Political what-ness?

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht
I’ve just landed at Schiphol airport. Near Arrivals, I spot one of those stands holding free advertising postcards. I like colourful things – and I love free things – so I take a handful to browse through in the passport control queue. There’s a photo of an absurdly attractive couple in head-to-toe H&M. Close-ups of grinning mouths with shiny dental veneers. And: on a plain black background with red and white font: ‘I Heart Niggers’. Suddenly, I’m next in line. “Welcome to Holland”, beams the immigration officer.
Four years later, I get it. It’s not a question of racism. It’s just a different interpretation of political correctness. Here’s the thing about Anglophones: We’re obsessed with politically correct language. ‘The elderly’ have become ‘older people’. The ‘short’ are just ‘vertically challenged’. The N-word? Don’t even think about it.
But the Dutch are altogether more chilled out, even when it comes to personal questions. I’m always being asked “Is it Miss or Mrs?” My boss gets annoyed when British job applicants don’t put their birthdate on their CV: “It’s only got their skills and experience!” Well, yes – that’s the point.
The Dutch don’t even seem to be troubled by sentences like ‘The student must pay his fees’. This use of his (not to mention he and him) has been unacceptable in English for decades. It’s considered sexist by the United Nations, the European Commission, every government in the English-speaking world, and virtually all universities too.
So what’s the big deal? Some people still claim that this is a ‘generic’ pronoun that includes both men and women. But since the 1970s, researchers have consistently found that it in fact evokes a male referent. Meaning: when you read a supposedly ‘neutral’ sentence referring to he or him or his and then try to draw what you have read, you will invariably draw a man. Even if someone explicitly tells you it includes women too, your psyche will disagree. And because this so frequently refers to people in important positions (‘The professor’s salary depends on his experience’), it implies that a woman being in such positions is somehow deviant.
But my Dutch colleagues aren’t bothered at all. Is this because the same ‘generic’ pronoun is used in Dutch? Are English speakers just oversensitive? Will Dutch eventually follow suit? Or are you just laughing at us, with all this worry about words but pitiful systems in place for maternity pay and equal treatment? Perhaps we should be the ones to follow suit, after all.
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Becoming an agency’s preferred supplier: The inside story

Handbook of the Society of English-Native-Speaking Editors in the Netherlands: SENSE has many very skilled and experienced members who are happy to share their know-how. Thanks to Cecilia Willems, who initiated the Handbook, we can now offer members 20 extremely informative best-practice chapters. The chapters are authored by a wide variety of contributors from all walks of SENSE life, including such well known names as Joy Burrough-Boenisch, Susan Massotty — and most recently — Alison Edwards.

Chapter 20: Becoming an agency’s preferred supplier: The inside story

Enjoy your well-earned holiday … hurry back! Lots of fun (big) jobs waiting for you on return – you know you’re our no. 1!
Thank you for your email and CV. Should anything suitable come up, we’ll be in touch.

These are just two of the dozens of emails that I’ve sent out to freelancers this week. If you’re the sort of person who’s getting messages of the first kind left, right and centre, don’t bother reading this article. If you’re more likely to get the second – and let’s face it, we’ve all been there – then you’ll no doubt have spent countless hours gazing despairingly at an empty inbox and wondering how to dig your way out of the freelance doldrums.

But as an in-house provider with a decent amount of work to outsource, I know just how it can be done. Start with the right price. Add a top-quality product, and mix well with a good dose of stellar speed and service. Top with a dash of sparkling personality. Then, finally, get the stars to align just so.

At least, this is how it seems sometimes. I’ve got one foot in both worlds: as a freelancer, I’ve seen my fair share of rejections. But in the office, I see firsthand just how important a role (1) luck, and (2) arbitrary decision-making can play in in-house decisions about freelancers. Having said that, though, there is a whole swag of strategies that you can use to make sure that you become The Chosen One. Read on for the inside perspective of an agency coordinator with work to outsource.

Get things right.

It sounds too basic for words, but do check – for goodness’ sake, CHECK – that you’ve got the name right of the person you’re addressing. I do not give out editing work to people who address me as Allison, Alice, or – worse still – Edward. This is not because I’m uppity about my name. It’s because good editors are observant and meticulous, and observant and meticulous people spell prospective clients’ names correctly. Not observant and meticulous? Not an editor.

Likewise, your CV needs to be perfect. I don’t mean you need a string of certificates and impressive clients. Those are optional extras. After all, I don’t care where you got your degree. But I DO care whether you can spell. I do care whether you’re the sort of person who checks documents for double spaces after full stops, and I care whether you know the difference between a hyphen and a dash (all of which can be spotted on a CV from 10 paces back). I once received a CV from a prospective freelancer who had managed to spell proofreading three different ways on a single page. Needless to say, he didn’t make my shortlist.

