April 2019 Q&A: Caitlin Whiteman

Caitlin Whiteman AE is a writer, editor and trainer specialising in plain English. Freelancing with her own business, Elemental Communications, since 2016, Caitlin brings a plain English approach to documents from simple fact sheets to detailed research reports.

How has your month been?

It’s been pretty diverse. I’ve written a big report about the insurance industry and reworked web content for the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman, Council on the Ageing Victoria and the University of New South Wales.

I also just finished editing a guide for community lawyers and financial counsellors on how to help survivors of institutional child sexual abuse who are receiving a payout from the National Redress Scheme. Many survivors are quite vulnerable as a result of trauma, poverty and so on, and don’t have experience managing a large lump sum. The guide is all about how to help them manage the redress payment to their best advantage.

Plain English editing can be very interventionist, and I had the latitude to completely rework the document, giving it a new structure and layout, adding elements, and rewriting where necessary. I’m pretty happy with the result – I think it’s made the information so much easier to find, understand and use. It was especially satisfying doing this kind of work on a document with such an important purpose.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

I think the hardest thing for me is just having to push through and produce on my bad days. In a regular office job, if you’re occasionally burnt out or hungover or struggling with some personal life challenge, you can usually take a sick day, or show up but slack off a bit. But when freelancing, there’s just you and your deadlines and nowhere to hide! Don’t do the work; don’t get paid. Don’t do it well, or on time, and you probably won’t see that client again. It can take quite a bit of discipline.

What do you love most about your work?

I love the craft. I get intrinsic pleasure from writing and editing. I also feel like I’m doing something unambiguously good, however minor. Nothing I work on is going to be read for pleasure – my readers are people who just need information to do their job or navigate some issue in their lives. But I like knowing that I’m making those everyday moments as smooth and painless as they can be.

Being self-employed has changed my life. I love being in charge of everything, from what time I get up in the morning to the jobs I choose, my approach to each task, and how I manage my client relationships. Because I’m not tied to an office, I’ve also been able to move to the country and buy a house, something I could never have done in Melbourne.

How did you get here?

I started out in the policy world after studying politics and social research. Policy work necessarily involves a lot of writing, but I always ended up taking on extra communications duties too, like editing colleagues’ work or doing the organisation’s annual report.

Eventually I decided I wanted to be an editor for real, so I enrolled part-time in the Graduate Diploma of Publishing and Communications at Melbourne University. That filled the gaps in my knowledge of proper editing processes, publishing, print production and so on. I also discovered a major affinity for technical writing, which overlaps a lot with plain English.

Soon after finishing the degree, I got a surprise job offer for a research fellow position at Victoria University. Even though it was not at all the direction I had been planning to go in, the centre did great research and I wanted to be involved. Unfortunately – or fortunately, as it turned out – almost as soon as I started I realised it was not at all the right fit for me.

If I’d been in a comfortable-but-not-great job I probably would have stayed, but being so unhappy pushed me to take a leap of faith. One night, I made a snap decision to try starting a plain English writing and editing business. Over the next few weeks I developed a business plan and started setting everything up. On Christmas Eve, I finished up at my job, and in the new year, I launched the business. I was on my own with barely any savings and no real sense of whether I’d get any work, so it was scary!

But I was lucky. Because I had strong networks from my policy career, I found my first clients right away. That was three years ago, and things have grown from there. Every year, I’ve tried to do One Big Thing on top of my normal client work: in year one I gave a plenary at a plain language conference, in year two I branched out into training, and last year I got accredited. This year, though, I’m having a baby, so I might give myself a break!

What is your average weekly workload? Does it vary throughout the year?

There are some peaks and troughs, but in a normal week I do around 20 to 25 hours of real work. I’ve found that unless the chips are really down, I can only manage four or five hours of focused writing or editing a day before my brain starts to flag.

If you are comfortable discussing salary, can you give an idea of an indicative rate of pay for the kind of work you do?

At the moment my usual rate is $95 an hour. Sometimes I charge more or a little less depending on the client and the nature of the work.

If you didn’t have the job you are in now, what would you like to be doing?

I’m very passionate about public education, so one day I might re-train again and become a teacher!

Caitlin Whiteman’s website is www.elementalcommunications.com.au  and she can be contacted at caitlin@elementalcommunications.com.au.

Thank you so much, Caitlin, for sharing your editing story.