Plain English – what are the business benefits?

A picture of a piggybank

If you run a business, you probably know that customers appreciate clear communication. They want to be able to find important information quickly – for example, about products and services, how to find you or how to return an item they’ve bought. Direct, concise and jargon-free text saves them time, frustration and effort. It gives your customers a better experience of working with you.

But what are the benefits for you – and your company? How can writing in plain English help you achieve your business goals, such as making a profit or building your brand? Is communicating clearly anything more than ‘doing the right thing’?

Using plain English can help your business in three main ways:

  1. It saves money
  2. It saves time
  3. It builds your reputation

It saves money

– and it makes money, too.

If your marketing materials, letters and newsletters present information clearly, your customers are more likely to read them, pick up on your messages and act as you intended.

For example, an electronics company that publishes easy-to-follow instruction manuals could save on expensive replacements or repairs, because its customers don’t have to put as much effort into learning how to solve common problems. A health club with a clearly worded and designed membership form shouldn’t have to ask applicants for missing information or reprint a clearer version of the form.

Plain language can also help you widen your pool of customers. In other words, if you write marketing copy that considers people who don’t already know about your specialism, you can appeal to a bigger readership and make more sales. For example, if one company explains the benefits of an electric car in everyday language and another just lists the technical specifications, I’d be more likely to buy a car from the first company. The same goes for me when I’m promoting my services as an editor: if I explain clearly how a copy-edit can help, without assuming the person I’m writing to is familiar with terms used in the publishing industry, I can market the service to more people.

Clarity in internal documents can save you money too. Clear job descriptions, for example, will help make sure you interview the right people, so you don’t have to go through the whole recruitment process again. Your employees are more likely to follow policies and procedures that are quick to read and expressed clearly, without meaningless buzzwords. If training updates for employees give clear instructions, costly mistakes are less likely to happen.

And, it can save on legal costs. As language expert Karin Cather explains, ‘plain language removes ambiguity in contracts, which reduces the potential for litigation’. The same goes for terms and conditions, agreements and other documents that set out legal responsibilities.

It saves time

– and saving time saves money.

Using plain language saves your customers time, which is great for them. But it helps your company do things quicker too. When your website, adverts, brochures and emails provide information in a straightforward way, you won’t have to waste time explaining it again. You shouldn’t have to spend as long answering questions or sorting out misunderstandings, either. If you’re an insurance company and your policies set out clearly what is and isn’t covered, you won’t have to answer as many phone calls and emails from policyholders who aren’t sure if they can claim.

In your organisation, if you have clear policies, strategies and procedure documents, your employees and other people you work with are more likely to read them. That means you can implement them more quickly, making the business more efficient. And if your business plans are clear to begin with, you’ll be able to measure your progress more easily – because what you plan to achieve should be concrete and precise.

It’s the same when you’re communicating with partners and suppliers, from an email updating an order to sending out a new contract. Communicating with them clearly should cut down on time following things up or explaining processes.

It builds your reputation

This is one of the biggest benefits for businesses, especially in the long term. Communicating in plain English – with everyone you work with – can help you get the most out of your marketing plan. This isn’t just about persuading people to buy from you by using clear language in sales and advertising materials, although that can help too! It’s also about strengthening your brand by writing to people – customers, employees and partners – in a human, direct and open way. People want to buy from, work with and work for companies that have a good reputation. And communicating in plain language can build your reputation by giving people a great experience of dealing with you.

  • Clear language builds your reputation as an organisation that puts people first.
  • It presents your business as honest. According to the Nielsen Norman Group, ‘Organizations with clear writing styles are perceived to possess greater transparency and credibility than companies that don’t’.
  • It gets your messages across more effectively, so readers know instantly what your business and your brand stand for.
  • It encourages loyalty to your brand. When people feel that you’ve considered them, they’re more likely to give good feedback and recommend you to friends and family.

All this helps you attract new customers while keeping the ones you already have.

Of course, you need to do more than communicate in plain English to find yourself inundated with happy customers who can’t stay away. Clear information about how soon you’ll get back to people about their queries means nothing if you don’t stick to your timescales, for example. And straightforward instructions are only any good if people actually buy your product. But using plain language can go a long way to help. It’s not just a box you have to tick to show you’re being a responsible company – there are plenty of financial benefits for your business, too.

Posted in Business writing, Plain English

Why I love the Society for Editors and Proofreaders

Love Hearts sweets

As the romance of Valentine’s Day fades into the past and I attempt to retrieve the last remaining crumbs of chocolate from my box of Thornton’s, I realise it’s very nearly time to renew my vows to the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP).

I might not be up to my eyeballs in Valentine’s offers, but membership of an editorial association is one commitment I’m more than happy to say ‘yes’ to for many years to come.

So, SfEP, let me count the ways I love you.

1. You inspire me (to develop my career)

They say that love inspires us to do our best, and the SfEP has a clear route for career progression, from Entry Level to Advanced Professional membership. People can join at the level that best fits the experience and training they already have, whether they’re just thinking about becoming a proofreader or have been doing the job for decades. The upgrading process is demanding but fair, so it really means something when you work your way up.

There are opportunities for professional development at all membership levels – from learning from others at the annual conference to doing training courses. I’ve got so much from the conferences I’ve been to, but don’t take my word for it – here’s a conference round-up.

There are plenty of other, less formal opportunities for professional development too. One of these is to contribute your own knowledge. That could be by sharing tips and experience on the forums, writing a blog post, proofreading or testing resources, mentoring others, running a local group, giving a conference session or working as a director.

For me, this professional development replaces the appraisal and promotion systems I was used to as an employee. It’s helped me set goals, review my progress and develop my career in new (and sometimes unexpected!) ways.

2. You bring me presents (by helping me find good clients)

Sod diamonds – I’d rather have work. Professional and Advanced Professional members of the SfEP can have a listing in the Directory of Editorial Services. My listing has brought me new clients and acts as a CV. It’s easier for clients to find the Directory than to stumble across my website, as the Directory is ranked highly by search engines and it’s a well-known, trusted place to find editorial professionals.

Apart from the Directory, there’s a forum where members can express interest in work shared by others, and a regular list of Intermediate Members who are available to take on work that other members can’t fit in.

I’ve also received referrals from other members after getting to know them through the society, sometimes even working with them on projects. For example, I work with Advanced Professional member Helen Stevens on big batches of school reports that need to be turned around quickly. Working together has been such a great experience – I’ve learned more efficient ways of doing things, not to mention some delicious veggie recipes. For more on the joys of working together, read Helen’s article.

Of course, enquiries through an editorial association’s directory is just one source of work among many others – social media and local events, for example. But wherever an enquiry comes from, being able to let clients know I’m a member of a professional organisation gives them more confidence that I’ll do a good job, act in a professional way and not let them down. And knowing I meet those professional standards is a good antidote to impostor syndrome (see this post by Sara Donaldson). It gives me the confidence to charge a fee that reflects the time and effort I put in and the experience I bring to a project.

3. You fill my life with happiness (by bringing like-minded people into it)

As an editor who works alone (and is quite happy with that most of the time!), one of the most important things about being part of a professional organisation is the social side.

