Q&A with freelance editor Heather E. Saunders

heathersaundersHeather E. Saunders is a freelance proofreader and STM editor who lives in Massachusetts. She edits material about mental health, aeronautics and cancer research, among other topics. In this interview, conducted by email, Saunders discusses her work, her new role at ACES and her viewpoints on the Oxford comma and the singular they.

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

A. As you might expect, a “typical” day is never guaranteed in the life of a freelancer. I have developed a general structure for my days and my weeks, but there must be an inherent flexibility to my schedule.

The morning is devoted to emails and house chores, and early afternoon is set aside for deep focus work. After a quick lunch and an extended puppy playtime, the rest of the afternoon is spent on lighter project work. I end the day with marketing, networking and follow-up emails.

I schedule new projects and check in on project updates early in the week and send invoices on Friday. I’ve developed a rhythm that ensures I have time for billed work, marketing for new work and professional development, even though those times might fluctuate a bit day to day.

Q. You were a journalism major as an undergraduate. How did you go from news to other types of editing?

A. During my studies, I fell in love with the copy desk. I started in journalism with a desire to write, but I found myself much more at home editing copy. Once I knew I preferred editing to writing, it was a just a matter of deciding what I wanted to edit.

Working in journalism actually helped me hone in on my passions; I learned very quickly which fields interested me, and I decided to pursue those right out of the gate. I’ve always been drawn to the sciences, and I studied astronomy and psychology as well as journalism. One of my first clients was an aeronautics journal, and from there I expanded to other areas.

Q. You were recently elected to the executive committee of ACES, the Society for Editing. What inspired you to run, and what do you hope to achieve as a board member?

A. I’ve loved being a part of ACES since I joined to attend my first conference in Las Vegas. I ran for the board so I could contribute to this organization that does so much for our field. I was the Boston chapter coordinator for the Editorial Freelancers Association for three years, so I felt prepared to offer my time and skills.

As a board member, I hope to help develop more training opportunities for intermediate and advanced editors as well as more opportunities to connect with colleagues, be that at local meetings, through mentoring, or at other events. There are many new things happening at ACES that I am excited about.

Q. What advice do you have to people interested in careers in editing similar to yours?

A. There is certainly no one path to a career, and I found mine through study; I studied editing and linguistics as well as news and current research in fields that interest me. And I continue this study regularly. Together, this learning keeps me current on the fields I work in as well as keeps my editing skills sharp, which continually creates new opportunities.

Q. Lastly, what’s your view on the two topics that editors get asked about a lot: the Oxford comma and the singular they?

A. I enjoy the Oxford comma in my reading, but rarely use it in my personal writing (a holdover from my early days in journalism), so I live in both worlds.

I like seeing it on the printed page, but generally only put it there if style dictates or if I’m writing for a broad audience. If Oxford comma usage was banned or made mandatory tomorrow, I wouldn’t lose sleep either way.

As for singular they, I encourage its use and am pleased to see style guides finally adopting it.

Check out Heather E. Saunders’ website and follow her on Twitter.


Q&A with freelance editor Laura Poole

Laura Poole is a freelance editor who lives in Durham, North Carolina. As senior editor at Archer Editorial Services, she specializes in editing scholarly nonfiction and academic journals. She has also edited travel guides and textbooks. In this interview, conducted by email, Poole discusses her freelance work, training opportunities for editors, and her viewpoint on some language issues.

Q. Describe your job at Archer Editorial Services. What is your typical day like?

A. I’m often up by 6 a.m. to do an hour of work before my daughter gets up at 7. I’m very productive in the early morning.

I usually have multiple projects going at once, so I make progress on each of them in chunks: one journal article, 30-40 pages of a book, some email responding, and so on. I try to keep my morning interruption-free, because that’s my most productive time.

I eat a quick lunch, then back to work, but early afternoon is my slow-brain time. That’s good for submitting paperwork, setting up files, proofreading, coffee appointments and phone calls, even a short nap if I have time!

I’m finished with work by 3 or 5, depending on the day. I don’t get full billable hours in a day, but I usually get my tasks done in a timely way.

Q. What types of writing do you particularly enjoy editing? Is there anything you avoid?

A. I avoid philosophy and hard sciences with a lot of very technical terms. I edit exclusively scholarly nonfiction, and I particularly enjoy gender studies, cultural ethnographies, and science studies (slightly different from hard sciences).

I have a specialty in editing math and economics, but it’s not my favorite thing to work on!

Q. People often ask how much freelance editors are paid. What do you tell them?

A. There’s a range, of course, and the pay rate depends on many things — experience, skill, client budget, and so on. Skilled, experienced editors can command higher rates.

