Colin Moorhouse—Editing for the ear (EAC-BC meeting)

Colin Moorhouse has been a freelance speech writer for twenty-five years and has written for clients in government, at NGOs, and in the private sector. “I get to put words in people’s mouths,” he said, “which is a very nice thing.” He also enjoys that speech writing exposes him to a huge variety of topics (much like editing). Some are more interesting than others, but even the boring ones aren’t boring because Moorhouse needs to devote only a short burst of attention to it. “I can be interested for the three days it takes me to write the speech,” he said.

The key difference between speech writing and other kinds of writing is that it’s all about writing for the ear, not the eye. Even if you’re a skilled writer, what you write may not sound natural for someone to say out loud. “Who didn’t say this,” he asked:

Don’t think about all the services you would like to receive from this great nation; think about how you can make your own contribution to a better society.

That’s, of course, a paraphrase of the famous line in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech: “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” You can tell which would have a bigger impact spoken aloud.

When words are written for the ear, said Moorhouse, they cater to the imagination. We filter those words through our own experience. The kinds of written materials that most closely resemble speech are letters and diaries, and he’ll sometimes use these to help him write a person’s voice into a speech. “People say that to write great speeches, you should read great speeches. I don’t think so. You should listen to great speeches.”

Speeches are not a great way to share information, Moorhouse told us, because we forget what we hear. Instead, speeches are about engaging an audience so that they’ll associate the speaker with that event or topic. Moorhouse listed six considerations when he writes speeches.

1. Oratory

“If your speaker’s a great orator,” he said, “they can almost read the phone book, because there’s something about their voice.” But most speakers aren’t like that. “Ninety-nine percent of my speakers aren’t good. That’s not to criticize them; they’re not trained.” Moorhouse has to find ways to make the words make them better speakers.

2. Event

The nature of the event factors largely into Moorhouse’s speech writing. Does the audience want to be there, or did they have to be? Is the speaker delivering good news or bad? Will there be 30 or 300 people? Will there be a mic or no mic? PowerPoint or no PowerPoint? Will people be live-tweeting or recording the speech? How knowledgeable will the audience be, and what mood will they be in? Each of these elements can change the speech entirely.

3. Story

“Storytelling is an incredibly valuable part of speech writing,” said Moorhouse. “Stories ground all of us to our common humanity.” If you’re editing a speech and you find it boring, ask the writer if the speaker has told them any stories.

4. Humour

“Humour is not joke telling. Jokes never work.” Moorhouse added, “I can make people cry a lot more easily than laugh. We grieve at the same things, but humour is very localized.” Self-effacing humour tends to work well, especially if it’s embedded in a story.

5. Language

“This is where you and I have our strengths,” he said. He advocates using simple language and declarative sentences.

6. Interest

“I believe we should be able to walk into almost any presentation and find it interesting,” Moorhouse said. “All speeches are potentially interesting.” If you’re editing a speech, the best litmus test for whether a speech is interesting is to ask yourself, “Would I want to sit through it?”

The great thing about speech writing is that you don’t need all six of these elements to make a good speech. Maybe the speaker’s not a great orator, for example. You can use the other elements to compensate.

Make sure you home in on a speech’s intended message, he said. If you find that your speech seems to be rambling, you haven’t nailed the message. If you need to, go back to the speaker and ask them to complete the sentence, “Today I want to talk to you about ______.”

In terms of process, Moorhouse suggests asking the client for the invite letter and event agenda, so that you know when the speech will be. He doesn’t always get to meet the speakers, but if he does, he’ll tape his interview with them so that he can listen to their voice and catch the intonation and the words they use. He’ll also interview people who know the speaker or the organization’s front-line staff to glean information and stories. He doesn’t use outlines, although other writers do. The danger with presenting an outline to the client, though, is that the client might want to circulate it to a bunch of people, which would hold up the writing process. Moorhouse spends about an hour on every minute of the speech—20 hours working on a 20-minute keynote.

Moorhouse offers a full online course about speech writing on his website, which includes a 170-page manual and four live webinars. He also offers a short course, with a 50-page manual, a speech-writing checklist, a webinar and a 20-minute consult.

Access to information: The role of editors (EAC-BC meeting)

At the November EAC-BC meeting, Shana Johnstone, principal of Uncover Editorial + Design, moderated a panel discussion that offered rich and diverse perspectives on accessibility. (She deftly kept the conversation flowing with thematic questions, so although her words don’t show up much in my summary here, she was critical to the evening’s success.)


Panel members included:

The Crane Library, Nygard explained, is named after Charles Crane, who in 1931 became the first deafblind student to attend university in Canada. Over his life he accumulated ten thousand volumes of works in Braille, and when he died, his family donated the collection to the Vancouver Public Library, which then donated it to UBC. Paul Thiele, a visually impaired doctoral student, and his wife, Judith, who was the first blind library student (and later the first blind librarian) in Canada, helped set up the space for the Crane Library, including a Braille card catalogue and Braille spine labels so that students could find materials on their own. Today the Crane Library is part of Access and Diversity at UBC and offers exam accommodations, narration services (it has an eight-booth recording studio to record readings of print materials), and materials in a variety of formats, including PDF, e-text, and Braille.

Gray, who has a background in recreational therapy, used to work with people who had brain injuries, and for her, it was “a trial-and-error process to communicate with them just to do my job,” she said. Through that work she developed communication strategies that take into account not only the language but also formats that will most likely appeal to her audience. To reach a community, Gray said, it’s important to understand its language and conventions. “It’s about getting off on the right foot with people. If you turn people off with a phrase that is outside their community, they stop reading.” It’s also important to know who in a community is doing the reading. In the Down syndrome community, she said, “people are still writing as if the caregivers are the ones reading” even though more people with developmental disability are now reading for themselves.

