Rewriting at Home

by Doreen Simmons

A recent thread on SWET-L (and if you don’t belong to SWET’s own mailing list, you’re missing out on a useful free resource) sparked much kindly and practical advice. Now, nobody is more kindly and practical than lovable Aunt Eva, and here are her own thoughts on the subject. The original request is used with permission.

Dear Aunt Eva,

I aim to change my worklife and am asking for your advice. I’ve been an editor in technical publications for some time. When my specialty took a nosedive, for survival’s sake I followed the “gold rush” to Japan to teach English. I’ve had five years of full-time rewriting jobs here in Tokyo. But since teaching jobs are far more plentiful and easy to find, I got sidetracked into that line. Teaching English to Japanese has its merits. Ultimately, though, its physical and emotional demands have drained me dry. I need to recuperate . . . to find the best economic return for the least-taxing personal effort.

For me, this would seem to be rewriting at home. (I can speak and understand conversational Japanese but cannot read or translate.) I’d like to work for full-time for just one company, so that I’d just do the editing and they’d do all the rest. I would really appreciate any and all advice, pointers, comments, on any aspects of working from home.

Hava Goh

Aunt Eva answers:

Dear Hava,

Finding a single good job as soon as you want one is not easy—and there is a strong chance that even if it met your requirements it might not satisfy all your needs. A lot depends on your own personality. However self-sufficient you may think you are, you need congenial and stimulating company (not always from the same people). Where you are now, Aunt Eva has been. Her own solution to the mixed problems of earning a living, going stir-crazy at home, and getting enough exercise, was to find employers (ideally, two or three) who wanted someone on the premises for fixed hours per week and would fax work the rest of the time. One of the complaints commonly voiced by translators or checkers is the lack of contact with those who produce the materials on which they are working. We often have questions we want to ask: What is the intended readership of this report? What effect do you want this letter to have? Did you invent this word? Do you type with your fingers crossed?

If you are working through an agency, you will often find that it is agency policy not to allow client and checker to get together—for fear they may get along so well that they decide to bypass the agency in the future. And the agency personnel are not in your line of business; their line is commissioning work, not doing it themselves.

So there can be a lot of value in face-to-face contact with the people whose work you are improving. If your work covers quite wide areas, you will find that making time for a leisurely chat around and around an unfamiliar subject, until ideas come together and vocabulary crystallizes, will save time and research when you finally start on the job proper. But if you are freelancing you can’t really afford this. Time is money, and it’s your time. But if somebody is paying you to be on the premises and be available for this kind of productive discussion, then make the most of it.

Relationships are important. Aunt Eva is careful to hand back each item privately and at an angle that conceals her corrections. She is also very leery of the person who is effusively friendly—but always in so-so English. Especially if that person always shies away from actually submitting any work for correction. “We get along so well, you know my English is perfect”—but when Aunt Eva does a bit of snooping she finds that the written word is frankly awful.  Avoid if possible a competition with you as the prize.

There are other advantages to having some outside work: you get out and meet people; traveling to work, and walking between jobs (it helps if they are all within 20–25 minutes’ walking distance) gives you natural exercise. You also have a regular retainer. Several of Aunt Eva’s friends work one or two days in Tokyo and freelance at home the rest of the time.

Variety is a good idea: English teaching is relatively easy to come by; and since you _can_ teach, it may provide a cushion until you can land the rewriting jobs you want. Be on your toes. A company that is impressed with your professional attitude as an English teacher may also be persuaded that you would be equally valuable as a rewriter—and it is people who are there, on the premises, who make this kind of opportunity for themselves. A small job done really well can sometimes be parlayed into a series of related but better jobs, and may end up as a comfortable berth. If you like the looks of an employer, it is a good idea to throw in a bit of “service,” a lagniappe; in other words, if you like the people you are working for and are being paid a fair price for your labor, look for a chance to give that little bit extra.

One word of caution: Since the introduction of the fax machine, Aunt Eva has found that she has no escape. A client who used to send a secretary half a mile down the hill to her main office with an urgent letter (and therefore did not do this unless it was really urgent) now sends letters as they turn up—by fax and at the drop of a hat. So it is wise to negotiate in advance the basic amount of work you are getting paid for, and how you will be paid for anything over and above that. Just keep a tally of time spent on these ‘extras’—but don’t use it unless you need to.

Some practical pointers: Learn more Japanese, as much as you can. If you can negotiate in the language of the land, however basic, you’ll get far more work. You would be surprised how many prospective clients prefer to negotiate in their own language. Contrariwise, a lot of the people who insist on speaking English think they don’t need a checker. If humanly possible, make an effort to become minimally literate in Japanese, at least enough to trace a suspicious word in the original text and look it up. Make yourself as computer-literate as possible—or find a genuine guru you can trust and have him/her on call. Back-up all your working files, and use an MO drive to do it. Get an ISDN line as soon as you can—it’s not expensive and it’s well worth it to be able to use the phone or the fax while you’re online.

Finally, never despise a job; respect your work and others will come to respect, first your attitude, and eventually, you. A piece of work that may seem trivial to you may be the most important thing in the world to the young Japanese who is just starting out. Work late if you have to, but get the job done right.

On the other hand, the short answer is, knock Aunt Eva on the head and take over her schedule.
Good luck, Hava,

Eva Hartupp

From Newsletter Number 88 (March 2000)