By ‘alone’ I also include working in a team where you’re the only person doing your job – in my last two employed roles I was the only editorial person in the company, and in hindsight being part of an association of like-minded professionals would have been an enormous benefit. (For more on being a member when you work in-house, see this post by Eleanor Abraham.)

Online and in person, the SfEP has made it easier for me to get to know a wide circle of other editors and proofreaders. They’re supportive and generous in an industry that’s often thought of as competitive. Going to local group meetings, the international group (Skype Club) and the conference, and contributing to forum discussions, are all ways to build contacts – some near enough to meet for a coffee and others in far-flung places around the world.

I don’t like big crowds and the word ‘networking’ makes me want to hide under the covers, so I’d been a member for a while before I felt brave enough to go to the conference (if you feel the same, read this post by Abi Saffrey). I shouldn’t have worried, though – it was refreshing to spend time with a whole load of friendly people who do similar work, and it was reassuring to find that they aren’t all perfect and that they share some of the same challenges I do. This has led to new friendships and opportunities, some of them pushing me outside my comfort zone (more on that another time).

For example, after going to a conference session about accountability groups (by Denise Cowle) and another on content marketing (by Louise Harnby and John Espirian), a colleague and I set up an accountability pair for our blog posts. We proofread each other’s posts, ask for each other’s opinion on things like tone and images, and make constructive comments. It’s motivating to work together and reassuring to know somebody else thinks my post isn’t a load of rubbish before I send it out.

Of course, you don’t have to be part of a professional society to get to know other editors and proofreaders, but being a member gives you lots of contacts instantly and provides opportunities to meet together often. With you, SfEP, an open relationship’s a good thing.

4. You support me – and inspire me to support others

When I need some help or advice, the SfEP’s always there. From the resources on the website (such as guides, model terms and conditions, suggested minimum rates and a magazine, Editing Matters), to forum discussions and discounts on training – and, obviously, the training itself – there’s plenty of support available.

Rather than being competitive, other members go out of their way to help if you’re stuck on some usage point, you’re struggling with Word or you just need a few words of advice – and I know from experience that they do their best to save you from making silly mistakes!

There’s also a legal advice line, which I’ve used more than once for help with thorny clauses in contracts.

Behind the scenes, the organisation is constantly promoting the editorial profession by going along to events and meetings, such as the London Book Fair.

There are also so many ways to be a friend in return, and my goal is to do more of this in future. It can be as easy as replying to a question on one of the forums (remember: as Amy Armitage-Reay says, don’t fear the forums) or passing on your experience to new members at a local group meeting. Sharing the love is what it’s all about!

5. You make me a better person

… well, at least a more accountable one. Two of the SfEP’s aims are to promote high editorial standards and to uphold the professional status of editors and proofreaders. Being a member makes me feel accountable – to myself, to my clients and to my professional body. As an Advanced Professional member, I need to keep to the Code of Practice, commit to improving and refreshing my skills through professional development and, in general, work to a high standard.

Knowing that I’m representing a professional organisation as well as myself gives me that extra motivation and check.

6. You’re full of surprises!

Five years ago, when I set up my own business, I wasn’t sure if I should join. Would I be welcome as someone who’d never worked in ‘proper’ publishing? Would my experience in the not-for-profit sector be recognised? Would I feel intimidated by stronger personalities? Would it really help me find clients?

My doubts soon evaporated. I felt welcome from the first time I went along to the Manchester group, where I quickly found that many other members work outside traditional publishing too, in all sorts of niches. All my editing and proofreading experience counted when I upgraded my membership, and as I got to know people whose comments and posts I’d admired from afar I found out how generous and kind they are.

Like all relationships, though, you get out what you put in. SfEP, I love you just the way you are, and I hope we’ll stay together for many years to come!

Other love letters (not mentioned above)

More than friendly faces – a blog post by Kathrin Luddecke on joining a local group

Why would anyone join a local SfEP group? by Alison Platts

Should I renew my SfEP membership? by Sabine Citron

Why editors should join international editors’ associations by Ellen Michelle

Impressions of a 2017 conference ‘spotty’ by Frances Cooper

Find an editorial association near you

Advanced Professional SfEP member Louise Harnby has compiled a useful list of professional societies and associations for editors and proofreaders around the world.

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Posted in Editing and proofreading associations, Starting out, Working from home

Tips for being concise in academic writing

Tangled threads of woolIn a recent conversation with an academic author, she told me that she’d like to write more concisely.

I think she’s already good at this: she keeps her paragraphs and sentences to a manageable length and chooses her words carefully. She’s quick to notice if she’s repeated an idea unnecessarily.

But conciseness can be difficult to achieve when you have a ball of complex theoretical ideas to untangle. Before you know it, you’ve typed out a monster of a sentence that’s ten lines long and has just as many ideas crammed in. If this is you, you’re not alone – I’ve done it plenty of times myself.

This post looks at why it’s worth making the effort to be concise. It then gives you nine tips to help you plan, write and edit for brevity.

Why be concise?

Whether you’re writing a PhD thesis, a book or a journal article, there are plenty of reasons to be sparing with words.

  • It gets your message across clearly. That means your document is more likely to achieve its purpose – for example, to show your examiner that your intellectual argument is sound or explain your research to others.
  • You can fit in more ideas. Eighty thousand words might seem like a lot when you start writing a PhD thesis, but break that down into chapters and sections and it can soon be hard to stick to the word limit while including everything you want to say. The tighter you can make each point, the more ideas you can cover.
  • It’s kind to the reader – whether that’s your examiner or someone researching the subject. Everyone is busy, and even readers who are familiar with your subject will appreciate you respecting their time.

Convinced? Here are nine tips to help you keep the length under control.

Tip 1 – Plan well

Before you start writing, plan your structure. This will help you avoid going off on tangents that could take up the valuable room you need for your central ideas.

For example, if you’re writing a PhD thesis, create a map of the chapters and the sections within those chapters.

  • Make sure there isn’t any repetition between chapters and sections.
  • Order the sections logically. This will help avoid repetition creeping in when you start to write.

Planning helps you to untangle the concepts, theories and arguments and present them in a way that makes sense – all before you start to write individual sentences. If you know what you want to say and where your argument is leading, it’s easier to avoid waffle and keep your paragraphs and sentences shorter.

Planning tip

Try formatting your draft headings using the Styles tool in Word. You can then view the heading structure in the navigation pane to check that your chapters and sections are balanced, logical and without repetition.

To learn how to use Styles, see this guidance from the University of Michigan.

To find out how to view the headings in the navigation pane, see this post by my colleague Liz Dexter.

Tip 2 – Structure your paragraphs clearly

When writing, structure the information in each paragraph so that there is a clear thread from one sentence to the next.

Thinking about the structure of each paragraph helps you to avoid repeating yourself or going off the point. This will keep your paragraphs and sentences more concise.

  • Keep each paragraph to the development of one idea. When you move on to the next idea, start a new paragraph.
  • Make sure there is a clear connection between one sentence and the next, and between one paragraph and the next. You can use phrasebanks, such as the University of Manchester Academic Phrasebank, for inspiration.
  • Watch out repeated ideas, such as two sentences that say the same thing using different words or references.


The Using English for Academic Purposes website gives more guidance on how to structure paragraphs effectively. There is also a useful list of ‘signalling words’ to show how one sentence connects to the next.

