Editor: Robin V. Harris Company: The Education Trust Number of years in editing: Technically, I’ve been an editor now for over 25 years! That’s crazy. I’ve held full-time editing positions at mainstream newspapers, a wire service, a magazine, a think tank, and now an advocacy organization. Along the way, I earned a PH.D. in English Literature and took time to do some other things, but I’ve consistently kept editing jobs in some capacity.
Tell us a little about yourself, including how you got started as an editor?
I was an English major in college and a journalism minor. I thought for sure I’d be a reporter, but after taking my first copy-editing class, I realized I had an eye for editing. It also helped that, at that time, newspaper copy-editing jobs paid more than reporting jobs. I did a few internships before graduating and landed my first copy-editing job at the St. Paul Pioneer Press in Minnesota. I worked 3 p.m. to midnight and my days off were Tuesday and Wednesday. It was awful for my social life, but I loved working in a vibrant newsroom and made some great friends.
What is your area of focus and why did you select this niche?
Education equity and diversity. I started out as a generalist, working on a news copydesk, but then transitioned to business and features. But right as I was finishing graduate school and realizing that I didn’t want to pursue an academic position, I landed a job as associate editor of a higher education magazine that focused specifically on issues facing people of color. I loved being able to write and edit on a topic that I had personal experience with and that I felt passionate about. Since then, I’ve been able to work solely on education issues, and most recently have been able to narrow that further to education equity.
Walk us through a typical workday. How do you manage your time?
As managing editor, my time is spent managing a 5-person team (2 senior writers/editors, a writer-in-residence, a senior graphic designer and a multimedia designer), managing projects and timelines, and hands-on editing. A typical day includes some of all of the above. There is likely to be at least one project team or cross-team meeting involving staff from across the organization where we discuss the status of a project. In the early stages, the content teams lead by presenting data and analysis, but as projects make their way through drafting, editing, and production, the meetings center on release strategy and outreach.
During the day, I’m also likely to be editing something. At times, I’m responsible for the initial edit on a project, which involves developmental and substantive editing. At other times, I’m the second editor responsible for line and copy-edits, or the final proofer. I’m lucky to work with a team of extremely talented writers, editors and designers, so we are able to share the workload and support each other.
What is your favorite thing about being an editor?
For me, editing is like working on a jigsaw puzzle. You are presented with a bunch of pieces, and the goal is to put them together so they present a complete picture that represents the author’s vision. Of course, best case scenario, you have all the pieces, but more often than not, part of the process is asking questions to get the pieces you need. And maintaining the author’s vision is important. The best editors stay true to the author’s voice and intent, bringing out the best in them. As many times as I’ve done this, my favorite thing is still that moment when I know I’ve successfully fit all the pieces together.
One more favorite: helping people become better writers. At times, I’ve had the pleasure of working with the same people for a number of years, and I love it when they say “you made me a better writer.”
What is your biggest challenge and how do you work through this?
Even after more than 25 years of experience, I’m still a slow editor. I’ve worked with people who are much faster and can turn things around really quickly. I can sort of do that if I’m just proofing or doing a basic copy-edit, but if I’m rewriting, reframing, or reorganizing a larger project … it just takes time. That said, with so many years of experience, I’m really good now at estimating how long it will take to me to do my best work. So, I’m careful to set realistic deadlines.
What are you currently working on?
A ton of things, but most interesting is updating our organization’s style guide. The last significant update was in 2016, so we are overdue. Much of this update will focus on the language we use around race. As an equity organization that advocates for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, we’ve often been ahead of others on this. But things are rapidly changing, and there are so many more resources to learn from and smart discussions happening. So, we are determined to make sure our style guide reflects the current environment as much as we can.
What advice do you have for someone who is just starting their career as an editor?
There are so many stages of editing, from proofreading to developmental editing. So, if you can, try to build your skills in all of them. It will give you a chance to work on a variety of projects, make you more versatile, and just keep the work interesting. Also, don’t hesitate to do some writing of your own, if you like. I definitely find it helps too.