Booth works with forty-five groups (such as the Writers’ Exchange) that provide literacy support in the Downtown Eastside, which he emphasized is “a neighbourhood, not a pejorative.” He defined literacy as the “knowledge, skills, and confidence to participate fully in life,” and he told us that “There is more stigma around illiteracy than there is around addiction.”

Busting misconceptions

Within the Downtown Eastside, said Booth, there are “multiple populations with multiple challenges and multiple experiences—sometimes bad—with learning.” Residents may be reluctant to get involved with structured educational opportunities, and so they rely on community organizations to reach out to them. The media does the Downtown Eastside a disservice by portraying it as the “poorest postal code in Canada,” Booth says. To him, all of his clients, regardless of their background, bring skills and experience to the table.

Gray agreed, adding that it’s easy to make judgments based on appearance. She knows that her three-year-old son, who has Down syndrome, is taking in more than he’s putting back out. The same holds for people who have had strokes or people with cerebral palsy. Some people may not speak well, but they may read and understand well. She acknowledges that we all bring preconceptions to every interaction, but it’s important to set them aside and ask questions to get to know your audience.

“What do we think of, when we think of a person with a disability?” said Nygard. “Not all disabilities are visible.” People assume that text-to-speech services are just for the visually impaired, but often they are for students with learning disabilities who prefer human voice narration. The students who use the Crane Library’s services are simply university students who need a little more support to be able to do certain academic activities. They are people with access to resources and technology that will help them get a university education.

People also assume that technology has solved the accessibility problem. Although a lot of accessibility features are now built into our technology, like VoiceOver for Macs and Ease of Access on Windows, computers aren’t the answer for everyone. For some people, technology hasn’t obviated Braille.

Their work—The specifics

Gray said that although she works primarily with print materials, she’s started writing as though the text would destined for the web. “I’m no longer assuming that people are reading entire chunks of material. I’m not assuming they’re following along from beginning to end or reading the whole thing. I’m using a lot more headings to break up the material and am continually giving people context. I’m not assuming people remember the topic, so I’m constantly reintroducing it.” People with Down syndrome have poor short-term memory, she said, so she never assumes that a reader will refer to earlier text where a concept was first introduced. “Don’t dumb it down,” she said, “but use plain language. Keep it simple and to the point.” Some writers enjoy adding variety to their writing to spice things up, she said. “Take the spice out. Keep to the facts.”

That said, editors also have to keep in mind that when people read, they’re not just absorbing facts; they’re approaching the material with a host of emotions. For people who have children with Down syndrome, she said, “everything they’re reading is judging them as a parent.”

“We don’t know where people are at and where their heads are when they’re taking the materials in,” Gray said.

To connect with the audience, said Booth, listening is a vital skill to develop. “Storytelling is a really important art form. Everybody has a story, and everybody will tell you their story if you give them the opportunity.”

Nygard compares her work to directing traffic—making sure resources flow to to people who need them. She explained the process of creating alternate formats: students have to buy a new textbook and give Nygard the receipt, at which point she can request a PDF from the publisher. But is it fair, she asked, to make these students buy the book at full price when their classmates can get a used copy for a discount? Another inequity is in the license agreement; often they allow students to use the PDF for the duration for the course only, when other students can keep their books for future reference. Image-only or locked PDFs are problematic because text-to-speech software like JAWS can’t read it.

For books that exist only in print, the conversion process involves cutting out the pages and manually scanning them to PDF, then running them through an OCR program to create a rough Word document. These documents then get sent to student assistants who clean them up for text-to-speech software. Otherwise, columns, running heads, footnotes, and other design features can lead to confusing results. We get a lot of context from the way text is laid out and organized on the page, said Nygard, but that context is lost when the text is read aloud.

Editors as advocates

Gray said she’d never considered herself an advocate per se. “I do think it’s part of my role to advise clients about the level of content and the way it’s presented. We need to make sure we can reach the audience.”

When we make decisions, said Nygard, we have to look out for people in the margins that we might not be addressing.

Booth said, “We’re all very privileged in this room. We have a responsibility to be advocates. Our tool is language.” As he spoke he passed out copies of Decoda Literacy Manifesto to each member of the audience.

Resources on accessibility

Nygard suggested we check out the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. Ontario has been a leader in this arena. She also mentioned the National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS), which allows collection sharing between various libraries. Many public libraries don’t find out about the Crane Library’s services, because it’s at an academic institution, but its collection is available to the general public. The NNELS site also has a section of tutorials for creating alternate-format materials. SNOW, the Inclusive Design Centre at OCAD, also has some excellent resources.

Compared with Ontario, said Nygard, BC lags behind in its commitment to accessibility. The BC government released Accessibility 2024, a ten-year plan to make the province the most progressive within Canada. But both Nygard and Booth call it “embarrassing.” “How they’ve set their priorities is a horror show,” said Nygard. One of the benchmarks for success in this accessibility plan, for example, is to have government websites be accessible by 2016, without addressing the concerns of whether people with disabilities have the skills, literacy, or access to technology to use that information. Meanwhile, disability rates haven’t gone up since 2007.

Booth agreed. The province has cut funding for high-school equivalency programs (GED), ESL, literacy, and adult basic education, choosing instead to focus on “job creation in extractive industries and training people to do specific jobs. What’s going to happen in a decade from now for people who don’t have education?”

In response to a question from the audience, Nygard acknowledged that  Project Gutenberg and Project Gutenberg Canada are great for accessible text of works in the public domain. She also mentioned that LibriVox has public domain audiobooks.

Stefan Dollinger—Forks in the road: Dictionaries and the radically changing English-language ecosystem (EAC-BC meeting)

Stefan Dollinger, faculty member in the English and linguistic departments at the University of British Columbia, is editor-in-chief of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP), and he spoke to the EAC-BC crowd about the role of dictionaries in the global English landscape.

