Q&A with Proofreader Graham Duncan

By   Jantien Abma 9 min read

 Graham’s latest work was for HarperCollins, copy editing and proofreading the IGCSE book for ICT students.  He has always enjoyed history and archeology and readily accepts proposals to copy edit anything in those subjects.  He undertook a two year archaeology course in Oxford and is the secretary to the Armed Forces MS Support Group called Mutual Support (www.mutual-support.org.uk).

1. You developed your proofreading skills during your time as a telecommunications controller in the RAF, where you proofread signals messages. This sounds like quite a high-stress job, how fast did you have to work? How did you ensure your skills were up to scratch before getting to work? Out of curiosity, how is a signals message typically formatted?

 I joined the RAF about two weeks after my 17th birthday as what was then called a Telegraphist.  After basic training, I went to RAF Cosford, near Wolverhampton for trade training, which took six months to complete.  This was the longest non-technical trade training in the RAF.  We were taught to receive and transmit Morse code at 20 words per minute (wpm), touch typing at 45 wpm, reading Murray Code (ticker tape that teleprinters produced when a signal message was typed up) and various communications procedures.

Here is a photo of Murray Code, unfortunately the tape is upside down.

It was part of our training that Speed and Accuracy were paramount but only after Security of each signal message.  They would be classified from Top Secret, Secret, Confidential, Restricted and Unclassified.  My first posting after training was RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, home of the Vulcan bomber.  This is where my training was tested.  Signals could arrive at the Communications Centre in batches, which would mean that their precedence showed us which signal message needed to be actioned first.  Each precedence had a short time scale to prepare, type up and transmit.  There was more time allowed for Routine messages but Flash messages were obviously mission critical and all other jobs were postponed until that Flash message was finally sent and an acknowledgement received.  The stress levels went through the roof whenever a Flash message was to be transmitted – or received.  Not only did it have to be prepared and sent very quickly – it had to be accurate.

All signal messages had to be proofread by another operator for errors before it could be transmitted.  So by age 17 I was already a hawk-eyed proofreader.  Each signal was prepared in a certain way, with format lines that had to be typed up before the free text in the main body of the signal.  So not only was the free text to be proofread, the format lines also had to be correct too, or the signal would be rejected by the semi-automated relay telecommunications equipment.  Over the years, I developed my proofreading by experience on the job and also by reading countless novels during the quiet hours of the night duties. 

2. After this, you copy edited complex Operations Orders prior to deployments. Can you explain a little bit about the significance of Operations Orders and how they were issued? Can you share with us the most noteworthy mission you worked on?

After many years in the RAF, I was promoted to Sergeant and a year or so later, in the summer of 1994to the Tactical Communications Wing, which was based at that time at RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire.  My first view of an Operations Order was being handed one just prior to being deployed to Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.  It was a little sketchy and bare boned but had some relevant details in it.  A military force, or individual cannot be deployed without orders.  These are ultimately sanctioned by the Government to the head of the Armed Forces, and filtered down to Headquarters of the RN, Army or RAF, depending who is tasked to deploy.  The HQ then sends a signal message to order the deployment to complete the mission to individual Ship, Regiments, Wing, or Squadrons.

Each unit then takes the original tasking order and creates their unique Operations Order, which would consist of the mission, the personnel assigned to complete it, the frequencies to be used for long range and short range communications, vehicles, rations, flight arrangements, accommodation, maps, routes and a plethora of information that would be useful to the people on the mission.  After nearly three years of being deployed away for some time each month, I was put into TCW Ops, where I copy edited and proofread the Op Orders that were produced by a couple of Junior NCOs.

After Sarajevo I was deployed to various trouble spots you wouldn’t want to go on holiday to.  My most memorable detachment (after the shelling in Sarajevo) was called Op COLMAR.  Just prior to Op COLMAR, some accommodation had been blown up by terrorists in Dhahran, in the east of Saudi Arabia.  Some American forces had been killed and badly injured.  It had been decided to move to nearer Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.  The place chosen was a Saudi air force base, which was basically deserted, in the desert if you get my pun.  The remote location was chosen to deter terrorist activity.  I was tasked to take a group of about 18 personnel, communications operators, technicians and electrical power supply tradesmen to this austere base to provide commanders on the ground some long range secure communications back to the UK.  This would be done by using Satellite and High Frequency radios.

