By the Book: In-house editor and freelance writer James Harbeck’s book highlights

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInterview conducted by Jennifer D. Foster

Have you ever wondered what fellow editors like to read? We have, too. In our interview series “By the Book,” we get the inside scoop on editors’ all-time favourite books, their top style guide, and what their alternate-universe career would be.

Tell us about your current job, James, plus a little-known quirky fact about you.

I’m senior editor at MediResource Inc., which is the leading Canadian provider of consumer-oriented health content on the Web. I’ve been there nearly 15 years. I’m in charge of making sure that our content is clean and readable and well presented, and our processes are efficient. I’ve put a lot of effort over the years into making sure we don’t have to fix the same things over and over again.

Hmm. Quirky. I don’t know if it’s quirky enough that I grew up on an Indian reserve (I’m not Indian; my parents worked for them). I’m not sure if it’s little-known enough that I can do undertone singing. Or quirky enough that I once played a Yorkshire-born British Columbia labour leader in a CBC radio drama. Since I’ve had a half million views on my video “Phonetic description of annoying sounds teenagers make,” I guess it’s not little-known. Um, a former girlfriend was the hundredth in line to the British throne… . How’s that? (Another former girlfriend knew Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and my wife knows Kurt Browning and Toller Cranston. But that’s all reflected glory, I suppose.)

What is your all-time favourite book and why?

This is a tough question because I’m not a big one for choosing a single favourite of anything. So many books have influenced me, authors such as Vonnegut, Koestler, Joyce, Atwood, Frankl, Tolkien, Rowling, Spike Milligan… . But if you can count the Oxford English Dictionary as a single book, I think that would have to be it. It’s 20 volumes in print, or available online at by subscription (through a library if you can; I get it through a university), but it’s a single work. A book is a door to new worlds, but the OED is a door to thousands and thousands of words, each word a world, each one a whole historical chronicle, a clan, and a library of its own. It’s the one book I come back to almost every day.

I actually read a lot of magazines. And I do have a favourite magazine: National Geographic.

What is your favourite editing manual, style guide, or other book about editing/writing?

The one I have yet to write, perhaps. But really, hmm, I’m not going to name a style guide—many are useful in their ways, and genre-specific too—and I’m sure as hell not going to name Strunk and White, which has infected so many minds with its odd little viruses. I really enjoyed On Writing by Stephen King, who is also an excellent author. But I learned a lot about writing from reading Vonnegut, Joyce, Atwood… .

What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t an editor and why?

If I had made a good career as an actor, I wouldn’t have gone to grad school. If I had slipped easily into a job as a theatre professor, I wouldn’t have gone into writing and editing. I’m good at writing ads, but I would never make a career doing it. It’s very difficult to make a living as a freelance writer; I write a lot, but it doesn’t pay much. If I weren’t editing, I might be in linguistics. Or I could always have tried once more to make a go of it in radio.

Jennifer D. Foster is a Toronto-based freelance editor, mentor, and writer, specializing in book and custom publishing, magazines, and marketing and communications.

This article was copy edited by Robin Marwick.

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