His fascinating talk covered some of the same territory that I wrote about when I first saw him speak last year, so I’ll focus on his new content here.

English, said Dollinger, is unique in that it is the only language in the world with more second-language speakers than native speakers, the former outnumbering the latter by five to one. This ratio will only grow as more people in China, Russia, continental Europe, and South America use English for trade and diplomacy. Until recently, the study of English—particularly for dictionaries—had focused on native speakers, but scholars such as Barbara Seidlhofer, of the University of Vienna, have argued that English as a lingua franca (ELF) is the “real” English.

This shifting view influences how we approach dictionary making, which has generally used one of two methods:

  • In the literary tradition, lexicographers collect works from the best authors and compiled excerpts showing usage.
  • In the linguistic method, lexicographers empirically study language users.

One of the best examples of dictionaries compiled using the linguist method is the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), which Dollinger said is based on superb empirical data, including historical sources as well as a national survey of about three thousand users. The dictionary includes only “non-standard” regional words that are not used nationally in the United States and hence isn’t a comprehensive compilation of English words, but for researchers like Dollinger, the detail on regional, social, and historical uses is more important than the number of entries.

In contrast, the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) used the literary tradition, and, as the preface to the third edition admits,

The Dictionary has in the past been criticized for its apparent reliance on literary texts to illustrate the development of the vocabulary of English over the centuries. A closer examination of earlier editions shows that this view has been overstated, though it is not entirely without foundation.

Although the OED has become more linguistic in its methodology, residues of the literary tradition persist: Dolliger said that about 50 percent of the entries the current edition, OED-3, are unchanged from the original edition, and although the OED employs a New Word Unit, a group of lexicographers who read content on the web and compile new words and senses, such a reading program is still not empirical and will fail to capture the usage of everyday speakers.

Going completely online, however, has allowed the OED to respond more nimbly to changes in the language: corrections to existing entries can now be made immediately, and the dictionary issues quarterly updates, adding a few hundred new words, phrases, and senses each time.

Dollinger feels that if the OED wants to keep claiming to be the “definitive record of the English language,” though, it will have to reorient its approach to include more fieldwork to study linguistic variation across the globe, focusing not only on what linguist Braj Kachru defined as the “inner circle,” where the majority of people are native English speakers (e.g., the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand) but also on the “outer circle” of former British colonies like India, Singapore, etc., and especially on the “expanding circle” of countries, like Russia and China, with no historical ties to England—not to mention English-based pidgins and creoles. Although some native speakers may consider this shift threatening, Dollinger quoted H.G. Widdowson, who in 1993 wrote:

How English develops in the world is no business whatever of native speakers in England, the United States, or anywhere else. They have no say in the matter, no right to intervene or pass judgement. They are irrelevant. The very fact that English is an international language means that no nation can have custody over it. To grant such custody of the language is necessarily to arrest its development and so undermine its international status.

How, then, do lexicographers distinguish innovations from errors? World Englshes are replete with words that are unfamiliar to the native speaker, like

  • stingko, meaning “smelly” in Singapore English;
  • teacheress, a female teacher, in Indian English;
  • peelhead, a bald-headed person, in Jamaican English; or
  • high hat, a snob in Philippine English

Whether these are right depends only on the variety of English in question. Linguist Ayo Bamgbose suggested using the following criteria to judge whether a word or phrase is an error or innovation:

  • The demographic factor: How many acrolectal speakers speak it?
  • The geographical factor: Where is it used?
  • The authoritative factor: Who sanctions its use?
  • Codification: Does it appear in dictionaries and reference books?
  • The acceptability factor: What are the attitudes of users an non-users toward the word?

Dollinger is applying some of these principles to his work on DCHP, the first edition of which (now known as DCHP-1) began as a bit of a pet project for American lexicographer Charles Lovell. As a researcher for A Dictionary of Americanisms, published in 1951, Lovell began collecting Canadianisms. In 1958, Gage Educational Publishing asked Lovell to compile a dictionary for the Canadian Linguistic Association. After Lovell’s sudden death in 1960, Gage approached Walter S. Avis, known as “the pioneer of the study of Canadian English” and Matthew H. Scargill to continue his work. Together they finished and edited the dictionary and published it in 1967. That dictionary became the basis of Gage’s Canadian dictionary.

The 1990s saw a “Canadian Dictionary War,” with too many publishers—Gage Canadian, ITP Nelson, and the Canadian Oxford—competing in one market. Backed by a fierce marketing campaign, the Canadian Oxford won out.

In March 2006, Dollinger became editor-in-chief of the second edition of the Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles (DCHP-2), with Nelson Education providing seed funding. In 2013, DCHP-1 was released online, and Dollinger expects DCHP-2 to be complete in early 2016. Owing to time constraints, some entries from DCHP-1, which dug deep into the history of the fur trade for much of its content, will persist in DCHP-2, but these will be clearly marked as being from the original edition and annotated if necessary.

In compiling DCHP-2, Dollinger has noticed that some terms have considerable regional variation and wonders whether we should be considering national isoglosses at all, considering the U.S. and Canada have the world’s longest undefended border. As an example, he showed that whereas Western Canadians prefer the term “running shoes” or “runners,” those in Eastern Canada prefer “sneakers,” which mirrors the regional variation across the northern United States. He also noted that these kinds of variations would be much harder to identify through the literary method of dictionary making.

Another interesting feature of the entries in DCHP-2 is that 70 percent of the entries are compound nouns. “Butter isn’t uniquely Canadian, tart isn’t Canadian, but butter tart is,” said Dollinger. “Cube isn’t Canadian, and van isn’t Canadian, but cube van is.”

Dollinger wondered too if it was time for lexicographers to get even more granular and consider the variation within regional Englishes. In what ways, for example, might English spoken by a Chinese Canadian be unique?

