Episode 5

A Leap into the Unknown with Denise Cowle

Published on: 10th March, 2021

After 25 years as a physiotherapist in the UK National Health Service, Denise Cowle made a bold career move when she decided to quit her stable job without knowing where she was going. She then found her passion and purpose in editing and proofreading. Nine years and many milestones later, Denise talks about:

  • what drove her to leave steady employment and leap into the unknown
  • how to deal with fear by asking “What’s the worst that could happen?”
  • her passion for her new line of work and how she deals with imposter syndrome
  • how professional trade associations and peer groups have proved invaluable
  • customers as collaborators, not simply people who buy your services
  • her ambitious plans for the future expansion of her skills and business
  • advice for people wishing to move into this flexible and appealing career

This is Denise’s successful editing podcast: https://theeditingpodcast.captivate.fm/

And in this blog post Denise talks about the personal and professional skills which are transferable across seemingly very different lines of work: https://denisecowleeditorial.com/career-change-physiotherapist-to-editor/ 

Link to the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading: https://www.ciep.uk/

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Music: Pablito's Way by Paolo Pavan

Transcript
Helen:

Denise, hello, and thank you for agreeing to speak to us about your bold career move which you made a few years ago. Can you start by telling us firstly, what your career change was and what it was that motivated you to make that change?

Denise:

Okay. Hi and it's lovely to be here, Helen and Maribel. So, I was a physiotherapist in the NHS here in the UK for 25 years. And nine years ago, that's when I made my big career move. And I'd been thinking about it for a few years, I wasn't entirely happy with what I was doing. I liked the actual physiotherapy work but everything around it was very stressful, you know, a lot of pressure on NHS staff with targets and budgets and things like that. And in addition to that, there was a lot of external stress or factors at home because at that point, my kids were about 12, 10, and four, I think. And they were all in different schools, I was working at a hospital, and my husband was traveling a huge amount with his job. So a lot of the time, he was overseas and I was dealing with all this by myself, trying to get the three of them to three different places in the morning before I got to work. And it was incredibly stressful to do that and there was about a year when I felt I was never on time for anything. I was late all the time. And I was casting around for… I had this idea that I wanted to do something else. Because I was at that point, I was 45 at that point. And I thought well, you know, I could spend another 15 years or so working here and be fine and get an NHS pension and, you know, dadada. And that would be okay, but what if there was something else that I could do for the next part of my working life? And I didn't know what it would be. I had no idea what that looked like or what area it was in. And so it’d been on my mind for about two or three years, I think. I cast around a bit and thought maybe I could work in HR, because Human Resources side of things did interest me. And I thought, No, I don't want to do that. And it just reached a point where I picked Andy up from the airport one night and he said to me, So how was your week? And on the motorway I just started crying and he was just like, Okay, right, something has to change and you're not going back to work until we figure it out. And I actually phoned in sick the next day and went off with stress basically. I took a month to think about it. And Andy suggested I should maybe think about editorial work. Now, it had never crossed my mind as something that I could do. But when he said that I realized that I had been doing some of that sort of proofreading work for him over the years, for his marketing materials and stuff. So we sort of looked into that. And I thought, actually, I really quite like the sound of that, And I thought, you know, I don't know anything about it and I don't know anyone. But I thought, You know what? If I don't do this now, I'm never going to do it. So we had lots of chats about it. And we decided I would just hand my notice in and go for it. So I took that month off, went back and handed my notice in when I went back. And just decided, Let's go for it and see what happens.

Helen:

Okay, so did you have anything lined up when you handed your notice in?

Denise:

No, absolutely nothing. And this is definitely not how I would recommend that people do it. But it was what was right for me at the time. Because I felt if I went back and got back into the swing of being a physiotherapist again, I would lose that momentum of the progress I'd made over that month in thinking that I could do something else. I'd end up getting sucked back into it and it would never have happened. So I made a decision just to give myself a year to explore whether I could actually make a viable career out of it. And I went on a one day introductory course in Edinburgh at Publishing Scotland. And I was in it about an hour and I thought oh God, yes, this is just what I want to do! I'm so excited! And actually I teach that course now, which is really lovely. But yeah, that made me sure that it was worth pursuing, just even just that one day course.

Helen:

And can you remember how you were feeling as you handed your notice in, as you made the decision to leave, as the first 12 months where you weren't sure where you're going, what was going through yourself, you know your mind and your body at the time?

