Karen Conlin is a self-employed editor who works with fiction and nonfiction books. Her prior experience includes editing at gaming company TSR. Conlin is the 2018 winner of the Robinson Prize awarded by ACES: The Society for Editing. In this interview, conducted by email, Conlin discusses her work past and present, and her interest in register.
Q. Describe your work. What is your typical day?
A. Let me stress that mine is probably a very atypical day, because not only do I work from home, I’m also the chief caretaker of my granddaughter when her mother’s at work. So …
After the usual morning routine of making breakfast for whoever’s awake (usually just myself and my husband, but with a toddler one never knows!), I head up to my work space and dig into emails and administrative cleanup. When that’s done, I look at the projects on my plate and prioritize them.
Right now, for example, there’s this interview, an article on register for an upcoming issue of Tracking Changes (the ACES newsletter), and the tail end of a copyediting job on a novel set in the Old West in the late 1880s. That’s the order in which I’ll tackle those, and if I have time later, I’ll write a blog post for Grammargeddon! about forming plural possessives. Never hurts to review the basics!
In between those, I’ll be toddler wrangling. I might be able to finish everything I plan, but then again … toddler!
Q. Earlier in your career, you edited for TSR, the company that then owned Dungeons & Dragons and other games. What was it like editing material for role-playing games?
A. I always say that working there was my favorite job as an actual employee of a company. The designers/developers (which is what our writers were called) were so creative!
I didn’t even mind that my first two weeks were spent reading rule books. All of the rule books. ALL of them.
That was before AD&D 2nd Edition, so you might think it wasn’t so bad — but the D&D line was included in my workload, so I had to read all of the BECMI rules, too. (I think that series stopped at Master, at that point. My memory’s hazy, though.)
Editing RPG material is a strange blend of technical editing and fiction editing. So many rules!
And you have to ensure that they’re all followed, which was the hardest part because those creative designers always wanted to find ways around the rules to do what they wanted rather than what was allowed. I learned a lot about diplomacy (and I don’t mean the board game, but we played some of that, too).
Q. You’ve led sessions and workshops on register. What is register, and how does it affect how you edit?
A. Register is a concept from linguistics, normally applied to people’s speech. However, I think it’s just as applicable to writing.
The five main registers are frozen, formal, consultative, casual, and intimate. The correlations are as follows:
- Frozen is language that never changes, like memorized prayers (think Catholic mass or any number of Protestant recitations, like the various creeds).
- Formal is most often found in medical, legal, or academic writing, although with the plain-language movement that’s changing slowly and there are fewer words the average reader or listener won’t understand.
- Consultative is the register of meetings with professionals, like a parent-teacher conference or a visit to your doctor. There’s an assumption of mutual respect, and the language is less formal and more “everyday,” without dropping into slang and other marker of the next register, which is casual.
- Casual is the one we use with our peers (coworkers, for example) and the one we hear most often around us in daily activities. Sentence structure is less rigid, and word choice can include slang terms and “verbal shorthand” like “Ready?” for “Are you ready to go?”
- Intimate is used with loved ones, family, and closest friends, and can include in-jokes and terms no one else will understand because they’re “on the outside.”
I edit fiction, so I don’t see a lot of frozen or formal register. In my work, the narrative language is most often consultative or casual, depending on the narrator; dialogue, though, can be anywhere on the map.
Keeping a character’s register consistent is part of the job for me. If they start out speaking casually, why do they shift to consultative? Does that shift make sense within the story and between the characters involved?
Q. Congratulations on winning the Robinson Prize. What does this honor mean to you?
A. Honestly? I’m still amazed that my work was judged best of all the submissions/nominees.
I’ve read since then, though, that part of the reason I was awarded the Robinson was that my work exemplifies the direction in which editing is headed, and in which the membership of ACES has gone and continues to go: freelance/independent contract editing, whether that’s for fiction (which is what I do) or for a corporate client, a mainstream publishing house, an academic press, or what have you.
I always have said I have my clients to thank for my success. That’s never truer than now. Along with the samples of their edited work, their recommendations and testimonials showed the panel of judges what they value most in my work (hint: it’s not my grammatical prowess, although that’s very important), and I owe them my heartfelt thanks for this award.
Q. What advice do you have for students considering work as self-employed editors?
A. Don’t expect to support yourself on freelance editing right out of the gate. Have a solid source of income, and use your editing to supplement.
If you’re going into, say, medical or academic editing, talk to others who already do that work and ask them if they have suggestions on how to make a go of it. Most of the editors I know who do that kind of work have publishers for clients.
Fiction editing’s a whole ‘nother ball game, as they say. It’s rather like my current project — the Wild West. I’m lucky to have a good stable of repeat clients at the moment, but when their series come to a close … I’ll be looking for replacements. There’s no opportunity to sit back and relax, because you need to keep the work coming in.
And even so, this is my favorite job. Hands down. It ain’t always pretty, but it’s satisfying.