As part of his research, Dollinger is asking British Columbians to complete a twenty-minute survey to help him and his students understand how they use English.

Communication Convergence 2014

Plain language advocates Cheryl Stephens and Katherine McManus teamed up with the Society for Technical Communication’s Autumn Jonssen and EAC-BC’s Amy Haagsma to organize the first Communication Convergence mini-conference as part of the Vancouver celebrations of International Plain Language Day, October 13. Because IPL Day coincides with Thanksgiving this year, we celebrated one weekend earlier, on October 5.

The afternoon included a networking buffet lunch, followed by three panel discussions. I was a panellist on the first, which explored the tendency for different communication fields to apply a common range of methods. Joining me were:

Frances Peck moderated.

The second panel looked at the real-world demand on communicators and featured

Katherine McManus moderated.

The third panel, hosted by

  • Lisa Mighton, director of communications and community liaison at the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice at UBC
  • Paula LaBrie, marketing communications specialist;
  • and Cheryl Stephens, who moderated,

was more of an open discussion asking where we—as a community of communicators dedicated to plain language—go from here.

We had eleven speakers and three moderators, as well as plenty of comments and questions from the floor, so although the format made for invigorating discussion, I couldn’t capture everything that everyone said in my notes. Not pretending to do all of the participants justice, I’ll just give an overview of my impressions and the points I found most interesting. Because there was a lot of overlap among the three sessions, I’ll focus on the day’s themes rather than the specifics from each panel. (Find photos of the Communication Convergence event on IPL Day’s Twitter.)

Writing and editing for the audience (sometimes easier said than done)

We all agreed that the audience is paramount when we craft our communications. Joe Goodwill pointed out the importance of considering the audience’s cultural context, which can be very different from our own.

What can get especially tricky is when your work has to go through several layers of approval, said Heidi Turner. Frances Peck agreed: often at each of those levels managers and directors reintroduce jargon and officialese and undo all of the work you’ve done to make that text accessible. Turner always tries to advocate for plain language, telling those clients for whom she writes grants that “A funder won’t want to give you money just because you use big words,” but from a business standpoint she ultimately has to give her clients what they want, and sometimes they don’t have a very good idea of who their readers are.

How do you write for disparate audiences? Sometimes you have to create more than one document, and Stephens reminded us that there will always be some people we can’t reach with our writing. But if your hands are tied, Elizabeth Rains said to “use the plainest language possible that will satisfy your readers’ needs.” She firmly believes that “no matter what type of information you have, it can be explained simply. And you may find that you can use that same language to explain concepts to very, very different audiences.”

Tools and resources

Pam Drucker’s work as a technical communicator has evolved over the years; today, she no longer works on large manuals but instead writes individual articles or topics. Her most consulted resources include the

She also uses structured writing techniques (e.g., Information Mapping).

Plain language as a right

Beyond the arguments that clear communication is more efficient and will get better results, what motivates many advocates of plain language is that we feel it’s a human rights issue. Information can be life altering, sometimes life saving. Citizens need to understand their government’s legislation to participate in a democracy. People with health issues deserve to understand their treatment options to achieve the best health outcomes. What can we do get people the information they need?

Christabelle Kux-Kardos works with immigrants and seniors, among others, to help them access community and government services. Her approach is to do what she calls a literacy audit: she tries to step back and try to see the world through the lens of a new client. This process has shown her that some services, even essential ones, have poor signage and are hard to find, particularly if you don’t know the language well or aren’t comfortable with technology. She sees it as her responsibility to point out to those services what they could be doing better. A lot of her work, she said, involves talking with her clients to tease out the right questions. What don’t they know that they need to know? Often they don’t know what they don’t know.

Nicholson reminds us that for some people, there is value in misrepresentation. “There are circumstances in which people are vested in obfuscating,” she said. “We have to be loud enough to cut through the clutter.”

Beyond comprehension to persuasion

Did the audience understand the message? Achieving understanding is always the communicator’s goal, but should it stop there? How do we persuade people to act on that information?

Hompoth, an image consultant, said that we are judged on

  • how we look,
  • what we do,
  • what we say, and
  • how we say it.

What we say accounts for 7 percent of the message, but how we say it counts for 13 percent (with other non-verbal communication making up the balance). In other words, our delivery is more important than our content.

That reality certainly jibes with health and science communications. How best to achieve persuasion is an unanswered question from a knowledge translation point of view: we can present people with evidence that smoking harms health, but evidence alone isn’t enough to convince some smokers to quit. Whether our message spurs change depends on the audience’s level of motivation.

As much as some of us may shy away from marketing, if we really want to effect change, we may have to study it. Will a course in psychology eventually be a required part of communications training?

Communication in and from academia

Those who know me know that one of my life’s missions is to try to eradicate turgid writing from academia. Academese is unnecessary, it hinders understanding and collaboration, and, because research is mostly taxpayer funded, it is undemocratic. Part of my research in knowledge translation involves finding alternative means of communicating research so that stakeholders beyond a researcher’s own colleagues can find and use it. Journal articles haven’t fundamentally changed in sixty years: if you print one out, it will still be in tiny type, packed onto a page with no space to breathe.

But we are making some gains. Many journals, North American ones, especially, are more accepting now than ever of first-person pronouns in journal articles. The style can be more conversational, and as research necessarily gets more interdisciplinary, researchers are beginning to recognize that they need a lingua franca to work together, and that lingua franca is plain language. We still have a long way to go, but we can celebrate these small victories.

Jandciu’s programs at UBC try to tackle the problem earlier, with communications courses designed specifically for science students. Although the Faculty of Science had always acknowledged that its students needed to develop communication skills, it usually left that training to first-year English courses. Feedback from graduating students, though, showed that those courses weren’t adequately preparing them to write reports and scientific articles or prepare and give presentations. Now the Faculty of Science offers a first-year course that integrates communication into science training and helps students develop scientific arguments. A third-year course has students interview researchers and develop videos and podcasts. Even funders, said Jandciu, are wanting researchers to do more outreach using social media, videos, and multimedia. Research communication can no longer be just text based.

