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.
Barbara, please tell us a little about yourself, the kind of work you do, and how long you’ve been an editor.
I’ve been a freelance editor for the past six years, ever since leaving Penguin Books, where I had been a senior editor for about 10 years. There I acquired and edited literary fiction, YA, and some non-fiction too. I’ve been an editor for 30 years (wow, really?), mainly working for different publishers, first in NYC (where I’m from) and then in Toronto, where I’ve been since 1990. But throughout my career, in between in-house editorial jobs, I did short freelance gigs for book publishers (Grove) and magazine publishers (Rolling Stone, The Nation, Spy). It’s always been a pretty simple transition for me between in-house and freelance work. I enjoy both, though I think freelancing is probably a more natural fit for what I do. It affords me the quiet space that is most conducive to that kind of work.
Who: If you could edit one famous author, living or dead, who would it be?
Oh, that’s a pretty multi-faceted question! Whom would I have wanted to get to know more deeply (because, really, editing can be a very intimate process, with such access granted to a mind and heart)? Whose work do I think I might have improved upon? Whose sentences just floor me and make me feel privileged to read them, let alone be entrusted with them as an early reader? I must choose someone dead, as there’s always the chance (even if remote) among the living. I choose Jane Austen, as she is the answer to most of those questions (except the one about improvement). She was brilliant, funny, wise, such a masterful sentence-builder, and a deep mystery in so many aspects. I’d just love to have known her.
What: What is your favourite punctuation mark and/or favourite word?
Picking a favourite word would hurt the others’ feelings, and I care for them all too much to favour just one. As to punctuation, however, the period is my hero. Not used often enough, in my opinion. It knows when to stop the action, so that we can get our breath and collect our thoughts. So tiny, yet so mighty!
Where: If you could work anywhere in the world as an editor, where would that be?
London, England. Or southern California, where I could feel less of a distinction between the indoors and the outdoors all year round.
When: Was there ever a time in your life when you seriously questioned your career choice?
See question “Why.”
Why: Why did you choose to become an editor? Or, should we ask: Why did editing choose you?
It was a bit of both. I guess I could say we chose each other. I’ve always been both creative and constructive. I majored in creative writing in university, and I edited a literary magazine for two years and loved doing it. I continued writing poetry in the master’s program at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. While I was there, Russell Baker, the Pulitzer prize-winning NYT columnist and author (and Hopkins alum), came to talk to us budding writers about the future, and he spoke with caution (and some underlying yearning, I thought) about pairing creative writing with editing or journalism (I’m paraphrasing here): “If you’re thinking about being an editor to support your writing, don’t. Editing and writing occupy different parts of the brain. You can excel at one or the other, but not both.” (Of course, the fact that he did both, and with no small measure of success, is a good irony.) At the time, I remember being unsettled by that remark. Still, after I graduated and moved back to NYC, working in publishing just seemed like the most natural thing in the world for me. Once I landed a job as an editorial assistant at Simon & Schuster and was given the opportunity to actually edit, I discovered that my understanding of the writing process, my intimacy with the workings of the creative mind, and my love of language made me a natural editor—a writer’s editor. I loved reading and thinking about writing; reading and talking about new submissions; learning how to work with writers; the camaraderie of my fellow editors; the stories and advice and support of seasoned pros (even if they were pretty well all men back then); and being a part (a very tiny part) of literary culture. I still feel the same way.
As to what Baker said, it’s true that the energy required to both write and edit are immense. One of the benefits of being a freelance editor is that I can actually carve out time each day for my own writing. And I know now (as Baker clearly did) that you can do both. You just need a lot of stamina.
And, of course, we just had to ask the inevitable how: How would you sum up your motto?
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 Alanna Brousseau.
One thought on “Editor for Life: Barbara Berson, freelance editor and consultant”
Hello Ms. Berson,
Your name was given to me by Mr. Edward Trapunski.
I am looking for an experienced editor that would edit the first 25 pages of a memoir of mine. I am far from finishing it, but since my writing has been described as experimental — it’s written almost entirely in three-line sentences — I feel that I badly need feedback on the assets and liabilities of my current writing.