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

Ten things I learned from the Society for Editors and Proofreaders conference 2017

Notepad, pens and conference programme

Earlier in September I drove exactly 150 miles to join approximately 150 other professionals for the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) conference near Cambridge. The theme this year was Context is key: why the answer to most questions is ‘It depends’.

The sessions and conversations with brilliant colleagues filled me with inspiration – all I wanted to do was get home and put some of those new ideas into practice! Here are ten of the things I learned. I hope you find them useful too.

  1. Content marketing is for everyone. The trick is to think about how you can help other people solve their problems, explained Louise Harnby and John Espirian during their workshop, and to do that in a way that reflects who you are and your expertise. There’s no shortage of inspiration for your blog, podcast or video, from questions your clients often ask to conversations on Twitter. We all have our own take on a particular topic and we all have our own audience. Louise’s write-up of the session provides more detail and some excellent ideas for getting started.
  2. Speed networking is fun! Yes, even for those of us who prefer to communicate in writing. On my journey to the conference I wondered what I’d been thinking, signing up for such a daunting activity. It sounded suspiciously like speed dating. Perhaps I could hide in my car and pretend there was a huge tailback on the M1? But I’m glad I didn’t. It was all timed – each ‘date’ was seven minutes long – so there was no need to worry about when to move on. I got to meet people I might never have spoken to if I hadn’t been at this session, which was great preparation for the conference itself.
  3. It’s worth setting aside a little time to yourself. Any conference is pretty full-on when you’re used to working in a garret with only two cats for company. I ignored my FOMO (fear of missing out) and made myself go for a walk, on my own, in a coffee break each day. Being outside and doing something that’s part of my normal routine gave me time to absorb everything I’d learned and stopped me getting overwhelmed. If that sounds like your kind of thing, this article on restorative niches by Abi Saffrey suggests plenty of ways to avoid conference overload.
  4. PhraseExpander could save you oodles of typing time. Many of us use technology (such as PerfectIt and macros) to improve the efficiency of our editing work. In the session on rates of pay, Katherine Trail mentioned PhraseExpander, a tool I hadn’t used before. It allows you to take text you use regularly and create a code for it, which you then type to make that text appear. It’s useful for comments you often add to a file (for example, ‘Please add this source to the reference list’) and explanations you find yourself typing up for more than one author. You can use it for emails and on social media too. I’m having a play with the trial version at the moment.
  5. It’s lovely to meet in person the people you know online. Most of the time, I communicate with my colleagues through the SfEP forums, Facebook groups, Twitter and email, so I was excited to actually meet them. All of them are – I discovered – approachable, kind and generous. Meeting each other face to face adds something to the relationship that continues long after the event.
  6. We can motivate and support each other to get things done, especially when something’s outside our comfort zone. In her session on accountability groups, Denise Cowle explained how to find a small group of people who trust each other and are willing to open up. I love the idea of including people who work in areas outside editing, such as marketing or IT, so that the members of the group benefit from a wider range of skills and experience.
  7. Tracking your work is important. In their session on rates, editors Katherine Trail, Janet MacMillan and Erin Brenner shared their experience and thoughts on increasing the hourly rates we command. It might seem obvious, but at the heart of this was the power of tracking and evaluating the time spent on each piece of work. How many hours did that plain-English edit take? What about the stylistic edit on that journal article? How many words per hour does that equate to? Once you’ve collected these statistics over time, analysing them helps you to quote more accurately and adjust your rates, or find ways to be more efficient so that you earn the hourly rate you want.
  8. The robots aren’t going to do us out of a profession… but according to Astrid DeRidder from Cambridge University Press, we do have to use them to do the routine work so we can do more with our creative and social skills. For example, PerfectIt, macros and other Word tools can speed up many mechanical tasks, Feedly gives you a way to collate all the blogs you want to follow, and invoicing software frees you up to spend more time on paid work.
  9. It’s OK to split infinitives. And to use ‘people that’. And the singular ‘they’. And to begin a sentence with ‘and’ (or ‘so’, or ‘but’). They’re stylistic choices. But it’s not always easy to justify this to someone who believes you’ve broken the rules. Linguist Geoff Pullum cited authoritative resources and statistics (from Google News to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage) that can help us editors make the argument in as objective a way as possible.
  10. And of course … it depends! From deleting a comma to changing a passive construction into an active one, the editing suggestions we make always need to consider the context – the reader, the author’s voice, the purpose of the text, the level of formality, and so on. But in a wider sense, the SfEP conference has most definitely given me plenty to think about – there’s no ‘it depends’ about it!
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