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Jahleen Turnbull-Sousa

Can I Be an Editor If I Have ADHD?

Illustration of a woman with a laptop sitting atop a collection of oversized gears and clocks.
Illustration of a woman with a laptop sitting atop a collection of oversized gears and clocks.
Copyright: granddesign7

Can you be an editor if you have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)? It’s a question I’ve been asked more than once, and one I see posted periodically in editor groups. It’s also a question I asked myself many times at the start of my career.

I was diagnosed with ADHD in 2016, the same year I began training as an editor. ADHD is a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s executive functioning. People with executive dysfunction often struggle to organize materials, begin tasks, regulate their emotions, sustain attention and manage time — skills that, on the surface, may seem essential to being a successful editor.

ADHD is complex and affects each person differently. I have the inattentive subtype of ADHD. In school, I had no problem sitting quietly or waiting my turn (difficulties for many with the hyperactive subtype of ADHD), but I daydreamed while the teacher spoke, had trouble getting organized, was anxious and forgetful, and relied on the stress of procrastination to get projects done. Despite this, I managed to do well in most subjects in school and thrive in nearly every job I’ve held as an adult.

Like many adults with undiagnosed ADHD, however, I saw myself as deficient, someone whose brain was missing a chip — the piece that enables someone to keep organized, start tasks promptly, finish them without distractions and keep their house from descending into a cacophony of clutter. I thought that my failings in organization, tidiness and attention were due to inherent laziness and a lack of motivation, and that one day I would somehow grow up and become a proper adult.

In 2016, when I began the Editing Certificate program at Simon Fraser University (before my diagnosis), I was excited and hopeful, overjoyed I had found the career I had always wanted. At the same time, I was full of trepidation. Could I really make a go of this editing thing? Would I get bored and leave the program unfinished, like so many passion projects before? Would I be able to muster enough willpower to sustain the focus and attention required for copy editing and proofreading? Would I finally unlock the secret to having the drive and motivation to actually follow through on something?

Shortly thereafter, two pivotal things happened: my older brother was diagnosed with ADHD, and I heard an episode of CBC’s “The Current” about how the disorder presents in women and how many adult women are undiagnosed. It was like someone opened a window, letting in air and light, clearing the smoke and enabling me to see that maybe my executive function struggles were not, in fact, a moral failing. 

Once diagnosed, I was relieved, but I realized that I had to stop waiting to find my missing brain chip, the silver bullet that would eliminate my executive function weaknesses and enable me to finally work hard enough to reach my potential. If I wanted to make editing my career — and I did — I had to find a way to work with my ADHD to make it happen.

I’m glad to say that it did happen. I launched my freelance editing business in 2017 and over the past five years have been able to build a successful business and maintain steady work that I find fascinating and fulfilling. It wasn’t easy, but it also wasn’t impossible, as I had feared when starting out. What’s more, I made the marvellous discovery that I was not alone. There are many neurodivergent people in the editing field, including those with ADHD.

If you are a person with ADHD embarking on an editing career, let me assure you: you can do it. Editing can be the career for you. In my next article, I will share some of the tools, strategies and help I received along the way that enabled me to build my business and keep it thriving.

For now, I leave you with the most important piece of advice I can offer: stop listening to the harmful self-talk now. The negative thinking embedded in the neural pathways of so many of us neurodivergent people is far more limiting to our success than any executive functioning weakness. Address how you talk to yourself first — then focus on the tools and strategies you can scaffold to manage your ADHD symptoms and build the editing career you want. You got this.

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Jahleen Turnbull-Sousa

Jahleen Turnbull-Sousa is a Toronto-based writer-editor specializing in medical-legal reports, healthcare education and digital content. She is the owner of Maplewood Editorial Services.

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8 Comments on “Can I Be an Editor If I Have ADHD?”

  • Excellent article, Jahleen. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Jahleen Turnbull-Sousa

      says:

      Thank you, Joanne.

  • Christine Keuling

    says:

    Thank you for your excellent article, Jahleen. How encouraging! I can relate to all of this, and I’m looking forward to your next post with your strategies.

    • Jahleen Turnbull-Sousa

      says:

      Thank you, Christine. I’m happy you found the article encouraging!

  • Teresa Fisher

    says:

    This couldn’t have been a better article to read! I am deeply interested in being an editor but I am nervous of my inattentive ADHD being problematic 🥹

    • Jahleen Turnbull-Sousa

      says:

      Thank you for sharing, Teresa. You can do it! Just keep taking action, turn the volume down on doubts, and really get to know yourself and your working patterns. I’ll go more into these things in my next article.

  • I was initially diagnosed with Inattentive ADHD, back in 2002. Then, around a year later, I was diagnosed with Combined Type. I needed to hear all of this, though I have been editing for quite some time. I will be on the lookout for your next article. Also, I was attending an online writing conference a year ago, and I heard a professional editor say that only someone who is good at focusing could be a successful editor. I was very taken aback by this and took that as an affront to Neurodivergent people, even though I didn’t say anything at the time. What would you say in this situation? Thank you so much for sharing your personal story.

    • I’m glad you liked the article, Heather! While it’s true that focus and concentration are needed for editing, the way we (people with ADHD) focus, and how long we are able to do so can be very different from and not well understood by neurotypical people. Many with ADHD have the ability to hyperfocus on tasks—a trait that many editors say serves them well in their work. In my case, I can hyperfocus only for relatively short portions of time, so I maximize my time in the flow zone whenever it hits.
      I wouldn’t worry too much about what others say. There are a ton of professional editors out there with ADHD, including you and me!

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