Interview conducted by Jennifer D. Foster
A career as an editor is often a solo adventure, especially if you’re a freelancer. So we thought one way to better connect with fellow editors was to ask them the W5: who, what, where, when, and why. Read on for some thought-provoking, enlightening tidbits from those of us who choose to work with words to earn our keep.
Mary, please tell us a little about yourself, the kind of work you do, and how long you’ve been an editor.
I became a copy editor at The New Yorker in 1981, after three years in the editorial library (archive) of the magazine and a year in a department called collating, where I studied the proofs of some legendary proofreaders and copy editors. Copy editing at The New Yorker is a mechanical process: fixing misspellings and imposing house style—there is no room for interpretation. Finally, after what felt like eons—just as the collating department was being superseded by the computer—I moved to Page O.K.’ing, or query proofreading, a job that allows you to express more of your own sensibility. There are five or six O.K.’ers on staff. We shepherd the pieces through the editorial process, doing our best not to introduce errors when making changes. I’ve been doing this job since 1993. It is demanding and satisfying.
Who: If you could edit one famous author, living or dead, who would it be?
No contest: Herman Melville. I wouldn’t change a word or cut a paragraph, but I itch to fiddle with his punctuation.
What: What is your favourite punctuation mark and/or favourite word?
The comma has been very, very good to me. It’s subtle, useful, endlessly controversial, and resistant to absolute rules.
My word of the year is man bun, but an abidingly pleasing word to me is aperto, the Italian for open. I saw it on a sign outside a bar on a beach north of Rome. It was early in the season—May?—and never has a word made me happier, in any language.
Where: If you could work anywhere in the world as an editor, where would that be?
I don’t know! I like working in New York, but I don’t much like our current office, in the new World Trade Center. (I’d like it better if I had a window.) I love the beach, the Mediterranean, the mountains… but when I am in a beautiful place I have no desire to copy edit. I like to rest my eyes on the horizon.
When: Was there ever a time in your life when you seriously questioned your career choice?
No. There was a moment when I thought about going back to school for a PhD in classical Greek, but I caught myself. I hated graduate school. The idea of going back—to anywhere except Trinity College in Dublin—made me realize that I was fantasizing about doing something that would ruin the study of Greek for me.
Why: Why did you choose to become an editor? Or, should we ask: Why did editing choose you?
I have always loved words and reading, and I noticed things like spelling and punctuation in everything I read. I wanted to write, but I have a practical streak and I like to be self-sufficient. So copy editing is a good fit for me: I get paid to read and spend my days playing with words. Sometimes I wonder why I never moved up the editorial ladder and became the other kind of editor. I concluded that maybe I am not nice enough. I like the role of gadfly. I can be honest, without being brutally honest, and I can be helpful, and I can work with a wide variety of writers and editors. I also like the feeling of being trusted.
And, of course, we just had to ask the inevitable how: How would you sum up your motto?
Do no harm.
Jennifer D. Foster is a Toronto-based freelance editor and writer, specializing in book and custom publishing, magazines, and marketing and communications.
This article was copy edited by Karen Kemlo.