An American Editor

April 20, 2021

Writing for review: Prepping pundits to painlessly publish peer-reviewed papers, Part 2

Geoffrey Hart

For Part 1, go to

Things to expect during peer review

If English is not your author’s first language or if the author has a foreign-seeming name or foreign address, you may encounter language prejudice. This is less often racist than it is the result of such authors believing they don’t need to be edited and submitting poorly written manuscripts as a result. Publishers who receive large numbers of such manuscripts naturally seek shortcuts to reduce their workload, and may only glance quickly at the author’s cover letter or address to form an opinion. If they don’t like what they see, they may reject the manuscript or return it for revision without ever reading it, and not because it lacks merit. Thus, authors should always have their cover letter edited, not just their manuscript.

Peer review has certain recurring themes that authors must deal with, ideally with an editor’s help:

· Multiple revisions: Reviewers are chosen because they are highly educated in their fields, and because they are highly opinionated. Thus, they’re asked to be critical of manuscripts and may insist on multiple rounds of revision until they’re satisfied.

· Contradictory reviews: Reviewers have different backgrounds and biases, and this leads to very different critiques by different reviewers. You can expect reviewers to agree on major problems, since such problems are hard to miss, but you’ll often find that something one reviewer loved is anathema to another reviewer.

· Academic politics: Academic fields have many theological disputes over different points of belief (e.g., the value of social construction), and it can be difficult to satisfy a reviewer who comes from a different academic sect.

Helping authors respond to reviews is something editors do well, since we have long experience with getting inside an author’s head, and that skill translates equally well to understanding what bothered a reviewer and what changes will remove that irritation. Editors are also skilled negotiators, and can help authors find ways to reach a consensus that satisfies both the author and the reviewer. Being aware of the prevailing dogmas in a field will help editors to guide authors around the worst minefields and to build bridges over holes that would otherwise trap the unwary author and provoke a reviewer. As you gain experience in a field’s language, ways of framing arguments, and standards of evidence, you can increasingly help authors revise their work to avoid these problems.

The review process can take a long time, and if you don’t submit the best-possible manuscript, a potentially important contribution to the literature may be rejected by a prestigious publisher without the option to resubmit. Thus, one important tip is to persuade the author to work with their colleagues before they submit their manuscripts for review.

There are two good reasons for this. First, the review is likely to be done faster. Second, a rigorous and critical review by a colleague may sting, but it has no consequences other than the need to rewrite. Solving those problems before a publisher sees the manuscript means it won’t be rejected because of those problems. (It may, of course, still be rejected for other reasons.) A publisher’s reviewers are also more likely to respond positively to a manuscript that has been edited professionally.

Academic vs. non-academic audiences

Early-career academic authors tend to have a laser-like focus on writing for their peers, since they know that their peers determine how successful they’re going to be in their chosen field. However, over time, authors may gradually expand their publishing efforts beyond their circle of fellow specialists. Often, they aim to turn many years of peer-reviewed publications into something a reasonably intelligent but non-expert reader can understand. They may be writing to funding agencies to beg for money, producing op-ed pieces for the general public in newspapers or on websites, or crafting textbooks for students. Yet unless they are professional writers and well-trained in writing for different audiences, they’ll need an editor’s help to make their thoughts comprehensible to an audience that isn’t dominated by their peers. I often joke that scientists shouldn’t be allowed to communicate with the general public without adult supervision. It’s funny specifically because it’s so true.

Editors understand that different audiences require different writing styles, and can help an author learn and use the most-appropriate style or modify their approach to account for a given audience’s unique characteristics. For example, academic readers expect and are skilled at interpreting formal, jargon-heavy writing that relies on many assumptions about what readers already understand — because the readers are experts in the author’s field. In contrast, non-academic audiences require less-formal writing styles, with less jargon, and assumptions must be explained — because general audiences are experts in a wide range of things, most of which are not the author’s field of expertise.

Note: Although most academic publishers now accept manuscripts in the first-person point of view, some are reluctant, particularly when they rely on older and more-conservative peer reviewers who haven’t yet entered the 20th century (let alone the 21st). Passive voice is no longer required, but you may be called on to help an author defend the choice of first-person. An acceptable compromise is generally to emphasize active voice wherever possible and minimize the use of “I” and “we” constructions; for instructional or procedural material, imperative voice is another good alternative.

That being said, one thing remains true for almost any audience: Write simply, concisely, and clearly. Although I once (true story!) had a manuscript rejected because “it was too well written,” that’s rare these days. Even the most turgid and constipated fields of study are increasingly willing to accept a well-written manuscript. The argument and conclusions may be complex and nuanced, but the writing never should be.

Responding to peer reviews

The end of the most-difficult stage in publishing an academic manuscript comes when your author receives the comments from the reviewers. These generally fall into three main categories: acceptance with minor revision, which will mostly require minor tweaks of the text; acceptance with major revision, which requires significant additional work (e.g., more lab research, more library time, reorganization) before the publisher will even consider reviewing the manuscript again; and rejection, which may be absolute or which may (if the author has a strong argument and a sympathetic publisher) be considered the equivalent of major revision.

As an editor, I’ve helped many authors persuade the publisher that a rejection really only requires major revision, or that an acceptance with major revision really only requires minor changes. A common reason for the latter is a reviewer who says, in effect, “I know that you wanted to write about dogs, but you really should have written about cats, so I reject your argument,” Most publishers will accept a counterargument along the lines of “No, I really can’t write about felids in an article about canids that was written for a journal that publishes only shaggy dog stories,”

Note: There is a thus-far theoretical fourth response, which is “acceptance without revision.” In more than 30 years of editing, I’ve never seen that response from the reviewers for a reputable publisher, largely because reviewers often go to heroic lengths to ensure that the publisher believes they rigorously reviewed the manuscript. To prove this, they will find ways to list some specific problem, however minor, that must be fixed.

Reviewers almost always have the final say — if your manuscript represents a hill they’re willing to die on in defense of some point of dogma. Because peer review is unpaid work, experts can easily refuse a request to review a future manuscript if a publisher irritates them — and ignoring their recommendation can be very irritating to a reviewer, especially one with an agenda. If enough authors stop agreeing to work with a specific publisher, that publisher will soon find themselves in the unfortunate situation of having no more peer reviewers, and thus, will no longer be able to refer to themselves as a peer-reviewed publication. They might even (horror!) have to pay experts to review their future publications.

Thus, publishers are reluctant to overrule a reviewer out of fear the reviewer won’t work with them again in the future, and may even warn their friends and colleagues to do the same. Sometimes you just have to accept a publisher’s verdict and move on. Fortunately, there are a great many academic publishers.

Most reviewers and most publishers are reasonable people who are willing to listen to an author’s responses and counterarguments. Although academic authors who have survived their thesis defenses tend to acquire a certain measure of skill at explaining and justifying their subject and responding firmly to critiques, for some reason, they completely lose that skill when it’s time to respond to a publisher’s review. Editors can be remarkably valuable allies when it comes time to respond to review comments, which is why I always offer to help my authors write their responses.

There are several things to keep in mind.

· Authors take their writing seriously, and are often offended or even enraged by critical comments. Although this is perfectly understandable, it’s unprofitable, because expressing those emotions to a reviewer is like throwing catnip to a cat: It only encourages a strong response. Help the author take a step back and seek ways to treat criticism as a means of improving their manuscript rather than a personal attack.

· Similarly, it’s unprofitable to argue with a reviewer, particularly if that argument can be seen as an attack. Instead, help the author find ways to acknowledge the reviewer’s point, explain what they were hoping to achieve, find a way to incorporate that point in their revision, and provide a persuasive response that satisfies both the reviewer’s objection and the author’s goal.

· Where possible, help the author find ways to implement each suggestion. The more suggestions they accept, the more willing a reviewer will be to listen to counterarguments for other points. For example, if a reviewer asks the author to cite five additional references, ensure that they have cited those five references. If the reviewer asks them to cite a specific journal paper (often one written by the reviewer), ensure that they have cited that paper. It costs the author nothing, particularly if the reviewer is correct that the references are relevant and worthy of citation.

· Never cave in on important points! If the reviewer is simply wrong, and won’t accept any argument to the contrary, move on and find somewhere else to publish. There are many, many publishers. If the manuscript has merit, some publisher will eventually see its value.

· Always thank the reviewers politely at the end of the response letter, even if you disagree with them. One standard wording that has worked well for me and that I encourage you to copy and modify to meet your needs: “Thanks for your efforts to improve my manuscript. I hope that my responses and the resulting changes will be satisfactory, but I’ll be happy to work with you to resolve any remaining issues.” This acknowledges the reviewer’s effort, and attempts to shift the review process from confrontational to collaborative.

· Only thank each reviewer once, at the end of the responses, other than for particularly important comments. If you repeatedly thank a reviewer for insulting your intelligence, critiquing your upbringing and moral character, and savaging your writing style, thanking them for each body blow quickly becomes seen as sarcasm, and that tends to make the reviewer more critical.

A final comment

I’ve been helping authors for more than 30 years by using these techniques, and as a result, have facilitated the publication of more than 6,000 journal manuscripts and scientific monographs, so it’s clear that these techniques work. Interestingly, they’ve also helped me greatly when I served as a peer-reviewer or as a journal’s review coordinator. The same approaches help me put my head in the right space to work with both authors and reviewers to achieve consensus and to change the review process from confrontational to a mutually supportive way to improve the quality of an author’s contribution to the literature of a field.

