Editor for Life: Mary Newberry, Freelance Editor and Indexer

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.

Photo of Mary Newberry, Freelance Editor and Indexer, standing next to a giant hibiscus.

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 did this remarkable, completely unexpected thing, where I went to university for the decade of my forties. I hadn’t completed high school, leaving before finishing grade 10 (I went to dance with the Toronto Dance Theatre). It’s remarkable because I had no idea it was what I wanted to do until the day I blurted it out. My partner and the son-who-adopted-us (another story) said, “Go! Do it!” So I did, and there I began to understand the world (and my life) in a different way. I studied literature and political science, graduating with an MA in 1999. Ryerson’s Publishing program took care of the editing skills and, by 2000, I was working as an editor.

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

Maybe working with Toni Morrison? What an incredible experience that would have been! It feels presumptuous, even to imagine, but it has given me pleasure to imagine it. Clearly, she didn’t need me. Maybe Virginia Woolf? Her work is somehow more tentative, less accomplished than Morrison’s. I’ve always loved Woolf’s writing because she is stretching, reaching beyond where she’s comfortable and, as she implies in at least one essay, her writing doesn’t quite reach its potential, teetering on the edge of saying what she wants it to say.

But as fun as it was to imagine that, I’m happiest working with non-fiction, people telling difficult stories. Stories like the one Yusef Salaam tells in his memoir of the Exonerated Five, Better Not Bitter: Living On Purpose in the Pursuit of Racial Justice, which I haven’t yet read. Or the astonishingly beautiful memoir of an unexpected and unwelcome reunification of a father and son by the American poet Nick Flynn, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (yes, his editor did try to talk him out of the title; too bad they didn’t succeed). Or the myth-shattering, heartbreaking Truth and Reconciliation Commission Reports, on which I worked as one indexer in a team of six (three English and three French). I’m currently working with a woman who’s telling her story of her many long hard years’ fight to get justice, eventually winning a landmark decision at the Supreme Court of Canada. She’s not a writer, but she’s a good storyteller, with good instincts. These are my dream projects.

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

Certainly not a favourite punctuation mark. And not really a favourite word. But I have this thing with the word umbrella that represents my personal relationship with words, demonstrating how truly remarkable it is that I am an editor. Umbrella and apron are words that I will often substitute for each other. Somehow they are stored in the same drawer in my brain, under “items that protect from splatter,” my brain somehow not registering the rather large difference between rain and grease! (And while on the subject, does anyone else mix up the letters c and s when typing? I don’t mean that I’m not aware which one is correct, but my fingers will often choose the wrong one!)

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

I can think of so many places that would be exciting and interesting. But I always come back to Canada, where I grew up as a first-generation immigrant settler. I’m still learning what it means to be on this land, and I’m grateful and happy to be here.

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

Ha ha ha—many times, before I became an editor!

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

When I finished university, I was 47. I had been the manager of a massage therapy clinic during my decade of university but had gone full-time for my master’s, earning a scholarship and working as a university instructor. Now what? I had an English degree and mid-level, small-business management experience. I applied for maybe a hundred real jobs (my partner was running his own business—wouldn’t it be great to get a job with benefits and some security?). With my plan to get a job apparently not going anywhere, I took the advice of a friend and enrolled in some editing courses at Ryerson and changed course. My first job, filling in for an editor on leave at the magazine Canadian Family Physician, I got as a result of attending a branch meeting of Editors Toronto. When that came to an end, and with my passion for editing growing, I started applying for positions and pretty quickly was hired as a part-time managing editor with the literary magazine Descant. At the same time, I was picking up freelance contracts, many at first for indexing, which became a specialty and an early love.

It’s now over 20 years later, and I’m nearing 70. I won the Ewart-Daveluy Award for Excellence in Indexing in 2016 and, just this year, was shortlisted for the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence. I had no expectations of this career (I honestly could barely spell when I started university) except that I loved working with ideas and with stories, and found I could pay the bills with it. I can hardly express how happy this work has made me.

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

Read carefully and compassionately, communicate clearly and directly, never patronize, and listen to that quiet voice that says, “wait—what was that?”


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

This article was copy edited by Margaux Yiu.

2 thoughts on “Editor for Life: Mary Newberry, Freelance Editor and Indexer

    1. Thanks, Vilma. I really am curious if anyone else does that c and s mix up. It seems to happen in some deep unconscious part of my brain. Out of nowhere the wrong letter will appear on my screen when I’m typing, and my conscious mind is completely aware that this is not the way to spell this word.

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