Denise:

I suppose for a lot of people in that position, I was 50% excited and 50% terrified, but I think once the decision was made, actually it was easier because it's, Well, this is what I'm doing. And this is what I'm going to explore. And I'm gonna make the best of it. And I made the decision immediately that I would not go back to physiotherapy. So a lot of people have said to me, Oh, well, at least you've got a career to go back to, if it fails. And I thought, Well, a) thanks for the motivational speech and b) that's not what I want to do. I don't want to go backwards. And so I had decided that if it didn't work out, I would look at something else. I would do something else. It was scary. But so many people said to me, in the NHS, when I was telling people I was leaving, Oh, I wish I could do that. I wish I had the guts to do that or I was able to do that. A lot of them said Oh, I couldn't afford to do that financially. And the honest truth was, neither could we really. It wasn't that we had some massive bank of cash that it didn't matter if I worked or not. So it was important that I was able to earn money fairly quickly. But it had just reached a point, Helen, when I thought I have to do this, I have to at least try. I think that was the overriding feeling of, If I don't get out and try something now, I'm never gonna do it.

Maribel:

Denise, I'm quite curious about the aspect of dealing with the fear. And if we could explore that a little bit more, because I have the feeling that many people decide not to take that jump and try something because that fear is just there too present.

Denise:

Yeah, I think that's something that, over the years, I've sort of succumbed to myself, actually, when I even think a way back to deciding to be a physiotherapist. When I left school and went to study, I was the first person in my family to go into higher education like that, to go and get a degree. So that was a very unknown quantity to me. What I really would probably have wanted to study would have been probably English and history. But I had no concept of what I would do with that. And the fear of that unknown, of coming out with a degree and not knowing what to do. stopped me from doing that. So I thought I need to have a degree where I've got something tangible I can do at the end of it. And physiotherapy did interest me and I had a very happy career. I mean, you don't stick at something for 25 years and be miserable. I enjoyed what I did. But that fear that stopped me when I was 18 or whatever, I think that's the sort of thing that probably has stopped me doing quite a lot of things over the years, not necessarily big things, but that caution of staying in your comfort zone really, isn't it? And feeling safe and not stepping out of it. And being brave, really, I think. And I think maybe when you get into your 40s you stop caring a bit more. Do you know what I mean? You suddenly realize that you're moving through your life at quite a speed. And you just think, Well, if I don't do this now, I might really regret not trying. And I think I can probably say that about quite a few other things in my life and I didn't want to say it about this. So that pushed me over the fear, I think.

Maribel:

That totally resonates and I can understand. And how were those first months that were totally new?

Denise:

Yeah. They were quite exciting, actually, because I did some training initially. I did a lot of research, I mean I did all the stuff that I probably should have done before I left the NHS. So I did a lot of research into how I could get good quality training and how I could get support because it was a completely unknown field to me as a brand new entrant into it, I didn't really understand exactly how it worked. I mean, obviously, Andy, my husband, he works in publishing, but not in editorial, he's always been in sales and marketing and distribution. So he could sort of give me vague ideas, but actually, I needed to find out exactly how I could make a career out of this. So I quite quickly found what was then the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and having come from a very structured environment where there's a very clear career path in the NHS, there's pay grades, there's lines of reporting, it's all very rigid, to being freelance and not knowing anything or anyone, you could easily be flailing about in the dark for a long time

Maribel:

I can imagine

Denise:

So I thought I need to find some sort of support structure here for this. And that's when I found what was then SfEP, which is a professional organization for editors and proofreaders, and they had a local group in Glasgow. So I went along to meet them. And they were just so lovely to me. And they were so welcoming, and so supportive, and nobody there said, What are you thinking about? You can't do this, you've got no experience, they were all very much, Well, if this is what you want to do, here's where you can get training, this is what you should do setting up your business, and they were lovely. And that really went a long way towards reassuring me that it was a viable thing that I had done, to see other people around me, to find other people that were doing it was huge, really. I think if I hadn't found them, it would have been much, much more difficult, definitely.

Helen:

Do you feel like you’ve found your passion now?