Reference

Hart, G. 2021. Creating truly effective outlines. NAIWE website (https://naiwe.com/).

Geoff Hart (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language publish their research. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 33 stories so far. Visit him online at www.geoff-hart.com.

April 7, 2021

Writing for review: Prepping pundits to painlessly publish peer-reviewed papers, Part 1

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:18 pm
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Geoffrey Hart

[This article is a revised and expanded version of a November 2005 guest lecture I gave to Dr. Saul Carliner’s graduate seminar in instructional design at Concordia University.]

Many clients and potential clients are writing academic papers that must undergo the Darwinian struggle known as peer review. The purpose of this struggle is to select only the fittest papers by improving the quality of the information. Academics being civilized beings, this doesn’t inevitably have to be “nature, red in tooth and claw,” but when the review is done well, reviewers provide insightful, focused critiques that help authors compete more strongly in the community of knowledge by improving the quality and clarity of their message.

Of course, academics being human, some reviewers see themselves as wolves, not helpers, and see their role as running behind the pack so they can pull down the slowest and weakest. They then scatter the bones of their victims upon the ground for all to see as a literary kind of memento mori.

It takes all sorts, I suppose.

Overstretched metaphors notwithstanding, academic discourse benefits greatly from peer review because the peer reviewers are chosen for their expertise in the author’s field, and most recognize that publishing is a collaborative effort in which everyone agrees on the same goals: to maximize the quality of knowledge that gets published and to improve the conversation. Quality is the first goal, both because of how important the published literature should be for guiding practitioners and future authors by providing a body of knowledge that enriches an entire field of study. The second goal is to make authors look good in print, which means helping them communicate their key ideas concisely and clearly. Third, and less-often mentioned, is the “they did it to me, so I’m going to do it to you” school of review — I’ve heard PhD thesis supervisors admit, off the record, that their supervisor made them rewrite their thesis 10 times even after it was long ready to publish, and that they were going to demand the same suffering of their grad students. Sadly, many carry this philosophy to the task of peer review.

There are many ways the peer review process can fail, including authors who recommend peer reviewers who owe them a favor and will give a favorable review, even if it’s not justified, or who promote papers that support their particular biases. On the whole, though, most participants take the process seriously and work hard and with integrity to help authors publish manuscripts they can be proud of.

You may have noted that most of what I’ve described sounds very similar to what editors do, so why do we need editors when we have peer review? (Alternatively, why do we need peer reviewers when we have editors?) There are three main reasons.

First, peer reviewers are unpaid volunteers, and it’s a poor and disrespectful use of their time to send them unclear, error-ridden manuscripts. Second, unless the manuscript is about editing, the reviewers are rarely editors, and therefore aren’t best suited to the job of editing a manuscript for clarity, even if they had the time — and most don’t. Third, eliminating all the many infelicities to which a text is prone makes it easier for reviewers to understand the author’s key points and identify subtle flaws that should be fixed, but that (without editing) might be invisible beneath a sea of typos, false cognates, and other problems.

That being said, how can editors help authors prepare their manuscripts for peer review?

Note: The approach described in this article works equally well for journal articles, monographs (e.g., a report series
published by a research institute), and books.

The review process

Writing for peer review begins with an understanding of the peer-review process. Fortunately, this is more similar to than different from other forms of nonfiction writing. The process generally follows these steps:

· The author completes their research, whether in a laboratory or a library, and analyzes the knowledge they acquired to create an overall mental image of their findings and where these fit within the larger context of a field’s collection of knowledge. Developmental editing can be very helpful at this stage.

· Based on this review of their subject, the author creates a strong outline to guide their writing (Hart, 2021). Again, developmental editing can facilitate this stage.

· Next, the author must choose an appropriate publisher — one that will be interested in the manuscript and will provide access to an interested audience. Based on that publisher’s requirements (usually made available via their website), the author writes a first draft that follows those guidelines. If the publisher lets authors develop their own style guide, developmental editing can produce a guide that eases the task of writing consistently.

· With help from colleagues and (ideally) a substantive editor, the author revises the manuscript to produce the most-polished story they can before they submit it to the publisher.

· The publisher hands off the manuscript to one or more peer reviewers. After some time has passed (often months), the author receives the review comments and the publisher’s verdict, and must then revise the manuscript to answer any questions or address any criticisms raised by the reviewers. Substantive editing and copyediting are often required at this stage.

· The author repeats the revise/resubmit/review cycle as often as necessary, with an editor’s help, until they either satisfy the publisher that their manuscript is worthy of publication, or they give up and send it to another publisher (where the whole process might start over again!).

Choosing the right publisher

Deciding where to publish a manuscript is a complicated task, since there are many criteria, some of which are contradictory or very subjective.

Publishing in a prestigious journal or with a prestigious academic press is important for an academic’s career because the publisher’s prestige is one criterion for evaluating an author’s work. The downside of prestigious publishers is that everyone wants to publish with them, which gives the publisher enormous freedom in choosing only the best of the best submissions. It’s not quite the writer’s equivalent of buying a lottery ticket, but the chances of success sometimes seem equally low. A less-prestigious but still perfectly respectable publisher may be a better option, particularly for authors who are still early in their careers and don’t yet have name recognition that would get them through doors that are shut to new authors.

Another decision is whether the author should write for their peers, which usually means a smaller but more-expert audience, or for a wider group of readers who are outside the author’s area of specialization, which usually means a larger but less-expert audience. The former may be important when an author is trying to make a name for themselves in their field; the latter may be more important when they have something to say that will be of broad interest to readers both in their field and out.

Note: Academics face an interesting challenge: Their work may be very important for the general public, but publishing general-interest manuscripts gains little respect from colleagues, and sometimes gains their contempt. One solution is to publish first in academic publications, and then recast that work for a broader audience later.

Editors who specialize in certain areas gradually acquire a sense of which publishers are a good choice. If, however, you (as an editor) are unfamiliar with a field, there are tricks you can use to help the author find a suitable publisher. First, examine the bibliography in the manuscript. If the author repeatedly cites papers from a specific journal or books from a specific publisher, than that journal or publisher is likely to be a good candidate because these citations prove the willingness of those outlets to publish similar manuscripts.

On the other hand, the lack of a specific publisher, such as a science journal, in the list of citations may be a sign that the author’s subject has not been published by that journal even though its readers would clearly benefit from learning more about that subject. Another way editors can help authors is by helping them argue for the relevance of a manuscript by explaining (in a cover letter) how it will benefit the publication’s readers.

Neither author nor editors should hesitate to ask colleagues for suggestions, both for publishers they’ve worked with and that have been helpful and have provided effective reviews — and publishers that are best avoided. Many publishers, and particularly peer-reviewed journals, report their rejection ratio at their author guidelines web pages. If they have a high-impact factor (i.e., if many of their publications are cited by other authors), they’ll report that prominently, too.

Publishers with the highest impact factors tend to have the highest rejection rates, so choosing a balance between impact and risk of rejection is important. This is a judgment call and a deeply personal decision, and editors can provide advice on the pros and cons of a given publisher, but in the end, the author must choose.

Note: Chapter 3 of my book Writing for Science Journals (http://geoff-hart.com/books/journals/journal-book.htm) provides a detailed discussion of this subject.

Style guides

Most academic or scholarly publishers receive more manuscripts than they can ever hope to publish, and as a result, they use a variety of screening criteria (some that are not so good) to eliminate the least-suitable manuscripts. One of the first and easiest is to check whether an author followed their style guide. An author who can’t be trusted to follow a simple, clearly stated set of instructions suggests the author will be more trouble to work with than the publisher desires. (That being said, having worked for more than 30 years in academic publishing, “simple” often strikes me as a one-word oxymoron.)

At a minimum, this suggests that the publisher will have to spend more of their tight budget on copyediting the manuscript than they would with an author who takes more care. Thus, editors should start first with the publisher’s stated style guide, then expand to other style resources if necessary. If the publisher doesn’t have a style guide, then — as I noted earlier — editors can help authors create a customized style guide during the developmental editing phase.

Note: Chapter 8 of my book Effective Onscreen Editing (http://geoff-hart.com/books/eoe/onscreen-book.htm) discusses how to create and use style sheets in considerable detail.

Each field tends to have a core set of style guides. For example, academic fields outside the sciences tend to use the Chicago Manual of Style; the sciences tend to use the Council of Science Editors style guide, Scientific Style and Format. There are likely to be more-specialized guides for specific disciplines, such as the APA Style Guide for psychologists or the Associated Press Stylebook for journalists. Learn which guides are most often used in a field, and use them to guide your editing. If you can’t find a sufficiently subject-specific guide, Google is your friend. Many professional associations publish their own official style guides for members, or provide recommendations of reputable guides produced by others.

Last but not least, always read an example of something published by the publisher. Whatever the stated preferences in their style guide, publishers tend to slowly diverge from their published guidelines. This may be because their acquiring or managing editors choose to follow a different authority (including their own preference), but neglect to inform their website manager that the guidelines should be updated. Unless the published guidelines have a current date and specifically supersede older guidelines, the proof of the pudding’s in the most-recent publication.

Geoff Hart (www.geoff-hart.com) (he/him) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language to publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing, now in its 4th edition, and of the well-reviewed Writing for Science Journals. He has been a frequent presenter at Communication Central’s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 33 stories thus far.    

