The Proofreader's Parlour
A blog for editors, proofreaders and writers
It helps if you have a grasp of basic arithmetic if you’re working with financial texts but it’s not essential, argues Louise Bolotin. Understanding context is far more important.
I’ll be the first to admit that maths is not my strong point. I can tot up a Scrabble score in my head and divide a restaurant bill between four friends, but I only scraped a C in my
O-level maths (without a calculator, my grade would have been far lower) and I regularly joke about needing to take my socks off to count past 20. Numerate I am not. Yet, for the past 12 years I have built up a flourishing specialism editing financial books and reports for a range of clients, from publishing houses to investment banks.
I was already an experienced copy-editor when I took a job at a major investment bank in the Netherlands. I was appointed for my editing skills, of course, and hadn’t the first idea about banking beyond my lay knowledge as a high street bank customer. Was I nervous? Understatement. Colleagues in the editing team checked over my work during my first week on the job, but couldn’t save me from errors such as mistaking “flattening” for “flattering” when talking about financial results (the first means the figures are down, the latter up). Who knew one letter could paint such a massively different picture of a company’s financial health? In my favour, I managed not to move any decimal points in the actual numbers, which could have had a disastrous effect on a company’s share price. After that, I was on my own – part of a team but expected to be able to handle the work without being nannied.
My boss sent me on a training course – I spent five days alongside a dozen City whizz-kids (all male) learning how to calculate the equity value of a company (that’s basically the share price to you, dear reader) – but by then I’d already been in the job five months. I finished the course unable to complete those vital calculations (did I mention I’m innumerate?) but what the training did do was give me a very deep understanding of the context and I left with the skill of being able to cast a swift eye over a profit and loss sheet and spot any glaring errors. If I’m honest, I was finally able to understand it. In short, the course knocked off the last rough edges.
Most financial editing is not figures but text, of course, and as with any other subject a solid understanding of the topic is what matters. It doesn’t matter too much if you can’t calculate the equity value of a company – what does matter is understanding what equity is (the value of an asset after any debt attached to it is paid off) and what it means to the intended readership. Thus, knowing that return on equity (ROE) is basically how much profit or dividend an investor will earn from their shares in a given financial period and why it differs from return on investment (ROI, a metric used to calculate how efficient an investment is, i.e. is the investment delivering gains) or return on assets (ROA, an indicator of how profitable a company is relative to its total assets) is critical. As another example, it pays to know the difference between ROE and ROCE, the latter standing for return on capital employed, which is a ratio that indicates the efficiency and profitability of a company's capital investments.
As you can see, finance, like many other specialist topics, has its own language. There are a lot of acronyms that need to be learned and understood, not to mention some very arcane jargon. Even I struggle to remember exactly what a “dead cat bounce” is (a small, temporary recovery in a declining share price), and don’t ask me why it’s called that as I haven’t the foggiest. Understanding how capital works and the above-mentioned concepts and their ilk is probably more important than the actual numbers.
With investment banking, which is my specialism, there are never any guarantees and nothing is predictable. You can suggest, but you can’t promise. So if your author writes, “when tomorrow’s results are announced the share price will go up” your job is to change it to, “when tomorrow’s results are announced the share price is expected to rise”. Every single sentence has to be scrutinized for such claims – the only thing you can leave intact are facts, as they are historical: “when the results were announced, the share price immediately rose to $10”.
Finance is a global industry so you can never not edit such things as “last year”, “in the autumn”, “at 8am”, etc. Context is everything and vagueness is a no-no, so I would change such things to “2011”, “in the period October–December” and “0800 CET” so they are factual and can be easily understood by an international readership. Oh, and another thing – it’s rare to see something like $10 as many countries use a dollar as their currency, so it’s important to specify if you mean US$10, A$10 or CAD$10 …
Also important is an understanding of financial regulation. All countries have regulatory bodies that determine the rules for financial institutions and it’s essential to have a basic knowledge of the regulatory arena as this will affect how you edit. For several years I edited daily equity reports for an overseas bank that was trading shares on the London Stock Exchange for its investment clients. As its sole UK editor, I was the thin blue line that ensured my client’s reports did not breach the Financial Services Authority’s rules on financial reporting. That’s a lot of scary responsibility – I was under daily pressure not to screw up this aspect because of the terrible consequences it would trigger.
Regulation also covers the thorny issue of ethics if you edit anything to do with investments. Insider trading is against the law everywhere and carries severe penalties – staff editors work inside a “Chinese wall” that separates them from the company’s traders and have to sign non-disclosure agreements as well as an employment contract when starting work. Staffers are also not permitted to buy or sell investments without their employer’s approval. As a freelance, it’s on your honour to abide by the same rules.
Thus I have strict personal rules. Firstly, I never discuss the minutiae of any market-sensitive material I’m working on so as not to breach insider trading laws – I might tell a friend or partner in passing that I edited a report on Company A but not the details. At all. Secondly, I avoid conflicts of interest by not telling any of my commercial clients who my other current commercial clients are and ensuring that I keep such work separate from each other, don’t allow one to influence another and that nothing slips from my lips in error. In short, there’s a Chinese wall in my head. Thirdly, if any friends ask me for investment advice, I only offer general advice such as not putting all their spare cash in any one company – if they want advice on Company A, I suggest they find a broker. Fourthly, I don’t trade shares for myself – when I do have spare money to invest, I put it into tangibles instead (tangibles is things – art, wine, gold, jewellery, ephemera, antiques…) so I don’t risk insider trading at any level. As a freelance, I exercise huge personal discipline in managing my workload in this area.
Finance is a wide field and not all areas of it will suit everyone working in it – I briefly took on some freelance work editing blue-chip accountancy reports and while it was not a total disaster, it wasn’t a good match for my knowledge or skills. I decided to stick to banking. If your background is financial and you’re thinking of moving into editing or proofreading, you’ll have a good basis for a career once you’ve acquired the editorial skills. If, like me, you come into the field without background knowledge, training in finance is pretty much essential – get some in-house experience if you can or find a course that will give you a short, intense introduction to the subject. Then buy a good specialist dictionary or two – I have around half a dozen myself and even after 12 years I still use them regularly.
As someone who’s pretty rubbish with numbers, I was surprised to discover how much I absolutely love editing financial stuff. It’s the sheer variety of it – when I’m editing equities, I’ll be working with copy written about all kinds of industries and sectors from steel and coal to retail via pharmaceuticals and the stock-exchange listed companies that produce or sell such things (in the process learning huge amounts of interesting things that I’d probably never have got round to looking up in a library). I get offered book editing work that ranges from hedge fund strategies to Islamic banking principles via risk management for insurance companies. A lot of people’s eyes glaze over at the mention of finance, expecting it to be boring, but it’s not – when money makes the world go round it makes sense to be interested in it and to find it interesting. Picking up the skills to edit or proofread the mountain of words written about it is just the next step.
Louise Bolotin is a freelance editor and journalist
Copyright 2012 Louise Bolotin
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