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Editor for Life: Sara Scharf, freelance editor

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.

Sara Scharf

Sara, please tell us a little about yourself, the kind of work you do, and how long you’ve been an editor.

I’ve been editing for pay for more than 20 years. My specialty is academic editing, especially for clients in the sciences, engineering, and medicine. I have many interests and have switched fields repeatedly, completing a PhD in the history and philosophy of science and technology, working as a medical market analyst, and then, as a postdoctoral fellow in engineering, studying how to increase innovation in extremely multicultural environments. I thrive on variety and intellectual engagement, which is probably why substantive editing, stylistic editing, and fact-checking are my favourite editing tasks. Of course, I copy edit, too, but I nearly lost my mind earlier this week putting more than 700 references into APA format on a tight schedule.

Journal articles, grant applications, promotion packages, and PhD dissertations are my bread and butter. While I help my clients further their careers, they give me the opportunity to learn about cutting-edge research in a wide range of disciplines, from paleontology to polymer chemistry to sociology to electrical engineering. Since many of my clients are not native speakers of English, I often learn about their languages and cultures, too. They also inspire me to learn more about my own language and culture when I explain the origins of English idioms and the subtle differences among expressions. I love how some of the questions they ask really make me think. For instance, one client asked me to explain how possible, probable, potential, and putative are different from each other.

Helping people from a variety of backgrounds express themselves clearly and appropriately in contexts requiring vastly different tones draws on my creativity and is very rewarding.

Who: If you could edit one famous author, living or dead, who would it be?

Uuuh…sorry. I truly have no idea. The sheer number of options is making my head explode. Maybe Charles Darwin, so I could have the opportunity to discuss his thought process with him.

What: Do you have a favourite punctuation mark and/or a favourite word?

That’s a tough question. I certainly insert and delete a large number of commas, but I have to say that a semicolon used properly warms my heart. I have too many favourite words to count.

Where: If you could work anywhere in the world as an editor, where would that be?

Somewhere warm so that I could work outside all year round.

When: Was there ever a time in your life when you seriously questioned your career choice?

I’ve changed careers so many times already that “choice” seems like the wrong word. I enjoy working as an editor. Even when I was doing other things as my major source of income, I’ve always edited on the side.

Why: Why did you choose to become an editor? Or, should we ask: Why did editing choose you?

I’ve been editing and tutoring people in English since I was in high school. In university, though I minored in English (creative writing), I did a specialist degree in botany. I saw that many people needed editing help, especially others in science and engineering, and I had the language skills and scientific background to provide it. My business grew naturally out of that.

And, of course, we just had to ask the inevitable how: How would you sum up your motto?

Bring it on! Give me that extremely technical and incomplete draft of a grant proposal written by a committee of five people, none of whom is a native speaker of English, and I will turn it into a winning application.

Jennifer D. Foster is a Toronto-based freelance editor and writer, specializing in book and custom publishing, magazines, and marketing and communications. She’s also administrative director of the Rowers Reading Series.

This article was copy edited by Jeny Nussey.


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