Tip 3 – Keep (most) sentences short

Sometimes a sentence can become so long, with so many clauses, that it’s almost impossible for the reader to follow the argument from one end to the other. By the time they’ve got to the full stop at the end, they can’t remember how it began.

Limiting most of your sentences to around 20 words forces you to be more precise.

Of course, some sentences will need to be longer to express your ideas clearly and add variety to your writing. But if most of your sentences are more than two or three lines long, try editing them down using the tips below.

Tip 4 – Keep to one main idea in each sentence

If you’re having trouble keeping a sentence short, you might be trying to include too many ideas. Are you trying to explain a term at the same time as making a point? Are you jumping ahead to asides or caveats?

To fit in extra information, you have to add more clauses. Look out for these inside brackets or between parenthetical dashes or commas (see the Before example below). When these clauses are long, perhaps including quotations too, it gets harder for the reader to hold all the information in their mind and follow the logic of the argument. The grammar can also become confusing – for example, it isn’t always obvious which word or phrase a pronoun refers to.

If a sentence has too many clauses, the first thing to do is split it up into several shorter ones. Then you can add connecting words and phrases to link them:


It has been reported that authentic materials increase the levels of students’ motivation (Yuk Chun Lee, 1995; Peacock, 1997; Dornyei, 1998), and this is significantly demonstrated in Peacock’s study, where the mean positive score – out of 40 – was six points higher for students using them, but on the other hand authentic materials can be demotivating: as Richard (2001) explains, they can be too difficult and contain lexis that they do not need to be taught at this stage in their learning, which might lead to them feeling less confident, especially those whose competence level is lower.
(1 sentence)


Authentic materials increase students’ motivation (Yuk Chun Lee, 1995; Peacock, 1997; Dornyei, 1998). In Peacock’s study, the results were significant: the mean positive score (out of 40) was six points higher for students using authentic materials than for students using artificial materials. However, authentic materials can also be demotivating. As Richard (2001) explains, they can be too difficult and contain lexis that the students do not need to be taught at this stage in their learning. This might lead to students feeling less confident, especially those whose competence level is lower.
(5 sentences)

Once you’ve done this, you can trim each sentence down to make it as lean as possible using tips 5 to 9.

Tip 5 – Avoid repetition

Some words and phrases just repeat the meaning of other words. They don’t contribute anything new, so you can get rid of them.

Here are some examples:

the length of the duration of the project >> the length of the project

for the purpose of >> for

in order to >> to

Watch out for redundant words that are separated from their ‘pair’ in your sentence, like these:


Although case studies are convenient for detailed examinations, they are, however, inappropriate for generalisations.


Although case studies are convenient for detailed examinations, they are inappropriate for generalisations.

It’s easy not to notice redundant pairs because we get so used to seeing them, so use a checklist. The Purdue OWL has a list of redundant pairs by category here.

Tip 6 – Rephrase wordy constructions

You might be able to replace wordy constructions such as ‘not only … but also’ and ‘on the one hand … on the other hand’ with something simpler and shorter:


We analysed not only the type of cake eaten by each participant but also the day of the week on which they ate it. On the one hand, chocolate cake was the most popular choice on Fridays; on the other hand, carrot cake was favoured on Tuesdays.


We analysed the type of cake eaten by each participant and the day of the week on which they ate it. Chocolate cake was the most popular choice on Fridays, while carrot cake was favoured on Tuesdays.

Sometimes, a ‘not only … but also’ or an ‘on the one hand … on the other hand’ does a better job than the alternative. Don’t be afraid to keep these constructions if they add emphasis that you need, but be careful not to overuse them.

Other wordy phrases include ‘in light of the fact that’ (try using ‘because’), ‘with regard to the matter of’ (about) and ‘in spite of the fact that’ (although).


The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has a list of alternatives to wordy phrases.

Tip 7 – Cut down long introductions

Introductions to sentences and paragraphs are often longer than they need to be. See if there are any you can cut down or delete.


This standpoint is further supported by the fact that when teachers start their training …


Furthermore, when teachers start their training …

Tip 8 – Delete ‘padding’ words

All of us pepper our writing with words and phrases that aren’t needed. It can be difficult to spot these while you’re writing, so look out for them when you come back to edit your work.


The objective of this thesis reveals that its approach is clearly qualitative rather than quantitative.

Tip 9 – Cut general ‘waffle’

You can end up waffling when you haven’t quite worked out what you want to say. Careful planning should help you avoid this creeping in. To spot waffle more easily, give yourself at least a few days between writing and editing.


There are two major complications with the idea of ‘learning styles’. First, a difficulty with this issue and indeed the concept of learning styles is that there are so many distinct contributors that it is difficult to define learning styles precisely.


There are two major complications with the concept of ‘learning styles’. First, there are so many distinct contributors that it is difficult to provide a precise definition.


This post looks at just a few ways of keeping the text concise, and I hope some of them work for you.

For more detailed advice and examples, have a look at the resources below.


Your university: language tutor Mark Lawrence on academic writing support services available in UK universities.

The Writing Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on writing clear, concise sentences.

The Purdue OWL on conciseness.

LearnHigher on writing clearly and concisely.

Using English for Academic Purposes on structure and paragraphing.

Pat Thomson on tightening up your sentences.

The University of Manchester Academic Phrasebank of connecting phrases.

The Thesis Whisperer on using the right connecting words to link sentences.


I’m very grateful to two academic authors, who gave me permission to adapt extracts from their work to create the examples in this post (except for the pioneering study on cake, which I confess is all my own). You know who you are – thank you!

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Posted in Academic writing, Students

What help can I get with my PhD thesis before proofreading?

A student with a laptopIf you’re studying for a doctoral qualification, you might be planning to have your thesis professionally proofread before you submit it to the examiners.

Proofreading is the final stage of the work, when you want to iron out any spelling, grammar or consistency issues you’ve missed that could distract your examiners from the strength of your argument. But what about before you get to that stage? What support can you get with issues like structure, coherence and criticality so your thesis is in the best shape possible?

My guest writer, Mark Lawrence, a language tutor at the University of Sheffield, looks at some of the free support on offer to postgraduate students at UK universities. Fortunately, there’s plenty to choose from!

Academic writing and language support at UK universities

Mark Lawrence, Language Tutor, University of Sheffield

Most universities in the UK offer a range of academic writing and language support services to postgraduate students: for international and home students alike. When I speak to students, though, I often find they’re confused about what support is right for them – perhaps because there’s so much of it and it is given different names at different universities. As early on as possible at university, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with what’s out there and how it can benefit you.

I’ve worked at three UK universities in the past ten years or so, and I’ve come across many types of writing and language support on offer. I now work at the University of Sheffield, where I teach on some of the support programmes and provide one-to-one tutorials. This post will give you a brief overview of what Sheffield offers for doctoral students.

Tailored support for PhD students

Your university may offer support specific to PhD students. For example, at Sheffield we have a doctoral support programme where experienced tutors who have PhD qualifications help you through the several years that it takes to complete your PhD – from start to finish. The programme offers four separate modules to students:

Academic writing

This looks at grammar and the basic skills needed to produce reports, literature reviews, confirmation reviews and (obviously) theses. It covers:

  • academic texts and their structure
  • word order and how to link ideas clearly
  • appropriate punctuation use
  • how to find your own voice in your writing, and
  • how to paraphrase and summarise effectively.

