31 Oct

Let women write

On a very wet weekend towards the end of October, I made my first ever trip to Cardiff to attend my first conference run by the charity FiLiA. The largest feminist gathering in Europe saw more than 1,700 women (and a handful of men) travel to the Welsh capital to discuss the state of women’s rights and various issues facing us today, from porn, prostitution and the patriarchy to female genital mutilation, motherhood and matriarchal societies. Outside of the formal sessions I was lucky enough to speak to many women of different nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientations and political persuasions. It was a fantastic and moving experience with numerous highlights, including an interview with the remarkably eloquent and composed Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

As a woman and editor, with a degree in biology and working mainly in the healthcare area, one of the key sessions at FiLiA for me was entitled ‘Gender-Critical in Publishing: The Silencing of Women’s Voices’. Before reviewing the discussion, it may be worth introducing some definitions for people unfamiliar with this issue.

Many people don’t like the term ‘gender critical’ (GC) or feel it is very accurate, but the Cambridge Dictionary’s definition is:

I would take issue with the phrase highlighted in blue, and just say ‘the sex they were born as’. A common phrase used by trans rights activists is ‘sex assigned at birth’, which is, of course, nonsensical – sex is fixed at conception and observable in utero early in pregnancy, hence, unfortunately, the possibility of sex-selective abortions – the overwhelming majority of which target female fetuses.

Another key position of being GC is that in some situations, sex matters; for example, in healthcare, demographic data, crime statistics, and where personal dignity, safety or religious beliefs are involved. Language is also viewed as important: if any man can claim to be a woman, then the word ‘woman’ loses all value and it means the end of single-sex services – anything from the mundane, like public toilets, to the specialist, like rape and domestic violence therapy centres. Funnily enough, you don’t see the activism – sometimes violent, often aggressive – running the other way, i.e. women seeking to access men’s spaces. There are also concerns around misogyny and homophobia, such as the ‘cotton ceiling’ (lesbians being told they should date trans-identifying men) and parents preferring to have a ‘trans’ child than a gay one.

On the other side of the argument is a belief that has various descriptions, including gender identity ideology, transgenderism or transgender ideology. I’ll use the former, or GII for short, in this blog post. Adherents of this ideology believe that everyone has a ‘gender identity’, which may or may not match their birth sex/anatomy, and may be neither (‘non-binary’) or no sex, but that should be viewed as more important than the latter. So, if a man says he ‘identifies as’ a woman, then he should be accepted as one.

Another problematic element of the Cambridge definition of GC for me is ‘believing that sex is a fact of biology that cannot be changed’. It’s not a belief – it is a fact. Sex in Homo sapiens is binary and immutable. People with disorders of sexual development are often dragged into this argument as ‘evidence’ that sex in humans is some kind of spectrum. Yet everyone ‘intersex’ is either male or female, and in the 0.02% of births where the sex is initially indeterminate (which is, by the way, much lower than the incidence of red hair) in most countries it can be quickly ascertained by a chromosomal or hormonal screen.

It is unclear, to me at least, where and how GII arose to become such a politically powerful movement, though it seemed to take hold from around 2015/16. As gay rights began to be strengthened in many countries, some activists and charities found a new cause in trans activism. Tranvestite (nearly always men who dress in women’s clothing) and transsexual (people who have undergone genital surgery) became old-fashioned terms, and everyone from a teenage girl with rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD), fuelled by social media and the desire to escape a hypersexualised society, to middle-aged men sexually aroused by the idea of themselves as a woman, was just given the label ‘trans’.

Some people grew alarmed at the impact GII was having: the huge increase in the number of teenage girls with ROGD, the lack of clinical data and follow-up for children (a significant number of which were on the autism spectrum and/or likely to grow into gay adults), the off-label use of puberty blockers (which permanently affect child development) and what was beginning to happen to some women’s single-sex spaces. Others insisted that ‘trans’ people were marginalised and oppressed, and everyone should just ‘be kind’.