He occasionally still hears students say, “But I’m in science because I don’t like to write,” or “I can’t do presentations,” but after the courses they realize the value of being able to communicate their scientific expertise. They begin to grasp that a lot of legislation hinges on policy makers getting sound information, and right now scientists aren’t doing a good enough job getting it out to them or to the public. “We need science students to stop thinking of communication as separate from their science,” said Jandciu.

Jeff Richmond, a journalist, responded that a lot of blame is put on “the media” for distorting research. And although it’s true that some stories can get sensationalized, if you talk to individual journalists, they typically have the sincerest of intentions. How does the distortion happen, and how we can express ideas in plain language without altering the facts?

Increasing awareness and uptake of plain language

We were all preaching to the converted at Communication Convergence—we all understand the value of plain language. But not everyone thinks the way we do. Nicholson said that we know that clear communication is the ethical choice, but when it comes to convincing others, some people and organizations simply won’t respond unless you show them the economic benefits.

And Stephens said that although professional legal associations support plain language, there’s still a culture of resistance among practising lawyers. I believe the key is in subtle shifts—a kind of quiet rebellion. There are several tacks to plain language; do what you can within the bounds of the culture, but start gathering evidence that what you are doing is producing results.

Does the public at large realize what they’re missing when communication isn’t clear? How can we raise awareness of plain language?

Paula LaBrie suggested that we all find a way to celebrate International Plain Language Day at our workplaces and spread the word about it. Lisa Mighton said we should always look for opportunities to turn our work into a media story.

The ideas from the crowd reinforced the community’s need for a central repository of plain language information: research, case studies, history. I urged everyone to join the Clear Communication Wiki and start contributing to it. It has the potential to become a valuable resource, but it needs a critical mass of participation.


My key takeaway from Communication Convergence is that being able to say “I don’t understand” is a privilege. The most disenfranchised among us may not realize that there’s an alternative to confusing communication or may feel that revealing their lack of comprehension might make them look ignorant, compromising their position.

We communicators need to acknowledge our privilege and use it to push for change. “By not calling people on their poor communication practices,” said McManus, “we’re making people—maybe generations of people—put up with a lack of information. It becomes the responsibility of communicators not to just throw up our hands and give up.”

Stephens and McManus hope to make Communication Convergence an annual event. If you have ideas for session topics or speakers, get in touch via LinkedIn or Twitter.

Hitting the books: Professional development tips (EAC-BC meeting)

EAC-BC held its first meeting of the 2014–2015 season yesterday evening, and, along with wine and cheese, we got a dose of professional development. Programs chair Roma Ilnyckyj and committee member Frances Peck asked us to share our favourite resources. Here’s a rundown of what people mentioned:


Websites or blogs

Twitter accounts

On top of the ones already mentioned, members of our group suggested following:

Workshops or classes

Beyond EAC-BC’s excellent professional development seminars and EAC’s annual conference, here are some workshops or classes that attendees have found useful:

Upcoming professional development events include:

  • Word Vancouver, September 24 to 28, which will host a series of free workshops on everything from making chapbooks to creating a publishing roadmap to digital publishing.
  • Communication Convergence, October 5, which explores “the tendency for different communication fields over time to apply a common range of methods.” Frances Peck will moderate a panel (of which I will be a member). Tickets here. (STC and EAC-BC members get a discount, and students get a special rate.)


This list is by no means exhaustive, of course—it includes only what people mentioned at the meeting. Add your favourites in the comments.

If you found this list helpful, you may also be interested in the results of last year’s season-launching audience-participation meeting: Editors’ show and tell: time-saving tips and tricks.

PubPro 2014 recaps

The second annual PubPro unconference for managing editors and publication production professionals took place on Saturday, May 24. We had ten fantastic sessions in a day packed with peer-to-peer learning and networking. Volunteers Megan Brand, Lara Kordic, and Lana Okerlund took notes, and their summaries of the sessions have been appearing weekly throughout the summer on Editors Canada’s BC branch newsletter, West Coast Editor. The last of them was posted last week, so I thought I’d give a round-up of the links:

Many thanks to this year’s attendees, including our stellar volunteers!

Want to see PubPro 2015 happen? Get in touch with me or with Editors Canada’s BC branch professional development co-chairs. I’d be keen to organize this unconference again but want to make sure others share my enthusiasm.

Senior editors’ unconference (EAC conference 2014)

What better way for senior editors to learn than by talking to other senior editors?

At the EAC conference, I led the senior editors’ unconference session, which was split into two parts. At lunchtime on Saturday, people were invited to come pitch topics for discussion. I wrote them on a flip chart and gave all participants three sticky dots to vote for their favourite topics. (And if we filled the hour with salacious editorial gossip, I figured that would be fine, too.)

After I tallied the votes, the list of topics was as follows:

  1. Marketing
  2. Setting rates
  3. Dealing with a stagnant client base
  4. Workflow best practices; user testing for workflows
  5. Mentorship—in both directions
  6. Usability testing
  7. Achieving buy-in with style guides
  8. Transitioning from print to digital
  9. Finding new professional development opportunities
  10. Getting out of being typecast
  11. SharePoint do’s & don’ts
  12. Working with international clients
  13. Working with subject experts
  14. File management and archiving

“Sr ask same as n00bs??” wondered Adrienne Montgomerie on Twitter. The top topics—marketing, rates—were the same ones that novice editors have to grapple with, but I was determined that this unconference session would unearth new ideas, not just the same old advice.