December 9, 2020

Finding, working with, and retaining (ESL) clients, Part 3

Geoff Hart

In Part 1 of this discussion, I discussed how to find and work with authors who have English as a second language (ESL authors). In Part 2, I discussed cultural considerations, related rhetorical issues, and editing tips. Now for some insights into ethical issues you might encounter in working with ESL authors.

Ethical issues

Sometimes ethical issues arise because of different standards in different countries. These can pose dilemmas for editors. For example, the teaching of statistical analysis in China is of widely uneven quality, and many of the manuscripts I edit don’t meet the standard of proof expected by western journals. As a result, I spend a lot of time teaching my authors basic statistics so they can revise their analyses or do a better job in their future research.

In China, as in the west, graduate students often aren’t taught best practices for experimental design, so their first few studies are often poorly designed. Editing to improve a manuscript’s clarity can have the unfortunate side effect of revealing flaws in the design and statistical analysis more clearly. Rather than trying to hide these deficiencies, I often find myself suggesting justifications for problems with the research (e.g., clearly emphasizing that it is preliminary or constrained by budget considerations) or suggesting additional work or analysis the author can do to fill holes in their research.

A particularly common problem relates to what appears to be plagiarism. This arises most often because authors have been taught (incorrectly) that as long as they cite the source of a quotation, they can simply copy someone else’s words. This is increasingly causing problems for authors because publishers are increasingly using software to check for such plagiarism. You can often spot problem sentences because they require no editing, unlike the rest of the manuscript, or they use a distinctively different writing style. Copying the text into Google is one way to quickly reveal such copying, and you can then suggest a way to legitimately paraphrase the copied text. Because paraphrasing takes practice, I periodically remind my ESL authors that if they can’t figure out how to paraphrase, they can copy the original text and highlight it to tell me that it’s copied and that I should help them come up with a different wording.

Confidentiality of information is another issue to keep in mind. This is particularly important when personal information is involved (e.g., in medical research), but is also important when an author is working in a competitive field where industrial espionage or academic precedence is an issue. Being able to prevent information from being leaked is essential for patent applications, and in academia, being the first to publish specific research results is important for the author’s career.

If there’s a risk of harming a client’s interests because their information was seen by someone inappropriate, look for a secure way to transfer information. E-mail is not secure. Encrypted e-mail exists and is one option; for example, consider using the ProtonMail software (https://protonmail.com/). Using confidential file transfer sites is another option, but it can be hard to send the password to your author in a way that prevents interception.

Note: It should be obvious that using a secure file transfer site, but then sending the site’s password in simple e-mail is a bad idea. Yet people do this so often that I’ve stopped counting the times. Find another way to transfer the password, such as by voicemail or a text message to the client’s cellphone, or sending two parts of the password separately from two e-mail accounts.

One issue that comes up sometimes is that mainland China (the People’s Republic) considers Taiwan to be a province of China; the Taiwanese disagree. On the one hand, changing this so Taiwan is described as an independent nation can cause problems for the author if they’re a government employee and their employer notices this. On the other hand, pretending that Taiwan is a Chinese province can create a hostile review from a Taiwanese peer reviewer. There’s no really good solution to this problem, other than to raise the issue and let the author decide how they feel most comfortable dealing with it. They usually know how to handle the problem better than we do.

Note: Antivirus and anti-malware software is not optional, even if you use a Mac for your work. The ethical cost of passing along a virus or other malware to a client is too high to be cavalier about this problem. I use Bitdefender (https://www.bitdefender.com/) because it’s been consistently reliable and shown to be effective in rigorous testing. Many other options exist (https://www.av-comparatives.org/).

Getting paid

In my experience, my ESL authors are eager to do the right thing and pay me for my work. However, they may face many constraints on transmitting a payment. For example, Chinese university accounts payable departments often close during the summer, so invoices submitted from June through August may not get paid before September. Italian universities are infamously slow at payments, and can take months — despite sometimes heroic efforts by an author to prod the bureaucracy into motion.

Rather than getting angry about this, I’ve learned to accept that authors sometimes have little or no say in when I get paid. Thus, I recommend that you be flexible but firm about payments. For routinely tardy clients, automatically add your standard late fee into your invoice. Sending a second invoice with this fee added to the total may get you the additional money you’ve requested; more often, it only further delays your payment because the invoice re-enters the payment process at the beginning rather than holding its place in line.

Particularly for the benefit of new authors who haven’t yet learned how western editors do business, create a “standard terms” document that describes the nature of your work. I’ve provided examples of this document that you can download from my website (http://geoff-hart.com/resources.html#downloads). Feel free to modify these documents to meet your own needs.

The goal of such a document is to ensure that the author understands their responsibilities and yours, not to provide a legal bludgeon to wield against recalcitrant authors. Ask each new client to read this document and confirm that they have done so and understand all of the terms, and offer to discuss and explain anything that isn’t clear. For example, specify that you own the work you’ve done until you’ve been paid. You can send a copy of the edited manuscript to a journal editor or publisher and tell them that they cannot legally publish your work until the author pays (I’ve done this successfully a couple times), but this creates bad blood. Ensuring that the author understands their relationship with you avoids a great many potential misunderstandings.

To the extent that this is possible, ask authors to pay you in your own currency. This is because converting money between currencies incurs conversion fees that the bank will subtract from your payment. These deductions can add up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars annually, so you should eliminate them wherever possible and mitigate them where you can’t avoid them. If you’re not American, some authors will find it difficult to pay you in your native currency; in that case, it may end up being cheaper and faster if you accept payment in U.S. dollars. In addition, each payment method incurs different fees, and you need to know what those fees are so you can add them to your invoices. (Just like charging sales tax in jurisdictions where this is required, authors — not editors — should pay these fees. However, services such as PayPal specifically prohibit charging their fees to the client.) However, if you use a payment service’s invoicing features, carefully check the terms of service instead of just e-mailing a PDF to your client. For example, PayPal prohibits charging its service fees to your clients.

Many payment options are available, and they’re changing rapidly. As a result, any list I provide will be out of date by the time you read this article. For that reason, I haven’t provided the fees charged by each service. Research these fees in advance so you can set up an account with each of these services (usually free or inexpensive) and offer them to your authors as a payment method. You’ll also need to talk to your bank to learn whether they charge any fees. That being said, here are several methods that I’ve used successfully for several years.

•       SWIFT: the standard method for transferring money internationally, directly between two bank accounts. This currently costs a fixed fee, and for large invoices (more than about US$800), it may be the least-expensive payment method. For smaller invoices, these other methods are typically less expensive.

•       PayPal (www.paypal.com): the standard method of exchanging money in the west, and increasingly available in China, too.

•       Western Union (www.westernunion.com): this service has the advantage of operating in most countries around the world and its offices are usually easy to find; if you have a bank ATM card that’s compatible with their system, you can often get your payment transferred directly into your account. Walmart’s Western Union office can usually do this; the Western Union outlet at your local grocery store probably can’t.

•       Moneygram (https://www.moneygram.com/): This is a significant competitor for Western Union that often has an outlet at the client’s local post office and at your post office.

•       In Canada, Interac e-transfers (https://www.interac.ca/en/) between bank accounts are free for many banks and inexpensive for others. However, that’s only an option within Canada.

•       Credit cards: PayPal currently offers the easiest and least-expensive way to receive payments from a client’s credit card. There’s no ongoing fee, unlike with most credit card processors, and the fee per transaction is reasonable.

•       AliPay or WeChat: These two services are China’s equivalent to Amazon and Facebook (or Twitter), respectively. They have highly refined systems for payment using a smartphone, and their fees are quite low. When your account is established, they’ll send you a QR code that you can send to clients along with your invoice. When the client scans it, they can transfer payment directly into your bank account. If you’re not working in China, you may need to sign up with a third party. In Canada, I use SnapPay (https://www.snappay.ca/); in the U.S., you may need to create an account for the international versions of those services: for AliPay, <https://intl.alipay.com/&gt; and for WeChat, download the correct app for your smartphone’s operating system.

•       Transferwise (https://transferwise.com/): This option deposits money directly into your bank account once you’ve registered your bank account with them.

•       Arrange payment via a client’s friends, family, or colleagues who live in your country — some of my Chinese clients ask their colleagues in the U.S. to send me the payment. They then repay their colleague using the Chinese banking system.

I offer all of these alternatives to my clients because my goal is to make payment as easy as possible. They greatly appreciate the flexibility of being able to choose the least-expensive method for a given invoice or the most-convenient option based on their location or available technology.

How to retain (ESL) clients

My experience has been that if your only relationship with a client centers on how they will pay you, the relationship is weak, and there are enough editors who do comparable work that you’re going to be relatively easy to replace. That’s why I prefer to frame my relationship with authors as one in which my primary goal is to help them publish their work, and I’ll go out of my way to help them with that goal.

I don’t pretend in any way that my work isn’t valuable or that it’s not important to pay me for that work. As a freelancer, I occasionally have to remind authors that I don’t earn a salary, since many assume that I’m a university professor or work at a research institute; to correct that false assumption, I occasionally have to remind an author that my only income comes from my freelance editing work. But that’s never the priority in my relationship with them.