Online thesis-writing course

This is for students who can’t attend face-to-face sessions – perhaps because they’re distance learners. The main elements include:

  • understanding all the sections of a thesis
  • effective writing techniques
  • expectations in a UK university
  • strategies used when writing a thesis, including planning and reading for specific information, and
  • general elements of academic writing.

Principles and practice of thesis writing

This module is about how to write a thesis, focusing on structure and style.

It includes:

  • reading, planning, focusing and drafting strategies, and
  • effective citations.

A key element of the course is collaboration with the English language tutor and your peers. This is helpful because it gives you a chance to vocalise your ideas, which is often a good starting point for writing up your research.

Speaking skills for research

This mainly focuses on assessed spoken skills (that is, presenting for a viva) but it touches upon other skills as well.

The main elements include:

  • general presentation skills, and
  • academic discussions with colleagues.

These skills will prove useful not only for your PhD but also in the work you go on to do afterwards.

One-to-one support with your writing

At Sheffield we have a writing advisory service that’s open to all students, including those studying for a PhD. You can book an hour-long appointment with an experienced tutor to look at your work together, and you can book up to seven appointments throughout the academic year. You can bring a specific section that you’re having difficulty with, such as the literature review. The tutor will offer you tips and sound advice on how to improve your work, giving you useful resources, links and examples specific to the issues you’ve highlighted together.

We often find that students need to:

  • be more critical
  • strengthen their voice or position
  • sort out problems with the structure
  • improve the coherence
  • shorten long sentences
  • reference correctly, and
  • correct grammatical and lexical mistakes.

It’s important to sort out the bigger issues, such as criticality and structure, before looking at the more minor details, like spelling and grammar. Under their plagiarism rules, most universities that allow students to use professional proofreaders have rules that say the proofreader must not alter the content of assessed academic work – for example, by restructuring sections to strengthen a student’s argument. That means you need to make sure you’re happy with these things before you have a professional check the language.

Support relating to a disability

At Sheffield, we have a service for students with specific disabilities and conditions that make study-related tasks more difficult. The service supports students who have a mental-health condition, dyslexia or autism, are blind, deaf or partially so, or have another physical impairment. You can get support before you start your course, during the course and with accessing materials. There’s also a one-to-one support service where an experienced tutor will guide you through your studies (often the full term of your studies). They look at many issues, including:

  • exam preparation
  • time management
  • addressing an assignment
  • accessing sources, and
  • learning strategies.

Support with statistics

We also offer help with maths and statistics – areas that may be important when analysing your data and writing up your thesis. This service (called MASH) is available to all students at the university. You can book an appointment with a tutor or attend a workshop.

The areas covered by the service include:

  • analysing statistics
  • using programmes for analysis
  • how to incorporate statistics into your dissertation
  • maths anxiety, and
  • numerical reasoning.

Help with referencing and using the library

At Sheffield – the same as at many other universities – we have faculty librarians who can help you with accessing materials in your department and with using the various referencing systems correctly. University libraries often provide guidance online, but you can also book an appointment if you need support with a specific aspect of referencing or using the library.

Finding support at your university

I hope this helps you feel more secure in the knowledge that help is out there. Remember, all the support mentioned above is available at Sheffield, and at your university it might well be different. If you’re interested in similar support, my advice is to speak to your supervisor, look at your own university website, ask your department and library, talk to other students and even speak to the students’ union. All these will be able to point you in the right direction and help you find the language support that’s best for you at your university.

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at and I will be happy to answer.

About Mark Lawrence

A photo of Mark LawrenceMark Lawrence is a language teacher and assistant director of studies with fifteen years of experience in several countries on a range of programmes. He has taught in the UK in three different tertiary establishments in the past decade, predominantly on English for Specific Academic Purposes (ESAP) courses. He is part of the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield, where he teaches in-sessional courses for mechanical engineers.


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Posted in Academic writing, Students

8 ideas for taking a break in 2018

A path through the woods

As the holiday season approaches, many of us are looking forward to some time away from our desks.

It’s also a time when we have to rush to meet those end-of-year deadlines, so in the run-up to the holidays it can be easy to sit at the desk for longer without a break – whether it’s to finish editing that journal article, write that blog post or proofread one more chapter of the book that’s due back at the end of the year.

It can be difficult to allow yourself the time to take a break – not just in the run-up to holidays, but whenever your schedule is full and the pressure is on. When one project’s taking longer than expected and the rest of your tasks are piling up behind it, it feels counter-intuitive to leave everything and go for a walk. It’s tempting to just carry on, and I admit I’ve done that – especially when I was new to running my own business.

These days, though, I make sure I get away from my desk almost every day.

Everyone works in their own way, but I’ve noticed that when I do make the effort to leave my desk for a while, I still get the same amount done. Having a break can make you focus better afterwards, so even if you don’t feel that you can spare an hour, your overall productivity might not actually suffer if you’re working more efficiently.

There’s also the effect it has on quality. Editing and proofreading are intensive, so we can miss things if we get fatigued. A break will refresh tired eyes.

Although my desk bike makes being at my desk much more enjoyable, it can’t replace the benefits of really getting away from the screen, phone and email. We’re humans, not machines, and breaks are important for our mental health. Life isn’t just for work!

Want to take more breaks in 2018? Here are some ideas.

1.    Go for a walk

This is my default for having a break, because I love walking and I can go whenever I want. Today, I emailed a colleague and realised I’d used ‘like’ about five times in two sentences. It was time to get out.


  • You don’t have to do it at a certain time – no set schedule to keep to.
  • Depending on where you live, you can go straight from your door. I like to try out different routes so that I still notice the things around me, but I have a favourite that I do when I don’t feel like making decisions.
  • It’s beneficial to be outside in natural light.
  • You can exercise at the same time as having a break, but you don’t have to be super-fit. It can be as relaxing or as demanding as you want to make it.
  • You can use it to catch up with others, either by joining a group or walking with a friend. I often walk with a friend who works nearby.
  • It’s good for the eyes to look at long distances if you’re focusing on close ones for most of the day.
  • You can combine it with a task – walk to the Post Office or the shop instead of driving.
  • It’s free!


  • The weather can be a deterrent – especially in winter, when it’s cold and there are fewer daylight hours. But the weather can be a pro too, because there are beautiful days as well as the wet, windy ones.

2.    Go swimming

I like to go swimming when I need a proper stretch. It’s such a good antidote to the hunched position you can end up in at a desk.


  • It stretches you out, especially strokes like the crawl.
  • You can’t take your phone with you. You don’t know if somebody’s emailed you, so you can’t be distracted by it.
  • You can exercise your whole body at the same time as having a break.
  • If you work from home, you can take advantage of the quieter sessions.
  • You can be sociable and chat to people, or you can just keep to yourself.


  • Swimming is a bit of a faff. There’s the extra changing time, and you’ll probably have to spend a bit of time walking or driving there.
  • You have to stick to the opening times and session times, so it’s not as easy to fit it in spontaneously. On the other hand, getting into the habit of going at a certain time on a set day of the week could help you stick to it.
  • Drying your hair! (If you have enough to dry, of course.)
  • It costs money.

