Q&A with Jane Mackay, freelance editor

Jane Mackay is a freelance editor whose clients include academic journals and book publishers. She lives in Sonoma County, California. In this interview, conducted by email, Mackay discusses how she established herself as a freelancer, what it’s like to work with writers whose primary language is other than English, and her thoughts on the Oxford comma.

Q. Describe your job. What is your typical workweek like?

A. Nothing like leading off with the most difficult question! Because my workload swells and shrinks, the ebb and flow of my workweek varies greatly.

Taking a broad view, the typical workweek incorporates a healthy combination of work-work (the type that directly earns me money), office-type work (answering emails; participating in discussions and answering questions on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook; organizing files on my computer; etc.), and physical activity. I tend to work in bursts of 2–4 hours interspersed with physical activity (yoga, running, hiking), playing music (I play drums), or other activity that’s not too mentally taxing (e.g., running errands); I find that keeps both my brain and body fresh and working well.

Consequently, my workday flows from when I get up to mid-evening, seven days a week, on an as-needed basis. I have a routine, but not a set schedule — one of the main reasons I became a freelancer was to have control over how I spent my time.

Q. How did you get into freelance editing? What obstacles did you face in establishing yourself in a crowded field?

A. Ignorance is a great asset. I didn’t know I was entering a crowded field when I embarked on this venture; I just knew I wanted to get paid for doing what came naturally to me.

It sounds strange to me now, but until I began a master’s in journalism at the age of 36, it hadn’t occurred to me that people got paid for correcting grammatical mistakes and smoothing syntax and doing all the other things copy editors do to fine-tune other people’s writing — or that it was something I could get paid for doing. At Northeastern University, where I was studying, I was made writing coach for the journalism department; it was in the course of doing that work (which largely consisted of working with undergraduates on their written assignments) that I realized I had found my vocation.

After the summer semester, I took a hiatus from studying and ran a Craigslist ad letting the whole of the Boston region know that I was available to edit their writing. After a week or two, I got my first client, for whom I copy edited a 600-page semi-autobiographical novel. It was quite an entry into the field!

Establishing myself was not too difficult, perhaps partly because it was pre-Recession and because at first I was feeling my way, not leaping into the deep end with both feet; I still had other sources of income. I also knew I had a lot to learn (about style guides, for example!) and wanted to keep the pressure on myself light until I felt truly competent.

The bigger obstacle has been maintaining a steady workload. Like many people who work solo with words on a page, I’m an introvert; marketing and self-promotion are two aggressive alien creatures it has taken me a long time and much effort to understand and make peace with. I’m kind of getting a handle on them now! I am fortunate in that I’ve been doing this for long enough now that a fair amount of my workload comes from referrals and repeat clients.

The other aspect of establishing myself has been finding my niche(s), which is something that has developed over time. I have three main niches: academic work; fiction and nonfiction book manuscripts (I typically work directly with authors); and business communications and other documents. The one I’m most strongly established in is the academic editing niche, with a sub-specialty of working with authors not native in the English language.

Which leads conveniently to question three.… 😉

Q. Among other tasks, you edit an academic journal that’s largely written by authors who do not speak English as a primary language. What is it like to work with those writers?

A. I really enjoy that work. A fellow editor put it perfectly the other day: “An intense enjoyment of solving communication puzzles” is a key asset in editing writing by non-native English speakers.

In my work for the journals (I now also edit a second journal that publishes authors for whom English is not the primary language), I don’t work directly with the authors. But in the course of doing this for several years, some authors have become private clients, and I particularly enjoy working directly with them. It’s tremendously satisfying to bat a sentence or phrase or paragraph back and forth with questions and explanations and alternate wordings until both of us understand exactly what the author is trying to express and we have a sentence or phrase or paragraph that’s clear and accurate.

In both cases (the journal work and the private work), it’s particularly satisfying and fulfilling to know that I’m helping these really intelligent people who have done a huge amount of research and other work to clearly and accurately describe their studies and explain their findings. When editing research papers I am always mindful that accuracy is paramount, not only for the authors, but also for other researchers who will draw on these studies in their own research. There are occasional “hair-pulling” moments, of course, as with anything, but seeing the paper published in a well-regarded journal and receiving the author’s appreciation more than compensate.

Q. You are proficient in both Chicago and Associated Press style. Care to weigh in on the debate over the Oxford comma?

A. Because clarity and accuracy are my watchwords and there is less likelihood of misunderstanding or miscommunication with the Oxford (aka “serial”) comma, I prefer to use it.

But I have no quibble with not using it if that’s stipulated by the prevailing style guide or it’s the author’s preference. In those cases, if its absence could easily lead to confusion or misunderstanding in a particular situation, I will either put it in or recommend the use of it, depending on how much leeway I have.