Remember that any commitment you make (e.g., to finish work by a certain date) is a promise, and you must honor your promises if you want authors to trust you. You can’t avoid being struck by lightning, but you can build a network of colleagues who can replace you if “life happens” (e.g., an illness, a death in the family). This became particularly clear to me when I received a positive COVID-19 test result in late 2020 (which turned out to be a false positive). Since there was suddenly a real risk I would become seriously ill with little warning, I immediately contacted the colleagues who’d agreed to take referrals from me to warn them they might receive inquiries from my regular clients. I then sent their contact information to my clients, with the warning that “if you write to me and don’t receive a reply within 1 day, here’s why and here’s what to do about it.” This took me perhaps half an hour, greatly eased my conscience, and reassured everyone that I had their best interests in mind.

Another good way to build trust and loyalty is to underpromise and overdeliver. For example, if a manuscript must be returned to the author by a certain date, try to plan your schedule so you can finish your work a few days earlier. That way, if anything happens to you before that earlier date, you have a chance to ask a colleague to take over and finish it by the actual due date. If you finish early, the author gains extra time to review your work. If you “only” finish on the proposed date, then at least you’re still on time.

I always try to go the extra mile for my clients. I occasionally deal with publishers on their behalf when an author runs into trouble they can’t resolve, whether from lack of experience or simple language difficulties. I encourage my authors to include my name and contact information in their letters to publishers so I can speak directly to the publisher to clarify any misunderstandings. A couple times, an author has sent their original manuscript to a publisher instead of the edited manuscript, and incorrectly claimed that I edited it; when the publisher contacted me to ask whether the author was lying, I explained what probably happened and resolved the problem. I also maintain easily accessible backups of the manuscripts I’ve edited in perpetuity. Every year or two, an author needs to retrieve a copy of some ancient manuscript, and is very pleased when I’m able to provide it.

If, like me, your goal is to build a relationship with your authors, remember that successful relationships are all about communication. One of the promises I’ve made to my authors is that our relationship is between equals: we are both experts in our respective fields, and must respect each other’s expertise. As a result, I emphasize that we work by consensus, not by editorial “diktat.”

Where possible and appropriate, I communicate about more than just work. For example, I keep track of major national holidays, such as China’s national holiday in the first week of October, as well as the Chinese new year in the spring. If I’m going to do something special, like going for a dim sum breakfast, I’ll mention that and send along my hope that they will also have time to celebrate by dining with friends. Where appropriate, I try to learn a bit about them as people. For example, one of my clients is a classically trained violinist, and has sent me samples of his music. Another enjoys teaching me occasional phrases in his language, but particularly enjoys the opportunity to “edit the editor” when I try to use what I’ve learned.

Although cultures do tend to have certain overall characteristics, be careful about making assumptions about behavior based on those characteristics. People differ within a culture, and there are no “universal” approaches that work for everyone within a culture. For example, I know that Europeans are as crazy about soccer (“football”) as Americans are about baseball and Canadians are about hockey, so when Spain won the FIFA World Cup in 2010, I wrote to all my Spanish authors to congratulate them. One wrote back (rather sheepishly) to note that he actually didn’t care much for the sport and had no idea that his team had won.

Being culturally sensitive is important, particularly if you’re an English westerner. Most non-westerners have learned to deal with western conventions, and expect a certain amount of cultural ignorance from us. I try to learn enough about their culture to surprise them. Most greatly appreciate my efforts to understand and accommodate their culture rather than insisting they adapt to my culture.

Exerting this extra effort has resulted in strong relationships with most of my authors, and stronger loyalty. It also makes the work far more rewarding because I have a personal connection with these people that enriches me far beyond the money I earn. I’ve been invited to stay in one client’s home when I visited their country — in a country where this is rarely done — and another asked me to spend a few days teaching his graduate students how to write better. These opportunities are priceless.

Frustrations

Much though I enjoy my work, there are occasional frustrations I need to deal with. One of the biggest is authors who don’t learn from my editing and keep making the same mistakes again and again. Sometimes this is just the nature of the game: not everyone is a born writer, and the vast majority of the scientists I’ve worked with would rather do research than write. This can also be “attitude”: A couple of my authors have made it clear that they don’t believe they should need to learn how to write better; “That’s why I pay you.” Fair enough.

Payment delays can be frustrating, particularly if you’re living on a low income. Once you develop a large-enough clientele that you have invoices going out steadily, you’ll start receiving a steady inflow of payments. The degree of “steady” varies over time, but if you pay attention, you’ll start to notice slow periods and you can budget accordingly (i.e., save some extra money during busy periods to tide you over during slow periods). For example, many of my authors are hard at work doing field research during the summer, when the weather is more suitable and their students are on holiday. This means that I have a three-month slow period every year when they’re not writing and I’m editing less often.

Scheduling is an issue, particularly once you have a large clientele. Many authors simply refuse to learn to reserve my time in advance, and write (disingenuously or otherwise) to request that I drop everything and edit their manuscript immediately. I’ve learned to be tough about this. I remind authors at least twice per year that they have to contact me three weeks before they need me to start work so I can reserve time for a manuscript; that’s just how busy I am during most of the year. The ones who refuse to learn that lesson have alternatives; they can check whether one of my colleagues might be available on short notice, or they can (surprisingly often) ask their publisher for an extension.

Of course, writing doesn’t always go according to plan, so I always contact authors a week before their reservation to confirm whether it’s still valid, or whether they’ll need more time. This gives me much more flexibility in managing my schedule, and the authors also appreciate my reminders.

Since working with ESL authors means, by definition, working in different languages, miscommunication is a constant risk. Most often, this results in incomprehension rather than hurt feelings, but I always keep in mind the need to be exceptionally careful in how I communicate. I review all my e-mail communication at least once (twice for tricky diplomatic situations) to ensure that I’ve made my assumptions explicit, and haven’t misspoken. I hunt down typos, since nothing undermines trust in an editor quite like an e-mail full of preventable errors. Wherever possible, I practice redundant communication — if I don’t understand what an author wrote, I will use a comment such as: “If you mean [meaning 1], change this to [revision 1]; if you mean [meaning 2], change this to [revision 2]. If neither meaning is correct, please send me an explanation and I will help you choose clearer wording.”

The last part of that comment is a subliminal reminder that my goal is to work together with the author, as partners, and that I’m not going to leave them helpless if there’s any way I can prevent that from happening.

A rewarding career option

Despite the occasional frustrations, I wouldn’t trade my work for any other job. For some clients, our relationship is nothing more than business, but it’s as amicable as possible and thus efficient, pleasant, and mostly free of frustrations. For others, it’s more of a personal relationship, which I find more satisfying. Keep that in mind whether, like me, you choose to specialize in working with ESL authors or just add a few of them to your clientele to make your work more interesting and diverse, not to mention more lucrative.

Even if editing is your primary work, think outside that box to find ways to expand your relationship. If you can edit, maybe you can write, too? Currently, in response to a Japanese client’s request, I’m writing a twice-monthly series of articles about writing for peer-reviewed science journals. It’s a nice change from editing, and just as satisfying, since I know I’m making life easier for many authors who never learned the things I’m teaching.

References

(These references apply to all three sections of this discussion.)

Hart, G. 2003. Technical communication in China: a personal perspective. <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2003/China-presentation-2003.pdf>

Hart, G. 2006. Finding work in tough times. Intercom December 2006:8–11. <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2006/finding-work.htm>

Hart, G. 2007. Successful cross-cultural communication requires us to test our assumptions. The Write Stuff, newsletter of the European Medical Writers Association 16(3):111–113. <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2007/cross-cultural.htm>

Hart, G. 2013. Working with authors who speak English as a second language. Copyediting August/September 2013: 3–5. <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2013/work-with-ESL.html>

Hart, G. 2014. Writing for Science Journals: Tips, Tricks, and a Learning Plan. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Quebec. <http://geoff-hart.com/books/journals/journal-book.htm>

Hart, G. 2019. Effective Onscreen Editing: New Tools for an Old Profession. 4th ed. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Quebec. <http://geoff-hart.com/books/eoe/onscreen-book.htm>

Downloads

Notes from lectures I presented at the Beijing Forestry University, October 2010:

•       Writing an English journal paper: <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2010/lecture-1.pdf>

•       Working with research journals: <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2010/lecture-2.pdf>

•       Common problems of the English language: <http://www.geoff-hart.com/articles/2010/lecture-3.pdf>

My standard contract terms:

•       For westerners: <http://www.geoff-hart.com/resources/standard-terms.pdf>

•       For Chinese authors: <http://www.geoff-hart.com/resources/standard-terms-China.pdf>

Geoff Hart (he/him) (www.geoff-hart.com) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language to publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing, now in its 4th edition, and of the well-reviewed Writing for Science Journals, and has been a frequent presenter at Communication Central’s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 28 stories thus far.

December 2, 2020

Finding, working with, and retaining (ESL) clients, Part 2

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 10:24 am
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Geoff Hart, Contributing Writer

For Part 1 of this discussion, go to: https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2020/11/25/finding-working-with-and-retaining-esl-clients-part-1/.