3.    Do something creative

From drawing to baking, crochet to woodworking, creating something yourself can be a refreshing change.


  • Because you have to focus on what you’re doing, it clears the mind of thoughts about work.
  • It feels good to make something from scratch – it’s a nice change from polishing other people’s creations.
  • You can do this whenever it suits you. If you leave your current project set up somewhere, you can return to it every day.
  • Joining a class is sociable, gets you out of the house and teaches you something new as well.


  • It’s often still ‘close’ work, so your eyes might not get a rest.
  • It might be difficult to stop once you get started!

4.    Meditate

I tried this for the first time last year, when a friend recommended it. It’s good for shorter breaks, and it’s excellent for focus.


  • Meditation helps de-clutter your mind so you’re more focused and efficient when you get back to your desk.
  • It means you have to turn off notifications and anything else that might distract you.
  • It’s calming when you’re feeling anxious or stressed.
  • It’s easy to find a guided meditation online. The Headspace app gives you a few free sessions so you can see if it works for you, and allows you to choose specific areas to focus on if you subscribe. There are lots of free sessions on YouTube too.


  • You have to find a quiet space where you aren’t going to be distracted.
  • It works best if you do it every day, so that means being disciplined.

5.    Meet a friend for lunch

Or cake, or coffee. Or maybe vodka, depending on how your day’s going. Working from home can be solitary, especially for those of us whose families are all out of the house during the day. If I didn’t make an effort, it would be easy for me to go several days without seeing anyone except my partner.


  • Planning it beforehand means you’re more likely to go – you can’t just decide not to bother, as you might with a walk. (Well, you could cancel, but you’d be letting your friend down.)
  • It’s rude to keep checking your phone, so you can get away from that too.
  • It’s a myth that we home-workers spend most of the day in our pyjamas, but I do tend to wear the same boring (warm) clothes in the house. It’s nice to have a change.
  • It’s refreshing to spend time with somebody else, hear about their life and be taken out of yours.


  • Having cake and/or vodka (delete as appropriate) every day isn’t a good idea.

6.    Learn something new

Whether it’s the piano, Chinese, rock climbing, yoga or public speaking (*shudders*), learning something new is perfect for breaks, as little and often is best.


  • There are many benefits to learning a new skill – it sharpens your brain, it’s rewarding, and if you choose something you enjoy, it’s a pleasure to do.
  • The beauty of working from home is that you can take advantage of all those classes that happen in the day when you’d otherwise be in an office.
  • You can meet other people who enjoy doing the same thing, or learn one-to-one – whichever you prefer.


  • Joining a class takes a bit of research and organisation.
  • Some classes might be too long for a break, by the time you’ve got there and back again.
  • Classes can be expensive.

7.    Go for a run or a bike ride…

Or to the gym, or a class, or some other form of exercise that’s more vigorous than walking.


  • If you don’t have as much time but you want to do some exercise, a run or a bike ride will get your heart going and you can go further in a shorter space of time.
  • If you want to be sociable at the same time, you could join a running club or an exercise class.
  • With running and cycling, you get the benefits of being outside in the fresh air.
  • If you hate being out in bad weather, the gym and exercise classes avoid that.


  • You might need to buy some clothing and equipment.
  • Classes are at set times, so you’re more restricted about when you take your break.
  • Gym membership and fees for classes can be expensive.

8.    Find a task to do

If you struggle to get away without having a reason, put a chore or treat or two on your to-do list that will get you out of the house. It could be walking to post a letter or buy a present, having your hair cut, mooching round the charity shops or doing an hour of gardening (‘plant-editing’) on a bright day.

Getting into the habit

If you haven’t taken as many breaks as you’d have liked in 2017, perhaps this post will inspire you to make a resolution for next year! To get into the habit, you could put breaks on your to-do list or set an alarm on your phone. Most important of all, choose to do something you’ll enjoy, not something you think you should do.

What do you like doing for a break? Please feel free to add your ideas!



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Posted in Starting out, Wellbeing, Working from home

Getting into proofreading – making the most of your transferable skills

A spider diagram showing transferable skillsWhen writing my Spotlight entry for the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) website, one of the questions I was asked was ‘What advice do you have for people starting out on an editorial career?’

Meeting new and established editors and proofreaders – at my local SfEP group in Manchester, at the annual conference and on social media – has shown me that there isn’t one fixed route into an editorial career. We’ve all had different experiences in our professional lives and outside work. There isn’t just one type of editorial career, either: there are many different client groups, all with slightly different needs.

One piece of advice I think is useful no matter what type of editorial work you’re looking for is to make the most of your transferable skills.

If you’re new to proofreading or editing, you’ll need to do some training (and the SfEP courses are a great place to start!) but you’ll also have plenty of other skills that can help you make your business a success.

I’ve focused on skills and experience gained at work, but there are many other areas of life – volunteering, family life and personal projects, for example – that you can draw on. I’ll write about these another time.

IT and software

It’s great if you have IT experience that’s specific to editing and proofreading (such as using PerfectIt and the advanced features of Microsoft Word). But being familiar with other software is useful too. For example:

  • Design software and publishing platforms
  • PDF editing programs
  • Accounting software
  • Translation software
  • Content-management systems (CMSs – the part behind the ‘face’ of a website, where information is uploaded)
  • Analytics software.

Such experience could make your service more attractive to clients, because you can offer to work with formats that are more convenient for them. For example, if you’ve regularly added content to a CMS, you could offer to edit web copy online. If you’ve used translation software (such as Trados), that could help you get proofreading work with translation agencies. Experience of working with design software will allow you to give clients valuable advice about the layout of their documents.

These skills can also help you with your marketing materials – for example, if you’re confident in using a platform such as Weebly or WordPress, you can save money when it comes to creating your website.

Marketing and communications

Marketing is a big part of running a successful proofreading or editing business. If you’ve worked in marketing or communications, you might have experience that will give you confidence in these areas:

  • Coming up with a marketing strategy and turning it into a plan
  • Branding your business
  • Putting your marketing plan into practice – for example, by contacting potential clients, networking, writing blogs, recording podcasts and videos and using social media
  • Making yourself stand out from the competition
  • Getting feedback using tools such as SurveyMonkey and then acting on it.

If you don’t have these skills, there’s plenty of advice in plain English from people who do. For example, proofreader and copy-editor Louise Harnby has published a book, Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, and regularly provides tips on her blog. The SfEP has a guide, Marketing Yourself: Strategies to Promote Your Editorial Business. Editor and proofreader Liz Dexter has dedicated chapters to marketing in her business books.


Maybe you’re moving into proofreading straight after doing your degree, or perhaps you’ve been working as a librarian or in a research role in an organisation. Of course, research outside work counts too (think weddings, pets, travel…)!

When editing and proofreading, you’ll often need to look something up in an authoritative source – whether it’s to check the spelling of a person’s name or find out whether something that looks wrong to you is really incorrect or a style choice.

Knowing how to search the following effectively can make you quicker and more accurate:

  • Corpora (such as the British National Corpus and the Business Letter Corpus)
  • Databases of journal articles and books (such as PubMed and Project Gutenberg)
  • Dictionaries and books, articles and blogs on language usage
  • Forums for editorial professionals
  • Google (including refined searches – for an example, see this tip from technical writer and editor John Espirian)
  • Referencing guides (such as the Purdue Owl)
  • Specialist materials and websites (for example, in a field of study or area of work)
  • Style guides (such as the Chicago Manual of Style).

