Q&A with freelance editor Sea Chapman

Sea Chapman is a freelance editor who works with a wide range of material while specializing in fiction, including thrillers, mysteries and fantasy. She lives in central Arizona with her family. In this interview, conducted by email, Chapman discusses how she got into editing and her life as a freelancer.

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

A. I have been working as an editor since April 2006. From book manuscripts and audio transcripts to press releases and ELL programs, I’ve worked on a little bit of everything. I have specialized in editing creative writing for the last seven years.

I offer various levels of editing for creative fiction and nonfiction writing. I specialize in editing thriller, mystery, historical fiction, and speculative fiction (science fiction and fantasy) manuscripts. I do edit graphic novels, visual novel and narrative game scripts, and comics (web or print) sometimes, too. I also love to edit essays and articles about anthropology, archaeology, and history; constructed languages (conlangs); death and grieving across cultures; international humanities and art history; and travel.

Additionally, I also enjoy speaking at events and teaching workshops on various subjects, as well as being involved with the publishing community in other ways. I was one of the jurors for the Speculative Literature Foundation‘s 2016 Working-Class Writers Grant, and I was one of the judges for the 2017 Writing Contest hosted by the Society of Southwestern Authors. Freelancing affords me the schedule flexibility to pursue those kinds of opportunities.

All that said, my typical workday is nothing glamorous or exciting, I’m afraid. On weekdays, after starting my day helping family members prepare for school or work, I do some chores around the house—dishes, laundry, general cleaning and tidying up, tending to my dogs—and then settle in with some breakfast to go through emails, social media, news sites, schedules, and checklists. Thirty minutes or so later, I start editing.

I usually edit for about two or three hours before taking a lunch break and possibly running some errands, and then I edit again for another two to three hours. In the late afternoon, I have more family obligations and chores, though I sometimes have what I call “live editing demos” scheduled, where a client and I access a Google Document at the same time and I talk them through the editing or revisions process in real time. Then, when needed and if time permits, I might work for a few more hours before going to bed. I do try to avoid editing more than four to six hours a day if I can help it, though.

I do most of my administrative tasks on weekends, as well as web design work and brand consulting on the rare occasions I take on those kinds of projects.

To be honest, my schedule hasn’t been as orderly or straightforward as what I’ve described above since I returned to school a couple years ago. I also used to have more flexibility and time each day for pursuits like learning to play musical instruments, learning new languages, researching topics of interest to me, and going out with friends. Now, more than not, I am usually at home working on an editorial project or two while also completing a comparable amount of school work. I have to schedule my time out weeks in advance just to ensure I can meet up with a friend for lunch every so often or go to the library and get out of the house. Balancing school, work, and more is difficult, and my hat goes off to your students.

Q. What attracted you to a career in editing?

A. I have always loved reading, writing, language, and storytelling, but editing itself as a career fell into my lap unexpectedly. I had edited résumés as a side gig for over a year by the time I ended up working as the project manager at a design firm in Los Angeles. I was also working a second job as a supervisor at an indie bookstore in Pasadena. The managing editor for the firm’s popular design webzine left abruptly, and my boss needed to find a quick replacement for her. I offered to take on the editing work on top of my regular duties, because what Angelino doesn’t work three jobs at some point or another, right?

After undergoing a steep learning curve and numerous challenges, I found my groove and loved my time editing the webzine. That opportunity changed my whole career path. I’m fortunate to have had some wonderful mentors along the way who’ve helped me understand my goals and opportunities for growth as my life, worldview, and priorities changed over time.

Editing isn’t necessarily this Instagram-worthy job set against a colorful backdrop of bookshelves, typewriters, and tea mugs. There are as many unpleasant or frustrating days as there are pleasant or thrilling ones. As I once wrote in an editing group on Facebook a few years ago: Grant me the serenity to accept the things the author will not change, the courage to keep editing the things I can, and the wisdom to remain a descriptivist. I will always enjoy the intellectual and creative challenge editing offers me, though, and I love helping writers shape their stories.

Q. You edit both fiction and nonfiction, including graphic novels and comics. How do you shift gears between genres and formats?

