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Rosemary Shipton

Editing Is Lifelong Learning

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Editors enjoy their careers for various reasons — the opportunity to work in the exciting literary world or the more lucrative realms of government or business, or to specialize in particular areas of expertise. For me the major attraction is the simple fact that every project is different — I learn new things every day.

One of my best early projects was as senior editor of the first edition of the Canadian Encyclopedia — one of five in that position. I was responsible for 14 areas in all, mainly in arts and culture but also transportation and the Indigenous people. Together with editor-in-chief Jim Marsh, we debated how best to slice up the enormous Canadiana pie and which experts to invite to write the articles. I figure I earned the equivalent of one more university degree in the process — and met many fascinating people.

In the years since, I’ve edited numerous biographies and memoirs of politicians, artists, musicians and entrepreneurs. What has always intrigued me is why a select group of individuals accomplish enough to merit a book about their lives and achievements. I’ve discovered that they all seem to share two characteristics: enthusiasm for what they do and determination to make it happen.

Along the way I’ve learned many interesting details — that prime ministers, for instance, must have the “bug” for politics. The ever-practical Jean Chrétien stated in his memoir that politics is not so much about altruism as “wanting power, getting it, exercising it, and keeping it.” And John English revealed in his biography of Pierre Trudeau that the seemingly reluctant mid-life candidate of 1968 had confided in his diary at 21: “I must become a great man — Would I be capable of leading the people of Canada?” Businessman and philanthropist Peter Munk failed in several wildly creative enterprises such as Clairtone before he struck gold with Barrick. But Roy McMurtry, a former chief justice of Ontario, was always right on track, succeeding in five careers in all: sport, the law, provincial politics, diplomacy and the judiciary.

This same passion and drive is also evident in the 33 Canadians featured in a beautifully illustrated book I’ve worked on recently by Kim Bozak and Rita Field-Marsham. A few of the writers, athletes, dancers and fashion influencers are well known, but many of the others are recognized only within their area of success. Some of these artists, entrepreneurs and adventurers experienced difficulties before they found their dream and focused their energy on achieving it. The top-rated DJ Romeo was homeless for three years as a teenager and now says of his life: “I don’t have weekends, I don’t have holidays. Every day has to be better than the last day.” And the renowned choreographer Crystal Pite wants to keep challenging herself, “always reaching a bit further than I think I can manage.” As Paralympic champion swimmer Aurélie Rivard puts it, “I was lucky to be born into the family I have. After that it’s the choices I make, the opportunities I create for myself.”

Fortunately, Canada is one of the few countries in the world where everyone, no matter their ethnicity, religion, gender, region or occupation, has the liberty to aim high and work hard to achieve their goals. As our national anthem reminds us, we are the “glorious and free” — and we celebrate this remarkable inclusiveness during our sesquicentennial year.


Previous post from Rosemary Shipton: Succeeding as a Freelancer.

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6 Comments on “Editing Is Lifelong Learning”

  • Anita Jenkins


    Ah, yes. … “wanting power, getting it, exercising it, and keeping it.” What a great piece for Canada Day in the country’s 150th year.

    I know what you mean, Rosemary, about lifelong learning. But what I learned was more mundane: how to teach kids about sexually transmitted diseases, how seedlings in forests are kept from spreading to the wrong places, rules for oil and gas companies that want to use parts of a farmer’s land, how to assess a grain elevator or golf course for tax purposes… Still learning, even if you perhaps didn’t really want to know all that stuff.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      No matter what topic I’m editing, I usually find something interesting in it, so very few projects are completely boring. If I can work primarily in the areas that interest me most, the more I learn, the more I appreciate them. That’s the real joy in editing.

  • Wilf Popoff


    So many potential clients believe you must be trained in a particular field to write about it or edit documents related to it.

    It’s only about words, I tell them. Writers and editors learn from their projects but bring a critical perspective to them.

    I cannot imagine a life locked in a single discipline.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      I agree, Wilf – the broader our scope, the more interesting our lives and the more projects we can accept. There are some areas where I have no knowledge, however, so I don’t have the expertise to edit projects relating to them – especially if I’m responsible for content editing as well as copy editing. With scholarly editing, moreover, I find it helps if I can work with the authors as an equal partner – as someone who knows about their specialty and understands its conventions. Do you agree?

  • Virginia Durksen


    Thanks for bringing it all together as we approach Canada Day this year, Rosemary. The Canadian Encyclopedia is a great place to start. In Edmonton at least, Jim Marsh was an editing rock star; a great Canadian, Mel Hurtig, was the publisher who made that project possible.

    At almost any stage in my career, my editing has represented opposite ends of some spectrum: different readers, different purposes, different genres, different types of publishers. And even the tedious hyphen has managed to demand that I keep on learning about editing at the same time that I’m learning about five-year-old hockey fans and 55-year-old coal miners who read (or don’t read) for all kinds of reasons.

    • Rosemary Shipton


      Oh yes, without the vision and drive of the great Canadian nationalist Mel Hurtig, the Canadian Encyclopedia would never have happened. Fortunately, he had the good sense to leave the content and its organization to Jim Marsh and the editorial team while he focused on the promotion and marketing. I will never forget the excitement of the launch at the Citadel in Edmonton and the rave reviews in all the major newspapers across Canada the next day!

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