We arrived in mid August 1996 at noon, the first British unit on the ground.  The temperature was 50°C so was a little warm as when we had left the UK it was a balmy 13°C.  Below is a photo taken by an American.  It is with an element of pride that within two hours of arrival we had established communications back to the UK.

Gloves had to be worn to allow us to hold the metal tent frames to build our communications centre.  We covered the lot with camouflage netting which helped drop the temperature by about 5°C.  We were to be self-sufficient in food, fuel and accommodation for at least one week.  Our food consisted of boil in the bag rations.  We found that placing the bags directly on the bonnet of a Landover for two minutes under the sun, it warmed up the food nice enough to eat.  Soon enough the Mobile Catering Unit were operational and were cooking us some fantastic meals – the envy of the Americans who passed our Mess tent.

The American military were very focused and managed to build a tent city within days, with air conditioned accommodation, shower blocks and latrines, and even a laundrette, which we had access to.  We moved locations within the base three times during the five weeks we were deployed there, moving at 5am to beat the heat of the summer sun.  The Commander with his entourage visited us daily and soon declared that the location was fit for purpose and he would call the personal in from Dhahran.  Once they arrived our job was done.  We handed over the communications equipment to our replacements and finally boarded our aircraft home. 

3. You also spent some time at the Ministry of Defence, were you involved in any editorial work there? If so, what kind of work did you do?

Based at MOD London I was the Allied Communications Publications (ACP) manager.  I worked with counterparts from the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.  Approximately 30 ACPs were shared between the nations to ensure they were updated in a timely manner.  Some of the ACPs were highly technical, so had to be farmed out to subject matter experts (SME) within our own nations.  This life cycle of the documents ensured that current working practices were taken into account, the publication updated and all nations were using the same procedures.

Once back from our SMEs, the publication was copy edited, with the new procedures typed within it.  After it had been completed, it was sent to the other nations for their SMEs to comment, accept or decline the new content.  Sometimes a publication would go back and forth between SMEs several times before a compromise would be agreed.  Perhaps up to five SMEs would have input into a document, each with their own font size, paper size, paragraph spacing and spelling.  Finally, I would get an approved copy, and give it a final proofread, ensuring that margins, font sizes and paragraph spacing all complied with our own formatting procedures.  As the Americans use a different sized paper to the other three nations, care had to be taken to ensure that our publications could be printed on A4 and the American paper.

4. You fell back on your editorial skills after it became necessary to work from home. Did you do anything to brush up the skills you acquired in the RAF?

As I entered my final two years in the RAF, I was entitled to various day-release courses and also a longer course to retrain.  I completed a ‘Starting Your Own Business’ course which was quite useful and then a four week proofreading course with Chapterhouse Publishing, who held a course in London.  I found that a lot of the proofreading symbols were already known to me from my early proofreading days in the RAF.  Symbols such as delete, insert, transposed and even STET were remarkably familiar to me. 

5. It might come as a surprise to many that the British Armed Forces would offer jobs that required skills in the editorial sector. Can you name some other unexpected specialisms within the talent pool of the Armed Forces? Would you say your career route is one that opens up many possibilities?

 Members of my telecommunications trade were proud of their accuracy skills, so someone who could cope with the attention to detail could do well within the editorial sector.  Whilst most of us did not have more than secondary education, a good eye will notice an error when its on the page in front of you.  As civilians, most of my contemporaries have remained within the communications realm.  Some are IT contractors, or BT Open Reach but some have diversified completely.  One friend is now a hypnotist who helps people quit smoking or weight loss and has even been on the television.  Another friend is now a vicar!

Officers are often snapped up immediately on leaving and become very efficient and effective managers.  Most Junior and Senior NCOs are able to influence their work mates in a calm manner.  All ex-service personnel are very willing workers. 

Employing a former member of the Armed Forces can give businesses a member of staff who has excellent work ethics, a ‘can-do’ attitude and a commitment to get the work done on time.  They are generally well groomed, smart, well-travelled and experienced in life.  I must admit that the military humour can be a little dark for civilians and personally my swearing was outrageous for a couple of days after arriving home from a deployment, until family life settled me down again.