You need to know your stuff in general, as well. If you receive a brief asking for UK English with -ise spelling, closed em-dashes and APA referencing, you’re expected to know what it means (or figure it out fast). One freelance editor I tried kept tinkering with the punctuation in perfectly good APA citations, then claimed ‘personal preference’ as his justification. Keep in mind that, just like you, in-house staff are also racing against the clock, so the more polishing of your polishing that we need to do, the greater the chance that it’ll be curtains.

This goes especially for following instructions: If you want to be placed in the cardinal sin bin, forget to use track changes. On the other hand, if you want to earn yourself some brownie points, ask what file name to give the completed document (e.g. we add the extension _corr to edited texts) rather than adding your own complicated numbering system to it. And finally, if you’re supplied with a terminology list or style guide, follow it religiously.

Make yourself indispensable.

The merits of sticking to instructions should not be underestimated. A brilliant editor is a connoisseur of style guides. Say the client asks why you’ve hyphenated ‘full-time’ in some instances but not in others. Was your choice based on gut feeling, or are you the type who’ll come back with a detailed explanation involving the predicate positioning of compound modifiers, with page references to recognised authorities? The more excruciating the detail, the better.

We have a 100-page style guide, and no freelance editor I’ve worked with yet has managed to apply it flawlessly. Nor are freelancers normally expected to, of course. What this means in concrete terms is that every time I go on leave, our clients receive texts that are, to a greater or lesser extent, inconsistent with our usual work. So I won’t shy away from throwing down the challenge: master the in-house style guide and you make yourself indispensable; ergo, this is your ticket to guaranteed freelance work.

At the very least, you should have your own checklist of things to do right at the end of a job. Check for double spaces after full stops (if you’re still using these, get with the times). Check one last time for consistent use of initial capitals (or lowercase letters) in headings. Serial comma used throughout, or not? We’re a university, so this should set off alarm bells about common sticking points: bachelor, Bachelor or bachelor’s? Dr. or Dr? Never trust yourself to pick up on every instance of these manually: basic Find & Replace skills are your friend here. A simple but useful method is to highlight anything that sounds your alarm in the initial edit – words like adviser (or advisor?) and decision making (or decision-making), proper nouns (Maastricht University or University of Maastricht?) and suchlike – then deal with them all at once, after you’ve got a full overview of the content but before you do your final proofread. If in-house staff find themselves doing these basic things for you, you’ll not make the cut on their Christmas card list.

Have a personality.

My office is only a small operation, but we might get 10 or 15 CVs a month. Most of them are forgettable. You might think your qualifications and experience should speak for themselves. But this kind of holier than thou-ness only works if your skills genuinely put you in a category apart: say, if you’re specialised in atomic physics theses or can translate medical Armenian. Oftentimes, the competition is strong and there might be four or five people on the books equally capable of producing a solid product. So you need to stand out in some other way. Give me a reason to make me want to contact you.

One of my favourite opening pitches is one an old colleague from my former life in publishing swears by: ‘Competent. Conscientious. Comprehensive. These are just a few of the words I can spell.’ Of course, be sure to tailor your pitch. Not all in-house staffers will be won over by cuteness, so do your googling first on the in-house contact. One prospective freelancer saw from my LinkedIn page that we were both members of an Australian expat group, and while that’s just a small and simple thing to figure out, sometimes that’s all it takes to bridge the psychological distance between you and She Who Holds the Purse Strings.

And, vice versa: You can’t not have a LinkedIn profile, at the very least. Picture it: I’ve got two CVs in my hands, both very much alike. Similar experience, same price range, and same tired CV layout. I decide to have a google. With Applicant No. 1, I draw a blank. She’s an unknown entity at best. You, on the other hand, have a lovely LinkedIn profile with a professional-looking but also friendly, smiling photo. Suddenly I’m just a wee bit more well-disposed towards you. (It might sound superficial, but when there’s little difference on paper we all look for anything that will tip us one way or the other; and after all, one of the nicest parts of my job is email-bantering with freelancers.) Better still, you have a proper business website with – best of all – a news section that you regularly update with press releases, articles you’ve written for this newsletter or that website, or interesting snippets on some aspect of language. Now, you come off as active, dynamic, on the ball. I choose YOU.

Finally, don’t be afraid of being human. Being professional is one thing, but stiff and standoffish is unnecessary. One freelancer had to wait some time for my feedback on her trial text because it was a particularly chaotic time in-house. She took my silence to bode badly, and wrote explaining that she hoped her death-in-the-family state of mind hadn’t affected her usual quality of work. Again, this approach won’t work for everybody, but it’s where your skills as a writer will come into play – it’s possible to be polite and professional and at the same time disarming and charming, as long as you word it right.

Be competitive.

