by Anna Benn
Being able to work with words for a living is a privilege I’ve been working towards for most of my life. It’s been a long journey from my early days of content writing at a penny a word, to working in-house at a Dublin publishing company, to deciding to continue the work I loved as a freelance copy editor.
I majored in Creative Writing for my undergraduate degree. (Having first moved to Ireland when I was nineteen, I am ambidextrous when it comes to US versus UK spelling and grammar… although I will always be a staunch advocate of the Oxford comma!) Having picked up the idea that writing professionally was an unfeasible career choice, I decided I would ‘go into publishing’, whatever that meant.
Life as a baby editor
After graduation, I landed myself an internship (unpaid, but still very charming) in a small, independent Dublin publishing house. Then the recession hit, and there were no jobs for anyone. After a stint teaching English abroad, I went back to school for another Writing degree. This one was bolstered by a course in Editing and Publishing, where I learned the fundamental skills I’d need to go through a piece of writing with a fine-toothed comb.
These skills came in handy when I eventually got my first paid, in-house publishing job, as a project manager. The number of manuscripts we went through in the space of a week was enormous. But so was the amount we learned. I was being trained by industry experts in rules about spelling, grammar, proof layout, academic referencing, etc. that I hadn’t even dreamed existed. So when I decided to branch out on my own, I did so with a very strong foundation to stand on.
The wild, woolly world of freelancing
As I built my client base, I also worked as editor and staff writer of a cryptocurrency blog. While simultaneously learning the ins and outs of WordPress and SEO, I was building a rapport with a team of freelance writers. Some would go on to self-publish books, which they would come back to me for editing.
Meanwhile, I was trying to woo clients in the only way I could think of: by sending out cold emails to publishers in Ireland and the UK. Some of them emailed me back, and I slowly built relationships within the publishing industry, by word of mouth and by prospective clients finding me on the AFEPI directory. I began expanding my portfolio for content writing as well, in industries I’d never even thought of entering: language learning, software development, novelty photo albums, edge computing, data privacy, the list goes on.
The eclectic subject matter was actually a benefit in disguise. I learned to become a fast hand at industry research and able to shift easily between different voices and styles. I can write a software whitepaper as naturally as I write about romantic gift ideas for Valentine’s Day.
This is a skill I bring with me to my editorial work. Each author has their own unique voice, and I am able to keep that voice intact throughout my edits. I’ve also learned how to anticipate certain words that may be a better fit for what they’re trying to say, and in many cases I can tease out confusing or ambiguous sentences to make them clearer to the reader.
Working as a writer has made me a better copy editor…
Writing was my first love, with both my undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in Creative Writing. So, as a writer who has been critiqued by peers and professionals – and felt the sting of rejection – I understand that writing is a very personal, oftentimes vulnerable process.
Also, having worked with different types of writers, I’m very good at understanding what a client needs and adjusting my editorial process to fit that. I have worked as a developmental editor, where I work with the author in-depth on things like structure, narrative arc, dialogue, character development. Sometimes writers are open to suggestions for word choice or syntax that might work better to bring about the ideas they are trying to convey. Sometimes they prefer me to take a more hands-off approach, casting an eye over their work for typos, punctuation, issues with formatting and consistency, but leaving well enough alone for the most part.
Whatever the case may be, as someone who writes myself, and who’s been on the other end of receiving feedback and edits, I’m well-trained in understanding what a writer wants and adjusting my editorial process to best fit that.
… And vice versa!
In a roundabout way, working professionally with other people’s writing has improved my own writing style. I’ve learned a lot from the wide range of academic and trade books I’ve edited – with subjects ranging from the founding fathers of the Irish Republic, to a history of Iran in the four decades since its revolution, to a fictionalised look at the life of the writer Edith Somerville – and this has given my own writing a colour and dimension it might not have had otherwise.
More importantly, I’ve learned to be critical of myself the way an objective observer might be. I have learned to prune out repetitive and superfluous terms. (*looks back at blog post… crosses out ‘and superfluous’ with a red pen*) Switching over to an editorial mindset has taught me to challenge my engrained bent towards ‘more flourishes and bigger words are always better’. I have come to prioritise clarity over pizzazz, and to be more economical with tangential side-stories. (‘It’s interesting to me… but will it grab my readers?’ is the eternal question I ask myself.)
In the end, this has made my writing clearer and more engaging. And this is something I try to bring full circle back to my editorial work with writers. Ultimately, both of our goals are the same: to get their writing to a point where it’s the best it can possibly be. And to accomplish this, I give them the best guidance I can, with years of industry expertise to back my revisions up, until they come to a new stage in the process and I can go no further.
Anna Benn is a copy editor, proofreader, and writer currently living in Dublin. She has worked as an English teacher, transcriber, and in various publishing roles, but currently enjoys the freedom and flexibility of freelancing. When she’s not editing, she may be working on her own writing projects, or possibly foraging along the Dodder river. You can see some of Anna’s writing here.
The views of the author do not necessarily reflect the views of AFEPI Ireland.