A Cup of Ambition: The Copy Editor
We've all heard it before, at dinner parties, from relatives, from our therapists: "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like.
Meet our seventh guest...
Jocelyn Humelsine, Copy Editor, American Meteorological Society, Boston, MA.
I copy edit, proofread, and reference scientific journals, society bulletins, and book titles.
How did you come to be a copy editor?
I have the classic lament that I didn’t think I could make writing a career, and since I was really “a writer,” I would just have to do something else to earn an income. I was going to go into copywriting (advertising) and apparently the universe and I confused it with copyediting. I started out at a third-party publisher after college, then spent the next 11 years freelancing mainly for textbooks and magazines, and any other media opportunities that arose. In a nutshell, I fell into it and was lucky enough to have several fantastic mentors at the very beginning and along the way. From that first job, I was fortunate to remain networked to my coworkers, who hired me on freelance as they also moved on to their respective publishing jobs. And so it went.
The Good Stuff
Aside from my coworkers, who are all creative and kind and smart, I love making words make sense. I adore the play of fitting words almost mathematically into style “equations” but having the option to maneuver within that space. Ode to Chicago Manual. I also love the process of development, copy editing, proofreading, being able to see from whence it came. AMS, in particular, is a nonprofit who really contributes and is dedicated to the betterment of the science community. It makes you feel a part of a much much bigger picture. The nature of editing requires an inordinate amount of research and fact-checking. You’re constantly learning new things and being required to look into subjects you might otherwise never have thought to look into, i.e., I know a lot more about hurricanes, cyclones, and the climate than I ever would have researched on my own.
The Bad Stuff
It’s a love/hate relationship of sorts, in that as much as I love to edit, I spend too much time editing others’ work and not enough time writing my own work; the unfortunate combination of procrastination and needing to take on a lot of freelance work to supplement the infamous income of the publishing industry doesn’t help, I suppose. Also, all the detailed knowledge in your head can become obsessive—on the hourlong-plus bus rides to and from the city, I can’t help but read road signs with chagrin, not to mention the city rags that are completely irreverent of any type of rules, just structured unto themselves. Doesn’t the Chateau restaurant know it takes an accent on the a? That gas sign takes an Em dash, not a hyphen! By the time you get off the bus, it’s been self-decided that you are the biggest nerd on the planet.
Not one copy editor is a scientist (not to worry, there are technical editors who read it after us for science/math content). That said, I was surprised at the amount of new lingo and information you can pick up, enough to truly do a thorough copyedit. It is satisfying after having read an article to have grasped all the experiments and concepts. Also, the science community uses a massive amount of acronyms (all of which need expanding on first use). Interoffice e-mails no doubt contain a like massive amount of acronyms.
Spin a Yarn
The production and editorial departments of AMS work in the last remaining carriage house (CH) on Beacon Hill, which was built in 1806 by Charles Bulfinch as the home for the third mayor of Boston, Harrison Gray Otis. The public is welcome for a private tour, and at least once a week, we get history junkies combing our digs. We can all pretty much recite the explanatory speech verbatim. My coworker cracked me up when she said she’s never sure if she should acknowledge their presence, or be in character like Plimoth Plantation, keep churning the butter. Are we inhaling 19th-century brick dust, and is the window above my desk crooked because the Masons were drunk? Alas, we work where the horses were kept, indeed.
Who makes a good copy editor?
It’s very intensive work, the combination of copy editing and the science content, and the minute you’re finished with one article, there’s 100 more in the queue waiting for you. You need to be a little whacky, with that odd sense of humor where names or misread combinations of sentences crack you up. Also important is a superb memory and patience to keep track, for instance, if you hyphenated that word on page 1, you have to do the same on page 30. The same is true if you’re working on simultaneous projects with different style guides: copyeditor or copy editor; E-mail or e-mail; data are or data is; spell-out under 10 or under 100? I always say in my cover letters, “I am passionate about the written word,” however cliché, I think you need that drive.
How do I become you?
Be willing to accept all types of editing work within all types of media, especially at first, to learn the innuendos and rules and exceptions. Then be willing later in your career to bend all those rules to fit whichever publication/media you work for. Also vital is a strong sense of the publishing process, this will help in knowing where exactly your type of editing fits in.
Thoughts on this job for writers...
The upshot for writers is that you get to really dig into, become one with words and to see how others use them. You’re given the chance to read things that you may never have picked up (i.e, at AMS, I work mostly on the Journal of Physical Oceanography, and for freelance, I’ve read over thirty-five college textbooks). The downside is, as said earlier, it’s easy to keep doing editing work to avoid doing writing work. And it’s a little more difficult to write “shitty first drafts.” The Editor in you is squirming, while the Writer screams obscenities at her. The act of researching, as mentioned above, is a fantastic skill for writers; it translates well into magazine or newspaper writing, where you need to conduct research/interviews for any number of assigned topics.
Jocelyn Humelsine is a FT copy editor, PT freelance editor, and FT mom. Her latest copy edited books for 2008 include The Forgiving Air (AMS) and The Well-Crafted Sentence (Bedford/St. Martin’s Press). She is also on a Paulo Coelho binge.