Cultural considerations

Different cultures have different approaches to communication, and many misunderstandings can be avoided if you learn about and account for these differences. For example, some cultures are more relationship-centered (e.g., Chinese, Spanish) than English-based cultures, whereas others are more “businesslike” (e.g., German). In China, authors often want to get to know you before they’ll trust you enough to discuss business. The first time a Chinese author brought me to China to meet him and his colleagues, my stay in Beijing began with a dinner where we all talked about simple personal and social things. There was no discussion about our plans for the visit before the end of the dinner, when it was necessary to discuss the following day’s activities. In contrast, business meetings with most North Americans begin with a cursory exchange of informalities, then dive right into the business at hand. ESL authors tend to be familiar with western customs, and expect you to behave like a barbarian who’s ignorant of their culture. I take great pleasure in pleasantly surprising them.

Note: Avoid falling into the trap of stereotyping. People from any culture are individuals, and behave individually. You’ll need to follow your author’s cues, whether explicit or implicit, to know how to proceed. When in doubt, ask!

In high-context cultures, such as China, much is left unsaid and must be inferred. For example, when you receive a compliment in North America, it’s assumed that you will thank the person for their compliment; saying nothing suggests that you feel the compliment was deserved, and can suggest arrogance. In China, the opposite may be true. Accepting a compliment by thanking the giver can convey arrogance by suggesting you feel you’re worthy of the compliment. Ignoring or downplaying the compliment expresses humility by not drawing attention to yourself.

Better still, try diverting the compliment. At the end of one stay in China, my host complimented me for being “very Chinese,” since I’d made considerable effort to learn and practice correct social etiquette — a worthwhile investment. I thanked him before I could stifle the reflex, but quickly added: “I think it would be more correct to say that I am more Chinese now than when I arrived in China; there is still so much to learn.” His smile told me I’d handled my mistake well.

Definitely learn about your author’s cultural etiquette, particularly if you will be meeting them in person. For example, Japanese bow to each other in formal situations, with the depth of the bow proportional to the importance of the other person. Chinese do not bow. In China, business card exchanges are an important greeting, since the cards are your way to ensure you heard the person’s name correctly. Rather than tucking the card into your pocket, like we do in the west, receive it with both hands, read it carefully, pronounce the person’s name (and position, such as “Director Wang”), then lay the card on the table before you if you are sitting or continue holding it in your hand if standing. Similarly, when you offer your business card, hold it in both hands, with the text facing the recipient so they can read it without having to rotate the card.

Learn your author’s cultural assumptions. For example, the Chinese concept of guanxi is extremely important. Although the word is often translated as “networking,” that misses crucial nuances: an assumption of mutual aid and a careful accounting for favors given or received. In a western network, it’s assumed that you’ll simply refuse an unreasonable or inconvenient request from a colleague, but when you become part of an author’s guanxiwang (guanxi network), you are expected to go far beyond the call of duty to help them and any member of their guanxiwang if they ask you for help.

This can be problematic for eager young authors who seem to work 24/7 and expect us to do the same. It also leads to problems when an author who trusts your work wants you to work with their colleagues, too, which is common practice in China. That’s great when you’re starting out and need more clients, but can rapidly become impossible to manage because your number of clients grows exponentially as each new client introduces you to everyone in their guanxiwang. I solved this problem by explaining that although I understood the importance of guanxi, I could no longer accept new work due to a lack of time. Instead, to honor our guanxi, I told them I was happy to introduce them to other editors in my own guanxiwang.

If you’re interested in forming more than a business relationship with your clients, learn about their important holidays. For example, most people are familiar with the Chinese new year, which occurs in February. It’s an important time for getting together with family and friends to celebrate. Far fewer westerners are familiar with the Chinese national holiday in the first week of October, which is the busiest travel time of the year, since the length of the holiday lets far-flung families come together from all corners of China to celebrate. Most authors appreciate it when you send greetings, particularly if those greetings show an understanding of their culture. For example, when I send Chinese new year greetings, I always research which animal is featured in a given year, and seek ways to relate the characteristics of that animal to the work we do together.

It’s also fun to contact your authors on your own national or cultural holidays. For example, I send western new year’s greetings to my clients, thank them for our work together, and tell them how much I look forward to working with them again in the new year. However, although you’d think this should go without saying, don’t assume you know their religion and particularly don’t assume that they’re Christian. (No, really! I’ve seen many people make this mistake.) If you’re Christian and want to wish a ESL author a merry Christmas, do so by explaining what it means to you and why it feels so important. Emphasizing family occasions is a good way to build connections; emphasizing Christian theology is not.

On the more-amusing side, don’t jump to conclusions when an author with an unusual name contacts you. I’ve long since lost the original e-mail and couldn’t retrieve the correct name, but I was once contacted by someone whose name resembled “I.M. Beçilić” — which I misread as “imbecilic,” and thus assumed it was probably a scam. Just when I was about to delete their message without responding, instinct suggested that I Google them — and I quickly discovered they were a real person. We ended up not working together, but I introduced them to a colleague. Similarly, a colleague once received a request to work with a “Nigerian banker” — who proved to be a real Nigerian banker in need of editing assistance for their book.

Rhetorical issues

Different cultures often adopt different rhetorical styles, and you’ll begin to recognize these differences as you gain experience. For example, Chinese authors often describe the literature of a field in their literature review in what western authors would consider to be reverse chronological order. The rhetorical difference arises because western writers proceed forward from oldest to most-recent to show how the research has evolved, whereas Chinese authors consider the recent research to be more important, and believe that it’s implicitly clear that the new work evolved from the older work. Thus, they present the newer work first. Their approach isn’t wrong, but it is unusual in English, so I usually suggest that my authors use English chronological order.

Sometimes you’ll discover interesting historical artefacts in an author’s writing. For example, older Chinese authors may not have learned how to use western data presentation devices such as tables and graphs. My Chinese friends tell me that this is because Mao discouraged the use of such forms of information. As a result, older writers often explain a concept using only words and numbers, when a figure or table would be more efficient. Because I do primarily substantive and developmental editing, I look for opportunities to present information more efficiently using graphs or tables, teach my authors how to use graphs and tables, and improve the quality of any graphs or tables they used ineffectively.

Editing tips

Because ESL authors are generally less-skilled with English than native speakers, editing is likely to create more changes in a manuscript than with native English authors. This turns reviewing your edits into a challenge. It also means you should take more care about how you edit a manuscript to make it easier for an author to review your changes and reduce the risk of errors when they review your changes. (The greater the number of small errors they must accept or reject, the greater the number of errors they’ll make. This is also true for native English speakers.)

Here are some suggestions how to make your edits easier to review:

•       Replace entire phrases or even whole sentences; never ask an author to decipher complex puzzles created from many small changes.

•       Polish your comments, explanations, and questions until they shine with lucidity.

•       Don’t just report problems; provide solutions they can emulate. If your proposed change is perfect, they can copy it and paste it into the manuscript. If it’s imperfect, they can still copy and modify it. (Because many authors are not experts at using their word processors, it’s helpful to remind them they can copy and paste text from your comments.)

•       When you need to describe a problem, use the most-precise words, even if they seem complex. Authors who write in a second language will own a bilingual dictionary, and the more precise your wording, the easier it will be for them to find the correct meaning. That being said, use the tips in Part 1 of this article to illustrate a problem if you can, instead of relying on editorial jargon.

•       Don’t track changes they must accept (e.g., a publisher’s format requirements) — but do add a comment to describe what you’ve done so they never begin to suspect that you’re changing things behind their back. This can lead to a loss of trust, particularly early in a relationship.

•       Teach them how to review your edits effectively (both quickly and accurately). For example, refer them to my primers on revision tracking (http://geoff-hart.com/resources.html#downloads). Feel free to download these primers and modify them to meet your needs.

These tricks not only make it faster and easier for the author to review your work; they also mean there will be fewer errors for you to correct when you review the revised manuscript again.

It’s also worth noting that every language has its quirks, and authors who have learned those quirks for their native language often carry those quirks into how they use their new language. For example, with Chinese authors:

•       Definite and indefinite articles are rarely used in Chinese, so they’re often misused when authors write in English. (I’ve provided a concise tutorial on this subject [GH1] on my website. See the “Downloads” section at the end of this article for details.)

•       Pronouns are rarely used in Chinese, including possessives such as “their.” This leads to much repetition of the full words where a native writer would simply use a pronoun.

•       Similarly, possessives are poorly understood. For example, you’ll often see “of China” instead of “China’s.” The problem is exacerbated for combining possessives with long institutional names. You’ll often see “the X of the [10-word institute name] instead of “the institute’s X.”

•       Chinese authors tend to cite literature, figures, and tables late in the paragraph, after they’ve finished describing these things, instead of citing them early to provide context for the information that follows. Authors for whom English is their native language often start a paragraph with words such as “Table 1 summarizes …,” followed by a paragraph describing that summary. In a Chinese manuscript, you’ll often find the table cited only at the end of the last sentence of the paragraph.

•       Bilingual dictionaries that help them translate from Chinese to English can contain errors. For example, many Chinese authors use few, rare, or scarce when they really mean none.

As I noted earlier, authors who are writing in their second language are usually better in the language of their subject than they are in conversation. As a result, they often use phrases that don’t quite mean what you think they mean. Sometimes, those phrases even seem potentially offensive. Before you respond emotionally, assume that the author has good intentions, and ask yourself what they think they’re saying. For example, my authors often wish me “good luck.” In English, this sometimes means “you’ll need all the luck you can get with this one,” but more often, a Chinese author really means “I wish you good fortune,” which is a standard and warm closing phrase in Chinese. Another example is “I will pay for this when [condition is met].” This is rarely an attempt to escape payment by suggesting they’ll pay only when they’re satisfied with your work; more often, it’s a simple reassurance that they really do intend to pay.