Denise:

Yeah, I do, actually, which is such a, I think it's such a nerdy thing to say, you know, about editing and proofreading. But I do love working with words and language, I really get such a lot of pleasure out of it. And it's such a pleasure in making it really the best it can be for the next stage in the production process, whether that's printing or going onto a website or whatever. I really get a lot of pleasure from that, but also from connecting with other people in the industry. And it's allowed me to… I'm very heavily involved with what is now the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading. I'm quite evangelical about it really, but if you're going to be an editor and proofreader you need to join a professional organization, if not ours then someone else's, but you need to be with people, you need to know what the standards are, and you need to train and you need to have CPD and I feel very strongly about that. And I want to encourage other new editors and proofreaders into the profession the way that I was encouraged, because they were so welcoming. You know, it's a bit of paying that back I think, really.

Helen:

Yeah. And just following your career in the past few years, because I think when I met you, it was probably about six or seven years ago, I think you had just transitioned at the time. And you've come a long way since then. I mean, we sought your advice when we were wanting to do this podcast. You've got a successful podcast going. What else have you managed to do?

Denise:

So, one of the things that really changed… In 2015, my whole approach to business changed direction when I found the Content Marketing Academy. I won a free ticket to a conference that they were running. about marketing. I knew nothing about marketing and I thought, Well, I might go along here and I might find some new clients, you never know. And actually, it really made me think totally differently about how I run my little one-person business and how I communicate with clients and potential clients. And it sparked a real interest in content marketing and marketing itself. So that got me writing blogs, it got me doing videos, so I've got a YouTube channel, and then more recently, a podcast as well. And it's just about finding ways of communicating with people I find really interesting about… Editing and proofreading can be a pretty dry subject really, for people that maybe aren't interested or don't understand. It takes a certain type of person, I think, to sit and really analyze texts like that. But there's lots of things about it that can help people in their own writing or in their own work. And it's just about getting that across, that there are small things you can do and this is how you can help yourself and sometimes for other editors and proofreaders, this is how you can improve your business practice. And it's about, I think, just putting that advice out there and yes, the whole point of content marketing is to raise your own visibility so that you get more clients, but what appeals to me is that it's not being salesy. You know, it's being helpful in giving people useful advice, and I think it's just good practice to think about. If people are going to trust you with their writing, you need to be able to show them that, you don't just want to tell them that you think you can do a good job, you want to show them how you approach your work and I think these sort of ways of doing things are less overtly salesy. And it has a benefit of just… Most people will never work with me, most people will never come and say I want you to edit this, but they'll maybe have benefited from a video I've done or a blog post I’ve written and I like that idea that it's not just all targeted at who's going to buy from me effectively, but it's a much more generous thing to do, I think, about being helpful with your knowledge.

Helen:

Is that important to have that attitude, do you think?

Denise:

Well, I think so because I think people have such a negative view of marketing and see it as sort of a bit sleazy. And when you talk about marketing your own business, especially when I talk to other editors, there can be quite a lot of resistance to it, because they don't want to be seen as forcing themselves on other people. And I think it's quite a good fit with how I feel about how I want other people to see me. I want them to understand that this is the sort of person I am, that I want to work WITH you. You know, it's not just a transaction when I'm your editor. It's not just, You pay me and I do this. Yes, there is an exchange of money involved. But it's a collaborative process. And that's my style of working. And it's about sharing information and knowledge, not just telling somebody, something's right or wrong. Does that make sense? And then on the back of that, I've been the marketing director at the CIEP for the last three years as well.

Helen:

Oh wow! You wear lots of hats now?

Denise:

I wear lots of hats. Yes. So I sometimes feel I'm spinning lots of plates as well, but it's all good. It's all good.

Helen:

So what's next for you? You mentioned that you're teaching on the course that you originally learned on and you want to help other people get into it. Is this the direction that you could go or where are you thinking?

Denise:

I think that's something that I quite enjoy doing alongside what I'm doing. So I teach An Introduction to Proofreading for Publishing Scotland. And I also teach proofreading. I'm a tutor on the CIEP online courses for proofreading, there's three levels of that. And I love engaging with people in a classroom. So this year, it's been really, really weird, obviously, because we've all been reduced to doing it like this and, in fact, I was teaching yesterday. It's definitely something that… I enjoyed teaching when I was a physiotherapist as well, I was a clinical educator with Glasgow Caledonian University, and I used to take students out on placement in the hospital. So I've always loved that knowledge transfer or whatever you want to call it, just helping people to understand something. I don't see me moving completely into that but I do like to be able to do that alongside what I'm doing. And I think these days, it's always good to have more than one thing that you do, really, you don't want to put all your eggs in one basket, really. And I'd like to develop some, well I am in very early stages, some of my own short courses, very sort of specific things I can sell online. But that's for next year. Just thinking about that at the moment. So yeah, it’s something I do enjoy, definitely.

