Editor for Life: James Harbeck, Freelance Book 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.

A photo of James Harbeck

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.

How long I’ve been an editor depends on when you start counting. The first time I had “editor” in my job description was about 25 years ago, a year or two after I arrived in Toronto with a fresh PhD in theatre (history, theory, criticism) from Tufts University. I had already edited some things before that, and—I have since discovered—I was tacitly learning to edit while I was grading students’ papers and writing my own papers and theses. I took an intro course in copy editing (taught by Rosemary Shipton), and I joined the Editors’ Association of Canada (Editors Canada) somewhere around 2000. That was also when I started working for a web-based health information company, where I stayed for 18 years, heading an editorial team for most of it, and also doing a bit of freelancing on the side. During that time, I started taking linguistics courses one at a time, which I kept up until I received an MA in linguistics from York in 2016. 

In early 2018, I made the leap and went freelance full time. Since then, I have mainly been editing books: structural and substantive editing of books on business and on art and culture, and copy editing of academic books. I still live in Toronto, right downtown. I consider it one of my great life accomplishments that, in spite of having grown up in Alberta, I have made it to age 55 without ever owning a car—although I do rent a few times a year as necessary.

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

I don’t know which famous authors would benefit most from my editing! I mostly do non-fiction, so many of my favourite authors wouldn’t really be in my ballpark. I’ve read a few recent non-fiction books that I could probably have helped, but there’s no way I’m going to name them. Past authors I’d probably have enjoyed working on might include Umberto Eco or Jean Baudrillard, but I edit only in English, so never mind. I rather think I’d enjoy editing the memoirs of a rock star and would do some good too, since I work well with authors who aren’t mainly writers. Which rock star? I dunno, Geddy Lee maybe. (I haven’t read his bio, though.)

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

Friends. I have, over the years, made many friends who are editors, and nearly all of my work connections have come through them. And they’re great people to have as friends, which is the main thing! If you want a number two, it’s my graduate education, for the skills I gained from it (plus the linguistic knowledge); and number three has been my lifelong interest in languages—my familiarity with many other languages has been a quiet superpower in copy editing academic books. I suppose my long history of giving presentations at Editors Canada conferences has also helped my profile—it turns out my background in theatre was not altogether irrelevant.

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

Everywhere in the world. I love travelling. That said, when I try to get work done on a trip, I’m wrong: I’m on vacation and I am not going to be sitting working. I think, though, if I could book a large number of train journeys in countries all over the world, I could get quite a lot of work done as the scenery slipped by the window. (I can’t work without a view.)

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

I believe the last time I seriously questioned my career choice was just before I became an editor. It’s not that editing is all I want to do—I also like writing, and I do a certain amount of it, sometimes for money—but editing is a great primary line of work for me, and I have managed to have a career in it that allows me to enjoy my life.

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

I had come out of grad school with a PhD and a realization that I was tired of the academic game and didn’t want to keep chasing chances to be a professor, and I got a job with a small advertising and media production company that involved a bit of editing. And I started singing with a choir, one of the members of which was Susan Lawrence, who—one day as we were travelling on the Ongiara ferry to a performance on Toronto Island—told me about editing as a career and the Editors’ Association of Canada. I was already taking every opportunity to do editing and design work in my day job, and I volunteered to edit newsletters for associations I belonged to, and—thanks to friends I made in the EAC—I found some freelance gigs as well. At first, there was a certain amount of sidling into it; I connected to the company I worked with for 18 years via a contract to do some HTML corrections. But when there’s something you like doing that you’re good at, and that people need done, you will find chances to do it. 

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

I have a few things I regularly say, but none of them are my motto. I say, “Words are known by the company they keep,” for instance, and “Ideas about words are ideas about the people who use them.” I also, when there is even the merest suggestion of issuing unsolicited corrections to others in casual contexts, say “I work on the FYPM model: F— You, Pay Me. I don’t do freebies.” (This is not actually mainly mercenary; it’s mainly that I’m also a linguist and I enjoy language however it comes to me, and I don’t believe in being a gratuitous jerk about it. I have little sympathy for editors who scorn authors for the very things they’re getting paid to fix for them. Do you suppose chefs mock their diners for not being good cooks?) 

I guess if I were to come up with a motto for me in editing, it would be “Editing is about people.” You’re not fixing disembodied words on a page; you’re helping a person give the best textual performance they can to have the best effect on their audience. 

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

This article was copy edited by Samantha Hoffman, a freelance proofreader and Quality Assurance (QA) specialist living in Barrie, Ontario.

4 thoughts on “Editor for Life: James Harbeck, Freelance Book Editor

  1. “You’re helping a person give the best textual performance they can to have the best effect on their audience. ” I love that :).


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