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Sue Archer

EAC Conference Speaker Profile: Brendan O’Brien

Brendan O’Brien

Editing Goes Global is just one month away! This week, the Editors’ Weekly is holding a conversation with one of our international conference speakers, editor and writer Brendan O’Brien. Brendan will be co-delivering the session “Editing at the Edge” on how to thrive as an editor from an isolated location.

From science degree to freelance editing

Sue Archer: Your educational background is in Mathematics and Psychology. How did you go from a degree in science to a career in editing? What attracted you to the editing profession?

Brendan O’Brien: I was 17 when I went to university, with little idea of what I wanted to do. I chose science because I had studied all the science subjects at school. When I left, I took a job in the Dublin public libraries: the Irish economy was struggling, and career opportunities were few. I had always been interested in books and language, and in my mid-20s I began to think that editing would suit me well, perhaps because I often noticed flaws and errors in people’s writing!

I moved to London, where there were more opportunities, and after a spell in a law library managed to get my first editorial job, working on metallurgical journals.

SA: You’ve edited papers for a wide variety of scientific journals and worked on hundreds of books. Do you find there are substantial differences in your clients’ expectations of what editing means? Are there any regional differences that come into play? How do you handle these differences?

BO: When I worked in-house, standards of editing and production were very high — for example, all figures would be redrawn and relabelled to house style. When I went freelance I found that standards and expectations were variable and difficult to gauge, as often there was no detailed brief and little or no feedback. It was a matter of trying to do as good a job as possible; repeat work implied that the client was happy.

Most of my work has been for U.K. and Irish publishers. Differences relate more to scheduling than to notions of what editing means. With some notable exceptions, Irish clients tend to want work turned around faster than U.K. clients. I just try to keep everyone happy and to gravitate towards the better-paid work. I haven’t always been sufficiently hard-headed regarding money, but I am learning a lot from online colleagues!

Rural life and social media

SA: You live in a rural area in Ireland, so I imagine a lot of discussions with your clients are online. How has it worked for you living as an editor away from the city?

BO: Freelance editors often feel isolated. Editors in cities can meet up with colleagues (and clients, perhaps) if they want to, but it’s not so easy for those of us who live in the country.

I have lived in a very rural area for 17 years. I have nearly always been busy and have earned a living, but some of my clients haven’t been ideal. The turning point was when I joined Facebook in 2012. Thanks to people like Averill Buchanan and Greg Ioannou, there is a large and thriving editors’ community there. Greater connectedness has helped me to value my own service more and has made me more confident. There is an Irish saying: “Ní neart go cur le chéile,” which means, “There is no strength without unity.”

Virtually all my dealings with clients are online, although I am sometimes invited to book launches in Dublin, and attend when I can. It’s good to meet clients and authors face-to-face occasionally and to see the fruits of one’s labours.

SA: You mentioned the editors’ community on Facebook is a great source of support to you. Are there other social media platforms that have been helpful for you as a freelance editor?

BO: The short answer is “no.” I have LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, but I haven’t been very active on those platforms and haven’t got work though them, whereas I have gotten work through Facebook. In truth, Facebook gives me pretty much everything I need from social media, for now at least.


BO: I’ve also had a personal blog called The Road to God Knows Where for the past five years. I haven’t really tied it in with my work; it’s a mixture of short pieces I’ve written on various topics and some poems and songs. After my son Sean died suddenly in October 2010, I used it as a platform to write about him and the sense of loss my family was feeling. For a couple of years I wrote about nothing else.

SA: I’ve seen your posts about Sean, and I think they are beautiful. Your blog writing gives a clear picture of your family and the closeness of your community.

BO: Thank you. I’m glad it does that. Local people have been very supportive. We always tried to be good members of the community, and that has really paid off. I hope that people who didn’t know Sean will be able to glean an idea of what he was like from the blog, if they’re interested. He was a remarkable person in many ways: He packed a lot into his 19 years.

SA: You’ve also written novels and screenplays along with your poems and songs. Do you find it difficult to turn off your editor viewpoint when you’re writing?

BO: I always thought that I would eventually be a writer, and that the editing was temporary, but it hasn’t worked out that way so far! I don’t have much energy for writing these days, but when I do I’m able to turn off my editor viewpoint and release my imagination without too much difficulty. I probably apply my editor’s instincts more to structure than to words and ideas.

Editing Goes Global conference

SA: One last question. You’ve mentioned that this will be your first time to Toronto when you attend the conference in June. What are you most looking forward to visiting during your time here?

BO: I hope to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario, but I expect to be seeing people more than places. The conference and socializing will occupy most of my time. My wife will be going with me and will probably have more opportunity to see the sights. I hope that we’ll return for a holiday and explore the city at our leisure. From what I’ve seen online, it looks fabulous.


Brendan lives in County Cavan, Ireland, and has over 26 years of experience as a writer and editor. Join him at Editing Goes Global, the EAC’s first-ever global conference for editors, June 12 to 14.

Previous speaker profile: Vanessa Ricci-Thode

The Editors’ Weekly is the official blog of Editors Canada. Contact us.


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