Phonetic spelling errors are a particularly common problem. These often result from false cognates (faux amis in French; falsi amici in Italian, jiǎ tóng yuán cí in Chinese) or simple near-misses. My Japanese authors often write glass when they mean grass, for instance, but Chinese authors rarely have this problem; Japanese doesn’t use L, and because of how Japanese is pronounced, authors often substitute R for L. In contrast, my Chinese authors often write conversation when they mean conservation.

Authors who natively use a non-Roman script often spell names incorrectly (both theirs and those of their colleagues); thus, don’t assume any names in a manuscript have been correctly spelled. The problem also goes the other way. When I write to my authors in pinyin (a standardized romanization of Chinese characters), I have to be very careful about the tones if the  context of the message is at all unclear.

For authors who use a symbol-based language, problems often result from confusing two English letters that have similar shapes. Understanding these visual errors often helps me decipher problem words that seem to make no sense in context. Examples of shape confusion include:

•       Letters with strongly similar shapes: c / e, r n / m, K / X, k / x, f i / h, lower-case L / 1, u / ii

•       Letters that are similar, but with a single missing stroke: r / n, h / n

•       Letters that have been rotated or flipped or both: Z / N, p / b, p / d, p / q

As experts in English, we tend to correct these errors subconsciously as we read. Thus, while we’re editing, we need to find ways to not overlook these problems. Some will be caught by your spellchecker, but many won’t be because the letter replacement still leaves a valid word. You can use tricks like creating an exclusion dictionary in Word, or recording search-and-replace macros that highlight specific words you have trouble with. In the end, though, you just have to be alert to these kinds of problems and force yourself to slow down and pay attention.

For authors who repeatedly make the same error and don’t seem able to memorize the correct form, it can be fatiguing making the same correction over and over again. One solution is to master search-and-replace so you can make these corrections globally. Another is to use a tool such as PerfectIt (https://intelligentediting.com/).

Note: With ESL authors, it’s particularly important to never do a global search-and-replace if you won’t have time to review the entire manuscript. Errors are easy to make, and can undermine the author’s confidence in you. The same caution applies to native English authors, of course.

In the final part of this discussion, I’ll discuss ethical issues, how to get paid, and how to retain (ESL) clients, as well as some of the frustrations and rewards of working with these authors.”

Geoff Hart (he/him) (www.geoff-hart.com) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language to publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing, now in its 4th edition, and of the well-reviewed Writing for Science Journals. He has been a frequent presenter at Communication Central’s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 28 stories thus far.


November 25, 2020

Finding, working with, and retaining [ESL] clients, Part 1

Geoff Hart, Contributing Columnist

Editor’s notes: It is an honor and a pleasure to add Geoff Hart to the ranks of An American Editor columnists. We hope you enjoy this expanded and improved version of the author’s presentation at Communication Central’s 2016 Be a Better Freelancer® conference, Rochester, NY.

Where the author has indicated Note, the text should be a indented or block text, but your An American Editor owner hasn’t figured out how to do that yet in a new version of the WordPress editing function.

Resources will be included in Part 3 of this column.

For those interested in Geoff’s book (see author bio at end of column), Lulu.com offers 30% off all books with code BFCM30 from midnight November 27 through November 30 (presumably midnight North American Eastern Standard Time).

***

For the past 33 years, I’ve been working as a scientific editor. My specialty is working with authors who have English as a second language. (For simplicity, I’ll refer to these authors as “ESL” authors hereafter.) As you can imagine, this leads to challenges I don’t encounter with my authors who speak English as their native language. Challenges that, on the whole, I enjoy. In this series, I’ll tell you a bit about why I enjoy the work so much and how you can find, work with, and retain ESL clients. I’ve placed brackets around “ESL” in the title because, as you’ll see, much of what I’ll discuss is also true for non-ESL clients, with a slightly different spin.

Why you should work with ESL clients

When I started my freelance career, I continued working with scientific researchers, but decided to emphasize authors who learned English as their second (or more) language. In addition to seeing this as an under-exploited niche, I decided that I wanted to broaden my perspective beyond what I’d been learning from my western authors. Specifically, I focused on Japanese and Chinese authors, because these were two cultures I was somewhat familiar with and very much enjoyed. The resulting diversity of topics and concerns has proven every bit as rewarding as I’d hoped. I’ve particularly enjoyed the chance to learn more about other countries and cultures. In one case, expressing this interest even resulted in a short teaching gig at a Beijing university and offers of a longer-term teaching position when I’m retired and can afford to spend multiple months living abroad.

As an ecologist by training, I benefited from another lesson: Diverse ecosystems are most robust, and tend to be most stable. Translated into editing terms, adding Asian clients meant that my workload was potentially recession-proof (like an ecosystem or a diversified stock portfolio) because economic downturns in Asia usually differ in timing and intensity from western downturns. In addition, authors in different countries tend to have different busy periods, and this helps to spread out the work somewhat. For example, the school year (for university authors) differs among countries, as do the teaching and writing responsibilities that university professors have to fit into their busy schedules. Because most of my clients work outdoors, at locations ranging from forests to deserts, their field research seasons differ between hemispheres (e.g., summer in the south is winter in the north). I still have “crunch” periods when it seems that all my authors need my help simultaneously, but the reduced number of slow periods with no work more than compensates.

As a freelancer, it also didn’t escape my notice that higher pay rates are possible in some areas of the world. For example, costs are higher in parts of the European Union and in Japan than they are in North America. For simplicity, I use a standard rate for all my clients (but with a discount for my Chinese clients, due to their smaller incomes and budgets), but if you’re more economically astute than I am and tailor your rate to each market you work in, you may have the option of raising your rate as high as each individual market will bear.

How to find ESL clients

There are as many ways to find clients as there are editors. I’ve listed several in my article on “finding work in tough times” (Hart 2006). I started by defining the authors I most wanted to work with (ESL authors). Once I knew who I wanted to work with, I contacted the editors of hundreds of peer-reviewed science journals that published articles in the areas of research I understood well enough to do substantive editing. I started with a form letter, in which I explained what I proposed:

•       I would work directly with authors, eliminating the burden on the journal’s staff.

•       I would help the author produce manuscripts sufficiently clear that the editor knew whether they were ready for peer review, and sufficiently good that it was worthwhile sending them for review.

•       I would ease the burden both on peer reviewers and on the journal’s editorial staff.

•       There would be no cost whatsoever to the journal; all they had to do was send my brochure (a concise PDF file I provided) to authors who needed my help.

That is, I focused on the problems experienced by journal editors that I could solve for them, not on why I was a good editor. To support this proposal, I explained the skills I offered (training as a scientist and many years of work with ESL authors) — but this supported my proposal (“let me solve your problems”) and was not the key to my proposal. The key was that I focused on the needs of my clients, a philosophy I’ve emphasized throughout my career. I quickly began receiving inquiries from Asian authors.

(The rest of this article focuses on examples from my Chinese authors, since they represent the majority of my clients, and the cultural differences from western authors are most revealing.)

Another approach is to start with the languages you speak. I speak French fairly fluently, and have worked for years with French authors, but I wanted to broaden my search to other languages, so I learned enough Mandarin and Japanese that I can at least greet authors politely in those languages, even if I can’t carry on a conversation in either language. Wanting an excuse to learn more of both languages and more about both cultures gave me a strong incentive to do so, and that desire was very much appreciated by my authors as they came to know me.

Although this suggests that you should think across borders and oceans when you look for ESL clients, the high mobility of modern writers suggests that you should also think locally. For example, universities, research institutes, and think tanks often employ authors from other countries. Attending international, national, or local conferences that focus on the subject you want to work on is another way to meet authors — these authors often need help from an English editor who can communicate well with them, possibly even in their own language.

To meet non-researcher authors, look for social groups such as the cultural societies that host events (e.g., Chinese new year, Diwali) or business associations (such as the Pan-Asian American Business Council). Meeting people in these groups is pleasant for its own sake, but also offers ways to find future clients. But avoid the mistake of only attending to seek clients; people will recognize this kind of mercenary behavior and turn away from you.

Note: If you want to work with graduate students at a university, carefully confirm with the university’s graduate studies department whether any regulations limit the nature of your work. For example, a PhD thesis must be an original work of scholarship, and some universities interpret this to mean that no developmental or substantive editing is allowed. In such cases, all you can do without obtaining a written exception to that rule is to offer proofreading and formatting services. A student’s failure to follow the university’s rules scrupulously can lead to a thesis being rejected. When in doubt, ask the university to respond in writing so you have proof of your permission to proceed.

In addition, leverage your network by asking your colleagues about opportunities. I exchange work opportunities with half a dozen colleagues. When I have work I can’t do, whether due to lack of expertise or lack of time, I refer the inquiries to those colleagues. In return, they refer some authors they can’t handle to me. I don’t charge a fee for such referrals; I treat it as a purely pro bono thing, which I can afford to do because I have far more work than I can handle and a good income. I do have colleagues who ask for a “finder’s fee” for such referrals, and that’s perfectly legitimate if you prefer to work that way.

How to work with ESL clients

Working with ESL authors is mostly similar to working with native-English authors, but a few quirks are worth mentioning.

