Talent Q&A: Mark S. on Editing

Q: How did you get your start in the editing profession?

My interest in editing was piqued when I was co-writing a book some years ago and took note of the improvements made by the publisher’s editor. I thought about how much I would like to be in a position to make a difference in the copy written by others. Eventually, I was able to maneuver my career path in that direction.

Q: Which subject matter topics do you enjoy editing the most?

I enjoy taking dense materials on financial, scientific, and technological topics and simplifying them for mass audiences. Many editors avoid these pieces, so I’m often able to jump in where others fear to tread. Honestly, I’ve edited everything from fiction to biographies. You have to possess a catholicity of taste to be a capable editor.

Q: Based on your experience, what is the most common writing mistake?

There are many, but one that seems to stump even good writers from time to time is what old-fashioned grammarians used to call the dangling clause or misplaced modifier. It occurs in sentences in which the opening clause is not followed by the noun that it modifies or describes. Example: While going to the hospital, the house caught on fire. These errors can be quite amusing.

Q: Are there any new editing trends and practices? If so, how do you stay up to date?

I’m not aware of any new trends in editing. My own practice is to edit with as light a touch as possible, unless I have been given license by the client to slice and dice. When an editor red-pencils too heavily, the writer’s unique style often is suppressed. The biggest problem I have in staying up-to-date involves style books. They are continuously being updated, and it can be an expensive proposition to keep up with the latest editions. I’m thankful that WriterAccess sticks mostly with AP style, because that is most familiar to me.

Q: What do you believe to be the most common misconception regarding editing/editors?

I have a writer acquaintance who, despite the many times that editors have bailed him out of potentially embarrassing mistakes, refers to them disparagingly as “gray ladies.” His impression is that editors exist only to bleed the life out of his vibrant prose. This thinking presupposes that editors are on a power trip and want only to impose their will on powerless writers. In actuality, most editors are content with their anonymity. As a breed, editors don’t like the limelight, and they’re certainly not itching for a fight.

Q: What’s your approach to giving constructive feedback to a writer?

Having been on both the receiving and giving ends of feedback, I can safely say that neither is particularly pleasant. However, I’ve picked up a few stratagems that cushion the blow when dispensing feedback. The “sandwich method” is a particular favorite: I look for something – anything – to commend, and begin my feedback with that positive reinforcement. The middle of the sandwich can be general commentary about how well the assignment fulfilled the client’s needs. Anything that the writer needs to work on brings up the rear. Socratic questioning also is an indirect way of bringing problems to a writer’s attention. It invites the recipient to engage with his or her material in new and interesting ways.

Q: How has technology altered the way editors approach their work?

In the days of paper manuscripts (not all that long ago), editors worked with red pencils and an array of proofreader marks such as “uc”, “lc” and “ital.” With the onset of computer technology, editors shed their pencils, pica sticks, and green visors for a host of proprietary word-processing and editing programs, many of them now defunct. Today, I work from a desktop computer set up on a desk in a spare room of my house. My editing program of choice is Microsoft Word, in particular its Track Changes and Comment features, which many WA clients request so that they can sign off on recommended edits. I also can edit PDFs with the aid of Adobe’s Acrobat X Pro. It’s nice being able to do my work without leaving home.

Q: Besides editing, how do you like to spend your time?

I stay busy with diverse interests. I teach an occasional online communications/journalism class just to keep my teaching chops from eroding. I also am a lay minister in my congregation, which involves paying upbuilding visits to troubled members of the flock and otherwise being supportive. For relaxation, I enjoy cooking, though our current kitchen remodel has curtailed my culinary efforts. International leisure travel gets fitted in, too, though the destinations that can be visited safely have been contracting lately. Wherever we go, my trusty laptop is never far behind.

Q: What does your current workspace look like?

My desk is spacious so it accommodates an assortment of office supplies. The inbox is always overflowing. Beside the desk are two file cabinets that I’ll get around to cleaning out one of these days. Atop one cabinet is a coffee maker that is a refugee from the kitchen remodel. I’ve been enjoying having coffee at hand so much that it may never go back to the other end of the house. Our two cats wander into the office from time to time and get underfoot, but I’m good at ignoring them – payback for all the times they ignore me.


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