Everyone was welcome at the Sunday session; you didn’t have to be at the topic-pitching session to participate. The unconference was scheduled for the last time slot of the concurrent sessions, which worked well because people could bring ideas that other sessions they attended hadn’t covered.

Here’s a run-down of what we discussed. (I’ve eliminated the names here because I never got express permission to quote anyone, and some of what we discussed could be considered sensitive or controversial. If you’d like credit, though, by all means let me know.)


Because marketing (#1), setting rates (#2), revitalizing your client base (#3), and getting out of being typecast (#10) are very much related, I concatenated those topics so that we could discuss them together.

One editor noted that her marketing strategy was very much non-marketing. She mostly just tells her friends what she’s doing and what she’s interested in doing. Her work and reputation have allowed her to build her business by word of mouth.

One editor has a diverse portfolio, including writing, editing, indexing, and training. When she has enough work of one type but wants more of another, she targets her online presence to the channel she’d like to build.

Not everyone in the room had a website, but those who did thought it was a valuable part of their marketing. A lot of people had LinkedIn profiles, but we seemed to agree that LinkedIn served as a useful secondary verification, not a good primary means of marketing.

Setting rates

Should you post your rates? That point was controversial. One editor pointed out that having a rate sheet that you send out takes away some of the anxiety of quoting rates or negotiating. Another editor has an instant estimator right on her site. One person said that having a rate sheet or a calculator wouldn’t work for her—she has different rates for different clients, and the rates may vary wildly based on the complexity of the material. She always asks for the document or a sample to give an estimate. Whether you charge by the word or hour or project, it all boils down to the same thing—if you’re good at estimating!

Perfect versus good enough?

How much effort should you sink into a project in the quest for perfection? This discussion was interesting: was a sign of a kind of “editorial maturity” the recognition that it never pays to care more than the client? “Some edits we make because they’re needed,” said one editor. “Some things we sneak in to impress other editors.” If a client wouldn’t appreciate the latter, then those changes probably aren’t worth it. One editor said that for a new client, she always strives for perfection, because she’s hoping for repeat business.


How do we educate our clients about workflow best practices? The reality is, as one editor pointed out, “the best workflow for an editor isn’t necessarily the best workflow for an organization.” Organizations may have several authors collaborating on a document and many layers of approval. Self-publishers are more likely to have more flexible timelines, but some of them also need a lot of handholding about process. “About half of the work I do is educating self-publishing clients about the publishing process,” said one editor. Another problem with workflow is that a lot of editors who have never worked in house may not realize how the entire production machine works and how they fit into it. The Toronto EAC branch offers a yearly seminar on production editing—perhaps a consideration for other branches as well? Those of us who have worked in house but are now freelance also need to keep on top of developments in production workflow, because “some things are changing in house, and old rules don’t apply.”


What used to be a benefit of working in house was the mentorship you’d get from a senior editor. That system has changed, especially since editorial training programs have become more popular, although we seemed to agree that internships ideally ought to work on a mentorship model. One editor noted that we need mentorship in both directions: we can teach more junior editors editorial skills, while they may be able to teach us the best ways to use newer technologies. Our network, the EAC Listserv, and the Editors’ Association of Earth Facebook page were all cited as excellent sources of advice.

Usability testing

We moved on to usability testing, which is an essential part of the plain language process. We hear about it a lot but don’t necessarily know how to do it. Those who have done usability testing could attest to its value: although as editors we try to stay informed about a host of different topics, we have to remember that we have our own specialized language that others may not understand. It takes only two or three users to identify what the major problems are with your document. offers online user testing that’s relatively affordable, and they have great packages if you aim to do a lot of testing.

Style guides

How do you achieve buy-in with style guides? Call it quality assurance, said one editor. If you use PerfectIt, you can use it to export a style guide for easy sharing. Also see my post about how to optimize your house style guide.


We didn’t have enough time to discuss the remaining topics. Anyone interested in international editing might want to read my summary of a panel discussion on the topic that we had at the EAC-BC branch.

Thanks to all editors who contributed ideas and attended the unconference session. It was a wisdom-fuelled, energizing way to cap off a great conference.

Advanced Acrobatics: Tips and tricks for PDF mark-up—Adrienne Montgomerie (EAC conference 2014)

Are you still proofreading on paper? More and more clients are looking to do away with the printing and couriering costs associated with paper proofs and are asking proofreaders to mark up changes in PDF. Editor, trainer, and volunteer extraordinaire Adrienne Montgomerie showed us how to do this with the tools in the free Adobe Acrobat Reader. Her handout from her session is here, and she’s also compiled a Storify of her session here. Both of these resources are probably more useful than this write-up, but I still wanted to share some of my main takeaways from the talk.

Acrobat (the Standard and Pro versions, which you have to pay for) does have an “edit” function, but that lets you make changes directly to the document. What we’re talking about here is mark-up: using the program’s drawing or annotation tools to mark up changes that have to be made to the native file. Because PDFs are a fixed format that look the same to everyone, they’re ideal for marking up not only proofs of print materials but also websites, presentations, YouTube videos, and anything else you can capture in a screen shot.

Montgomerie uses a stylus and a Wacom tablet, which some people may find more intuitive than a traditional mouse for marking up a proof. “I prefer PDFs to paper,” she said, “because I can blow up the proof to any size. I can move my marks and resize them. I can right-click on my marks and change their properties, including weight and colour.”

“I use in blue in my mark-up,” she continued, “because I think it’s less threatening.”

Two main ways of adding mark-up to a PDF are to use either the drawing tools, where you essentially use an e-pencil to directly emulate the proofreading mark-up you’d make on paper, or Acrobat’s own annotation tools (Comment & Markup), which track your insertions, deletions, replacements, and highlights. Drawing tools are especially handy for marking up graphic novels and screen shots, where the text may not be recognizable. Be aware that for layered text, text selection for the annotation tools isn’t perfect; sometimes Acrobat chooses the wrong layer.

