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 Five Ws: 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.
Please tell us a little about yourself, the kind of work you do (and where you live), and how long you’ve been an editor.
I’ve been an academic editor for a little more than a decade now. I’ve learned a lot about editing and a lot about myself. Before that, I was a student (University of Toronto), and before that, I worked for an international development organization. Until recently, I was living in Toronto, but last fall I moved back home to Manitoba and now live in Winnipeg. I edit book manuscripts, journal articles, dissertations, and sundries (cover letters, grant applications, course material, CVs, etc.).
Who: If you could edit one famous author, living or dead, who would it be?
This question stumps me. If an author is famous, I assume they had a good editor, so what would there be for me to do?
What: Do you have a favourite punctuation mark and/or a favourite word?
I once spent almost a day working my way through “Tonight at Seven-Thirty” by W.H. Auden. This was not for the faint of heart. Most of that day was spent looking up words in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), searching the entire definition to find the obscurest one, the one Auden had in mind. If my memory serves me correctly, the examples for several of the words provided by the OED were from this Auden poem. Mastering that poem stands out as a major achievement of my life, mostly because it has been an enduring gift to me. It is an astounding, splendid poem about a dinner party. Here’s my favourite line from among many:
for the funniest
mortals and the kindest are those who are most aware
of the baffle of being
And here’s a list of some of the words I learned: flosculent, cenacle, rundle, semble, siege, curmurr, raconteur, dapatical, olamic—all of them my favourites.
About punctuation: In my undergraduate days, I did some dabbling in ancient Greek manuscripts, which had been written without punctuation. They’re challenging to translate 2,000 years later but imagine the ability to communicate using only words and no punctuation.
Where: If you could work anywhere in the world as an editor, where would that be?
In Georgia O’Keefe territory for sure—the light, the air, the adobe, the desert, the mountains, the roasting chilies. Mind you, the smell of roasting chilies would be such a distraction that I wouldn’t get any editing done. But sadly, I’m the most productive when I’m at home, sitting in the same old chair. Friends assume that I regularly go to a coffee shop to work. Oh how wrong they are. But I do dream of throwing off the shackles of regularity and renting a small place in the New Mexican or the Chihuahuan desert for a few months where it would be me, a cactus, and an emptiness in which to work. But would there be wifi available? Sigh. Back to my chair.
When: Was there ever a time in your life when you seriously questioned your career choice?
No! I’m relieved that I finally have a career after wandering through my life (see next question).
Why: Why did you choose to become an editor? Or, should we ask: Why did editing choose you?
It was definitely me who chose editing. After I received my PhD, I landed several research jobs that took me to exciting places like Mexico and Bolivia (and I did a little bit of editing among that), but I knew it wasn’t a sustainable way to make my living. After a year or so of research work, I sat myself down over the course of a few months and made a list of directions I could go given what I was doing and what I would like to do. Editing made the most sense. So I started attending Editors Toronto monthly meetings, joined the association, started volunteering, took some seminars to learn about editing. This kind of deliberate life planning is completely foreign to me. Previously, any life changes were the result of a flash of insight, and I knew what my next step would be. Not this time: deliberating, researching, training, learning from mistakes. And I’ve never looked back. Well…. It wasn’t quite that easy. The first few years were lean and hard! It took me a few years to build up a viable client base, learn where my skills lay, develop a thick skin, grieve the loss of an academic life, figure out how to estimate the cost of editing accurately, cultivate business skills, and recognize the creative joy of combining my skills with those of a scholar to produce a piece of excellent academic writing.
And, of course, we just had to ask the inevitable how: How would you sum up your motto?
I do what needs to be done. Editing academic writing gives me this luxury. Most manuscripts come to me before they’ve been submitted to a journal or a press for publication. In other words, I’m hired by my clients to make their manuscripts as publishable as possible—they welcome any feedback I can give. This means that the editing I do is varied, and I don’t readily fit into any editing category. I find this tremendously satisfying because I can sink myself into a project until I decide it’s good to go. Another motto I edit by is one I learned from my father who was a contractor and furniture maker: Your work can be good or not good but never good enough.
Jennifer D. Foster is a Toronto-based freelance editor, writer, and mentor. Her company is Planet Word. Jennifer is a former co-chair, seminars chair, and seminars vice-chair of Editors Toronto, and a regular contributor to BoldFace.
This article was copy edited by Ambrose Li.