I like to say I make a comfortable living, and now I have broadened my income base by earning money from training, referral fees, and royalties. Plus, I’m developing a new business (see next question). The more streams of income I have, the more stable my income. But the majority of my income comes from the editing I provide directly for my clients.

Q. In 2015, you and Erin Brenner formed the Pilcrow Group to help train and coach editors. What services do you provide, and how is that effort going?

A. Pilcrow Group was founded to purchase Copyediting (http://www.copyediting.com), and we did that in September 2015. Our mission is to offer development and support for editors across the career spectrum — from just starting out to advanced!

We are very proud of our premium newsletter (Copyediting), which has been around for 25 years and is the heart and soul of what we provide. We added a free weekly newsletter, and we have an active blog and job board.

We offer training in the form of monthly Master Classes on various editing topics (and archived recordings available for purchase) and now In-Depth Courses, which are three to five webinar sessions. We are creating an imprint to have our own books and ebooks, with our first title, a grammar workbook, coming out in late summer.

Very soon we are pilot-testing mentoring groups and mastermind groups for editors. We are sponsoring conferences and planning to roll out our own live training and development events in the future.

The efforts are going well so far! We were pleased to announce that Copyediting was back in the hands of editors, and the response among our colleagues and in the editorial community was heartwarming! We are very excited about all our plans, and the interest level has been high.

Q. What advice do you have for college students looking to go into freelance editing?

A. Start NOW! Edit for your classmates, edit for other students, post a flier or classified ad. You can get experience at any time, and the more you DO, the more you will learn.

Q. Let’s wrap up with two hot-button topics: How do you feel about the Oxford comma? The singular they?

Singular they: Used to hate it. Now I see its utility and have grudgingly accepted and am warming to it.

Serial comma: I’m a big fan. I’m a CMoS girl, so I like to use it. In fact, I even invented my own serial comma hand signal! Here it is:


Q&A with Kinsey Lane Sullivan of TRUPOINT Partners

Kinsey Lane Sullivan is communications coordinator at TRUPOINT Partners in Charlotte, North Carolina. The company provides regulatory compliance solutions and consulting services, and it works with more than 450 financial institutions nationwide. In this interview, conducted by email, Sullivan discusses her job, her journalism training and her freelance interests.

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

A. Every day at TRUPOINT is different. In my book, that’s one of the benefits of working at a small and growing entrepreneurial business.

I’m the communications coordinator, and I lead the marketing initiatives. That being said, a typical day involves lots of collaboration. I work with almost everyone in our company at least once daily.

Generally speaking, I spend half of my time on inbound content strategy and the other half on outbound marketing strategy. Branding, advertising, writing, editing, design, analysis, audience research and even conferences planning are all part of the role.

Another aspect of my role that wouldn’t show up on a resumé is learning the industry. Regulatory compliance is a specialized field. It requires a lot of technical knowledge. Learning the nuances of compliance has been a critical part of my job, and one of the most interesting.

Q. You graduated from the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2013. What skills that you learned there do you use in your job? What new skills have you picked up?

A. One of the greatest skills that studying journalism teaches you is to consume information in various formats, from biased sources, and then reframe that information in way that is informative, trustworthy and readable.

Almost everything I know about writing, editing and design I learned in the j-school. That includes InDesign from your class and editorial writing with Professor Brinson. I’ve also drawn heavily from lessons I learned in Professor O’Connor’s reporting class as I dissect government publications.

Almost everything I know about marketing and communication strategy I’ve learned on the job.

I studied reporting, and the wall between the editorial and advertising sides of journalism is substantial. I see that changing rapidly in the industry, but I didn’t have any exposure to promotional communication while I was in school.

Truth and clarity will always be central to effective communication, but so is knowing your audience. From that perspective, the editorial-advertising fusion is natural.

Q. You also have freelanced at Mic and elsewhere. What do you like to write about, and how do you go about pitching ideas for freelance pieces?

A. I love freelancing. I’ve been doing it since I was in the j-school and started submitting pieces from Professor Cole’s feature writing class to local publications. My first published piece was a front-page feature on beekeeping that was published in the Chapel Hill Herald-Sun in 2011. That experience got me hooked.

I’ve been focusing on digital media lately and am writing for two niche media platforms. The first is Mic, which is geared toward a politically engaged millennial audience. The second is HelloGiggles, which features positive stories with a feminist slant.

Art is my passion, so that’s what I cover most. I do research online, and when I find an artist or an event that is compelling, I pitch it! Cultivating good relationships with my editors has really helped me have the freedom to pitch whatever I want.

Without a specific connection to a platform, I’ve found it to be easier to pitch online. That being said, I wouldn’t be freelancing today if I hadn’t done the legwork to get in touch with friends of friends (of friends) who were already established in the field. It may be intimidating, but that networking is just what you have to do – and everyone is doing it.