Research skills are useful for your business more widely, too – for example, identifying and learning about potential clients, finding tools that make your processes more efficient, and so on.

Reference books and website


Diplomacy, tact, empathy, assertiveness … these are all skills that make us good editorial professionals and easier, more predictable people to work with.

Good people skills will help you:

  • Find clients
  • Deal more effectively with any issues that come up with a project, especially if several people are involved (authors, project manager, copy-editor, proofreader, designer and so on)
  • Write diplomatic, considerate queries
  • Negotiate prices
  • Keep clients coming back to work with you again.

The techniques you might have used previously when dealing with customers, colleagues, funders and service providers – even (and perhaps especially!) friends and family – are worth taking with you when setting up your proofreading business.

Knowledge of the publishing process

Whether you plan to work with traditional publishers or organisations that publish documents themselves, if you know where the editor and proofreader fit into the process this will make things easier for everyone else who’s working on the project. For example:

  • Understanding the roles of others involved, such as web designers, professional copywriters, typesetters and project managers, and what they need from you
  • Knowing who to write queries to and what to ask
  • Appreciating the importance of keeping to the brief, and the kinds of delays that can be caused by last-minute amendments
  • Understanding what will happen to the document after you’ve finished with it.

You might have learned these things by working closely with web designers or professional copywriters in a previous role, or you might even have been in one of these roles yourself.

This might sound obvious, but if you’ve worked as an editor or proofreader in-house – whether it was for a traditional publisher or not – you’ll have learned from colleagues and built up experience that you can mention in your marketing materials and when talking to potential clients.

Experience in another sector

Having knowledge and experience of a specific sector – for example, health or education – can help you attract clients in that sector. It makes things easier for them if they’re working with someone who understands:

  • Their world
  • Their jargon and terminology
  • Their audience or readership
  • The kinds of pressures they face.

Once you’ve done your proofreading training, this knowledge can help you to specialise.

Maybe you have experience of how things work in the public sector or you’re familiar with the terminology used in health, engineering or law. It’s easy to take for granted the inside knowledge you’ll have picked up, but you can use it to help you stand out.

Admin and secretarial

From the dreaded tax return (I do hear some people enjoy it … ) to the time-consuming invoicing, you can’t avoid admin when you work for yourself. But if you have skills in this area, you can do it more quickly and efficiently.

You might have experience in:

  • Effective communication via email or phone
  • Formatting and layout features in Word (for example, styles and using templates)
  • Invoicing software and payment platforms (such as Quickbooks, PayPal or Transferwise)
  • Systems for naming, organising and controlling files, and storing information (this article on naming files by John Espirian is excellent if you need some tips)
  • Touch-typing
  • Excel (for example, for accounting, tracking time spent on projects).

I picked up plenty of admin experience from previous roles, from temping in the summer holidays to teaching English abroad. These skills are useful no matter what work you do.

Project management

Whether you’re working on one enormous project or lots of little jobs, previous training and experience in how to plan, organise and monitor progress on a project will help you:

  • Schedule your work efficiently
  • Estimate costs accurately
  • Keep projects on track and within budget, and meet deadlines
  • Keep others involved in a project on schedule, in a professional way
  • Analyse a project and improve your processes for next time
  • Make sure you don’t miss any steps in the editing process.

You might also be used to working with project-management software. If you want to improve your project-management skills, the Publishing Training Centre runs a course in editorial project management.

What if I don’t have all these skills?

If you don’t have every skill mentioned here, that doesn’t mean you can’t do a good job – they’re ideas, not a list to tick off. You probably have other useful skills that I haven’t thought to cover here.

Everyone likes to be asked for help – it’s flattering to be thought of as an expert. If you know someone who’s good at project management and you have no idea about it, you could ask them for a little advice in exchange for some proofreading (or a posh box of chocolates).

If you don’t know anyone personally, there’s plenty of information online. Someone else has probably asked your question before, so forums (such as the SfEP forums and professional Facebook groups like the Editors’ Association of Earth) are great places to start. One of the many benefits of joining a professional society is that you’ll meet people who have good advice to offer.

You won’t know everything about running a business when you start out. I certainly didn’t, and I still have many things to learn. But make the most of any experience and training you do have if you’re moving into proofreading and editing from another area of work, whether you’ve gained this in your job or in another area of your life. These transferable skills can help you run your business better, save you time and make you stand out from the crowd.


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Posted in Starting out, Working from home

How to create table headings and figure captions in Microsoft Word

If you’re writing a long document that contains lots of tables, figures or illustrations (for example, a company report or a PhD thesis), using Word’s ‘Insert Caption’ tool helps you format, number and list them more efficiently.

In this post, I’ll explain what the Insert Caption tool is, describe the benefits of using it and give you step-by-step instructions on how to use it.

What is Word’s caption tool?

The Insert Caption tool allows you to create table headings and figure captions that are numbered automatically. They are kept with the table or figure they refer to.

You can use the tool to label tables, figures, illustrations, equations, diagrams and anything else that needs a numbered heading or caption.

From these labels, you can create lists (just like a table of contents) – a list of tables, a list of figures, and so on.

Where can I find the caption tool?

You can find the Insert Caption tool in the References tab, about halfway along the ribbon. Here’s how it looks in Word 2016:

Shows the location of the Insert Caption tool on the References tab

Why should I use the caption tool?

Using the Insert Caption tool can save you loads of time and make your work more accurate.

  • It numbers tables and figures automatically, so you don’t have to worry about getting the sequence wrong.
  • The label stays with the table or figure it is for, so you won’t end up with a figure on one page and its caption on the next.
  • After adding your labels, you can create a list of tables (or figures, or illustrations) that is formatted automatically and includes page numbers.
  • If you decide to move, delete or insert an extra table or figure, you can easily update the numbering.

How do I use the caption tool?

The steps for inserting a label are almost exactly the same for a table heading, figure caption or illustration caption.

I’ll start with how to insert a table heading. I’ll then show you what to do differently if you want to insert a figure caption or illustration caption.

How to insert a table heading

Step 1: Click anywhere on the table that needs a heading. It doesn’t matter what order you label your tables in – Word will renumber them automatically.

Step 2: In the References tab, click on ‘Insert Caption’. A box will appear like this:

Shows the box that appears when you click on the Insert Caption button

Under ‘Options’, the label should read ‘Table’ and the position should read ‘Above selected item’.

Step 3: Type your heading into the ‘Caption’ box at the top.

Shows where to type in the table heading.

Step 4: Click ‘OK’. Your heading will appear above your table.

Step 5: Repeat the steps until you’ve labelled all the tables in your file.

How to insert a figure caption

The main differences when inserting a figure caption are that you need to change the label type to ‘Figure’ and (unless your style guide says otherwise) position the caption below the figure.

Step 1: Click anywhere on the figure. In the References tab, click on ‘Insert Caption’.

Step 2: When the box appears, click on the dropdown menu next to ‘Label’. Choose ‘Figure’.