Women (and a handful of men) who began to express their concerns soon found they were shot down, told to educate themselves, or called a bigot or ‘TERF’ (trans-exclusionary radical feminist – another misnomer: the T should really be an M for male or P for penis…). Thanks to JK Rowling and some of the women on the FiLiA session panel, publishing has been in the spotlight, but women from many other occupations have been affected, including lawyer Allison Bailey, sports presenter Sharron Davies, dancer Rosie Kay, textile artist Jess de Wahls, university lecturer Kathleen Stock, nurse Amy Hamm, politicians Joanna Cherry and Rosie Duffield, and perhaps most famously business consultant Maya Forstater, whose case was highlighted by JK Rowling: sometimes, a woman’s only ‘crime’ is liking one of the latter’s tweets. Organisations were also affected: Vancouver Rape Relief (VRR) had a dead rat nailed to their door after making it clear they were a woman-only centre. Rosie and Maya both gave rousing speeches at the Sunday morning session of the conference, on misogyny, and one of the representatives from VRR who’d travelled to Cardiff, Hilla Kerner, noted that they’d had so much support from women around the world that they will soon be able to open a second space for women traumatised by male sexual violence.

Photo credit: Pauline Makoveitchoux for FiLiA. L–R: Lucy Masoud; Rosie Duffield; Maya Forstater; Julie Bindel

So… as you might imagine, there was a lot to discuss, and the room was packed! The session was led by the estimable Helen Joyce, currently on leave from The Economist and serving as Director of Advocacy at Sex Matters, and the author of Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality – one of the clearest explanations of GII and its effects. Helen noted that her original agent had been thrilled when she brought up the idea of writing a controversial book, but then dumped her when she discovered the actual subject. Luckily, Kathleen Stock’s agent, Caroline Hardman, was happy to come on board. Trans soon became a bestseller, even though some people found it difficult to purchase at high street booksellers like Waterstones. One point Helen made is that, like many businesses, publishers are focused on their bottom line, and the success of her and Stock’s book (Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism) may make others braver when it comes to publishing GC authors.

Introducing the panellists, Helen commented: ‘Female bodies exist – and they have consequences.’

The first to speak was Julia Williams, a freelance editor and writer. She said that the publishing industry had been captured by intolerant thinking and was doubtful that a book like Sir Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses would be published today. Children’s publishing is an especially toxic area, with younger employees terrified of saying the wrong thing. Julia noted that ‘being kind’ should include listening to other people’s point of view.

Next up was Gillian Philip, a children’s author who is suing her former publisher. She defended Rachel Rooney, who was attacked over her book My Body Is Me, and said she stood with JK Rowling while the latter continued to receive a barrage of vile abuse – a few weeks later she was sacked, even though her publishers had known her stance for years. As Gillian pointed out, surely of all industries, being worried about what you say or write shouldn’t be happening in publishing? Now some people are even afraid to think.

Photo credit: Vernee Samuel. L–R: Milli, Jenny, Helen, Gillian, Julia

Jenny Lindsay is a Scottish poet and director. Her key point was that women are materially definable and legislatively important. She has seen her income fall by 70%, had open letters against her – one signed by her own publisher! – friends and colleagues be harassed and her work reframed as bigoted. The only organisation that stood up to the ‘mob’ was the Scottish Poetry Library. Jenny eventually asked for her rights to be returned to her and took her book out of print: a second edition is being published by Red Squirrel Press, and she is working on a novel as she wants to explore this issue creatively. Later it was noted that some smaller presses are braver with regard to who they publish compared with their bigger rivals.

Milli Hill is a journalist and founder of the Positive Birth Movement, who published two books uneventfully. She then criticised the use of the term ‘birthing people’ to describe pregnant women in the context of obstetric violence. Working on her third book, on periods, which had been commissioned on the grounds of using sex-based language and rigorous evidence, Milli wanted to bring biology back to younger girls. The layout was ready in March 2021, ahead of publication that May. Another author, who uses gender-neutral language, saw a preview and wrote to the publishers – who subsequently panicked. The book had already been past three different editors and a doctor, yet suddenly last-minute insertions (with no context or explanation) and a sensitivity reader were suggested. Milli stood her ground and the book, My Period, finally came out in August 2021. She has since found a new publisher.