Q. You’re succeeding in a competitive field. What advice do you have for journalism students who are pursuing internships and jobs?

A. The field is changing a lot. Be open to new experiences and opportunities, and be flexible. There are many opportunities for people who communicate well.

Also, leverage your resources! If you’re in school, there’s no excuse not to take advantage of the career services and the knowledge of your mentors. If you’re out of school, start having conversations with friends and family about where you want to go and who they may know.

Your path will almost certainly be unconventional, so embrace that. It’s a lot of fun!

Follow Kinsey Lane Sullivan on Twitter and contact her via her about.me page.

Student editors deserve to be paid

In recent weeks, I have received two requests from authors looking for journalism students to edit book manuscripts. Neither writer, however, offered to pay them.

One author proposed mentioning the student editor in the foreword and, if the book made a lot of money, perhaps sharing some of those royalties. I responded that I would only help recruit a student to work on the project if it included compensation when the editing was complete.

Editing is a skill. It requires time and effort. But how much is it worth?

The short answer, according to freelance editors I know: It depends. Is the writer looking for copy editing or proofreading? Is fact checking involved? Does the writer want feedback on issues of story structure and plot?

My freelance friends charge from $25 to $60 an hour, depending on the job. (You can see more on editorial rates in this chart on the Editorial Freelancers Association site.) For a student editor with less experience, I would suggest $15 to $20 an hour.

Authors, we respect and appreciate what you do. We’re glad that you are interested in having editors work on your manuscripts. But our hard work deserves payment. Thanks.

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.

Q&A with Monica Monzingo of Macys.com

Monica Monzingo is a copy editor for Macys.com, a position she has held since 2012. She previously worked in the magazine industry as a freelancer. In this interview, conducted by email, Monzingo discusses her job and how editing for a department stores is different from editing for a news organization.

Q. Describe your job. What do you do on a typical day?

A. I copy edit a wide variety of creative assets for macys.com, including homepages, emails, gift guides, social media and navigation copy (the links on the top and left-hand side of the site). Also, most of the brands we sell create their own content for their landing pages on macys.com, so I’m responsible for proofreading those too. While copyediting and watching for consistency in style and brand voice, I’m also making sure the copy complies with our legal guidelines.

On a typical day, I might review the desktop and mobile versions of the new prom sitelet, read through the exclusions copy for an upcoming Super Saturday sale, and copyedit a buying guide about cutlery.

Q. You previously worked as a freelance editor for magazines such as US Weekly. How is editing for Macys.com different from your magazine editing?

A. At a magazine, you’re selling the journalism — the content is the commodity. But in retail, you’re selling the clothes, furniture, etc., so your relationship with the reader is slightly different. We want the reader to engage with our content, just like a magazine, but we also want to motivate them to go a step further and BUY what’s featured in the content.

We have a lot of the same conversations about truth and clarity that editors at a magazine have, but the response we want from our reader is a bit different so our approach to writing and editing is a bit different too. Have we given them all the information they need so that they’ll buy that new bathing suit, knowing it’s perfect for their body type? Are our financing terms clear enough that they’ll feel comfortable buying a big-ticket item like an engagement ring or a new sofa?

Q. You recently attended the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society. What did you learn there, and what drew you to ACES?

A. I learned about Google’s new algorithm and how we can update our SEO strategy to align with its new priorities. I learned that editing is a left-brain activity while computer work is a right-brain activity, and that’s why it’s always good to review things on a printout instead of just on screen. And I went to a session about writing headlines and have tons of tips the writers here at macys.com can use when writing email subject lines.

ACES is a fantastic community of super-smart, super-friendly folks who share a passion for editing, and it was so inspiring to get to spend a few days nerding out about style guides and grammar. I was originally drawn to ACES as a learning resource, which it certainly is, but the most rewarding thing has been finding a community of like-minded editors.

Q. What advice do you have for students seeking jobs and internships in editing for a company like Macy’s?

A. I’d recommend learning about what’s going on in the industry. I’m a big fan of the National Retail Federation’s SmartBrief, a daily email digest of the industry’s top stories.

You can also learn a lot just by paying more attention to what’s going on when you’re shopping on your favorite website or in your favorite store. Develop an ear for brand voice and learn how to both describe and write in different voices. And as a copy editor, a huge thing to practice is how to give feedback in a clear but kind way.

Q&A with Joanna Kakissis, NPR correspondent

Joanna Kakissis is a journalist based in Athens, Greece. She covers Greece and Cyprus for NPR, and she has written for Time magazine, Foreign Policy and The New York Times. She has also worked as a reporter for The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. In this interview, conducted by email, Kakissis talks about working as a freelancer and making a transition from newspapers to radio.

Q. Describe your job with NPR. What is your typical workday like?

A. I’m a freelancer, but I cover Greece and Cyprus for the network. The best way to describe the job is a super-stringer.