Clear communication

Clear communication is important for any author­–editor relationship, but it’s particularly important when you work with ESL authors. First and foremost, self-edit your written communications ruthlessly. Don’t assume your meaning is clear. You’ll find that people who are communicating with you in their second language have much higher expertise in the language of their subjects than in the daily conversational language that relates to bread and butter issues such as specifying deadlines and contract terms for working together.

Although some editors communicate extensively with their ESL authors using online meeting software such as Zoom, particularly in these pandemic days, I find that most of my authors aren’t sufficiently comfortable with spoken English to enjoy this approach. Thus, almost all of our communication is via e-mail. To ensure that messages reach their target, I maintain two backup e-mail addresses in addition to the address provided by my service provider: the address associated with my website and a Gmail address. If one address is blocked or the service is temporarily unavailable, I can use the other addresses. For example, my service provider is often blocked by government and university networks because of their cavalier attitude toward spam. For many of this group of authors, I know I can’t use my main address. Similarly, ask your authors whether they have a second address you can use if necessary. If you don’t receive a reply within a day of sending an e-mail, try again using their second address. For particularly unreliable e-mail systems, send your message to both addresses at the same time, since it’s unlikely that both will be unavailable simultaneously.

Note: Carefully check your e-mail provider’s terms of service. For example, Google analyzes and indexes all Gmail messages, which means Gmail is inappropriate for messages that contain files that describe research breakthroughs, patent applications, and other confidential information. Most e-mail providers don’t encrypt their e-mail in any way, so e-mail can be read by anyone who gains access to their account. For e-mail that must be protected against prying eyes, consider using ProtonMail (https://protonmail.com/).

Reply as fast as possible (ideally, immediately!) to queries. Remember: If you’re working with authors on the other side of the world, the time zone difference means there can be a delay of up to 12 hours before they receive your reply, and this time can be critical for authors who are working under a tight deadline. Don’t assume your message was received. Always ask authors to confirm reception of your e-mail by explicitly requesting confirmation (e.g., “please confirm that you received both files with no problems”) or by asking a question they’ll have to answer (e.g., “which of your two addresses should I use on the invoice?”). Resend your message and any attached files if you receive no reply within about a day. It’s better to “spam” an author than to make them miss a deadline because you incorrectly assumed they received a file that you sent them.

Note: When you negotiate schedules, carefully account for time zone differences (http://www.worldtimeserver.com/). For example, I use language such as “I will return your paper on [date], eastern Canada (Montreal) time.”

Retain copies of all correspondence, in case you need to return to an earlier message to clarify some point. Disk space is cheap, particularly if you use an online e-mail service like Gmail. Although you can leave all your messages in your mail software, I prefer to copy them into a correspondence file in Microsoft Word for each author. This collects the information in one place, the search functions are generally superior, and it’s easier to move the text to other programs if necessary. Alternatively, if you prefer storing e-mail as e-mail, consider configuring your e-mail software to use the IMAP protocol (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Message_Access_Protocol), which leaves your e-mail on the service provider’s servers so that you can access it from all of your computing devices (e.g., your smartphone in addition to your laptop computer).

Until you’ve worked with an author long enough to know their needs, don’t assume you understand those needs. Learn the difference between what they want (e.g., “I need the edited manuscript Friday”) and what they really need (e.g., “but I’m not going to work on it before Monday, so Monday is probably fine”). Make these needs explicit rather than guessing. Back when I was a wage slave, I always asked each author when they wanted the manuscript and when they really needed it; the two dates were rarely the same.

For an ESL author, spend some time learning how they want to work with you; this may not be “the western way.” Some will just want you to tell them what to change; others want to understand why you recommend changes and to work with you to discuss all changes. Learn their busy periods (e.g., the date range for the school term vs. the summer research period, annual conferences they try to attend, national holidays). Add notes to your calendar, well in advance, to warn you that these periods are coming so you can plan your schedule more effectively.

Speaking of schedules, carefully note your own planned absences on the calendar so you can warn your authors well in advance about when you’ll be unavailable. For example, as I’ve begun moving toward retirement, I now reserve most of December as private time, when I will concentrate on my own writing. Thus, I warn authors at least two months in advance that I won’t be available during that period and that they need to reserve my time well in advance; I warn them that once my schedule is full, they’ll wait three+ weeks before I’m available again in January.

In my experience, busy authors often forget these warnings. That’s fair, since our job is to meet their needs, and their job is to write. In any event, authors benefit from a reminder. When I plan my annual vacation, I notify authors two months in advance and again one month before I leave. One useful, if deceptive, trick: If you know that certain authors always write to you at the last minute, tell them you’ll be gone one week before your actual departure date. That way, when work arrives at the last minute, you still have time to do the work. If an author notices this trick (“I thought you said you’d be away …”), explain that you would ideally like to have left on the date you announced, but you made time to help them anyway because helping them is important to you. This isn’t a lie if it’s true; the last week before my vacation is usually filled with domestic work and other preparations.

Provide status updates about your availability. For example, if you’ll be trying to edit a large book during a certain period, warn your clients there will be delays during that period. Be willing to negotiate extensions both with the author (for yourself), and with publishers that impose deadlines on your authors. For example, most journal editors are willing to give an ESL author more time to return a revised manuscript if they know that the revision is complete and the author is only waiting for their English editor to become available. (This won’t work if the publisher has a hard deadline, such as releasing a book or special issue of a journal right before a major conference, but negotiation works more often than you’d expect.)

Note: If you’re in the fortunate situation of having more work than time, negotiate agreements with colleagues you trust to work with your authors when you’re not available. Coordinate their schedules with yours well in advance to avoid any surprises; they’ll be absent sometimes, too.

As your workload increases, start building room and flexibility into your schedule to cope with unexpected busy periods. For example, I reserve one day per week for a client who sends me a regular stream of work. When they don’t send me a manuscript, I can usually find another manuscript I can work on while I wait for theirs to arrive. Based on many years of experience with how my workload varies during the year, I’ve learned to include such unscheduled (“open”) days on my calendar. Currently, I try to keep one day open per week in addition to the work for that weekly client.

When you receive a manuscript that’s longer than the author estimated when they reserved your time, ask for more time. If you can meet the original deadline, that’s great — but if you need more time, you have it. I’ve always appreciated the advice to “promise late, deliver early”; that is, if I’m able to complete the work faster than expected, the author gets a pleasant surprise, but if not, they still receive my work on the expected date. As I’m getting older, my editing speed is declining, so I find that I need this extra time more often. I warn my authors at least annually about the maximum I can reliably edit in a day’s work, and ask them to predict the length of their manuscript and ask for more than a day when they contact me to reserve my time.

Show, don’t tell

As I noted earlier, ESL authors often speak the language of their specialty far better than they speak the common language that represents the glue for social interactions.

Although you can sometimes rely on complex words if you know your author is willing to use a dictionary, consider instead whether you can illustrate your meaning. For example:

•       If you must resort to grammatical jargon, illustrate it. For example, “In this sentence, the verb accord is the dataset is or the data are.

•       If you must name punctuation, illustrate it: “Add or delete the semicolon (;) between author names in all references.”

•       If you must refer to shapes or symbol names, illustrate: “delete the asterisk (*) and replace it with a triangle (Δ).” Similarly, showing works better for patterns and colors: “Delete the red cross-hatching: [///].” (Editor’s note: Attempting to apply red “ink? to the /// element results in the whole sentence being made red.)

Part 2 of this article will continue with a discussion of cultural considerations, related rhetorical issues, and editing tips.” The final part will include references for the entire discussion.

Part 2 of this column will be published on Wednesday, December 2.

Geoff Hart (he/him) (www.geoff-hart.com) works as a scientific editor, specializing in helping scientists who have English as their second language to publish their research. He’s the author of the popular Effective Onscreen Editing, now in its 4th edition, and of the well-reviewed Writing for Science Journals. He has been a frequent presenter at Communication Central’s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences. He also writes fiction in his spare time, and has sold 28 stories thus far.

April 2, 2018

Romanized Arabic in English Texts — Part 6: Using AutoCorrect and FRedit for Special Characters

Ælfwine Mischler

As an editor and indexer, I often deal with texts that use diacritics to transcribe Arabic. In parts 1 through 4 of this series (Romanized Arabic in English Texts, Part 1 — Sources of Variations; Romanized Arabic in English Texts, Part 2 — Other Challenges for EditorsRomanized Arabic in English Texts, Part  3 — Spelling the Definite ArticleRomanized Arabic in English Texts, Part 4 — Omitting, Capitalizing, and Alphabetizing the Definite Article), I often mention the use of special characters, but until now I have not explained how to put them in your Word document. In Part 5, Romanizing Arabic in English Texts — Part 5: Inserting Symbols and Creating Shortcuts, I discuss how to insert symbols and create keyboard shortcuts. In this part, I discuss how to use AutoCorrect and FRedit for special characters.

AutoCorrect

Thanks to Geoff Hart and his Effective Onscreen Editing, for this method (and I highly recommend his book for all editors and writers).

  1. Go to the Insert tab and Symbol menu.

  1. Choose the font and subset.
  2. Find and select the character you need.

  1. Click on AutoCorrect in the lower left.

  1. In the Replace box, type some combination of keystrokes that will be easy to remember — usually best encased in some form of brackets — and then click on OK.