A. I prefer to keep my work schedule simple because the rest of my life and schedule are not always consistent. I try to avoid booking more than two projects at any given time, and I try to work on the same formats at the same time — that is, I try to book novel manuscripts at the same time while booking comics at the same time and so on — because it’s easier for me to maintain a state of flow when I don’t have to shift gears too much.

Booking editing projects that way isn’t always possible, and when it’s not, I dedicate shifts to each project each day—mornings for one project, afternoons or evenings for another. Often, because different applications, tools, and style guides are being used for each project, it’s easy enough to get into a work rhythm.

However, if I find that I am getting too distracted by the differences in projects being worked at the same time, I may alternate days spent working on each and contact clients to revise milestones and deadlines if needed. Sometimes other tricks, like listening to specific music genres only while working on specific genres of writing, can help me settle into my editing rhythm a bit faster and more smoothly.

Q. You are active in ACES: The Society for Editing, including leading a session at its most recent conference. How is ACES valuable to you?

A. I’ve found community and camaraderie in ACES that isn’t always possible to achieve on my own as a freelancer who lives on the rural outskirts of a major metropolis. Attending ACES conferences has made it possible for me to expand my friendships with editors I’ve only known online otherwise. Those conferences have also given me amazing opportunities to be taught by some of the most brilliant people in publishing, new media, and journalism.

I prioritize attending the ACES conference each year over all other forms of professional development because it is that valuable of an experience for me. Sadly, I won’t be able to attend next year, and I am genuinely heartbroken about it. ACES conferences are such validating, enriching experiences that I think every editor needs, whether freelance or in-house, especially when our work is sometimes trivialized by various organizations or people in power.

Q. What advice do you have for people interested in freelance editing?

A. I wrote a listicle about this in 2017—don’t laugh! Listicles were popular back then. You can find it at this link: https://seachapman.com/2017/05/05/a-listicle-for-new-editors-seeking-work/

Freelancing and in-house work each have their advantages and disadvantages. Freelancing is much more involved than many people expect. You have to handle scheduling, project management, bookkeeping, taxes, marketing, finding clients, writing contracts, sending job bids, subcontracting work out or taking on subcontracted work, and more. There is so much administrative stuff to do, and it eats up a lot of your time. You also have to keep up with regular changes and updates to style guides, dictionaries, and other reference texts. Professional development never ends because language is fluid and constantly evolving, so we as editors have to be teachable and adaptable.

Freelancing can be very isolating, too. You need to actively engage with the editorial community online if you cannot do that in-person. If you are fortunate enough to have access to local association chapter meetings, like those offered by the EFA or Editors Canada, attend those and participate as often as possible.

Speaking of editing associations, join a few and take advantage of the training, networking, benefits, and events they offer. As your own boss, you have to find those opportunities for yourself.

Last thing, I promise: Checklists are your friend. Use them for everything in your business. They make freelancing so much easier.

Learn more about Sea Chapman on her website and follow her on Twitter.

Q&A with POLITICO reporter Megan Cassella

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Megan Cassella is a reporter at POLITICO in Washington, D.C., covering the trade beat. She previously worked at Reuters news service. This interview was conducted by email.

Q. Describe your job at POLITICO. What is your typical day like?

A. Every day is a little bit different, which is what I like most about the job. My workday starts at home, occasionally with a few early-morning emails and phone calls and always with a first reading of the day’s news and a scan through Twitter. Because I cover international trade, my beat spans time zones, and we’re often reacting early to news that broke overnight in Beijing or Brussels.

By 9 or 10 a.m. I’m out the door, either to the newsroom, an event somewhere downtown, a coffee or breakfast meeting with a source, or to the Capitol. I work as part of a four-person team covering trade policy, so we’ll divide up the events of the day and then spend our remaining free time — when there’s no breaking news and no events to cover — meeting with sources and reporting out longer-term stories.

By late afternoon, we’ve shifted into planning for the next day, including by starting work on Morning Trade. It’s a policy newsletter we put out every weekday morning, and it serves as a preview of sorts for the next day in trade. On the couple nights a week that I spearhead the newsletter, I’ll aim to file it to my editor around 6 p.m., then dive back in around 10 p.m. to do a final headline sweep and “put it to bed,” as we say.