Dialogue box showing how to select the type of label you want

Step 3: Make sure the position reads ‘Below selected item’.

Shows the caption position as below selected item

Step 4: Type the figure caption into the ‘Caption’ box at the top (see Step 3 in the instructions for adding table headings).

Step 5: Click ‘OK’. Your caption will appear below the figure.

Step 6: Repeat the same steps to label all the figures in your file.

How to insert an illustration caption

If you need to label illustrations, such as photographs, you’ll need to create a new label. Here’s how to do this.

Step 1: Click anywhere on the illustration. Click on ‘Insert Caption’.

Step 2: When the box appears, click on ‘New Label’.

The 'Insert Caption' box with 'New Label' highlighted

Step 3: In the box that appears, type in the word ‘Illustration’. Then click ‘OK’.

The 'New Label' box with 'Illustration' typed in

Step 4: Using the dropdown menu next to ‘Position’, choose whether you want your label to appear above or below your illustrations (it is conventional to position them below). Then type in the illustration caption and click ‘OK’, following the steps shown above.

How to create a list of tables or figures

Step 1: In the References tab, click on ‘Insert Table of Figures’. (Although it says ‘Figures’, you’ll need to click on this even if you want a list of tables or a list of illustrations.)

The 'Insert table of figures' button on the References tab

Step 2: A dialogue box will appear. Choose which type of label you want Word to use to create your list. For example, if you want a list of figures, choose ‘Figure’ from the dropdown menu.

Dialogue box for inserting a table of figures

Step 3: Click ‘OK’, and your list will appear.

You can then follow the same steps for any other lists you need.

How to update the numbering

If you move your tables and figures around so they are in a different order, or you decide to delete or insert one, it’s easy to renumber them.

Step 1: Highlight the whole document by pressing ‘CTRL+A’.

Step 2: Right click and choose ‘Update Field’.

A dialogue box showing the option to update field.

Advanced features

The ‘Insert Caption’ tool automatically formats the labels in a specific colour, font and size. You can change these to match your thesis guide or house style. You can also change the number format.

How to change the label formatting

Step 1: Go into the ‘Home’ ribbon where you usually find the text styles. If you have already added table and figure captions, there should be a ‘Caption’ style in the styles pane.

The styles pane with the Caption option.

Step 2: Right-click on ‘Caption’ and choose ‘Modify’. This will bring up a formatting box.

The box that appears when you right-click on 'Caption' in the styles pane.

Step 3: In the formatting box, make the changes you want to see. For example, you might want to change the font, the font size, the colour, and the use of bold or italics.

Box with formatting options

Step 4: When you’ve finished, click ‘OK’. Your labels should now be formatted in the style you have chosen.

How to set the numbering style

Step 1: Click on ‘Insert Caption’ and then select the ‘Numbering’ button.

Caption box with 'Numbering' button highlighted

Step 2: Use the dropdown arrow next to ‘Format’ to change the numbering style.

If your document has many chapters and you need to include the chapter number in your figures and tables, click on ‘Include chapter number’. You can then choose from the options for how Word will identify a new chapter (this is where using heading styles comes in handy!) and separate the chapter and table/figure numbers in your label.

Further dialogue box with numbering options

Over to you!

That’s it! You should now be able to add and format labels for tables, figures and illustrations and create lists for each.

I hope this guide has been helpful. If you would like any help with formatting your labels as part of an edit, please feel free to contact me.

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Posted in Academic writing, Business writing

School proofreading: Do teachers need a safety net too?

A picture of a person walking a tightrope

I have a confession to make: with a colleague, I proofread secondary-school reports. Not OFSTED reports – the ones that schools send home to students and their parents.

I say ‘confession’ because when I mention this to friends and family, I get some mixed responses:

  • ‘But teachers shouldn’t need anyone to check their grammar!’
  • ‘Teachers should take the time to get it right.’
  • ‘Oh, that’s good – I’m always spotting errors in the reports we get from the school.’
  • ‘That’s a bit of a luxury!’ (This from a retired physics teacher … who also happens to be my dad.)

My colleagues who work on school reports say they’ve had similar reactions. It seems to be more surprising that a school would have its reports checked by a professional than that Professor Brian Cox would get an article copy-edited or JK Rowling would have a book proofread.

So why do people expect teachers to pen perfect reports without any help?

Maybe it’s because school reports are so highly valued – they’re one of the few ways that parents find out how their child is doing at school, and they’re often kept for years (I still have mine). For some, the quality of the report is a measure of the quality of education that the school provides: if the report has been written with care and attention to detail, this reflects the level of attention the teacher pays to the student.

Another reason might be the belief that there are more important things for schools to spend their money on than professional proofreading, especially with recent funding cuts.

Others might argue that because teachers are providing education, their grammar, spelling and punctuation should set an example to students. In other words, teachers shouldn’t need a safety net when it comes to writing reports.

But …

A teacher is no different from any other writer.

Every writer makes grammatical, spelling and punctuation mistakes – best-selling authors, editors and proofreaders (especially in emails to important clients) and, yes, teachers.

It’s easy to type ‘form’ instead of ‘from’ or ‘affect’ instead of ‘effect’ when your mind is in writing mode, not editing mode. It’s just as easy to miss out an article (for example, ‘Amy is excellent student’). Or your tablet’s autocorrect might decide that you really want to say ‘contentious’ instead of ‘conscientious’. Copying a generic sentence in a rush can lead to the wrong student’s name being used, or ‘he’ instead of ‘she’. Spellcheck won’t pick up on these things, so they can easily slip through into the final version.

This doesn’t reflect teachers’ lack of knowledge – it’s normal for any writer to make these kinds of slips. Even if we have time to re-read what we’ve written, we might not spot the typo, because our eyes see what we think we’ve written, not what’s actually there.

Teachers don’t have much time to write their reports.

Anyone who has a teacher in the family knows that they have a huge number of reports to write, in a very short space of time. The reports have to be up to date and relevant, so it’s not possible to give teachers weeks and weeks to write them. As mentioned in this article in the Times Educational Supplement, they are ‘often written as rush-jobs, late into the night, by teachers with other things on their minds’.

In this article in the Huffington Post, a teacher said of spelling mistakes, ‘that’s just wrong and there is no excuse’. But in the same article, another teacher explains that he ‘didn’t have time to be more thorough’.

People make mistakes when they have to rush, so having a second pair of eyes check the reports can pick up on these. But there’s often not much time to re-read them either, so it’s not always possible for teachers to check each other’s reports.

Not all teachers are grammar pros.

While most people would expect a teacher’s report not to be full of grammatical errors, perfect knowledge of English grammar isn’t what makes a brilliant art, maths, PE, IT or science teacher.

In the UK, many teachers who were at school in the 1970s and 1980s won’t have been taught grammar at all, because of the dominant thinking at the time about how children learn and internalise the grammar rules of their own language.

For some teachers (for example, native speakers of foreign languages taught at the school), English might not be their first language.

So, just like many other professionals, teachers might confuse ‘practice’ (the noun) with ‘practise’ (the verb) or write ‘could of’ instead of ‘could have’.

What’s more, language evolves, and the grammar ‘rules’ that were taught 30, 40 or 50 years ago might now be considered to be simply matters of style.

Is it a mistake or an inconsistency?

