The Accidental Profession

olivetti

The “vintage” Olivetti I learned to type on (not the actual machine but the same model, available on eBay)

copyediting

Copyedited manuscript page

About a week ago, I read the description of an online workshop being offered by Writer’s Digest University, called “Introduction to Copyediting.” The first thing I noticed about the course outline was its random capitalization, which either ironically undermined the validity of the curriculum or was a sly statement on the importance of copyediting. The topics covered seemed to capture what a copyeditor does. For example:

  • “How to properly use Quotations”
  • “Proper use of Commas, Colons, and Semicolons”
  • “Avoiding Redundant Words”
  • “Keep an eye out for consistency”
  • “How to prevent a writer from making all sorts of embarrassing mistakes”

I wondered, “How did I manage to collect these skills?” Based on my experience, here are the steps to becoming a copyeditor:

  1. Be exposed to the word editor at an early age. My first-grade teacher asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I said “writer.” The girl next to me said “editor.” I wasn’t quite sure what an editor did, but I felt it had something to do with books.
  2. Learn how to type. When I was about 12, I taught myself from a manual, on a manual.
  3. Have Mr. Thorn for English. Almost everything I know about grammar I learned in junior high.
  4. Edit your college roommate’s paper. When I was a freshman, my roommate asked me to look over an essay she was about to turn in. It was my first editing job. She got a B and was very happy.
  5. Apply for a job as a secretary. A week or two after graduating with a BA in English Literature, I answered a newspaper ad for a secretary at a publishing company. I aced the typing test. (See item 2.)
  6. Get promoted. Over the course of eight years, I worked my way up to the position of senior editor. One of my tasks was to manage the work of copyeditors; I observed what they did and became overly familiar with The Chicago Manual of Style.
  7. Go freelance. Eleven years ago, I began offering my services as a copyeditor.
  8. Learn something new every day. Each manuscript presents its own challenges, providing a constant education.

My first supervisor called publishing the “accidental profession.” While becoming a copyeditor may have been a bit random, certain things in my life pointed toward a career in publishing. As a child, I made tiny books to sell; I vaguely recall unloading one for a dollar. I remember being inspired by an arts-and-crafts toy from the drug store, the final product of which was a bound book about a grasshopper. In junior high, I produced an anonymous newspaper, calling myself the “Phantom Editor.”

I’m sure there are doctors, lawyers, firefighters, astronauts, professional athletes, rock stars, actors, architects, teachers, artists, and writers who always knew what they “wanted to be.” And perhaps people who pursue advanced degrees or seek vocational training have a pretty good idea. But I imagine that the majority of professions are accidental. For example, the other day, I found myself musing, “Who sets out to work at a property management company?” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I wonder if my precocious six-year-old classmate ever became an editor. Or a property manager.

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2 thoughts on “The Accidental Profession

  1. wayne

    i already had a masters degree when i first met Karen. she was 8. her vocabulary out shined mine. it is rumored that her mother kept a list of words that she used prior to age 1. i would love to see that list.

    Reply
    1. karengreenfield Post author

      Ha! Thank you for sharing this story, Wayne, although I know it must be a great exaggeration. My mother did keep a list of the words I used in my early years. The only item I remember is “No big deal.” (I guess I was a laid-back youngster.)

      Reply

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