Q&A with Kristen Douglas, freelance copy editor

Kristen Douglas is a freelance writer and editor in Durham, N.C., who recently embarked on a career change into journalism. In this interview, conducted by e-mail, Douglas talks about this transition and the challenges of working in online media.

Q. You’ve worked in education and mental health. Why the change to editing and writing?

A. Working in the mental health field was kind of a natural evolution for me, having grown up around mentally ill people. My stepmother owns a 32-bed facility for mentally ill adults, and I grew up in that environment. Teaching has also always been a love of mine, and I taught special education on temporary certification for a few years, as well as teaching in a welfare to work program in the midwest. In the meantime, though, I’ve always loved writing, and have written articles here or there over the years for local newspapers and other publications.

Even working in the mental health and education fields, I spent a lot of time writing and editing. I developed curriculum for a welfare to work teaching program, edited marketing materials and found that as my work in mental health gravitated more away from direct care of clients and into administrative roles, I was constantly being asked to look over progress notes, teach staff members how to write them professionally, develop and lead workshops that concentrated on writing treatment plans and other medical record documents, and edit documentation that was turned in.

I was one of many layoffs in the mental health agency I worked for in January 2010. I’d already been reading professional blogs on writing or copy editing online content, and I decided to use those skills I had always been using in the mental health and education fields to transfer to an entirely new career in writing online content rather than trying to find a lower-paying job in the floundering North Carolina mental health field.

I applied to several content-producing sites as a writer, and was hired to a few, but Demand Media seemed to fit my abilities well, and I like their work platform, so I predominantly write articles for their sites, which include Livestrong.com, eHow, trails.com, golflink, cracked.com and travel sections for several national newspapers.

After a few weeks of writing, I was invited by Demand Media to take two very stringent copy editor tests.  They don’t normally do this with new writers, but they liked the experience I’d already had editing in my former positions, and they liked my writing. I now spend about 70 percent of my time copy editing other articles for Demand and the rest of the time writing.

Q. You do much of your work with Demand Media. What is your typical workday like?

A. Being a night owl, I typically don’t get started with work until about 9 or 10 a.m., though I can flex my hours any way I’d like. Sometimes you’ll find me working at 1 a.m. if I’ve taken a break during the day to go hiking or grocery shopping.

I log into my “workdesk” at Demand and first check to see if I have any article re-writes that I need to repair. Normally my written articles are approved the first time through, but even a content editor can miss something in her own writing on occasion.

I then check to see if any articles I’ve copy edited and sent back for re-writes have returned, and I complete their edits. Once those things are out of the way, I begin choosing new articles to edit.  Demand’s writing work platform allows me to choose up to 10 article titles to write to at a time, from thousands of titles.  When copy/content editing, I see a list of 10 articles out of the thousands that need editing, choose one that looks interesting (and that I hope is well-written), and begin editing.

I check references first, before doing any editing, to make sure they’re listed properly and to skim through and make sure the content is not simply paraphrased or plagiarizing other content. Demand Media insists upon its articles containing original and innovative content, so making sure I’m a good “gatekeeper” and not allowing shoddy work or work that is just a re-hash of something else out there is my most important job as an editor.

If the references check out and the content is original and the article doesn’t need a re-write for structure, I’ll go back to line edit the article. I never line edit until I’ve checked to make sure the article isn’t going back to the writer; it takes time, and the writer might change the article enough I’ll have to line edit again.

Once editing for content, sending back for re-writes, and copy editing is done, I will either approve or reject an article. I’ve only had to reject a few outright, because I tend to become “the teacher” when sending an article back for a re-write, and I want to help the writer learn to write well for Demand Media content. I probably spend way too much time with this, because it cuts in on my bottom line pay (I’m paid per article by Demand).

Q. You don’t have a journalism degree or other formal training as an editor. What is it like to learn things as you go?

A. I’ve had to brush up on my AP style, for one. I was a bit nervous at first, because while I have many years of experience writing and editing, it has all been within the education and mental health fields.

Learning to write a “how to” article on laying self-adhesive linoleum or a “list” article on Frisbee golf courses in Washington state has been a learning experience, but it’s interesting. I’ve always gotten bored doing the same things over and over in traditional jobs, so the variety in writing and editing online content just seems to fit.

It’s the same on the copy/content editing end. I was nervous at first that I would not catch those things that needed fixing in articles that I was editing. I still worry once in a while that I’ll miss a glaring grammatical issue or allow something through that isn’t up to Demand Media quality, but I’m becoming more confident. My first performance review helped with my confidence. While I had let a few obvious errors through (like those infernal serial commas that AP style disallows), I was also told that I was doing a great job “gatekeeping” to make sure only quality content makes it through.

I still get nervous about learning to edit online content, because once it’s out there, it’s there for anyone to see. I want to make sure what I edit or write is high quality, because my name is attached to the writing — nobody can see who edited an article, but I still feel that I’m attached to the content I’ve edited in some way and don’t want it to be shoddy work.

I’m having fun, though. I was experiencing a lot of burnout in my mental health position, and I’m loving this career change. It’s hard work, and I have to pay my own taxes (and I don’t get paid vacations or sick days), but I’m much happier in my work.

Q. What advice do you have for people seeking work as a freelance editor and writer?

First, look at the experience you already have. Some people think that because they’ve worked in a particular field, they don’t have any experience writing or editing.  Check to see if you have more experience than you once thought, either through former careers or internships.

Study blogs that talk about freelance writing or editing. Avoid the blogs that are trying to sell you something and concentrate on those that seem to be just giving information. If you’re wanting to write in the online world, learn about search engine optimization and keyword phrasing.

Most of these media outlets aren’t just providing articles, they’re selling something, even if it’s just a click on an ad that appears around the article. Online content writing isn’t at all the same as writing editorials or other pieces for newspapers and magazines. You have to focus more on drawing people to your article using key phrases in your writing without making the article feel awkward.

I think I “lucked in” to the editing world. Most copy/content editors for Demand Media and other outlets have journalism degrees and have worked for years in newspaper or magazine editing. I’m one of the few who has been hired without that specific degree or newspaper editing experience, and it’s only because I had so much experience editing within my field.

Even that wouldn’t have gotten me the job, though. I got the offer to test to be a copy editor because I’m a good writer. I learned AP style, I learned to write in the “voice” that Demand Media and its outlets require by reading articles at Livestrong, eHow and the rest. I learned to check my ego at the door and write in the style that was asked of me.

That really is key. I have edited so many articles that might have been well written if the writer was submitting the work to a literary magazine or to a newspaper as an editorial, but that isn’t the “voice” that Demand Media is looking for.

Whatever company you write for, you need to learn the voice of that particular company and lose your ego about what type of writer you think you are, or find an outlet that better fits your style.  For example, I was hired by WiseGeek.com early on, but I found that I really didn’t like writing in the encyclopedic format they were looking for, so I very politely thanked them for allowing me to write with them and bowed out.

This isn’t easy – I’m still struggling to find my niche and make enough money to live well on while building my experience to a level that might get me editing or writing work elsewhere. My dream would be to work as an editor in a fiction publishing house, but jobs like that don’t come easily, so I’m content building experience for now.

Follow Kristen Douglas on Twitter and read some of her articles on eHow.com.