Q. The tweet pinned to your Twitter account says: “Who knew the trade beat would make you a war correspondent?” How so?

The line is meant to be a sort of play on words because I spend every day covering what many people would consider a trade war. It’s not an armed conflict in the normal sense of the word, but it’s still a prolonged and politically fraught standoff between the United States and many of its trading partners that has tremendously high economic stakes for most countries involved.

The “who knew” bit is a reference to the fact that when I switched to covering trade three years ago, it was a relatively sleepy beat. There was always something to write about, but in the pre-Trump era it was rarely front-page news and only occasionally caught the attention of major news outlets and the White House press corps.

These days, with an ongoing conflict with China and with Trump having declared that passage of his new North American trade deal is his top legislative priority for the year, we’re seeing trade news break almost every day. And we’re competing with everyone in covering it.

Q. How do headline writing and story editing work at POLITICO?

A. I have a deputy editor and head editor who both oversee trade, and I’ll file to either one of them when I’m writing a daily story. I’ll include a headline when I file, but editors have authority to change it, and sometimes we’ll go back and forth for awhile before we settle on one that suits us both.

For a larger or longer-term story, the piece often goes through a second edit by a deputy editor. Much of what I write is only for subscribers and remains behind a paywall, but if it’s moving to what we call the main site, an editor from that department will look it over. Big stories will often go through what we call A/B headline testing, meaning we’ll try two different headlines on it and someone from the web team will monitor to see which one is more successful online.

Q. You are a 2015 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill. What skills and ideas that you learned there do you use today? What new ones have you picked up?

A. It’s hard to put together a succinct list of everything I learned at UNC’s j-school that I use at work every day.

Chris Roush’s business journalism program gave me a solid grounding in economics reporting techniques and the ability to find stories in federal documents and data filings, skills that are fundamental to my beat. Ryan Thornburg’s data journalism class also gave me a familiarity with numbers and spreadsheets that I rely on frequently. And Paul O’Connor’s reporting class, which required us to travel to Raleigh once a week to talk to lawmakers, was a perfect preview for reporting on Capitol Hill and interacting with members of the House and Senate regularly.

More broadly, I felt the j-school instilled a sense of how dynamic the journalism industry is and how every reporter these days must be willing to work quickly, to learn on the job and to adapt to new demands and new trends in media. That willingness to be flexible has helped me in every position and every newsroom I’ve entered.

Student guest post: Short attention spans may not equal short stories

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 20th of those posts. Victoria Young is a UNC-Chapel Hill senior from Concord, North Carolina. She studying media and journalism, with a concentration in editing and graphic design. Her honors minor is in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry. She has worked on the copy desk at The Daily Tar Heel, at TIPS Technical Publishing last year and at the North Carolina Department of Transportation in the communications office last summer.

“The reader’s attention span is getting shorter.” This is a statement I have heard consistently in classes and in internships.

Everyone talks about the magic number: 15 seconds. Data shows that a reader or viewer will spend 15 seconds of his or her time before moving on from videos, ads or news articles. When this data first came out, it was a shock to the journalism system.

News articles were meant to be read and hopefully enjoyed. During the days of the muckrakers, articles were written in at least a thousand words. Ida Tarbell’s run in McClure’s Magazine on the Standard Oil Company ran as a series of several articles.

This tradition of having longer articles is continued through newspapers like The New York Times whose word count per story ranges from 400 to 1,200 words. But some companies are straying from long-form journalism due to the small amount of time a reader is willing to spend on an online article. Axios, an online and email Listserv news company, was founded on this issue.

“Stories are too long. Or too boring.” These sentences open the second paragraph on Axios’ About page.

Jim VandeHei, the founder and CEO of Axios, visited a business journalism class I was in this semester. A student asked him what his top pet peeve was. He answered immediately: long stories.

Axios tries to keep its articles at maximum of 300 to 400 words. VandeHei stated that, in some cases, that was still too many. He had a point. If readers spend 15 seconds on a story, they will, hopefully, get enough information from a tighter word count. Squeezing out filler or clunky sensory words can get the reader to the meat of a story faster.

But this argument assumes two things. First, it assumes that the 300 to 400 words in an article containing all and enough information on the story. Second, it assumes that most, if not every, story can exist with little to no sensory or tangential detail.