In secondary-school reports, it’s likely that different teachers will write different sections of the same student’s report. In UK English, if one teacher writes that a student is very ‘organised’ and another writes that the same student is always ‘organized’, neither teacher is wrong – it’s a style choice. But these can look like mistakes.

So, some schools like to be consistent about certain style choices – for example, whether or not to capitalise subject names, use abbreviations, allow contractions or use ‘-ise’ or ‘-ize’ endings.

It’s not easy to think about these things when your mind is focusing on the content – what you want to say about a student’s progress and how they’re doing.

Proofreading’s a bit of a luxury!

Those who believe this (like my dad, and my brother-in-law too, come to think of it) have a point – when budgets are tight, not every school can afford or wants to pay for proofreading. There are often higher priorities when it comes to allocating spending.

There are ways around this. Some schools check their reports internally – for example, teachers read through each other’s reports, form tutors proofread all the reports for students in their form, or the head of year proofreads all the reports for their year group. Or, non-teaching staff might do the proofreading while the teachers get on with the report-writing. As well as saving money, there are other advantages to having members of staff check the reports, as mentioned in this post by my colleague Helen Stevens.

On the other hand, sending the reports off to a proofreader can free up teachers and other staff to do the work that they do best, it can achieve a higher level of consistency (because fewer people are doing the checking) and it can save time (through greater efficiency).

Schools can choose to pay for professional proofreading or check their own reports – there’s value to both approaches. But I don’t think it’s fair to assume that teachers can avoid making the same kinds of slips that other educated writers make, simply because they’re teachers. If a school does use professional proofreaders, it doesn’t mean that the teachers don’t know where to put a possessive apostrophe or that they don’t care about setting a good example – it just shows they want to spend the limited time they have on what matters most: telling parents about how their children are doing at school.

If you’d like to find out more about how schools and proofreaders can work together, read this personal account by editor Helen Stevens.

Image credit: Photo by Leio McLaren on Unsplash.

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Posted in School proofreading

Desk bikes – the Tour de Your House

Last Wednesday was National Fitness Day in the UK.

Keeping fit’s a doddle if you work from home, isn’t it? You start the day with yoga. Go swimming at lunchtime. On sunny days you put down your pen (or keyboard) and head to the hills for a long walk – because you’re your own boss and you can do what you want.


It’s not always easy to find time to exercise when you’ve got a business to run.

You might rather keep working on something you’re really enjoying. There’s only you to get the work done, so sometimes you need to keep going to meet all your deadlines. And there isn’t always enough time to go to the gym and be there to sort out [insert home repair job of your choice]. Today, for example, the plumber’s here in the morning and the electrician’s coming in the afternoon. (Stop it, romance editors, I know what you’re thinking!)

Sometimes it gets to Friday and you realise you haven’t been further than the bin since Tuesday. And then you’re working the weekend too!

Added to that, the nature of editing and proofreading is that you’re sitting down for the rest of the time, and if you believe what you read that’s slowly killing you.

And some of us just aren’t that keen on exercise – we’d rather curl up by the fire and read a book, preferably with a nice glass of vino.

So what can we do to move around more? Members of online forums have mentioned using standing desks, treadmill desks and sit-stand desks, and I’ve provided links to articles on these at the end of this post.

I don’t have room for a desk I can stand at (the ceiling is very low!), but I loved the idea of using a desk bike. A year and a half ago I decided to splash out on one – here’s how I’ve been getting on with it.

What is a desk bike?

The one I have is a DeskCycle and it looks like this.

A picture of my Desk-Cycle under my desk.

The pedals are attached to a weighted body so they don’t move. You put the bike under your desk, sit in your chair, and away you go!

Some desk bikes – including mine – have different levels of resistance. You can make it easy to pedal or put more effort in (tip: excellent when proofreading reference lists).

There’s a digital display that tells you how many kilometres you’ve cycled.

What do you like about it?

  • It lifts my mood. I feel brighter when I use it.
  • On the easier settings, I don’t even notice I’m cycling.
  • It keeps me warmer in winter (living north of Birmingham, that’s one of the best bits).
  • I feel more alert. No more post-lunch slump!
  • It makes me feel healthier on days when I don’t have the time or inclination to do anything else.
  • It’s really quiet. No irritating squeaking to get on your nerves or annoy your family. Use it while you’re on the phone – no one will know.
  • The digital display motivates me to see how far I can get.
  • I like knowing I’m doing two things at once. If you can get your exercise in while you work, why not?
  • I feel more comfortable and less restless when I’m at my desk for long hours.

What don’t you like about it?

There really isn’t anything I dislike about it! I love using it – it makes me feel happy – and it’s one of the best bits of office equipment I’ve bought.

I’d just like to be able to hook it up to my electricity supply so my pedalling could power my laptop.

Can you still focus while you edit?

Yes. My upper body stays still, so cycling doesn’t affect my typing or my focus on the document I’m working on. The rhythm of pedalling helps me concentrate.

Here’s a short clip of me working with the bike on a medium resistance setting. We can safely say I’m not the next Kathryn Bigelow, but I hope it shows you how it works!

Is it a good workout?

Unless you use the really high resistance settings, it’s more like a gentle walk than a session in the gym (and, let’s face it, no one wants to be sweaty at their desk). It’s more about improving wellbeing and offsetting the dangers of sitting still all day than replacing your local spinning class.

Is it right for me?

A quiet bike that has enough resistance and doesn’t move when you pedal isn’t cheap, so it’s worth thinking about whether it would suit you.

  • Will it work with your set-up? You need quite a deep desk so the bike fits underneath and you can still be close enough to your keyboard and monitor. You also need enough room between your legs and the underneath of the desk so your knees don’t hit the desk.
  • Do you have a hard floor? If you do, you’ll probably need to attach the bike to your chair so pedalling doesn’t send you sailing backwards across the room. I don’t mind tethering my chair, but if you like scooting from one end of the desk to the other it might restrict you.
  • Do you work in one place? The bike works best if you can set it up and leave it under your desk. You can easily swing it round or slide it out of the way if you need to, but it could be too heavy to carry round the house if you regularly work in different rooms.
  • Will you enjoy it? This is the most important thing. If cycling makes you feel good, you’re more likely to enjoy using a desk bike – and that means you’re more likely to keep using it.

Which one’s best for me?

If you fancy trying a desk bike, different models (including the DeskCycle) are available on sites like Amazon.

Check for things like:

  • whether the bike is designed to be used at a desk
  • pedal height (the lower the pedals, the more room you have between legs and desk)
  • resistance options
  • noise level, and
  • customer reviews.

I love mine so much I could kiss it, but I can’t compare it with those I haven’t tried. If you use a desk bike too, please let others know what you think of it by leaving a comment.

Happy cycling! I’d love to know how you get on.

More about alternatives

Standing desks

Editor Katharine O’Moore-Klopf (KOK Edit) reviews her custom-made sit-stand desk: Why I’m a convert to standing at work

Editor Melanie Thompson on her Veridesk CubeCorner, which you can use on top of an ordinary desk: Standing up for editing compares four standing desks: The best standing desk

Treadmill desks

BBC reporter Peter Bowes tries one out: Treadmill desks: How practical are they?

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Posted in Wellbeing, Working from home