Helen summarised some of the discussion by noting that the overall capture of the publishing industry by GII was leading to:

  • Misinformation being given to children
  • Some authors being refused publishing deals or being unable to find an agent
  • Other authors being influenced on what they chose to write about

There were some general misgivings about sensitivity readers, especially for non-fiction books. While they can definitely be useful in some circumstances, there is a danger of them adding another layer of censorship, and some also believe there is an element of ‘grift’ involved by individuals and organisations who have spotted a lucrative opportunity. The panellists all agreed that publishing has been too white and too middle-class for years (though WOC authors like Onjali Rauf have also come under attack for defending women’s rights to single-sex spaces, which are obviously crucial for many Muslim and some Jewish women). An example is unpaid internships: as most of these are based in central London they are really only feasible to those with wealthy parents. Some publishers are beginning to tackle this, however, and diversity has to cover all of the protected characteristics under the Equality Act – not just the high-profile ones. Employees are fed up of being frightened and are starting to make connections; Milli noted this was happening in the maternity world as well as in publishing.

You can become a friend of FiLiA and buy merchandise via their website, and next year’s conference will be in Glasgow, October 13–15.

Women won’t wheesht!

02 Aug

Go super! (Or sub…)

Using super- and subscript is important in many scientific areas, especially chemistry and biomedicine. As well as chemical symbols, subscript is used for, amongst other things, pharmacokinetic terms and neurotransmitters and their receptors. Superscript is perhaps most often used for footnote symbols like the dagger, double dagger and section symbol (§): remember, though, that asterisks have superscripting built in, so they don’t need any action.

In Word, it’s easy to apply these styles as they usually appear on the main menu ribbon (in the Font section). In PowerPoint it takes a couple of extra clicks: highlight the letter or phrase, right click, select Font, and then subscript or superscript. The process is similar in Excel. The default setting (and I’ve never used anything else) is 30% offset.

Because many websites don’t use sub- and superscript it can sometimes be difficult to research when to apply this, but persevere – some websites will use formatting like [sub] to explain where it’s applied.

A little extra time spent on learning how to use this simple formatting correctly can make your scientific writing look much more professional!

29 Feb

Not so black and white?

Today’s BuzzFeed Copy Desk ‘Quibbles & Bits’ email bulletin was an interesting read for me, as it discussed the capitalisation of black when referring to race.

This is something I grapple with fairly frequently when working on reports and manuscripts that discuss clinical trial data. My perception is that there has been a gradual trend towards a lowercase B? Personally, my inclination is to capitalise Black because of the connotations of the word, but conversely, I prefer to keep white lowercase. That, of course, leads to every copy-editor’s worst nightmare – mixed Black and white! That will never do, so my policy is to correct only for standardisation purposes, unless the style guide has a specific ruling.

BuzzFeed highlighted that the US National Association of Black Journalists has recently changed its stance, from using black to Black. This goes against AP style, which is to use black across the board. Others capitalise both Black and White. As ever with editing, it seems to be a case of ‘it depends’, but with the caveat that editors and proofreaders need to keep up with the latest developments in style and usage.

18 Sep

Personal pronouns – a thorny and complex issue

I’m just back from my second SfEP conference, held in Aston this year. As with my first, in 2017, it was great to talk to other (mostly) freelance editors and proofreaders and do a bit of CPD, which has been sorely lacking from my schedule this year. A highlight was definitely the $/%*ing brilliant opening talk – at 9.15am on Sunday! – from ‘Tartan Noir’ author Chris Brookmyre: if you ever get a chance to attend a talk of his, do so.

Probably the most thought-provoking session I attended was by linguist Erin Carrie, on bias in language (her colleague Rob Drummond treated us to another highly entertaining speech after the gala dinner on Sunday). This mostly focused on, for example, dialects and accents, but then we moved on to personal pronouns – this was timely as it was the first SfEP conference in which delegates could choose to add a pronoun preference to their ID badge, and it coincided with Sam Smith’s announcement that he wanted to be referred to as ‘they’.

And this is where things get contentious…

As a heterosexual biological woman I’m not even going to begin to try and put myself in the shoes of anyone on the trans spectrum, but as a biologist by training and someone who has worked in biomedical and healthcare information for 30 years, I do struggle with the concept of being gender ‘non-binary’. I’m fully supportive of transsexual rights, and think – just like everyone else regardless of sex, colour, religion or culture – all trans people should be treated with respect and politeness.

