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Making choices: Mindfulness in difficult times

Ayesha Chari

How do you edit when you’re distracted? What do you do when you’re restless? I tend to stare out the window. A lot. Or people watch or nature watch. But mostly just gaze into nothingness. I daydream my way into new adventures, not-so-new black holes, and back to reality. I’m very good with managing editing deadlines (I set them after all!), so they rarely creep up on me. But when they do, I find I work better almost under the pressure. That hasn’t worked as well through the pandemic year, less so in recent weeks with all that is in the news from India, from home.

So, what can an editor do/not do to look after themselves and their work?

Work life, in the short long-term (also applies to non–work life surprisingly well)

· Plan ahead, one day at a time, sometimes a few hours at a time, but no more.

· Make a list, not a list of lists.

· Break down the day; break down projects, tasks, lists.

· Set a target, not to finish the whole project, but an article or chapter or even a section or few paragraphs.

· Do repetitive tasks when restless; clean up a file, run PerfectIt, check reference formatting, check table and figure citations, captions, labels.

· Focus on the distraction when distracted – household, social media, outdoors, messy desk, move from one to the next instead of multitasking.

· Write down thoughts/ideas in one place – single words, one sentence.

· Set up an accountability date with a colleague – work together, virtually, for an hour; check in to see how you get on afterwards.

· Fiddle with admin tasks – if you fiddle often enough, they’ll become productive habits.

· Don’t complicate work systems – find what suits you best and stick with it; app or pen and paper or post-its or wall craft, you choose.

· Organise info clutter. Better still, try not to accumulate clutter because it’s the next shiny thing every editor is talking about. Fear of missing out is real, and can be immobilising if you don’t acknowledge it and do something about it.

· Be honest when communicating with clients (and family) – about work, but also about life interruptions.

· Apologise for things in your control, don’t apologise for global pandemics.

· If you need an hour off, take it; if you need a week off, take it.

· Treat your business to something special regularly (I buy work-related books – dual purpose).

· Be kind. To yourself. To those you work with/around. To those you live with/around.

Work life, in the long long-term

I can’t say working through low times gets easier with time or experience, but practising being aware of one’s everyday actions helps to slow down, reassess and rest wholly. I share here five things that work/have worked for me in the broader scheme of things, in the hope that one of them, if not all, might for you too.

1. Make a (business) plan, but don’t really. Especially when you’re starting out self-employed. There’s so much to learn, consider, explore, it can all get overwhelming. So much that you don’t do anything for fear of getting it all wrong. If you have a work trickle, dive right in even if you don’t have dozens of certificates or everything else ‘ready’. As long as you have fundamental editing and proofreading training and/or hands-on experience, are legally registered to trade in services and decide on a simple system to keep records, you’re good to go. Check local laws for the basics you need to have in place, get a client and set to work responsibly. Know that you will make mistakes in practice, both editing and business. Learn, change and improve your plan as you go along.

2. Decide on a niche, but stay flexible. Mine was editing English language texts. That’s in hindsight. I didn’t have a niche till yesterday because I had no clue what it is I wanted to edit. So, I edited everything/anything that came my way, unless it was so out of my depth I knew I’d be setting myself up to fail. Paying attention to survival instincts help. Seventeen years editing, seven freelance, today, I know I want to edit academic and non-fiction texts in English. Ideally, in research areas and fields that are actively working to bring positive change in the world, socially, culturally, economically, politically, historically. To make research accessible and widely read. To help stimulate healthy debate and discussion, to encourage curiosity. Above all, to engage, human to human. To create dialogue and conversations, borderless. Allow yourself to find yours; be patient and open to learning continually.

3. Keep at CPD, but choose what you sign up for based on your own interests and needs, not what’s popular or what others say you should do. Not even to stay abreast of the next big gig in town, even if it’s only virtual and you get to keep sitting at your computer. This is what I’ve needed to be most realistic about with growing experience. That sounds contradictory, but the fear of not keeping updated, of not knowing, of failing because of it is disturbingly uncomfortable. How much budget do I have, how much of my time can I give, what is one too many a course? Well, you need to finish a course, but also practice applying it and often enough to use it as a paid skill. There is no limit to information available, glossy new activities, webinars, podcasts, magazines, memberships, technology, online courses productivity tools that attract. You can’t be a whizz at them all, nor learn every trick in the trade, nor un-crease every style or language conundrum, nor trade your supercool editing/proofreading skills for a superhero cape. Money and/or time, they both cost. Make your own choices; don’t let others do it for you. It’s your editing business.

4. Make reflection a vital part of your admin. I find this important for non-work and internal business things, but also for client work. Take time out to assess projects, good and bad. What did you learn new? What did you find easy? What was difficult, unexpected? Did you try a new technique, a new macro, a new shortcut? Did you invoice differently? Was there anything different about the workflow? Did you meet deadlines? Did you ask for feedback? There are infinite questions you can ask yourself. The key one is always ‘why’ – why did you do something one way and not another? Why did you not do anything at all? Why was one alternative more difficult over another? Why did you stall? Why were you unresponsive? Why did you give in? I haven’t done this often enough to make it a habit, but it’s what helps me fight through imposter-hood or doubt or anxiety or guilt when it arises. Often too, the answer to a why is fear of some sort, and it feels freeing to be able to accept that.

5. Own your downtime, always. A couple of weeks ago, another editor on Twitter mentioned feeling guilty for not having done any editing work, paid work. I’m sure it’s a common feeling among small-business owners. We need to put food on the table and pay the bills at the least. As hard as it is to admit, it’s an emotion I’ve felt every single day, in some measure, since I became a parent a few years ago. There is privilege in the opening statement, yes. But guilt doesn’t allow mindful action, even if the body and mind need rest. I’m trying to acknowledge that I’m answerable to me first, work and home. That I can slow down or pick up the editing pace to suit my needs, not the client’s. Because offering my editing services at their optimum is much better for both sides than trying to use professional skills through stressful circumstances, in otherwise unusual times. If you need support in your professional or personal network, don’t hesitate to ask: you’d be surprised at how easy it is to think we’re alone when we’re not.

Making choices: business or everyday plan, specialist or generalist, direction of CPD, one editing decision over another, to agree lower-than-you’d-like fees or set non-negotiable rates, take on a project or not work at all. Choosing how and where to spend your time makes it easier to focus, to be mindful. It lets you be as productive as you want to be, as productive as you can be. It also allows you to deal with change in the short and long term – essential for strengthening your self-employed editing career while caring for yourself and others.

What are your takeaways from this last year or any difficult year in business?

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Acknowledgements: This piece takes inspiration from several blogs by editors and proofreaders in the last year; discussions in CIEP spaces, other professional forums and social media; private conversations with friends and colleagues, written and verbal, sometimes unsaid altogether yet felt. Far too many names to list and links to link to, you know who you are. And I want to say thank you.

Ayesha Chari, independent editor who, after seven years of freelance bumbling, is learning to own and organise her editorial business more consciously while a pandemic has allowed the world to slow down.


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