Journal: News & Comment

Tuesday, February 08, 2005
# 10:07:00 AM:

Q and A about becoming a writer or editor

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Some answers I gave to questions from a reader yesterday, following up on previous responses to readers I've posted here over the years:

Q. What personality trait do you believe is the most advantageous in being either a writer or an editor? I often think I could be both, but I'm wondering if certain people are more suited to one or the other, or if the two are pretty much interchangeable.
They are indeed very different pursuits, and while being good at one or the other may be related, it's more a case of overlapping talents than identical ones. Some writers can't be editors, and some editors are lousy writers. Many people can do both, but maybe not in all varieties.
To be a good editor, you need to be instinctively concerned with detail and structure—the kind of person who mentally corrects "tomatoe's for sale" and subconsciously reworks awkward newspaper headlines, just for fun, or because you can't help it. You should cringe at typos and poor writing when you see them, especially if you've been in any way responsible for preventing them—but even if they're someone else's.
You also need to be patient, yet firm and clear in making arguments for changes you recommend. You must be able to work under tight deadlines without significantly sacrificing the quality of what you do. Being an editor is, by definition, a collaborative role, so you must be able to work with clients and others, even if you don't like them much.
Being a writer can be collaborative, but is more often solitary, and requires a different sort of discipline. Being able to craft words and sentences and paragraphs effectively, clearly, and evocatively is different from being able to edit something that already exists. A writer (whether fiction, non-fiction, poetic, corporate, or whatever) needs creativity and ideas in ways an editor often doesn't.
In both fields, you need to be able not to take criticism personally, and to deal with rejection of your work in various ways. Writers take their writing seriously, and many aren't comfortable with an editor changing it; good writers, however, know that their work is never perfect, and will take whatever help they can get to make it better. They also write compulsively, whether paid or not.
Q. Although the freelance avenue is very intriguing, I'm not yet sure if I am willing to tackle it just yet—at least not until I gather a few more years of writing experience under my belt. However, do you think that more companies are hiring people on a freelance basis rather than maintaining an additional employee to suck their benefits dry? I guess my question is, is there much of an opportunity for full-time editors or writers out there?
There is, but many people start out freelancing. That said, I came into the trade by sliding into an editorial role at a software company where I had been hired as an administrative assistant (I'd done a lot of writing and editing work in my spare time in high school and university too, so it wasn't out of the blue). If you have talents, you can make them known at your job. It also wouldn't hurt to try approaching companies and organizations with your services, whether writing or editorial or both.
Many people don't write well, or need a lot of editorial help, but they rarely advertise for that. You'll need to find them, and often the best way is through the grapevine of friends, family, and acquaintances, then by word of mouth from there.
Q. Are there occasions as both an editor and a writer where you find yourself anxious because you aren't entirely comfortable with the subject matter (i.e. something that is not in your range of knowledge)? Do your clients expect this from you? If not, how are you able to sell the fact that you can interpret their information with confidence? And what first steps do you take once you get one of these assignments?
Any good writer or editor can work in fields he or she knows little about. Another personality trait I didn't mention above is that you must be able to learn quickly, and this is why. Certainly, it helps to start out in fields you're familiar with, but eventually we all get jobs that cover material well outside our body of knowledge.
The key is this: you are a wordsmith. You know about words and documents. Clients expect that you'll be able to craft something, or improve something, whether you knew about it before or not. We're like plumbers: even if they've never worked with a German-made bidet before, we expect that they're smart and experienced enough to figure it out.
Sometimes it even helps not to be deep into the industry you're working in—especially if you're writing material for people outside that field, your inexperience will force people to explain the stuff to you so that you can explain it to your audience. That's one way to sell it, but the main thing is to say it clearly: my job is to write well, or to improve what you already have. I do that for all sorts of people in all sorts of fields, and I'll learn what I need to know to do it for you.
To prepare for those kinds of jobs, I ask my clients what I should read and whom I should talk to. Then I read it and talk to them, and make sure I have people I can ask questions of while I'm working. Make sure to build that sort of time into your estimates and billing if you're working freelance or on contract, by the way.
Q. I know you're not a labour market analyst, but you must spend enough time in the editing and writing community to comfortably answer this: in what specific field is writing or editing in highest demand (copy writing/editing, corporate communications, technical writing)? I'm going to wager a guess and assume it's technical writing. Yes? No?
There's a lot of demand there, but it also requires the ability to translate between engineers and normal people, which can be a challenge. (It does help to have some techie background to get started there, certainly.) There is demand in every field you mention, but the hard part is finding the people who need your help and getting work from them. I'm sure if you offered your copy-editing and proofreading services to hair salons that produce newsletters or other small firms, you might find some work there too.
I would suggest that, if you have a background in any one field in particular, you start there and move on when you have some experience in it, unless you find enough work to keep you going.
Q. I am considering enrollment in SFU's Editing program. Would you say that this would be a wise option? I often see that a lot of employers seek English majors to fill writing positions; myself, I have a degree in Radio & Television Arts (writing stream), and I do have scattered real-world writing experience. Getting an English degree on top of this and having to attend school full-time makes me quake in my boots, so I'm hoping that this certificate program may be a viable option. General thoughts?
The employers ask for that because it's the first thing that comes to mind; if you have education or experience that's more practical, they'll see the value in it. SFU's program is good, as it Douglas College's Print Futures program. I don't have any of them—I took a writing diploma at UBC, but what really got me into the field now was just doing the work for a long time, and loving to do it. That shows.
If you know that this is what you want to do, you can succeed regardless of your formal training. My degree is in marine biology, and that's not directly related to what I do now. But I wrote and edited for newspapers and magazines and things throughout my school life and afterwards. People who read my website realize that I can write and organize material. Sometimes that's all it takes.


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