Editor for Life: Avivah Wargon, Production Editor, Teacher, and Mentor

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.

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 in east Toronto with my husband. We have two adult sons: one living in Toronto and the other in California. I’ve been an editor for well over forty years; I describe myself as a copy editor, proofreader, and production editor. I’ve spent most of my working life in-house (as a production editor and supervisor), but I also freelanced from time to time, and I’ve been a freelancer for the last decade. 

Most, though not all, of my experience has been in book publishing. One thing that’s not obvious to would-be editors is that most in-house jobs in book publishing consist of directing traffic—usually, being a production editor—rather than quietly editing or proofreading. Production editors do need copy editing and proofreading skills, though, because they have to troubleshoot editorial problems and check later stages of proof, as well as edit cover and marketing copy. I consider myself something of a career production editor, which is probably unusual. I loved (and still love) the jigsaw-puzzle process of putting a book together, including assembling the prelims and back matter and ensuring that all the elements appear in the right order and fit into a fixed page count. And in my in-house jobs, I also hired, supervised, trained, and mentored both permanent staff and freelancers, which I found very satisfying. But I like the solitary process of copy editing or proofreading too, and at this stage of my life, I’m happier doing that.

During my last and longest in-house job, with Pearson Canada, I worked on post-secondary textbooks. I’ve also edited legal and academic materials and trade non-fiction. I’m near the end of my career, and I take on a few small projects a year, mostly for repeat clients; I consider it a privilege to have a skill that allows me to do that. 

I’ve always enjoyed training—not just sharing my knowledge, but explaining processes as simply and clearly as possible, and clearing up misconceptions that would-be editors often have (like the difference between copy editing and proofreading). In earlier years, I taught workshops for Editors Canada. For five years, until shortly before the pandemic, I taught proofreading in the publishing certificate program at what is now Toronto Metropolitan University. 

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

I’ve thought about that for some time, and I don’t have an answer—perhaps because I’m primarily a copy editor. The author I really want to edit is the most recent writer (usually a mystery writer) in whose work I’ve found a few typos or a clumsy sentence. I’m happy to report that this doesn’t happen often, but those errors jump out at me.

What: What is the one thing that has helped you the most in your career as an editor?

Other editors—who gave me training and real-world advice. Some of this was on the job, some in workshops or courses. 

I’ve also found French and Latin very useful: they sharpen your sense of how words are formed and what they mean. But probably the biggest factor was reading obsessively from the time I learned to read—that gave me a broad sense of good style and usage. A good memory helps (even in these days of computer searches), and an above-average eye for detail is essential. Copy editing and proofreading are technical skills that require knowledge and training, but I think real aptitude for either is born, not made.

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

In Canada—and, these days, at my own desk. I did live and work in England for three years in my twenties (that included my very first publishing job), and it was a wonderful experience, but it also taught me how fortunate many Canadians are. This is a more equal and inclusive society than the England I knew in the 1970s, even though most of us are very aware now that many things need to be improved.

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

In the sense that being an editor didn’t feel right for me—no. But in the first few years, I wondered. Between my first job in publishing and my second, I was offered a job in health information. I turned it down in favour of a job in publishing, but it was a difficult choice. I’ve always enjoyed connecting people with information they need (that’s what drives my teaching and coaching), and I’m very interested in health. And then, in my early forties, I looked into becoming a librarian. My children were just entering school, and I had the feeling I suspect many mothers have, that this was the beginning of the rest of my working life. Part of the draw was better pay and benefits: my husband also worked in the arts! However, I could only afford to study part-time, so getting the degree would have taken me years. I decided that I didn’t have the stamina. 

Looking back, I don’t regret staying in editing. When my older son was in his late teens or early twenties, he came back from a meeting of a computing group and said, trying to explain how he felt, “These are my people.” I told him that that was exactly the way I had always felt about editors.

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

It wasn’t a choice I made carefully, but, after I had done it for a while, it seemed to fit—and then I developed a real love for it. I’ve already mentioned that I was a bookworm as a child: no activity meant more to me than reading (and few do even now). That’s why I chose to study English at university. Practical, wasn’t I? Well, it was the 1960s: I was a very timid, conforming late-sixties kid, but that era marked you. I got an Honours BA but wasn’t interested in graduate school, because I didn’t want an academic career. My only career goal when I left university was to live in England, because I had grown up reading British children’s classics. I wanted to see if the reality was anything like the world of my imagination. And then, in my last year of university, I found out that the sister of someone I was dating had gone to England and worked for a book publisher, and a light bulb went on. In my first publishing job, in England, the editor I reported to, whom I considered a grizzled veteran (she was 35, and I was 22), said that when she chose her career, she felt that “books would be all right.” I did too.

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

I don’t have one; I’m not fond of them. (Don’t even ask me about mission statements.) But I’ll borrow one from a fine editor I know, a Fairley Award winner. It’s the first step in a series of recommendations she made in a workshop: “Be very very good.” 

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

This article was copy edited by Vilma Indra Vītols, a freelance editor and opera singer living in Toronto. She is a member of PLAIN (Plain Language Association International) and sings with the Canadian Opera Company chorus.

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