Late last night (or rather early this morning) I returned from my third trip to the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) annual conference. Since my first tentative sign-up to conference in 2015, I’ve come to view conferences as a vital part of improving my skills both as an editor and as a business (and also a little bit as social human being). This year’s experience was no exception.

I originally planned to just write one blog on the subject, but I quickly realised that I can’t do justice to everything I learned and was inspired about in just one blog. I’ve decided, therefore, to split my blogs into a series to keep them to a manageable length (just right with a cup of tea and a custard cream).

This first part contains more general musings about this year’s conference and the value of conferences in general. In my follow-up blogs, I’ll be covering the specific sessions I went to (and led!) and things I learned there.

The theme of this year’s SfEP conference was: Context is key: why the answer to most questions is ‘It depends’. As an editor who deals mainly with creative writing, the theme was one that appealed to me immensely. Of course, editors in any field have to be flexible and make decisions based on a huge number of factors, but fiction has a special degree of context-driven decision-making and of subjectivity. I know a lot of other fiction editors and am involved in various organisations and discussion groups where we often throw around gnarly problems. The sheer variation in the answers to certain questions, and the inability sometimes to pick a ‘right’ answer, can be quite surprising.

All the sessions on the programme this year linked in to this key theme. And I think the phrase most uttered over the weekend was indeed ‘It depends’. Certainly it appeared at least once in every session I went to.

I think one of the things that most impressed me, although didn’t surprise me, knowing as many SfEPers as I do, was that people were so willing to consider alternative options and ways of thinking. Sometimes editors can be thought of as staggeringly prescriptive, ruthlessly applying archaic language rules and tutting at the tragic decline in language standards. If there are editors like that around (and we all know there are) they certainly didn’t seem to be at the weekend’s conference, I’m glad to report! At every session I attended, there was discussion and a willingness to learn from others. There was no judgement. People accepted that there were different opinions and different approaches, and that none of these were necessarily more valid than the others. Where people disagreed about the way to approach something, there was respect and a desire to learn.

One example that springs to mind was a point raised during the session on pricing a project and rates, which I led along with excellent editorial colleagues Janet MacMillan (who is a member of Editing Globally, an international editorial collective of which I am also a member) and Erin Brenner. Someone asked a question about putting your rates on your website. Janet and I have very different approaches to this, and we answered accordingly. I put rough rates on my website; Janet does not. But ­– crucially – we both understand where the other is coming from and why the decisions we make work for our own circumstances and our own businesses. And neither of us would dream of suggesting that either method is ‘correct’ or ‘more valid’. As I said so often this weekend, it depends on your circumstances, your business model, your client base, the services you offer, and a whole host of other factors.

Across the whole weekend, I had conversations with editors who work on fiction, like me, and editors who work on things I’ve never even touched, like medical editing or heavy science editing. And I learned something and got something out of every one of those discussions, no matter how informal. Even though I specialise in one area of editing currently, I love language and I’m interested in it in all its various forms and uses. And talking to other people in different fields helps me figure out new strands for the future and new ideas. It helps me to think about growth – both in a business sense and a personal sense.

I was also firmly out of my comfort zone this weekend as I agreed to lead two sessions: one was a workshop on fiction editing, and the other a panel discussion on rates. Although I’m a fairly comfortable public speaker (or, rather, I can talk a lot and I have quite a loud voice), I won’t deny that I was very nervous, particularly about my solo session. For the panel session, I knew Janet and Erin were incredibly capable and articulate and that if it came to it, I could hide under the desk and cry while they carried on in my absence. But for my own session, everything was on me.

I had a lot of trouble in the months and weeks leading up to the conference in actually deciding on what my session should focus on. It was billed as an introduction to fiction editing, but the field is so large and has so many different areas, I almost didn’t know where to start. But then I sat down and thought not so much about what I wanted to say, but what I wanted delegates to get from the experience. My aim was very much to give the people who attended something practical to take away and apply to any future work. A look at who was attending confirmed that there was a real mix of backgrounds in there: some established fiction editors, who I think could easily have taught me a thing or two, some very experienced non-fiction editors who had never worked on fiction before, and some new editors who may or may not have tried their hand at editing creative writing. I had to find some common ground to bring all these groups together and make sure they all got something out of it.

As I said in my introduction to the session, I wanted the attendees to get enough from the session that if there were a zombie apocalypse the next day and they were the only editor left who could work on JK Rowling’s new novel, I had given them some useful information and guidance to help them do that.

I hope that I achieved that; I certainly had lots of lovely feedback after my session from people who specifically sought me out to tell me how much they had enjoyed it and how much they had learned. And I always think if you’re evicted from your session room because the next session is due to start and people are still asking questions and engaged, then you’ve done something right!

It was also a learning experience for me. Just because you’re the one giving a session, that doesn’t mean you don’t learn from it too. Listening to some of the very astute observations the attendees made, particularly during the practical exercise (and I definitely think I have a promising future in writing very bad literature, judging by the gasps and laughter while people read through my homemade examples!) gave me a new perspective too and made me consider things that perhaps I might not have otherwise.

I plan to cover more about the content of that workshop in a future blog, but it’s given me the confidence to think how I can use my knowledge and experience to help more people. It’s planted a little seed in my head: training? I can do this! I’ve delivered training before in previous careers, but it’s only recently I’ve felt confident enough to consider branching in to that side of things for my current work. And that’s hugely because of pushing myself to do things like giving sessions at conference and talking to people and hearing what kind of training they value and enjoy.

It’s now Tuesday morning and I’m back to work. I have two novel edits on my desk and whenever I come back from conference, I’m always incredibly motivated and inspired so I plan to squeeze what I can out of that and do as much as possible this week while things are fresh in my mind and I’m riding that wave. And I’m hoping that writing this series of blog posts will help to draw out that post-conference motivation for a bit longer than usual.

My next blog will be on the fantastic content marketing session run by Louise Harnby and John Espirian, so please stay tuned for that. And if you’ve never been to an SfEP conference before and think you might enjoy it, next year’s is in Lancaster and I know I’ll be buying my ticket the minute it becomes available!