But, I do also have concerns about upholding women’s rights, especially when it comes to fully biological males (i.e. those who haven’t even started any hormonal treatment) who ‘identify’ as women. As you may be aware, there is a huge debate around this at the moment, much of it on Twitter, about issues such as men competing in women’s sports (which most people would admit is going to lead to an unlevel playing field physically) and excluding men, no matter how they identify, from safe spaces for vulnerable women: see, for example, the attacks on Vancouver Rape Relief & Women’s Shelter because they refused to provide services to transgender women.

So how is this relevant to editing? Well, luckily in my area it’s not an issue that I’m likely to come across very often, but editors working on e.g. government and NGO publications are perhaps going to have to grapple with the terminology more often in the near future, and in fiction it’s open season (do read Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex if you haven’t already). What struck me in Carrie’s talk was the example sentence she used to discuss what is ‘correct’ grammar and what isn’t. After going through the obvious version and the garbled alternatives, she presented a final version that was something like:

John is funny. They make us laugh.

Now here is where us editors may have to start accepting ‘non-standard’ – a favourite phrase of Drummond’s – usage. And it also goes back to one of Carrie’s main themes, which was what is ‘standard’ English anyway, and who decides what qualifies? When conversing with people, I often refer to a particular friend or acquaintance as ‘they’ rather than he or she, and the singular they is perfectly correct grammatically and has been for many years.

Wearing my editing/proofreading hat, however, I find the sentence above terribly jarring. If I had no instructions as to why John was a ‘they’, I would edit it to ‘he makes’. If it was a more gender ambiguous name, like Alex or Sam, and I didn’t know anything about the person being referred to, I would query whether it should be he or she.

I will confess my thoughts on this are far from fully formed, and it will be fascinating to see what happens in this area over the next few years. Is proclaiming yourself to be non-binary just a passing fad – even an affectation – or is gender fluidity going to become more common as people begin to reject society’s labels and the expectations and demands they bring?

And how will we as editorial professionals keep on top of it all and know what is correct grammatically or offensive to the individuals who don’t want to identify as male or female or are transitioning from one to the other? I am sure the lovely new Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading members will help guide and inform each other, and as is usual, I hope all viewpoints will be respected.

11 Feb

Pen vs hero

Well, so far 2019 is proving to be as full on as 2018 – I didn’t even really get much of a break over Christmas. Still, I’d rather be busy than twiddling my thumbs, and I did take some time out last week for a total fan girl evening, going to see the amazing performer and human being that is John Grant. As someone who works with the English language, I appreciate his lyrics, though be warned they are not for those of a sensitive disposition!

Some of my old colleagues used to tease me about being a bit obsessed with pens… put it this way – they knew better than to ask to borrow one of mine. I probably own about 1,000 (no exaggeration) and am always trying out new red and green ones for proofreading especially.

So, hotel room booked across the road from the concert venue, last week I headed off to Liverpool with a magenta Sharpie and his latest release on CD in my bag. After 1.25 hours waiting by the stage door in the cold, I was rewarded with a lovely chat, hugs and autograph from the big man. And while it’s not exactly how it looks, this photo did make me grin.

25 Sep


That’s the sound of 2018 whizzing by…

I am actually embarrassed about how long it’s been since I wrote a post, so am doing a ‘quick and dirty’ one just to make it clear that I am still alive and working!

I’ve had a very full-on 12 months, due to relocating 200 miles from the south of England (Hertfordshire) back to the north (Lancashire). That decision was made after a few reconnaissance, and then house-hunting, trips, and before, during and after the move (towards the end of April) I was very busy with work, so it’s all been a bit hectic.

Despite being born and bred on the right side of the Pennines, I love Lancashire and the friendly folk, and though I haven’t had time to do much exploring, I’m settling in OK and enjoying the odd butter pie (a new experience for me). Ironically, the relocation meant I had to miss the SfEP conference this year, despite the fact that it was held just up the road in Lancaster – a lovely city, and one I nearly moved to. But, I hope to make it to Aston next year.

The weather though… the wind and rain here is something else. But, I do now have a nice little first-floor study, rather than having to work in the frozen (or broiling) garret at my old house, plus I’m on a very quiet street.

