June 14th, 2010

Jobs for writers, part 3

What if someone says, “I love books and I’m always reading. I should be an editor.”

Because I spent a great deal of time and money getting a publishing certificate, it is my knee-jerk reaction to get prissy when someone says something like this. “Does having a really good body qualify you to be a surgeon? Does watching a lot of CSI make you a cop?”

This is mainly bluster–the best editors are exactly the people who could say the above–well, and a little more: those who read omnivorously and think critically about all of it. If you write reviews (insightful rigorous reviews, not silly ones) for no reason other than to test and explore your feelings for the text, if you were the person everyone counted on for a page of notes in writing workshop (even better if you couldn’t let the typos go), if you were easily able to spot patterns and themes and write essays about them in undergrad, you probably would make a good editor. People who would not make good editors include those who said one nice thing to everyone in workshop while patiently waiting for their own turns, people who didn’t like university essays because they just wanted to enjoy the text without analysing it, and folks who have a few favourite authors and don’t really like to go much beyond them. And actually, about those essay writers, I think it’s probably also a good sign if you kept getting Cs because you would always mentioned whether you *liked* the text or how well you thought those metaphors and symbols were working. Academic analysis is not, for good or ill, evaluative, but editing is.

So, there you go–the truth that editorial instinct is not really taught in a classroom.

However, taking apart someone’s manuscript and telling them how to write it better is not an entry-level position. You need to climb the ladder as an editorial assistant doing press kits and tip sheets and review packages and credits–things you *do* learn about in a classroom–before you can get anywhere your instincts can work. Is that the proper definition of ironic? Some days I feel like I’ve entirely lost track of that word.

Also, and this always shocks everyone, you can have a good fun job in publishing *without* being an editor! Not my line, but I know that publicists are professional, strategic book-enthusiasts, and in a different way, so are the sales and marketing folk. Financial and tech jobs in publishing look a lot like those in other industries, only more bookish (and, sigh, lower-paid) and then there’s art, design, page composition… So, there’s a lot more going in publishing than just making the words lovely. To even understand what jobs are out there, let alone get one (er, except the tech and finance stuff), you need some background.

There are many ways to do that, but lots of employers really prefer a publishing program. I don’t think there’s a big difference in how much these programs are respected–from what I hear, all are pretty good. Just find something convenient and vaguely interesting to you. Centenial, you’ll note, you need to do full-time, while the other two can be part-time. I found that once you get a few courses under your belt, you become hireable, and then it is nice to be able to finish the program at night while you are working. If you get a really lovely employer, they might even pay for it.

But this is not the only way. Publishing school is expensive and time-consuming and while I found lots of it valuable, lots of other bits simply don’t apply to the path I am on or the part of the industry I am in. Employers like these programs because they are something of a promise that you know what you are doing and have realistic ideas about the work, but there are other ways to promise them that.

If you somehow pick up some solid experience at one job, you are more likely to get the next one. Real useful publishing experience includes serious  work on something that was actually published–not proofing your friends’ essays (although maybe PhD theses, if you did a number) or a blog, but say, a literary journal you volunteered for (even a unversity/college one, if it is a bit known and you can provide copies). Zines are surprisingly respected, too, if you did serious work and it was a serious zine (ie., could people the editors didn’t know personally buy it?) And working on publications that aren’t books (magazines, newspapers, corporate communications) of course counts, too.

These easiest way to get experience is internships–unfortunately, the easiest way to get an internship is to be in a publishing program (they’ll help you find one). Sigh. But you could get one anyway–there are lots out there and they should really be a post in themselves. Try not to think of these as unpaid work–try to think of them as free school! Even the best internship will involve a lot of the deadly ffts: photocopying, filing, phoning, faxing (who still uses a fax machine, you are wondering–oh no!) However, anyone decent who is employing interns knows that the ffts aren’t the intern’s heart’s desire and will try to give you something cool to do (as well as free books and all the leftover meeting food). You should get to sit in on meetings (obey both injunctions to be silent and encouragement to speak up), to meet any author in the office, and to work on at least one or two independent projects. And an intern should try learn everything possible–at the very least, read what you photocopy and pay attention at the meetings. One of the best things an editorial intern (I return to what I know) can do is be asked to incorporate hardcopy editorial changes into a Word doc. Sounds dull, but it’s so great to see how an experienced, talented editor (try not to work for the lousy ones) sharpens a manuscript. I actually did that sort of work for a long time and it was good for my own writing, too.

Avoid: internships at houses where you hate all the books, massive commutes that are going to make it impossible to work evenings (unless you can afford not to!), and anyone who seems from the interview to clearly be a jerk. You can afford to be a bit choosier about internships than real jobs, and should do. I’d also recommend not taking a full-time unpaid one that lasts longer than three months–that’s the standard, and it won’t necessarily look better on your resume if you stay longer, and you might get very hungry. However, if it is a paid internship (they do exist) and you like it, why not stay if they offer? On the flip side, probably not worth quitting a bad three-month internship unless they are actually abusing you. It’ll be over soon and you’ll have the resume cred even if they kept you locked in the copier room 40 hours a week. But that’s why it’s good not to sign on for longer than 3 months. Oh, and don’t expect an internship to turn into a real job, though occasionally they do–there usually just aren’t any open positions. But if it was a happy experience, ask that they keep you mind in case one does…

Ok, the question everyone asks: is it bad to be working on books all day and writing one in the evening. And I have no idea–it’s not bad for *me* to do it, but I can see how it would be draining or crazy-making if I had a different personality type. This is really a personal fit question. But I suppose it does matter to me that I don’t work on books of short stories, and even when I briefly did, they were nothing like mine. I think I might find that hard to have much distance on. I also don’t do the manuscript-taking-apart work mentioned above–my job is the much more techinical, unglam production editing that you only find out about when you start taking the classes or wandering around the office.

Wow, this post is long, and there’s more to say–anyone who knows more or better or different should chime in, and I’ll eventually write another one of these on the freelance world, which I know even less about, so maybe don’t wait for that with bated breath.

Also, for those who have been following my personal dramas–I fell pretty solidly off the caffeine wagon today and my head still hurts! I think there’s just something wrong with me!

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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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