Now every time you type that combination, it will change to the special character you want. In my example, I chose [n-] to AutoCorrect to ñ (Unicode 00F1). If you don’t want the keystroke combination to change in a particular instance, just type Ctrl + Z (Undo). You can repeat this with all the special characters you need. In the screenshot, you can see some of the other AutoCorrect combinations I have created for the work I do.

It is sometimes difficult to find the characters you need in the Symbols table. If you have the Unicode values of the characters you need from your publisher or another source, you can also access AutoCorrect from the Word Options dialog box.

First, collect all the symbols you need and their Unicode values, either in another document or in your current document. I have collected all the Unicode characters that I use in one file, with their Unicode values, and the AutoCorrect coding that I use.

  1. If you are working in Word 2010 or a later version, go to the File tab > Options > Proofing > AutoCorrect Options. If you are working in Word 2007, use the Office button to get to Word Options.

  1. Then follow the steps above to create AutoCorrect codes for each character, using copy-paste to put the character in the With box.

Identifying a Character: More than One Way to Stick a Macron on a Letter

Another useful trick I learned from Geoff Hart’s book is how to identify a special character in a document that I am editing. Put your cursor immediately after a letter and hit Alt + X. The letter will change to its Unicode value. Hit Alt + X again and the character will appear again.

You can also use this method to insert a special character. Type the code and then Alt + X. If your special character is to come immediately after a numeral (such as if you are inserting a degree symbol), insert a space after the numeral, then delete the space after you insert the special character. Allen Wyatt gives more details on this in his Word Tips.

Being able to identify a character this way is handy if you come across an odd-looking character, or if you want to check whether your author has used the correct characters. There are various similar-looking characters to represent Arabic ayn and hamza, and I often have to check them. I can use the FRedit macro to highlight either the correct or incorrect characters as I find the need.

FRedit Macro

FRedit is a free macro available from Paul Beverley at Archive Publications. The FR is for Find-Replace. Paul has also provided videos to show you how to use this and other macros he has written.

You can use FRedit to replace your codes with special characters, similar to the way you would do it with AutoCorrect. The difference is that in using FRedit, your codes can be case-sensitive and your changes will not be made immediately as you type but later, when you run the macro. Collect all the special characters and your codes in one Word document to be used any time with FRedit.

When I have used editing software to check for inconsistencies, it did not recognize the difference between a plain letter and the same letter with a diacritic on it. I told Daniel Heuman of Intelligent Editing Ltd., creators of PerfectIt, about this, and sent him a sample file and a list of Unicode characters that I use for Arabic. He recently wrote to me to say that they had fixed the bug that caused this problem. I have tested it briefly and it is not quite right, but I will work with Daniel on this. With a combination of PerfectIt and FRedit, you should be able to catch most inconsistencies in files with special characters.

If you are editing rather than writing, you can use FRedit to automatically highlight — or, if you prefer, change to a different color — all of the special characters in a document. I find this useful because it draws my attention to the characters and makes it easier to see if a word is spelled once with a diacritic and once without, or if a different character was used.

If you are already familiar with FRedit, this image from the macro library will be understandable. This macro highlights all of these characters in yellow. I added the ones I needed to the ones provided by Paul. You could write similar macros that would highlight all of the single open quotation marks (sometimes used for ayn) in a second color and all of the apostrophes (sometimes used for hamza) in a third color — but note that it will also highlight these characters when they are used for other purposes.

Remember that I said there is more than one way to stick a macron on a letter? I was editing a document with a lot of transcribed Arabic titles at the time I was learning to use FRedit. I used the macro to highlight the Unicode special characters of my choice and was surprised that some letters that clearly had macrons were not highlighted. Using the Alt + X trick, I discovered why: A different character — a macron alone — had been used on those letters. They had to be changed to the correct Unicode character. FRedit made it easy to see which characters needed fixing because they were left unhighlighted.

You should now find it easier to use special characters in Word. In Part 5, I explained how to insert special characters by using the Insert Symbol feature and by creating keyboard shortcuts, which are suitable if you do not need a lot of different characters. In this part, I have explained two methods to use when you need a lot of different special characters. With AutoCorrect, you create codes that change to the desired special characters as you type. With FRedit, you create codes that change to the desired special characters when you run the macro (at the end or periodically as you work on a long file). You can also use a FRedit macro to highlight special characters so you can spot inconsistencies more easily in spelling and see any characters that look like the ones you want, but are in fact something else.

Ælfwine Mischler is an American copyeditor and indexer in Cairo, Egypt, who has been the head copyeditor at a large Islamic website and a senior editor for an EFL textbook publisher. She often edits and indexes books on Islamic studies, Middle East studies, and Egyptology.

November 7, 2011

The Professional Editor: Working Effectively Online I — The Books

I am celebrating the start of my 28th year as a professional editor. Over the course of those years, I have watched the world of editing change. Sadly, many of my colleagues have not changed with it.

In my beginning years, nearly all editing work was done on paper. I hated working on paper! I hated it because of the types of editing projects I undertake — generally the books I work on are several thousand manuscript pages and often, when published, are either a very large single volume (very-large-width spine) or are multivolume. Imagine realizing that you made a mistake in the first 500 manuscript pages and trying to find each mistake when editing on paper. Difficult at best, impossible realistically. More importantly, think of the money it cost me — after all, it was my mistake and the client shouldn’t be penalized for my mistake — and the time I spent trying to find those errors. Online editing has definitely eased that task; now correcting a mistake is significantly less expensive and less time-consuming.

Those years were also the time when computers were being introduced into the workplace for everyone, rather than for a select few. Remember XyWrite? It was the software program that many publishers adopted when it first became available. Lippincott, before it was Lippincott-Raven then Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, went so far as to create a customized version of XyWrite and would only hire editors who took, at the editor’s own expense, a day-long class in New York City on using the customized template. Alas, XyWrite was soon swept away by WordPerfect, which was ultimately swept away by Microsoft Word.

Yet in those beginning years, I saw both the future of editing and an opportunity. The future clearly was online editing and the opportunity was to be among the very few who could and would offer solely online editing of manuscripts. And that was how I promoted myself. I would send out “cost comparisons” demonstrating how much money I could save a publisher by electronically editing and coding their manuscripts instead of working on paper. And in the beginning, those savings were huge.

Today it is the rare manuscript that is edited on paper. Nearly all manuscripts are edited electronically and almost never does paper move hand to hand — the Internet has changed how professional editors work. Yet one thing hasn’t changed in all these years: there is still a sizable number of editors who have not mastered the basic tools of their profession. Their knowledge of the tools they use daily is minimal — just enough to get by. Ask them to use a feature that they have not used before and they get flustered.

Succeeding as a professional editor in the 21st century requires more than knowledge of language, spelling, and grammar — it also requires mastery of the tools we use daily. It requires learning new skills, particularly how to harness the built-in power of the software we use, and finding and using complementary software that enhances the already great power of our basic editing software. For example, it is not enough to master Microsoft Word; one needs also to be familiar with programs like MacroExpress, PerfectIt, the Editorium macros, and EditTools. (The latter three were the subject of discussion in these articles, which appeared on An American Editor more than a year ago: The 3 Stages of Copyediting: I — The Processing Stage; The 3 Stages of Copyediting: II — The Copyediting Stage; and The 3 Stages of Copyediting: III — The Proofing Stage.)

Even though we need to enhance our skills with ancillary programs, we also need to enhance our skills regarding what Microsoft Word can do that makes our workflow increasingly efficient. Thus, three books that should be in every professional editor’s library, and regularly consulted, are these:

(The Macro Cookbook is not yet available for sale. I was given an advance copy by Jack Lyon because of our mutual interest in macros. Macro Cookbook will be available for sale by November 30. Jack is adding a couple of chapters to it that will make the book even more valuable. When it becomes available, I will post the information in a Worth Noting post here on An American Editor.)

Each of these books can be considered, from the editor’s perspective, a bible for working with Microsoft Word. They both educate and help to solve problems. Most importantly, if you take the time to work through the books, they will give you mastery over the one bit of software that is simultaneously an editor’s bane and savior: Microsoft Word.

Although there are many editors who resist delving deeply into the tools of our trade, and who even loathe having to rely on these tools, the reality is that working in Word is a fundamental requirement of professional editing. If one software program is used nearly universally in the publishing industry for editorial matters, that program is Word. And I do not see Word’s role changing in the near future; rather, I see that mastery of Word will become part of the testing process that publishers will use when choosing editors to hire.

More importantly for the professional editor, mastery of Microsoft Word is the avenue by which we can become more efficient and proficient. Increased efficiency and proficiency means our earning more money and making ourselves more saleable in an ever more competitive market.

One good reason to master Word is to clean up author files. One constant over the many years that I have been editing electronically is that authors continue to amaze me with how they prepare their manuscripts for editing. If it is a feature in Word, they feel obligated to use it in their manuscript, albeit usually incorrectly. It is the rare file I receive that can be cleaned and readied for editing within a few minutes. Authors are uncannily creative with how they misuse Word. These three books — Microsoft Word for Publishing Professionals, Macro Cookbook for Microsoft Word, and Effective Onscreen Editing — can help you deal with author creativity, as well as with whatever other problems we encounter just because we use Microsoft Word.

Mastering Word means less time spent on noneditorial matters. As our primary focus is (or should be) on language, grammar, and spelling, mastering Word reduces the time we need to spend on ancillary problems. These are the key three books to mastering Word for editors.

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