So, I’m hoping for a tranquil end to 2018, and a rather more peaceful 2019…

24 Oct

Going back to Lyra’s Oxford

When I was a full-time employee, I would manage to read a few books each year, often on the train. Since working from home and spending much of the day reading for work, the inclination (and time) to read for pleasure seems to have deserted me.  For the past 18 months I’ve had three half-read books dotted around the house, creating guilt trips every time I come across them (a biography of TE Lawrence, the story of Henrietta Lacks and Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies – I devoured Wolf Hall in a few days…)

At the turn of the millennium, for two Christmas holidays running, I tucked myself away in my parents’ Edwardian house and fell into the world of His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman’s masterful trilogy of Northern Lights, The Amber Spyglass and The Subtle Knife. I’ve never had the remotest interest in reading any of the Harry Potter books, but adore Pullman’s story telling. I concur with his views on organised religions, am a lifelong ailurophile and take pleasure in watching the local birdlife (in SW Herts we are blessed with an abundance of red kites), so found his settings and the idea of daemons immediately bewitching.

Although there was a little intermediate treat in the form of Lyra’s Oxford, I experienced child-like excitement again upon hearing about the Book of Dust, a new trilogy. The first part, La Belle Sauvage, is a prequel, setting the scene for how Lyra grew up as an orphan at Jordan College; the next two are due to be set 10 years on from the end of HDM.

I bought La Belle Sauvage the day after it came out, started it on the Friday, and finished it in the early hours of Monday morning. Apart from perhaps one slightly weak/strange section it was a fantastic read (with adult themes and language) and the experience was like being reunited with a long-lost friend. My sadness at finishing it has been assuaged by Simon Russell Beale’s reading of it as the ‘book at bedtime’ on Radio 4 this week, and my realisation that I had never got round to reading the other ‘teaser’ book, Once Upon a Time in the North. Guess what I’m doing tonight?

I’m hoping that the Oxford English Dictionary will also add a lovely new word – teawards. As in, ‘Her thoughts turned teawards.’ Tea and Philip Pullman; what better combination?

19 Sep

Losing my conference cherry

It seemed appropriate to use an item of food in my title as there was an abundance of the stuff at the 2017 conference of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders – a veritable cornucopia at every breakfast, lunch and dinner, topped up with a constant supply of tea, coffee and biscuits. Given the intellectual intensity involved, it provided much-needed fuel!

I set off on my thankfully straightforward journey late on Saturday morning, and got in touch with two fellow editors, Andrea and Lorraine, who I’d made contact with via the SfEP forum about sharing a taxi from St Neots station. As the heavens opened just as our train from London pulled in, we were relieved to see that the taxi firm had a cabin for us to shelter in – complete with tabby cat. After a short drive we arrived at the tranquil countryside setting of Wyboston Lakes, checked in quickly and easily, and had a cup of tea whilst waiting for our rooms to be ready.

The pretty courtyard garden at the training centre – great for tea breaks

Unpacking done, room approved, I wandered down to the Training Centre to register and attend my first AGM and opening address from the enjoyably opinionated Oliver Kamm. Coming back to my room before dinner I bumped into medcomms colleague Petra: nice to see a friendly face. I missed the drinks for newbie conference attendees as a nap was needed, but met another batch of welcoming editors at dinner. Our table performed honourably enough in the pub quiz, after which I withdrew for an early night. Unlike Hugh, I made it back to my room without being accosted by “big” foxes…

I’m not an early riser, but the combination of travel alarm clock and the centre’s wake-up call service managed to get me out of my (extremely comfortable) bed by 7.30am on Sunday. After a great shower and a hearty breakfast, off I went to my first session, on Word styles. A delicious lunch and then it was a discussion on managing client relationships, followed by a presentation by getting the most out of your directory listing by the ever-helpful Nick Jones. Unfortunately, the day proved so tiring that I didn’t have the energy to attend the social media get-together and say hello to my fellow Tweeters, but after another cheeky nap I was refreshed and ready for the gala dinner. Even Kate’s tale of an appendectomy in a Chinese hospital with no general anaesthetic didn’t put me off another tasty meal; however, I’m not sure Table 17’s members should be allowed to edit poetry (link only for SfEP members)!