To address the first assumption, not every story is pristine. But this can be solved by good reporting and copy editing. Readers who want to consume compact stories are counting on every pertinent detail making it into the word count and for those words to make sense. If a reporter has researched related incidents, gathered all current information and contacted sources, then he or she should have enough material to form a concise brief on the issue. Also, since a short story needs to simply present the main takeaways, a journalist would then know which details do or do not need to make it in.

As for copy editors, their job is crucial in this instance. A shorter length does not mean fewer errors, and if readers cannot understand it, cutting the length is useless. The goal of short stories is faster communication with the reader. Clunky, confusing or improperly worded sentences will inhibit that communication.

As for the second assumption, not every story should be short. There are some nuances to a story, outside of cold facts, that add detail. It is nearly impossible to have multiple sources in a story with a 300-word story. For some stories, the credibility of the article relies on having multiple sources.

There are also some details that journalists are able to put into stories that present more information. For instance, if a journalist is covering a murder trial in which the defendant is found not guilty, it may behoove a reader to know that during witness testimony from the victims’ family, the defendant was laughing. These are small details, but they set a scene that gives more insight.

This is not to say that short-length stories are bad. They aren’t, and in many instances, they are needed, but I would put a few words of caution in. This type of writing requires good editing and careful decisions about when to use it.

Every story is different and needs to be communicated in its own way. Simply allowing data on website traffic to shape story writing may hinder the news process, if it is not monitored.

Student guest post: Being a reporter and editor at the same time

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 19th of those posts. Natasha Townsend is a senior majoring in reporting and psychology. She has interned at The Hendersonville Lightning and the North Carolina Press Association, and she is a student researcher for the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Since last summer, I have been interning for Penny Abernathy, who leads the research team at UNC within the journalism school where she chronicles news deserts throughout the country. A news desert is a place where communities are vulnerable to losing newspapers because of many factors including poverty, polarization and political apathy.

Last summer, one of my biggest projects was to manage a database of thousands of newspapers across the country that have closed or merged from 2004-2018. We found that more than 1,000 communities throughout the country have no newspaper.

One of the most interesting things I’ve found from this research is that not only are there political implications, but also this has a direct effect on the amount of tax dollars that people are spending. Interestingly, when communities lose a newspaper, there’s less accountability from local government officials. For instance, our research has found that with this lack of accountability, the government is more likely to spend taxpayer money behind closed doors. Because of a lack of newspapers in poor, rural areas, there’s no watchdog institution.

With the lack of newspapers in these communities, journalists are also having more trouble finding jobs, and as a result, editors are having an even harder time. With newspaper consolidation and the current economic state of the field, there are fewer resources and fewer jobs for journalists. News companies are slashing their staffs and making people do more things, stretching the employees too thin. Editors, especially at smaller local papers, are being laid off, so reporters must take on the editor role themselves.

I saw this firsthand when I interned for the Hendersonville Lightning, a newspaper in my hometown. The paper is owned by Bill Moss, a veteran journalist. He saw a need for a hyperlocal newspaper to serve the needs of the community that weren’t being met by the competitor regional paper.

The Lightning is a one-man show, where Bill does the reporting, photography, editing, captions, you name it. As an intern, I found it was very hectic, and there was a lot of extra responsibility. While my official title was reporting intern, I had to fill additional roles, one of them being editing my own work. Bill would glance over my work and catch factual errors, but the more stylistic edits, such as captioning, photo, headline, design, things that are typical of a traditional editor, I had to do on my own.

This was indicative of how the field is changing and how the reporter role has become more flexible. Not only do reporters have to report their own work, but they also have to edit it and brand it to their individual style.

As a result of journalists becoming their own editors, a question arises of how objective the writing can really be without an impartial person also viewing the work. I think the editor role should be separate from the reporter role, because journalists can become too close to the story and lose sight of the ultimate objective or be subject to inherent bias in their writing.

Covering the uprooted

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A capacity crowd gathers for the launch of Uprooted, a multimedia website. (Photo by Alex Kormann)

Each spring, journalism students from UNC-Chapel Hill create a multimedia project that focuses on a place and topic. Previous subjects have included the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the youth movement in Cuba.

