This post is dedicated to anyone who has asked me about my job and received a perfunctory answer.
(I would also like to take this opportunity to apologize to anyone who has inquired politely about my hobby, only to have me babble on about coconut flour, baking times, and buttercream, while gesticulating wildly and searching my phone for cupcake photos.)
In the cult classic Office Space [interject your favorite quote here], Jennifer Aniston’s character, Joanna, works at a T.G.I. Friday’s–inspired restaurant called Chotchkie’s, where the servers are required to wear 15 “pieces of flair” (buttons). Joanna dons the bare minimum, to the disappointment of her boss. He compares her unfavorably to her overly eager coworker Brian, who wears 37 pieces. When Peter, the movie’s protagonist, questions Joanna about her buttons, she replies, “I don’t even know what they say. I don’t really care. I don’t really like talking about my flair.”
When people ask me what I do for a living, I tend to shut down the conversation in a similar way. Gritting my teeth, I mutter, “I’m a writer and editor.” In response to the follow-up question about the kinds of materials I work on, I sputter, “Anything that needs to be written or edited.” (It’s a good thing the work seems to flow in, because can you imagine how successful I’d be in a job interview?) Why am I reluctant to talk about what I do? Am I afraid I’ll bore people? Is it hard to explain what I do? Do I not know what I do?
Since going freelance 10 years ago, I have worked on a range of published things, including textbooks, nonfiction books, novels, and Web sites. My regular tasks include writing, rewriting, researching, developmental editing, copyediting, fact-checking, proofreading, and production proofing. While major institutions offer courses and certification programs for those seeking employment in editing, I continue to learn through observation and experience. (Besides, according to my first boss almost 25 years ago, publishing is the “accidental profession.”) I can’t say much more along these lines, for fear of becoming tiresome to myself. (That’s what LinkedIn is for, right?) But I do want to talk a little about how I approach my projects.
My efforts start with trying to see beyond the material to its perfection. Then I attempt to bring the words I am writing or editing as close as possible to the ideas they represent. The disheartening news is that because each word is a choice, and perfection would require all correct choices, perfection appears to be mathematically improbable. Still, I want the final product to reflect very nearly exactly what the author (or I) was trying to say, in its most eloquent form. Ultimately, however, I am the reader’s advocate. With every sentence, I ask myself, will the reader understand, benefit, and be engaged? Authors want to reach people, and I am responsible for facilitating that.
As a final note, if you can’t stand when people drone on and on about their jobs, I am the perfect dinner companion.