Maribel:

And Denise, for someone who is thinking to getting into this profession, what advice would you give them?

Denise:

Well, definitely don't do what I did, if you could avoid it. I would say plan it and do your research. We're seeing a lot of people coming into proofreading and editing this year, who've been furloughed or made redundant and are looking… It’s a very popular second career for people, second or third career. And I think the flexibility that it gives you if you're working freelance is one of the big things. I would definitely say plan ahead, do your research, think about what training you need, have a financial cushion. I mean, I think that's just sensible for anybody that's making a big career move. And go for it if you feel strongly enough that you think this would interest you. I was prepared to do anything if it didn't work out. I think that was a key thing, that I had made the decision mentally to move on from what I was doing. And I knew that I wouldn't go back to it. Not everybody feels that way. So sometimes it's easier for people to keep their options open. And in fact, some people transition and run their proofreading and editing in parallel with their job and then gradually transition out of it. And depending on what you do, that can work really well, you know, some people move out of teaching or being in academia or maybe working for the local government and they gradually reduce the hours that they're doing. But then other people have a big shock and they're made redundant or they have to move for their husband’s or their partner's job and they’re in an area where they can't get work and they have to look at other ways. So I think the thing about it is that editing and proofreading is flexible, because most of the work is done online now. I never meet my clients, they’re all over the world. So that's a huge bonus, you can be anywhere, you can do your work in your own time. So the flexibility is really appealing to a lot of people. So yeah, I would say, plan it out and go for it, but get some training. Definitely.

Maribel:

Have you written about that, in your blog?

Denise:

I think I have, I'm just trying to think. I'm sure there are blogs somewhere there that… I’m in the middle of moving my website from one thing to another at the moment and I'm having to transfer all my blogs over, so I'm having to go through them all. And I'm sure that is one about making that career change. I think it was one of the first ones I wrote actually, about the transferable skills between being a physiotherapist and being an editor. I think I said something along the lines of “I went from manipulating joints to manipulating text.” But there are lots of transferable skills like being organized and working in a team and developing a relationship with your client or with a patient, all these sorts of things. So I think there were five or six things I listed.

Maribel:

And did you have to deal at the beginning with imposter syndrome? At least, something like that happened to me when I transitioned from teaching to coaching ,that at the beginning, I was thinking, I have no experience. Who am I to do this? And oh, that inner critic!

Denise:

Absolutely. And I would say that even now, I think it's something that I will deal with all my life. I think everything I do I feel a bit of impostor syndrome about, Who am I to be making videos? Who am I to be doing a podcast and talking about these things? Because I think you can always think of somebody else and think, Well, they know more than me or they could present this better than me so I shouldn't be doing this. And it's such a difficult mindset to get off sometimes, I think. But I think it's that whole field of fear. And I think you reach a point, well, I certainly obviously have reached a point in my life where I'm just thinking, I'll just do it, what's the worst that can happen? I will just do it. If it doesn't work, I'll do something else. And that's a mindset that I definitely didn't have for such a long time. When I think of my years as a physiotherapist, I loved it, I enjoyed it, I had a great team that I worked with, but I was staying safe, staying safe all that time. And there's nothing wrong with that, really, until you start feeling that it's not enough.

Helen:

Do you think the imposter syndrome comes with the territory, then?

Denise:

I think so. And I think especially when you work freelance, you don't get much feedback on what you're doing. Okay, so you hand in a piece of work and you probably get a “Thanks very much, that's great.” But that's not particularly constructive on how to improve yourself or there's nothing there for you to reflect on and think, Well, what could I do differently or better next time? So I think it's easy to feel that you're not making progress over the years when you're in a career like that. And you have to look elsewhere to get that validation. I think that reassurance that, actually, do you know what? You are good at this, and you can do okay with it. And I think, again, that's why meeting up with other editors, being part of an organization, doing training, like with the CIEP, there are grades of membership that you work through. So that in itself tells you that you're doing something right. But even just talking to other editors and sharing. I'm in a mastermind group, if you want to call it that, or an accountability group, and we talk about work that we're doing and we get reassurance from each other that we're on the right track. Or if we're stuck on something, we'll ask the others for advice and sort of crowdfund the answer. And that's really helpful because I think imposter syndrome affects an awful lot of us, so finding people to support you through that is really important.

Helen:

On the subject of finding people, do you have a role model or a mentor or anybody that you look up to?

