Editor for Life: Barbara Johnston, Freelance Editor

Interview conducted by Keith Goddard

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.

Portrait of Barbara Johnston.

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 live and work in Port Moody, which is a lovely forested suburb 40 minutes from Vancouver. I am just a few steps from the Burrard Inlet and most days I take breaks from my work by going for walks on the trails that hug the inlet. I am grateful to live on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded lands of the kʷikʷəƛ̓əm (Kwekwitlem), xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), Stó:lōand Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. 

I’ve been an editor and writer for over 25 years now. These days, I work primarily in education, from early learning and care organizations to post-secondary institutions, and I also work with non-profit organizations, government, healthcare, and occasionally with authors writing books. I love working on projects where I’m learning new things and that I know will be of benefit to others. I am just about to wrap up a two-year project developing training and resources on mental health for post-secondary students, faculty, and staff. I have worked with an absolutely wonderful team to develop a series of courses integrating both Western and Indigenous perspectives on mental health, and I think the project will be very helpful to faculty, staff, and students, many who are really struggling right now. Several years ago, I worked on a literacy curriculum for elementary students, and I would love to work on children’s books again in the future. I think one of the best things about freelancing is being able to take on projects that interest me! 

Five years ago, I was invited to join West Coast Editorial Associates, which is a group of eight editors, writers, and trainers living in Greater Vancouver and Victoria. This group has been the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my career. Freelance editing is such a solitary career, so it is wonderful to be part of a group. We share work and leads and answer each other’s questions about rates, editing issues, or sticky situations. We frequently take on large projects in which several of us will work together, and sometimes one of us will step in to help if another partner is overwhelmed with work. We also have a lot of fun. Prior to the pandemic, we got together four times a year for meetings in Vancouver or Victoria, and we’re just starting to do that again. 

My husband is also an editor. He’s the managing editor of the BC Medical Journal, and my oldest daughter is studying to be a speech language pathologist. You could say we’re a language-oriented family!

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

I love books and often think of how cool it would be to time travel to hang out with authors from the past. Imagine having tea with Jane Austen! However, I can’t say I dream of editing any one particular author. What I like most about the educational editing work I do is the collaborative process with an entire team—writers, subject matter experts, instructional designers, and artists—all working toward making the course content the best it can be for learners. 

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

Well, like many editors, I do love a semi-colon. I’m also fond of a well-placed em-dash, but I’m always careful not to overuse them.

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

I really enjoy living and working on the West Coast but have always loved to travel. I think it would be lovely to escape to a warmer climate like the South Pacific, Costa Rica, or Cuba to work during the grey and rainy months of the year. I also have this fantasy of living and working in France or Italy for part of the year. As a freelancer, my work is transportable and now that both my daughters are adults, working in another country is within the realm of possibility—and something I think about a lot.

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

I have days, but for the most part I feel very fortunate to be able to make a living helping people with their writing and helping to create publications. I used to wonder if I’d prefer the predictability of having a regular job, then I worked a couple of six-month contracts a few years ago and was reminded how much I love variety and being my own boss. 

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

I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing, but it wasn’t until my mid-twenties that it occurred to me that I could make a living as an editor. At the time, I was working in continuing education at Simon Fraser University and found that working on the marketing and writing was my favourite part of the job. I took all of SFU’s editing and writing courses and then decided to set up shop in 1996. I joined the executive of the BC branch of Editors Canada and the work gradually started to come in from the network I built. My first client was referred to me in 1996 by Claudette Reed-Upton, who was a great mentor to me and many other editors across Canada. I will always be grateful for her friendship, kindness, and support, and I’m so glad Editors Canada remembers her each year through the Claudette Upton Scholarship.

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

I don’t have a motto. I do think that we editors can sometimes get so focused on the words and grammar that we forget how important it is to first establish a good relationship with the writer. Many writers feel quite insecure about their writing or overwhelmed by the editing process, and they need reassurance. If we can take the time to find something positive in their writing, they are much more open to hearing constructive feedback, and you’re on your way to establishing a good relationship. I believe listening to people and showing them kindness will take you a long way in this business.

Keith Goddard is a freelance editor based in Toronto. He is the editor-in-chief of BoldFace.

This article was copy edited by Ann Kennedy, a freelance copy editor and proofreader who lives in Toronto with her retired service dog, Rosa, by her side.

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