP website.

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  • A Day in the Life of an ELT Editor
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