Editor for Life: Jennifer D. Foster, Freelance Editor, Writer, and Mentor

Interview conducted by Alicja Minda.

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.

Editor for Life: Jennifer D. Foster

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’m a Toronto-based freelance editor, writer, and mentor, and I’ve been in the industry for more than 20 years. I have university degrees in mass communication and sociology, and journalism. After graduating from journalism school, I was an intern at Chatelaine magazine, then I was assistant editor at Homemakers magazine for nearly three years, before becoming a writer/editor in the Marketing and Communications department at the Art Gallery of Ontario for more than two years. In May 2003, when my son was six months old, I launched my own freelance editing and writing business, Planet Word, where I offer copy editing and proofreading, writing, researching, project and content management/consultation, manuscript evaluation and mentoring services. My client list is quite the mix—everyone from self-publishing authors, big and small book and magazine publishers and art galleries to registered charities, national newspapers, and multinational accounting firms. I work on everything from fiction, non-fiction and children’s books, web copy, trade and consumer magazines, style guides, and newsletters to curatorial content, plans/reports, book reviews, ad copy, and press releases.

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

Hmm, this is an excruciatingly tough one, and I can’t choose between these two, so I must say Edward Gorey and Dorothy Parker. I’m in awe of Parker’s blazing wit, satirical brilliance, and insightful observations on the human condition. And Gorey’s clever turns of phrase, dark, twisted humour, and wondrous imagination (not to mention his fantastically eerie illustrations) are simply incomparable. As an editor, I’d be humbled by their talent and most likely intimidated into editorial paralysis, unable to change one word or add a single punctuation mark. I’d more than likely just sit and read and reread their verse and feel incredibly lucky to have the chance to eyeball their words, leaving nothing but praise in the editorial margins. Oh, and since I’ve included two here, I must add a third: Sylvia Plath. I read The Bell Jar just after completing my journalism degree and was rocked by Plath’s inimitable ability to capture one young woman’s descent into depression and attempted suicide with such raw, affecting prose. Again, I’m not sure how I’d manage to change anything!

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

Definitely the em dash. I love how it’s simultaneously sturdy yet elegant, practical yet profound—definitely unmatched in its versatility. And I’m enamoured with the word serendipity. I love how it’s bravely got five syllables, how it rolls off the tongue, and how it lingers in the air after being spoken. And its meaning—good fortune, happy chance—is equally optimistic, especially the one from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition: “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” What’s not to love about that?

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

Another tough question! Either Ireland or Italy and, ideally, I’d split my time between the two. I’ve been to both countries on family vacations in the “Before Times” and was staggered by the sheer beauty of the land and the big open hearts of the locals. My obsession for gelato began in Florence, and I can just imagine being able to take a lunch break and wander its cobbled streets, gelato in hand, admiring the architecture and geography, then buying some fresh ingredients at the market for supper. Or, after a particularly trying day at work, being able to swing open my windows, see the rolling green fields and wide-open spaces of Galway, the hedgerows and sheep, and wander down to the ocean to gather some seashells and listen to the gulls and the waves.

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

Every day! Seriously, though, even as a seasoned editor, I sometimes grapple with imposter syndrome. During those times, I just keep telling myself, “This, too, shall pass.” But, really, I think it’s just my inner voice helping to keep me humble and grounded. And there are those days when I want to scream (and usually do) and pull out all my hair when the odd client, who considers themself an expert at my job, argues over, say, comma placement. Overall, though, I’m extremely grateful and thrilled that I get to read for a living and work with words every day.

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

I’ve had a love of reading and writing and words for as long as I can remember, as well as a curious and slightly eccentric (hence, my appreciation of Gorey) nature. And I can get bored with lots of repetition. So being an editor is a natural fit for me. I like the endless variety and freedom of choice that my freelance career brings: one day, I’m copy editing a picture book, then the next day, I’m proofreading a murder mystery and magazine features, then the day after that, I’m writing a book review or interviewing an author for a feature article. Growing up, I was a voracious reader, and I adored spelling tests, grammar lessons, learning new facts and words, using the dictionary and thesaurus, and writing essays. I remember the pure joy of mastering sentence deconstruction in Grade 7 English class, while my peers were practically asleep with boredom. Being an editor feels like the best culmination of all those things. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to work in a world that was all about words—all the time.

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

“Be kind and do no harm.” Our turbulent world could always use a little more kindness. Also, there’s a fine line between making changes that strengthen a writer’s voice or that clarify the content and changing the text into what you as an editor want to see. And heaven forbid an editor were to introduce an error into the copy—that’s my worst editorial nightmare.

Alicja Minda is a journalist and editor based in Toronto. She is the editor-in-chief of BoldFace.

This article was copy edited by Arija Berzitis.

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