All too often, freelancers charging prices that are simply beyond my budget want to lecture me about how wanting quality means being willing to pay more. Here’s the devastating truth: I can get quality, for a very good price. So at those times when there is direct competition between two freelancers equally matched for quality, your price will play a deciding role. That extra three or five euros per hour (or one or two cents per word for translators) does matter. After all, in-house staff need to balance their bond with the freelancer and desire to pay a fair price with the pressure from management to keep costs down.

That said, undercutting the competition won’t work if it doesn’t come hand in hand with quality. One cold-caller subjected me to a 15-minute marketing spiel about his unique selling points and quality assurance system, then offered such a drastically low price that I was sucked in – and the result was altogether shoddy. In this case, I learned that too cheap to be true is truly what it is.

Be there.

Like many agencies, we make virtually all our offers by email. If you write back within half an hour, so much the better, because all too often we need to be able to confirm urgent delivery dates with our clients. Any longer than that and my foot will be tapping an impatient hole in the floor. After an hour or more, I’ll move on.

NEVER miss a deadline.

End of story.*

What should be clear is that – cliché alert – this is about having the whole package. First you need to sort out your skills and fees. I have one provider who is dead keen to be our preferred supplier, but whose lovely marketing pitches just don’t make up for the poorer quality and dearer price. If you’re too expensive, or simply produce rubbish, you can take your bat and ball and go home. On the other hand, if you offer quality at the right price, your reward will be the (admittedly dubious) honour of going into competition against potentially dozens of others who, to the unenlightened in-house staffer, are just like you. It’s at this point that those extra steps, like having an appealing online presence or an original approach, will make you stand out. As a freelancer, of course you have to be professional and affordable. But you also need to be memorable.

Getting your foot in the door by standing out is step 1. Once you’ve landed yourself a text or two, you need consolidate that first impression with a solid follow-up. This will help you make the transition from the preferred option out of a bunch of applicants, to the preferred option from a pool of regulars.

To give an example: my current preferred translator made her entrance on a stroke of luck, by cold-calling just when my one and only colleague went on extended leave. But ever since, she’s been a gem. She always responds to my offers within half an hour. She’s entertaining to correspond with. She’s still the most affordable on our books. And she’s good enough that I find myself piling on the workload because I’d rather have her rush job than anyone else’s best. Because as Francis Cox pointed out in the ‘Managing Clients’ chapter, this is a two-way street. It takes hard work to find and break in top freelancers – so when I find one, I hang on. If you play your cards right, it will be you trying to get rid of me.

* Exceptions: (1) You have been carted off to hospital and the nurses have threatened to throttle you with your drip tube if you keep sneaking in your laptop. (2) A tractor has run over BOTH your hands AND a freakishly opportune virus has destroyed your voice-recognition software. (3) The Apocalypse has arrived and obliterated computers/the internet – in which case I won’t care either.

The trouble with titles

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

The first time I saw it, I thought it was quaint. The second time, so-so. But from the third to the fifty billionth time, it’s just made me want to scratch my eyeballs out.

No, I’m not talking about Geert Wilders. I’m talking about the Dutch love of titles – lots of them. Like Dr. ing. Whatshisname. Or Mrs Prof. Whatsherface. Not to mention the more exuberant Prof. dr. ir. ing. mr. Ridiculously Overqualified.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: it’s those Germans who are the true title connoisseurs. And it’s true: the English speaker’s first introduction to this is usually from old war movies with Hitler barking out orders to Herr Doktor Goebbels. But from Maastricht to Middelburg, Eindhoven to Enschede, they’re just another fact of life in the land of cheese and tulips, too.

Many Dutch don’t realise that the use of multiple titles is an issue in English. But the fact is, to the English-speaking mind, lining up your titles one after the other is just, quite simply, odd. Prof., Dr, Ms, Mr – they’re all fine, but you can only have one.

My all-time favourite has got to be Prof. Dr So-and-so. This is partly endearing, partly infuriating. Here’s the thing. In Anglo countries, you need a PhD before you can become a professor. So if your title is ‘Prof.’, then ‘Dr’ is implied. And in any event – the word professor gets across the message loud and clear: you are very smart. We get it already.

But in the Netherlands, so I’ve discovered, it’s possible to be a professor without actually having a PhD. So it makes sense that if you’ve earned the right to have both titles, you’d like to use them. Which, of course, is no problem in Dutch, because your language allows for this. But in English … well, as stated: it makes you look funny.

And herein lies the problem for English-language editors. It’s our job to ensure that you, the client, are perceived as you ought to be. You are clever, and that should be made known. Maar helaas: if any native speakers are going to read that English text, the double title ‘Prof. Dr’ won’t make you seem twice as smart. On the contrary, it usually prompts one of two reactions. Either you look pompous. Or – somewhat ironically – you look a bit dopey, for not knowing ‘proper English’.

With English on the rise in the Netherlands, it’s not an issue that will fix itself soon. But ask me again in 20 years. I’m hoping to have some more titles of my own then, and ‘Prof. Dr. Edwards’ has a nice ring, wouldn’t you say?