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.
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 graduated with a journalism degree from the University of Western Ontario and got a summer job at The Canadian Press (CP) in Toronto. It was a good fit and I never left. I worked my way through various news desks, the business and lifestyle departments, and ran the Ontario bureau for a time. When I returned to CP after a maternity leave, I was offered a position that embraced the roles of writing coach and The Canadian Press Stylebook editor.
Initially, I was much more enthusiastic about the other elements of the job, thinking the Stylebook would be a snore-fest except when I had to bring out a new edition. I soon discovered that many people are passionate about the English language, and it became an absorbing (and entertaining) passion for me as well. In the early years of my stint as editor, the hottest issue was whether Canadians (and CP) should use “-our” spellings for words such as colour and favour. We had always used “-or” as there was proof from the first years of Canada’s existence that it was in use. But newspaper editors, English teachers, and many other very opinionated Canadians thought otherwise, accusing us of being un-Canadian for using an “American” spelling. We finally acquiesced; there were more important issues to tackle.
In later years, for an update of Caps and Spelling, I added the entry “fuck — Avoid with few exceptions.” I was seeing increasing profanity in quotations in our news stories and I wanted to ensure CP only used it when it was newsworthy—say if a politician said it publicly. As we did for all new editions, CP ran a story pointing out this change and others. Well! Radio hosts and columnists decided to have fun with it and announced CP was actually giving writers permission to use the F-word. I spent a lot of time explaining that that was not the case.
Stylebook decisions were never based on my preference. I feel very strongly that style should not reflect one person’s predilections. I consulted those I thought would know best before deciding, for instance, if we should use the Ukrainian, not Russian, transliteration for place names (yes), or what would be a respectful term for same-sex couples. At CP I had access to editors working across the country with expertise in specific areas. Katherine Barber, editor of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, always generously shared her insights, often based on Oxford’s huge database of Canadian publications, on what was in most common use across the country.
I turned the editorship of the Stylebook over to the capable hands of James McCarten in 2012. In my final full-time years at CP, I managed the newsroom that produced custom content (newspaper pages and web content) for several major media organizations. In that job we often had to use other style books, but I still think CP has the most consistent and comprehensive one.
I retired from full-time work in 2018 and now do some freelance copy editing, mostly of children’s books; I wanted to work on material as different from news as possible. I also do occasional writing workshops for CP as well.
Who: If you could edit one famous author, living or dead, who would it be?
I feel a kinship with Alice Munro since we grew up in the same part of Ontario, and I would love to be first reader on her stories. And I am sure editing her is a breeze.
What: Do you have a favourite punctuation mark and/or a favourite word?
Periods because they keep writing tight and readable. Dashes are my least favourite because they are over-used. No favourite words, really.
Where: If you could work anywhere in the world as an editor, where would that be?
I’d choose Scotland because I love the scenery, the people, and the pubs. And it is home to some great writers.
When: Was there ever a time in your life when you seriously questioned your career choice?
Maybe early in my career at CP, when I was working overnight shifts, editing weather reports, and compiling hockey stats. But even then there was always the chance that something big could happen and we would be responsible for getting the news to Canadians.
Why: Why did you choose to become an editor? Or, should we ask: Why did editing choose you?
I wanted to be an entertainment writer, but that job hardly ever opened up at CP. So I moved to full-time desk editing, which led to supervisory roles, as a way to get out of shift work. That’s when I saw the influence an editor has, and I liked it.
And, of course, we just had to ask the inevitable how: How would you sum up your motto?
Keep it short.
Alicja Minda is a Toronto-based editor with a background in media. She is a former editor-in-chief of BoldFace.
This article was copy edited by Erin Della Mattia.