My typical workday begins in the morning, when I scan the news for developments. I usually do one or two “spots” (short 40-second news shorts) and also write a short daily advisory to the editors in Washington. Then I spend the rest of the day working features, unless, of course, there’s breaking news. I try to do at least one feature a week.

Q. Before going into radio, you were a reporter at The News & Observer. What was that transition like?

A. The transition was difficult because I taught myself radio.

I’m a much better writer than talker, so writing conversationally — and for a voice that I’d never tested for public consumption — was a challenge at first. I had a hard time learning to write in and out of tape (actualities and ambience) and using ambience that was compelling rather than audio window dressing.

Also, aurally illustrating economic stories is a real challenge. It’s much, much easier to write compelling stories from war or conflict zones because the drama is so immediate and vivid.

But in Greece, it was all about anti-austerity protests, which, after a while, all sounded the same. I mean, I could write a protest story even before the protest happened. Protests here are that predictable.

That’s not to say people in Greece aren’t suffering. Post-austerity Greece is a very depressing place.

But how can you illustrate that honestly, without veering into what one colleague here calls “crisis pornography,” or the blanket depiction of Greeks as hungry victims fighting for free potatoes at food handouts. People here are indeed very stressed about making ends meet — the unemployment rate here is nearly 28 percent, higher than during the U.S. Great Depression — but you have to show nuance and universality, not just “exotification” of the poor (to steal a line from one of my favorite journalists, Katherine Boo.)

Finally, just explaining the eurozone/IMF bailouts themselves was (and still is) a challenge. How do you make a compelling story out of jargon like loan haircuts, and how do you explain this to your audience without boring them and yourself?

The Planet Money team, a joint production of NPR and This American Life, are true pros at translating economic jargon into beautiful, funny, lucid storytelling. I used their scripts to try to teach myself to write shorter, funnier and more conversationally about macroeconomic developments. They are the gold standard.

Another reason the transition has been hard is that I’ve always enjoyed letting my story speak for itself and hiding behind my byline. It seems based on my entirely unscientific survey that many print journalists who transition well to radio are extroverts with big, driving personalities.

Having said all this, I do think radio has improved my writing for print. My style is more spare and lucid, with vivid verbs and concrete descriptions.

Q. You’ve also worked as freelance reporter in Europe for The New York Times and Time magazine, among other publications. What is the editor-writer relationship like in that situation as opposed to working together in the same newsroom?

A. When you’re a freelancer, you have to pitch stories that big outlets like the NYT and Time may not take on the first try. You’ve got to build relationships with editors by crafting pitches that are deeply reported, original and compelling.

Even so, if the story is hot, like Greece was for a while, you will get hordes of staffers coming here wanting to do the stories themselves. You’re never an equal partner because you’re a freelancer, and you just have to accept that.

Having said that, I enjoyed writing for Time and found that the editors and staff writers there treated me with respect. I did very little work for the NYT in Greece (a friend of mine, Niki Kitsantonis, is the stringer here) but my few experiences there were very good too, especially when I worked on a story about Bangladesh that the international edition of the NYT splashed on their front page. 🙂

Q. Many of my students are NPR listeners and readers, and some have been interns there. What advice do you have to student journalists who want to do what you do?

A. If you want to be a foreign correspondent, get a Fulbright and travel to the places you most want to learn about. Write for every outlet you can think of, even if they pay very little (which most of them do).

The world of foreign correspondence is increasingly becoming a place for people with elite backgrounds, but that shouldn’t stop you from making a go at it if you’re just a regular kid without a financial safety net. If you can’t afford to spend two weeks reporting and writing a story that will pay you something like $150, then get a grant (like a Fulbright or a Pulitzer grant) to support you.

Learn a language in high school and/or college — Spanish, Arabic, Farsi, French, anything! Read up on the history, culture, and literature of the place you want to base yourself.

Open your mind and your heart and use your young brain as a sponge to take it all in. Be a critical thinker and step out of your safety zone.

If you want to learn radio, I highly recommend attending a course, which I never did. One of my favorite reporters at NPR, East Africa correspondent Gregory Warner, an absolute master at fresh, counterintuitive and deeply moving narrative radio storytelling, attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. There are other courses too, and also great online resources like Transom and the Public Radio Exchange (PRX).

In the meantime, listen to radio stories. Listen for structure, audio scenes, and the universal theme behind the story.

NPR is a great source of great radio storytelling, of course, but so is PRI’s The World (especially the work of the great Rhitu Chatterjee, who also did a stint on NPR’s science desk, as well as Monica Campell and Marine Olivesi). Marketplace is brilliant at condensing complicated economic news into punchy, informative stories. And This American Life (Nancy Updike, whoa!) and Radiolab are the gold standard of long-form radio.