This year, the students focused on refugees in Colombia who have left Venezuela to escape political turmoil and to find jobs and medical care. The result is Uprooted, a website that uses text, graphics, photographs and video to tell their stories. Here’s the theme of the project:

It’s easy to get lost in the numbers and policy when covering Venezuela and its intrinsic, historic connection with Colombia. We hope these stories of struggle, resilience, acceptance and tension can provide clarity and encourage people to join the conversation and take action.

Students in my Advanced Editing class contributed to the project by editing the text stories and captions, and test-driving the site. Thanks to colleagues Pat Davison, Tamara Rice and Kate Sheppard for inviting us to participate.

Student guest post: What I’ve learned writing for a business news wire

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 18th of those posts. Nick Thompson is a graduating senior at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in media and journalism. He has experience writing for The Daily Tar Heel, reporting and technical directing for Carolina Connection, and writing for the North Carolina Business News Wire.

Choosing to write for a business news wire service has been one of the most challenging, yet rewarding experiences that I have undertaken since coming to UNC.

Writing about the volatile and fast-paced world of businesses and the stock exchange taught me to go after stories outside of my comfort zone and how to be able to make sense out of the wordy and convoluted nature of government forms. If anything, writing business stories reassured my previous notion that writing about data and statistics is the closest thing to complex math that I’m willing to do in my professional career.

It may seem like the world of business journalism consists of nothing more than series of red and green numbers accompanied by the jagged features of company line graphs.

And while objectively speaking, this viewpoint holds true, what separates a good business journalist from the rest of the lot is the ability to delve deeper into public company filings and press releases, to find the stories based on the sensitive data companies begrudgingly have to provide, as per the rules laid out by Uncle Sam.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, a branch of the federal government, requires that all publicly traded companies compile forms to announce news that could sway investor decisions. For a business reporter, these forms are your greatest assets for gaining detailed information about a company and what they have been up to.

Some key things I would recommend you look for when going over these documents:

  • Financial figures: Always follow the money. Investors want to know the reason that money is changing hands. Other things to consider are the company’s marketing strategy, recent industry trends and the overall status of the market. Comparisons between company financial statistics should be made with the company’s standing this time the previous year, as business fluctuates on quarterly, and comparing quarterly can give off an inaccurate perception of the company’s earnings.
  • Executives: When writing an business piece, always include at least a line about the given company’s executives or top executive. Has their compensation gone up? Did they recent move positions? How many shares of company stock do they own?
  • Share prices: Every story about a publicly traded company should mention the price that the company’s shares closed at, and it should include a line stating also how the stock performed for that given day.

When looking for a company’s filings, Sqoop and BamSEC are going to be your best bet when it comes to curating information on a company. You can set up email alerts to always be up to date when a company on your news beat posts a filing.

When writing news business stories, it is important to understand your main audience. In the case of business-related stories, that means you’re writing to would-be investors or market analysts who have some level of interest of stake in the company that you are covering.

These readers are looking for quick insights to aid in their decision-making on whether to buy or sell that company’s stock. With such a fast-paced demand for information, these readers will have little interest in articles longer than a few hundred words. So keep your text clean and concise, with a focus on the data.

Writing these business stories taught me how to make the most of each word I use in my stories and how to let the facts speak for themselves. I recommend business journalism to anyone who likes to go deep with their investigations, unknowing as to what kind of fantastic stories lay hidden in plain sight, buried under heaps of corporate jargon.

The challenge and reward of teaching online

I have taught online courses at UNC-Chapel Hill since 2012, and I oversee a certificate program in digital communication that’s taught entirely online.

I have found this method of teaching to be rewarding, but some of my colleagues are wary of it. Indeed, a recent post in the Chronicle of Higher Education found that just 9% of faculty members preferred teaching online.

I was fortunate. In my first foray in online teaching, staff members at the journalism school gave me advice on how to prepare and pace MEJO 711 (Writing and Editing for Digital Media). A veteran of online teaching, Brian Carroll of Berry College, taught the other section of the course that semester, and his guidance was invaluable. It helped that he was also author of the textbook used in the class.

The Chronicle post offers excellent tips on teaching online. Among them: Be engaged with the students and be intuitive in the course design. Be yourself.

If you are considering teaching an online course or taking one, I encourage you to read the full article, which is rich in recommendations. It’s possible to make online teaching rewarding and fun, but we have to work at it.