You can add clarifications or instructions to the designer using the Callout tool. Before sending the proof back, you can run a spell check on all of your text boxes; designers can then copy and paste that text into the source file rather than risk introducing errors by rekeying.

Different designers have different preferences, so ask your clients what they’d prefer. Whichever method you choose, all of your changes will be logged in Acrobat’s Comments List. The Comments List is excellent for quality control (especially because some of the annotation mark-up can be hard to see):

  • A designer can check off the checkbox next to each comment once a change has been implemented.
  • You can sort the Comments List by page order, date entered, checkmark status, type, and reviewer. You can also show or hide certain types of comments.
  • If you’ve got only a handful of changes, you can print only those pages with changes, along with their comments, so that the designer doesn’t have to scan through the whole document.
  • The designer can also reply to each comment, allowing for two-way communication. Sometimes a change can’t be made, and the proofreader needs to know about it for the next round of proofing.

Through the Comment & Markup tools, you can also “Attach a File as a Comment,” which is useful for long inserts. Sometimes clients won’t notice these files, though, so Montgomerie will often send them as email attachments as well.

If you’re using the drawing tools, you can make your life easier by creating or downloading a set of stamps that have your most common proofreading marks. Each stamp comes up as one comment, so if you have a caret (^) plus a hyphen (=), say, the designer doesn’t have to wade through both marks as separate comments. (Mind you, if you manage to draw both in quick succession, Acrobat may recognize them as a single mark as well.)

Under the Select & Zoom tools is the Snapshot tool, which lets you isolate a portion of your page. You can also use it to print (File » Print » Print Selection/Selected Graphic) just those isolated sections—handy if you have a tabloid document but a letter-sized printer, for example.

I wondered if anyone had ever used Annotations for Adobe InDesign, which is a plugin that lets a designer accept or reject annotation changes that a proofreader has marked up in a PDF. Nobody in the room seemed to have used it, and I’m still curious about it. (Maybe InCopy has obviated this tool, but not everyone wants to buy or subscribe to InCopy.)

Enlighten others—and get paid for it: How to launch and run a training business—Graham Young (EAC conference 2014)

Graham Young has taught more than five hundred seminars on writing and public speaking, and at the EAC conference he shared some of his insights about the business of training others.

Should you start a training business? The pros and cons

“The number one reason to be a trainer? It beats working!” Young joked.

The benefits of running a training business are many: You’re helping people solve a problem, and you can change their lives. Once you leave the classroom, you’re not beholden to anyone. You don’t have to deal with bad bosses or eccentric coworkers, and you can tell well in advance what your schedule will look like. Training is also a great way to learn: “If you want to remember something, it’s best to say it aloud,” said Young. And if you’re already self-employed, adding training to your menu of services is easy.

Income from training, though, just as in any other self-employment situation, can be sporadic. It can get repetitive, and you might face quite a bit of competition.

How should you launch your training business?

If you decide that the pros outweigh the cons, Young suggests the following approach to launch your training business:

1. Pick a subject

Employment and Social Development Canada lists nine “essential” skills:

  1. Reading
  2. Writing
  3. Document use
  4. Numeracy
  5. Computer use
  6. Thinking skills
  7. Oral communication
  8. Working with others
  9. Continuous learning

Many employers are willing to pay for their employees to receive essential skills training.

2. Do a business case

Do some research on the competition, and figure out how your business would fit into the training landscape. Try to articulate how your business would fulfill an unmet need.

3. Choose a business structure

Should your business be a sole proprietorship, a partnership, or a corporation?

4. Select a business model

Should you work for yourself, for a training organization, or both?

If you work for yourself, you can charge as much as you’d like, you have to answer only to your clients, and you can update and change content to customize it for your clients. However, you’ll have to do all of your own marketing, respond to requests for proposals (RFPs) and handle contracts, and you might have to make all of your own arrangements for refreshments, printing, and AV equipment.

If you work for a training organization, you may have steadier work, someone else may take care of marketing and administrative tasks, and you might have the opportunity to add more courses to your portfolio. However, you may have to use someone else’s material that you can’t update, and the training organization may not share your professionalism.

You could get the best of both worlds by working for yourself and for an organization, but if you do, make sure you don’t compete directly with the organization, and be aware that any prospects you come across while teaching on behalf of an organization belongs to them.

5. Get qualified

If you’d like to start a training business, said Young, learn how adults learn. Young recommends The Art of Teaching Adults by Peter Renner.

Professional certifications can give you credibility, and real-world experience in the field you’re offering training for is a source of anecdotes that can help you turn a theoretical concept into something people can understand.

6. Cut your teeth

Gain confidence by speaking in front of a crowd. You might want to start out by teaching college courses or attending Toastmaster meetings.

7. Attend workshops

How do others teach, and how do you learn? Seeing how other training sessions are run can tell you what works and what doesn’t.

8. Find a mentor

If you can, find someone who has experience in training to guide you.

How should you run your training business?

Young encourages using the ADDIE model:

  1. Analyze
  2. Design
  3. Develop
  4. Implement
  5. Evaluate


What problem is the training supposed to solve? (And is it really a lack of training that is causing the problem?) Who needs the training and why do they need training?

Understand that adult learners are autonomous, goal oriented, and knowledgeable. They want relevant information and solutions to their problems. “Adult learners come with certain expectations,” said Young. “Meet those expectations.” Otherwise you risk frustrating people.

Different people have different learning styles, so you should vary the way you present information to cater to different types of learners.


Create a lesson plan, which should include the expected learning outcomes. Select the topics and content, drawing from personal experience, books, reports, journals, websites, social media, and interviews. Choose what teaching methods—lectures, demos, videos, discussions, exercises, role-plays, presentations—you’d like to use. Consider icebreakers or energizers to keep the participants engaged. Don’t forget to plan a strong closing, where you wrap up and summarize the key points.


