Getting a Start in . . . Copyediting
Today CMOS Shop Talk launches a new occasional series called “Getting a Start in . . . ,” in which we ask publishing professionals how they came to do the jobs they do. In this post, editor Carol Saller talks to Erin Brenner and Laura Poole, who own and operate the Pilcrow Group, Inc., which includes Copyediting newsletter and its training division.
Erin Brenner has been an editing professional for two decades and is the founder of Right Touch Editing. Laura Poole is a freelance copyeditor of scholarly nonfiction, an editorial trainer, and founder of Archer Editorial Services.
CFS: There are many topics I could pick your brains on, but today I want to focus on kick-starting a career in copyediting. You’ve both risen to the top of the heap. (Is “celebrity copyeditor” an oxymoron? That’s what you are!) I’m hoping you’ll have some good advice for newbies.
Let’s start with a little background. Do you remember a particular moment when you decided that copyediting was going to be your thing?
EB: Five minutes after I started proofreading. OK, maybe it was six months. My first job out of college was proofreading nonprofit direct mail. It was interesting at first, and then I quickly became bored. I wanted to do more, but at that time I wasn’t interested in writing. So I took a series of one-day workshops to learn copyediting, which I saw as the next step up a ladder.
When I landed my first copyediting job, I learned how much I didn’t know. I had a great manager and some wonderful senior editors who mentored me and helped me improve. I continued to attend workshops, and I’ve never stopped learning. I still get bored once in a while. Now that I run two companies, though, I can explore other tasks and roles. But copyediting is my first love. I always come back to it.
LP: I had done a little of everything in my college internship (mostly production tasks), and two years later when I launched my freelance business, I decided to focus on copyediting (rather than layout or proofreading) because that’s what I most liked to do! I learned about publishing with a one-year internship at my university’s press, and I was utterly hooked. I dabbled in proofing, cross-marking, even some basic layout. I was bold enough to try my hand at the copyediting tests for the press (which I did not pass at the time), and I helped some of my classmates by editing their papers, something I really enjoyed. Copyediting just felt right to me!
CFS: Is there a specific class, book, or mentor from your early days that you would credit now as being especially “formative” of your current attitude, work method, or ambition?
LP: Two people had a big influence on me during my internship. Ann Keyl taught me about image research and manipulation, layout, converting a special issue into a book, and lots of production tasks. After a few months, she moved out of state, and I filled in for her as best I could (with guidance from supervisors) until a replacement was hired. I was given a surprising amount of independence and responsibility (considering I was just an intern!) and I absolutely loved it.
And the journals managing editor, Chris Mazzara, very kindly gave me constructive feedback on my failed editing test. He explained what certain marks meant and how I had misused them. He was under no obligation to give me this feedback, and his kindness in doing so really had an impact on me.
EB: My manager Sandy Cummings, from my first copyediting job, was hugely influential. Even twenty years later, when I grade copyediting students’ papers, I can hear her lessons in my head and I try to coach my students the way she coached me. Sandy also introduced me to the Copyediting newsletter. At that time, Copyediting held in-person workshops, and I attended every one I could. I still refer to some of the binders we received; I even turned one into our first book: Copyediting’s Grammar Tune-Up Workbook.
CFS: Is it still possible to get the kind of mentoring that you got in person? Erin started out by attending a series of workshops, and Laura got her start in an internship. In the age of online learning, do you think it’s easier or harder to learn the fundamentals of proofreading or copyediting?
EB: I think it’s much harder to get that kind of mentoring on the job. Companies are employing fewer and fewer copyeditors and expecting them to do more and more. Even if there’s someone at your company who could mentor you, there might not be the time.
However, editors have many more learning opportunities; now students can find online training through universities (such as through the University of California, San Diego, where I teach), private companies like Copyediting and MediaBistro, and even with individual editors. Editing conferences are booming, too, and you can learn a lot by attending one or two conferences a year.
Copyediting has also created mentoring groups, where an experienced editor mentors a group of people through weekly online meetings and chats. And we’re even bringing back in-person workshops!
The difference, though, is that copyeditors must now take charge of their training, both finding it and paying for it. Knowing your options is key to putting together training that works for you.
LP: With more and more copyeditors working as freelancers and not on staff, it is tougher to get that kind of one-on-one mentoring. I agree with Erin that there are more virtual and digital opportunities for training, which I applaud (I also teach for the UCSD program). Learning the fundamentals might be easier than ever, but mastering the craft does call for some feedback from peers and mentors. That’s why I like to see some of the online discussion groups on Facebook or e-mail lists like Copyediting-L and the growth in editors’ conferences. I’m very proud of the mentoring groups Copyediting just developed, as well as our training offerings, and we hope to expand what we offer so we can help more people.
CFS: What subjects did you study in college? Has that informed your editing? Do you think college is required for success in copyediting? Are there other kinds of life experience that could substitute for a college degree?
LP: I have a bachelor’s degree in English and women’s studies—a basic liberal arts background, which serves me very well. I have edited such a broad variety of topics that I find I use nuggets of knowledge from many different fields. I particularly think the cross-disciplinary women’s studies education was very useful, because it taught me to examine information for different layers of meaning and think about other sides of the story.
I think a good education—whether in college or in life—is essential for being a good copyeditor. Having a curious mind, being open to shifts in language, and having a knack for improving text are the most crucial aspects. I’ve worked with editors who didn’t have a college education but nonetheless had excellent instincts as editors who just needed to hone their skills and gain some experience.
The difference, though, is that copyeditors must now take charge of their training, both finding it and paying for it. Knowing your options is key to putting together training that works for you.”—Erin Brenner
EB: I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in literature. Earning my degrees taught me to read closely and critically, which is a huge asset to any type of editor. It also taught me to analyze and write on a professional level, which have also served me well.
I think college is required simply because any subject you study will teach you greater analytical and writing skills. You’ll learn a little bit about a lot of things, which copyeditors bring to their editing daily. And you’ll be exposed to new ideas, which can help you understand where your author is coming from—or at least recognize that they might think very differently from you.
I don’t think you have to study literature or any other major in the English department, though. You need a strong understanding of grammar and usage, but you can get that in a copyediting training program or through self-study.
CFS: Last question. In my view, social media is a valuable tool for copyeditors. I wonder if you agree or think it’s a waste of time.
EB: I agree that it’s a valuable tool. When you’re editing, it’s just you and the words on the screen. But sometimes we need to discuss an edit with someone else, and many of us no longer work within a group of editors. Social media fills that gap. It’s also been great for networking with other editors, learning about our craft, and sheer camaraderie. Editing can be lonely; we need each other and social media connects us to each other.
LP: I agree that it’s very valuable—essential for connecting with others in the industry. It can be overwhelming at first, and it takes some time to find the nuggets of information and the community you need. It’s not where I find and get clients, so I don’t tweet or post Facebook statuses trying to drum up work. I think of it as a tool for finding colleagues, creating and sustaining a community, and building one’s professional presence. I enjoy the conversations that happen via social media.
Photos: Laura Poole and Erin Brenner photo by Dawn McIlvain Stahl; Erin Brenner photo by Amanda Pearl Photography.