Denise:

I was thinking about this this morning, actually. And it just made me think of, I think I've had it quite easy in a lot of ways. With my physio career, once you're in it, you can, as long as you're not really, really bad, you'll do okay. It's very different when you're out on your own, and you're having to make your own way. And then when I see people like Kamala Harris, the new vice president, and I think the journey that she's had to have to get to where she is in terms of just all the daily microaggressions she must have had to deal with in her life, nevermind the overt racism. And just how divided America and to grow up biracial in America. I think I just look at her and I think, gosh, I’ve had it really easy in comparison. And when you see people like her and other women that are in the spotlight, I just think, well, if they can do that, I can do this little tiny thing that I have to do here, it's really not a big deal. So I suppose that’s the wider thing, but really, so many of my friends and colleagues, I think, are better editors than me, better at communicating at it, and I think I want to be more like them. And it might be about how they maybe conduct themselves professionally. It might be that somebody asks a sticky point that they want to get across to the author and they ask for some advice and some people give suggestions. I think, That's a really good way of putting that, I would never have thought of that, that's an interesting way of coming at that. So how they conduct themselves professionally I learned from them for that, and also the advice that they give. And I just think there's so many people. What’s really interesting to me that in a profession where in theory, we're all competitors, we're all competing against each other, but in actual fact, there's enough work out there for all of us. We've all got little different niches, and we all have our different client bases. And it's very collegial. And I think there's definitely this thing about… I think, because editing is an unregulated profession and so those of us that do it professionally want standards to be raised, we want people to recognize that there's value there. And so I think there's this whole, a rising tide lifts all boats, so we all want each other to be the best editors we can be really, and I think that's a really nice community to be part of actually.

Helen:

Okay, we've got one more question to ask you, Denise, and that's to do with the name of our podcast, which as you know, is AudaciousNess. And the audacious part relates to the audacity to go ahead with this bold goal, this career change that you did in the first place. And the word ness, which we found out when we were searching for a name for this podcast, actually refers to a piece of land which juts out into the sea surrounded by water, sometimes the water is calm, sometimes the water can be stormy. So our question to you is, if you are the ness on which to practice your audacity, what is it, or what has it been, that gives you that solidity, the solid ground to practice this bold career change that you've made?

Denise:

I'm going to hit you with a really corny answer here, I think. It's Andy, it's my husband. Because he has encouraged me all the way through this. He was the one that said yes, go for this. Even when common sense would have told you maybe wasn't the best time in our lives to be doing it. And he was the one who said it was all right to leave without knowing 100% how things were going to work out. And even now, he's the one that talks me down when I'm full of imposter syndrome. And he'll say, what's the worst that can happen? Just do it. He's very good at that. And so I suppose he's the one with the lifebelt. That sounds really corny, doesn't it? To say, it’s my husband, but I wouldn't have done it without him. I think there's no question about that. So he is definitely the one that I rely on for that sort of firm foundation, when I sort of spiral off a bit into the choppy waters. And I know that he's got my back, basically.

Helen:

Brilliant.

Maribel:

I think that's great, not corny at all. A supportive partner

Denise:

Yeah. I like to think that I do that for him as well. So. But yeah, he's the man.

Helen:

Fantastic. Thanks very much, Denise. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us about this bold goal and we wish you all the best of luck.

Maribel:

Thank you very much.

Denise:

Thanks so much for having me. I really enjoyed talking to you. Thank you.

Helen:

Thank you.

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About the Podcast

AudaciousNess
A solid grounding on which to practice your audacity.
AudaciousNess showcases individuals who have set themselves bold, audacious goals and have worked to achieve them. Our purpose is to inspire people to act with the courage to create a positive impact in the world.

Through interviewing 'regular people' about their audacious goals, we highlight the fact that role models are everywhere. Each and every one of us can have an impact in some way. Our goal is to enable a courageous community that honours their genius and lives their calling.

The name 'AudaciousNess' has two components: audacious, meaning 'bold', and ness, meaning 'a strip of land projecting into a body of water'. We believe having a solid grounding on which to practice your audacity is crucial, or, in the words of the great philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 4.49):

"Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."

About your hosts

Maribel Ortega

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I help women find their worth and be confident so that they can use their voice, speak up, take new opportunities and ultimately lead fulfilled lives.

Helen Strong

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I run an eco-friendly, vegan B&B in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. This is just one of the many audacious goals I've pursued in my lifetime.