Monday, January 30, 2006

Answers to Your Most Pressing Questions, Part 7

Danigirl asks the question that would have prompted me to use that "Read More!" button for the first time except that the instructions I found online looked too complicated to deal with right now:

"Personally, I'm fascinated by (among other things) your job as an editor - I think I've gleaned that much correctly. So, tell me about your job - what do you do, how did you get it, what background or qualifications would one need to do that job?"

Warning! This is really long: proceed with caution and caffeine.

If you'll forgive me, I'll answer the parts of the question in not quite the same order in which they were posed. (Now, if this piece were a journal article, I'd be asking the author if she'd want to reconsider reordering her responses so that they'd be in parallel with the questions. But, thank heavens, this is just a blog. We're a little bit more flexible here.)

Right after college, I got a job at a medical journal. I had fully expected an entry-level, editorial assistant position, essentially a glorified administrative assistant. This job was much worse than that. All day, every day, I called physicians to see if they'd be interested in serving as a peer reviewer for a given manuscript. Two or three reviewers per manuscript, about 1700 manuscripts per year. This was before the wide adoption of e-mail, naturally.

I hated it.

Ultimately, it was good for me, though, confronting my ardent dislike and fear of talking to other people. I did this for about a year, till luck and a marginal amount of skill landed me a series of promotions. All along I learned to edit -- how to mark up a manuscript (On paper! Using marks like these!); how to spot errors of grammar and fact and infelicitous usage; how to change wording that is wrong, leave good writing alone, and achieve the wisdom to know the difference.

On top of general copyediting, I also had to master medical jargon and usage; become at ease with biostatistics; grow adept at editing tables and figures so that they convey information concisely and in a graphically pleasing manner; and learn the intricacies of conducting medical research. (Along with way, we abandoned old-fashioned pencil-and-paper editing for the thrills of editing electronically. I can't imagine ever going back.)

I eventually left the world of strict copyediting to a supervisory position, where I managed the production of the journal and the copyediting staff. Oh, and this was all at the same journal at which I started. Apparently I kind of liked it there.

Now, in a somewhat downward shift, I'm a copyeditor again, this time as a freelancer. I contract with publishers, companies, and individual authors. It's a really cool gig for a stay-at-home mom; although I don't spend a lot of time editing right now by choice, I hope to increase my client base once the kids are in school full-time. Check back with me in a few years to see how well Little Miss I Hate to Market Myself is doing….

So that's how I got from being an English major to being an editor. As far as what qualifications make a good editor, I have a few ideas. I'll address copyediting specifically, for that's the area I'm most familiar with. The term "editing" could mean a lot of things -- copyediting, developmental editing, substantive editing. Each one requires a slightly different skill set.

I think all good copyeditors should have a love of language, and an invested interest in clear communication. Knowledge of grammar is important, but you can also be a good editor simply by "feel". In some ways, you either have that feel or you don't. One of the most important lessons I've learned is that grammar and usage rules are not tools with which to beat language into submission; they serve at the pleasure of the language, and the language changes. In that respect, I fall somewhere between being a proscriptivist (the rules are the rules, and that's that) and a descriptivist (the people who speak and write the language own it; there are few hard and fast rules).

I've learned that my job is to make sure that the author's message and information are imparted as clearly as possible, and that the author's tone and voice are not distorted in the process. My job is not to impose own my style on the author or to show off my knowledge of picayune grammar conventions. Copyeditors have gotten a bad rap for doing that.

Back to qualities an editor should have. A grasp of grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage is crucial, of course. A high tolerance for tedium is also important -- copyediting isn't the most glamorous way to make a living, and sometimes it's pretty dull. A good copyeditor also needs to be extremely well read.

Tact is essential. I spend a lot of time querying authors, both to solicit additional information and to explain changes I have made. The nicer I am, the more easily the medicine goes down. Many authors don't find having their work edited to be an enjoyable process, so I like to make it as gentle and nonconfrontational as possible. For example, I often present myself as a surrogate reader (a sample query: "Readers might be confused by the preceding sentence because of [specific reason]. Would the following revision be acceptable? If not, please recast so that the sentence conveys your intended meaning"). Most of the time, this approach works really well.

Finally, to quote someone or other, a disdain for high wages is a requirement for any editor.

So. That is WAY more than you wanted to know, Danigirl, I'm sure. And for anyone else who has made it thus far, thanks for indulging me!