In this Spotlight I’m delighted to feature an interview with my colleague Charlie Hankers. Charlie is a Manchester-based copywriter, editor and proofreader. He also owns and administers the online forum Gpuss Proofreading, Editing and Copywriting Chat. It’s one of a number of professional forums on which I interact with other people in our business, newbies and seasoned professionals alike, and I’ve been impressed with how it functions. Charlie agreed to talk to me about how it all started.
Louise Harnby: First of all, Charlie, thank you for taking the time to talk to us here at The Proofreader’s Parlour. Can you start off by telling us about your background? I see you have a few strings to your bow.
Charlie Hankers: Yes, although many of them snapped long ago. I left school and worked in the chemical industry, then studied civil engineering to degree level, played in a hugely successful band (using a criminally narrow interpretation of “successful”) and spent a few years in photographic darkrooms until I finally settled on proofreading in the mid-90s. Once established I started editing and copywriting, which is where I am now.
LH: So how and when did the Gpuss forum come about? Surely it’s no small task setting up, never mind maintaining such a platform. In particular, I’m interested in what motivated you to develop it, and what you envisaged coming out of it.
CH: It is an adjunct to the course, really. I decided to write my own course after I had been proofreading for about eight years. I felt that the course I had done (one of those you see advertised in newspapers) hadn’t prepared me for the trade, although of course I didn’t find out until I started getting work. Luckily my first client was a patient and understanding typesetter, who guided me through the technical side of proofreading. It isn’t just a case of checking spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, as many people assume. Proofreading professionally produced books requires you to get into the mind of a typesetter as well as the author. So once I had created the course, I added the forum to create a sense of community, help anyone who was doing the course or actively proofreading, and hopefully get a range of opinions on contentious matters.
One thing I want from the forum, but find difficult to address, is its impartiality. It is clearly linked to my course (it shares a domain) but I don’t want it to become a marketing tool for the course or for me as a proofreader and editor. I welcome open discussion about other courses, as long as contributions are honest, and try not to talk about my own too much. I also encourage contributors to link to their own websites and hope they get some benefit from it. I think it’s important to recognise that mine is not the only course and that there are other excellent learning resources out there. I’m not trying to be a cult leader!
LH: I get the sense that the people on the forum are a mixed bag of both new entrants to the field and those who’ve been around the block. Can you tell us about the forum’s users, the kinds of discussion that arise, and how you go about moderating it all?
CH: Yes, that’s exactly right, and that blend of wisdom and inexperience is probably an essential element of a thriving forum. I’ve been lucky enough to welcome lots of lovely people on board, and discussion is always polite, even when disagreeing. The important thing is not to judge newbies and to remember that we were all in their situation once. I wish I had had a forum to visit when I was learning, but I didn’t even have the internet.
Another important thing to remember is that somebody who is inexperienced at proofreading might have come from a very different trade and can bring knowledge with them that’s useful to proofreaders, for example law, taxation or business. Even simply being young is an asset (in case we need reminding) as it brings a different outlook on life, a connection with a generation that we might not encounter much. It’s all refreshing and vital.
I’ve divided the forum into two halves: the Englishy, grammary, spellingy half and the businessy half. So the first half is for discussion and advice on actual words and phrases, whereas the second is for people to talk about working – mainly, I guess, as a freelance (but not necessarily so).
I don’t ever want moderation to cross the line into censorship, so I’ll cull anything that is illegal or needlessly inflammatory (i.e. talk of banning apostrophes) but otherwise let the discussions flow. When you run a forum you have to be aware that you can be held at least partly accountable for what is on it, so you do have to keep an eye on it from a legal perspective.
LH: What are the highs and lows of running the Gpuss forum? I can imagine that it’s a demanding task at times, so tell us about the joys and the challenges.
CH: I don’t find it demanding, really. The hardest part is when work or other domestic business gets in the way. I do try to check it a few times a day (the email alerts don’t always reach me) but sometimes it’s impossible. However my heart is regularly warmed by logging in and finding a query raised and answered within an hour. That’s the essence of a forum. And the last thing I’d want is for anyone to rely on just my moth-eaten advice!
Spam is the bane of any forum owner’s life. Whereas in the past people would simply post links to their websites on as many forums as possible, they have got a little bit smarter nowadays, making intelligible and plausible comments but having the backlink in their profile, or spending a few days posting a smattering of very realistic comments before landing the link when the owner’s guard is down. It’s harder to keep on top of these.
The trickiest part is finding the balance between creating a place where a community develops for the mutual benefit of all and the forum becoming a kind of helpline. There have been one or two members who only ever logged in to ask for advice, sometimes very specific advice on a particular point they have come across in their work, only to disappear until they encounter another problem. I can’t be too critical of this way of using the forum, but it’s counterproductive because, after a while, contributors just stop answering. We can’t force people to help answer people’s queries, but in the long term you’ll get more out of it if you help out a little. By the way, I am absolutely not referring to people doing the course or anyone learning to proofread here. If people are asking questions about my course then that’s a result of my own failure. And anyone learning gets help out of simple human respect.
LH: Any future plans that you’d like to share with us?
CH: As far as the course is concerned, I’m trying to keep it relevant and running for as long as possible. I have no plans to close it down as there is still demand for it. The same applies to the forum. It is as strong as ever, and still attracts new members and returning ones, so I’m happy about that. I’ll probably see if I can get some help with moderating if there are any volunteers, too. I’m planning to start a business partnership with a friend and colleague, but we’re waiting for our work to have coincident lulls!
LH: What other online networks are you involved with and how do you use them?
CH: I’m a bit of a Twitter addict, so I’m always on there, occasionally wasting time following links and getting waylaid by some incredible site or news story. I don’t really tweet about my work; I tend to make random observations to anyone who’ll listen, and probably would even if no one was listening ... My addiction is helped by my being a Facebook refusenik. I am on LinkedIn too, although I don’t feel like I’m getting the most out of it.
LH: Thanks for talking to us, Charlie – it’s been an eye-opener and a pleasure.
● Contact Charlie Hankers for copywriting and editorial work: firstname.lastname@example.org
● Join the Gpuss Proofreading, Editing and Copywriting Chat forum
● Get more information about the Gpuss proofreading course
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