Assemble the course material, including notes, exercises, and solutions. Balance theory with real-life examples. “When training,” said Young, it’s best to “show people examples in the context they’re familiar with.” Create your slides and other visual aids.

Try to limit class sizes to sixteen people, advised Young. In larger groups, you lose intimacy, and people are more reluctant to speak up.


Be prepared! At least a day ahead of time, confirm the location of the session, security arrangements, and AV requirements. Arrive at 45 to 60 minutes before your session starts so that you can set up. Always have a back-up of your presentation and notes. “Respect Murphy’s Law,” said Young. You may have to contend with double-booked rooms, missing manuals, malfunctioning AV equipment, or other problems.

Once the class starts, greet the participants and have people introduce themselves.

Establish your credentials and explain your role. Create a supportive environment, and be enthusiastic. “Be prepared to meet some great people,” said Young. (That said, some audiences may be hostile—maybe an employer sent them to a training session against their will—and you’ll have to adjust your training approach accordingly.)

If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it—but follow up with one. See if any of the participants have the answer, and encourage participants to learn from one another.


Hand out evaluations at the end of your course, and adjust your course or delivery as needed. You may be able to use some of that feedback as testimonials, with permission.

Young closed with the top three things trainers must do to succeed:

3. Help solve the problem—whether it’s through imparting knowledge or honing a skill.

2. Instill confidence. “Behaviour is more likely to be predicted by what people believe they can do than by what they actually can do.”

1. Entertain. “If you haven’t got your audience’s attention, nothing else matters,” said Young.

Our changing language: When does wrong become right?—James Harbeck (EAC conference 2014)

“My head literally exploded.”

Does that sentence drive you crazy?

It reflects a change in the usage of “literally”—one that not everyone accepts. The history of English, though, is replete with examples of usages and syntax that were once considered wrong but that we now accept unthinkingly. “Our job as editors is to be bouncers at the door of our texts,” said James Harbeck. We have to decide which changes to our language to let in and which to keep out.

Language changes, said Harbeck, and we take part in that change. We can’t always predict or control how it will change, and we’re usually unaware of how it has changed in the past. Some people fall into what Harbeck calls the “etymological fallacy”—the belief that if a word used to mean something, that must be its true meaning.

Change happens at the word level—as we gain or lose words or parts of words or as words change in meaning or spelling—and at the syntactic level. (Language also changes at the sound level, but those changes don’t affect us as much in editing.) “Change at word level is like getting new books or rearranging them on a shelf,” said Harbeck. “Change to syntax is like rebuilding the shelves.”

Change comes through invention, borrowing, reinterpretation, or gradual shift. But why does it happen?

  • To make life easier: We often find new ways of expressing ourselves that take fewer words or syllables (e.g., “gonna” for “going to”) or that add clarity (e.g., “you all” for the plural “you”).
  • To feel better: “It’s fun,” said Harbeck. “We enjoy wordplay, clever slang, and cute turns of phrase.” We especially like borrowing words about food. “It’s like borrowing something else to eat,” said Harbeck. “Words go in your mouth, just like food.” Slang and jargon also help us build an in-group identity.
  • To control: Because our language use creates in-groups, we inevitably judge other groups based on their language, which can lead to class-based deprecation. “The poor raise pigs and cows; the rich eat porc and boeuf,” said Harbeck. Efforts to control our thoughts through marketing may also introduce new words and syntax into everyday speech. But “The most insidious kind of change is the change that pretends to be preserving the language against change,” Harbeck said. The grand prescriptivist “rules” that define “proper English” are all changes introduced in the last three centuries.
  • Things slip: Words can broaden, narrow, or shift in meaning. “Basic phonological processes can lead to reanalysis of word boundaries,” said Harbeck. And the people who introduce a language change may not be its vectors. For example, marketing invents while consumers carry.

How do we editors decide what to go with? Harbeck suggests we evaluate each situation as follows:

1. What is the change? Really?

Has a word leaped across a word-class boundary to become a different part of speech? Has its meaning changed? Its spelling? Try to pinpoint exactly what has shifted.

2. Where did it come from? When?

“The Oxford English Dictionary is honestly my favourite swimming pool,” said Harbeck. Use the OED online to trace the history of an innovation in English. You can also look at usage manuals, sites like the Language Log, and Google Ngrams, which can give you good historical information.

3. Where is it used? By whom?

Corpora such as the Corpus of Contemporary American English can give you information about collocations, and Google Ngrams can let you see what texts were using them when. Also refer to texts that are similar to the one you’re working on.

4. Who is your text for?

This is where register comes in. Are you writing for the business world? A magazine? A newspaper? An academic journal? Your Twitter followers? “When you’re deciding on register,” said Harbeck, “you’re really estimating your audience’s LCI—Linguistic Crustiness Index.” How will your audience receive and react to the usage?

5. What are the gains and losses?

When you use an expression like “most unique,” what are you gaining, and what are you losing? You are diluting absoluteness, but you may be gaining a way of expressing a quality that a synonym of “unique”—say, “unusual”—may not capture. If a change adds expressive power, it’s worth keeping.

Where is our language going? With the caveat that you can’t necessarily predict how it will change, Harbeck expects the following trends:

  • Greater flexibility in crossing word-class boundaries, which may start out as deliberate play but will seep through to everyday language.
  • Influence from second-language speakers. “Expect Chinese to have a perceptible effect,” said Harbeck.
  • Use of “they” in the singular. “Singular ‘they’ will prevail. The battle is over. They’re picking up the dead bodies right now,” Harbeck said. Expect a clarifying “they all” or “theys” to develop in parallel with “you all” and “youse.”
  • Acceptance of certain kinds of danglers as sentence adverbials.