Sat behind the legendary Louise Harnby, winner of the 2017 Judith Butcher award, at the gala dinner (Photo by Helen Stevens, used with permission)

Monday was another full-on day, starting with a session on rates led by Katherine, Erin and Janet. This was probably one of the two sessions I personally found most valuable. Because I went freelance and joined the SfEP having already worked as an editor for more than 20 years, I didn’t start off with ultra-low rates. But, neither were they anywhere near high, and I’ve since suffered from a bit of ‘paralysis’ when it comes to increasing them. This presentation inspired me to raise my rates for existing clients from January and to review the rates I present to new clients.

After a useful hour discussing when, what and how to query, on Monday afternoon I then went to Tracey and Jackie’s session on guerrilla marketing. This was the other session that was most useful – and motivating – for me, as marketing myself is something I still struggle with. Despite this being the final one of the conference, I would have been happy if it had been at least half an hour longer, and went away with lots of good ideas about attracting the clients I want to work with.

Proceedings were wrapped up with a very enjoyable closing speech from Mark Forsyth, from whom I learned the lovely word hendiadys. Then another easily arranged taxi share back to St Neots station – this time in sunshine – to catch a nice quiet train back to Kings Cross, where we all went our separate ways.

In summary, I’d recommend attending the annual SfEP conference for any member who hasn’t tried it. Everyone was so welcoming, friendly and non-judgemental, and it was great just to be able to talk about both editing and freelancing issues with other people in similar situations to your own. Through casual conversations over meals or during tea breaks I’ve been prompted to try utilising macros, and possibly PerfectIt, got tips and leads, and also an opportunity to say hello to one existing and one potential new client. I’ve neglected my professional development to some extent since becoming self-employed, except for bits and pieces picked up on various jobs, so the conference gave me a big boost and provided lots of inspiration for how to sustain and grow my business.

I will be certainly be back. Note to self: don’t pack snacks.


10 Jun

Einstein a go go

Recently, one of the very first clients I had as a freelancer got back in touch and asked if I would be interested in working on another book for them. Great! But my heart sank as I read further on – the book was about quantum physics…

Now, I’m a scientist by background, but a biologist. At school, I did not enjoy physics or maths. Although like everyone else I had to do maths ‘O’ level, I dropped physics like a piece of uranium: admittedly, this was partly because I hadn’t thought much about my ‘A’ level choices – with hindsight I should have done physics at least to ‘O’ level, but at the time I was still flirting with the humanities. As it happened, I managed to muddle through the ‘harder’ bits of my life sciences degree so my aversion to physics wasn’t a major issue.

Except, it did perhaps plant the seed of a bit of a complex about the subject. So I had to think a little longer than usual about whether to accept the project, despite the clients being lovely to deal with.

Anyway, I took the plunge, said yes, and in fact it turned out to be a really interesting read! I actually understood most of the science and some of the information, for example about CERN, was fascinating. Although the contributors were all active research physicists they had written about their topic in a very accessible way.

So, I didn’t just reconnect with an old client, but was allowed to play a small role in an enjoyable project, and best of all it gave me a bit of a confidence boost – if I can handle proofreading a book on quantum physics, I can handle anything… right?
07 Apr

How to find – and pay! – me

Thanks to a bit of time to do some admin, I now have profiles on BookMachine, Reedsy and YunoJuno. As the former’s name suggests, it is dedicated to the subject of book publishing and is an informal community that allows potential clients to browse your profile; however, there is also a lot of general discussion and they organise events.

Reedsy is also dedicated to books, but is a more formal ‘marriage bureau’ for authors/publishers and those who can provide a service they need – in my own case that’s obviously proofreading and copy/line editing. Reedsy manages any contracts, charging a 10% commission of the agreed project price for doing so.

Linked to my Reedsy profile is my new Stripe account, which is another way of accepting payments (my ID is Beaumont Pro); you can also pay me via PayPal, using the link on the home page (I may set up a separate page for payments at some point).

YunoJuno is a more general site for finding freelancers, but again arranges the payments and takes a commission. Some companies are moving over to this platform for managing all their freelancers. YunoJuno charges employers a commission of 9%, but guarantees that freelancers are paid within 14 days, which is most welcome!

Of course, you are always welcome to contact me directly through the form on this site, email, phone, LinkedIn etc. etc.