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Brendan O’Brien

The Reluctant Editor

Copyright: iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo

I started editing in 1988, when I was 28, with a free Dublin newspaper that never got off the ground. A stint in London followed, working first on metallurgy journals and then on civil engineering books and journals. In these two jobs I learned a great deal about editorial and production work, often under pressure. It was invaluable training. Back in Dublin in 1991, I worked for a schoolbook publisher before going freelance in 1993. I’ve been freelancing ever since (nonfiction, working for publishers rather than authors). In 1998 my wife and I moved to the country with our two children.

I was very isolated, work-wise, for a long time. I grew lazy about attending meetings of our Irish freelancers’ association (I’ve become more involved with it again in the past few years). Since 2013 I’ve been active in the Editors’ Association of Earth and affiliated groups on Facebook. As well as being a lot of fun, this has opened my eyes. I now realize, for example, that I’m not working as professionally as I could be in terms of using tools and technology (I will rectify this when I have the time and energy).

Unlike many of my freelance colleagues, I never really thought of editing as a career and I have never loved it, although I do enjoy some of the projects. It has paid the bills, but in the back of my mind there was perhaps some notion that this would be a temporary gig, pending my real career (writing, probably, with abundant royalties). Then the years passed.

I never had a plan. I’m a good editor and have rarely been short of work, but I was constantly running to stand still. It wasn’t a “feast or famine” scenario; it was pretty much a feast all along, but not a particularly nourishing or satisfying one. On the positive side, there has been no commuting and I was able to spend a lot of time with the children as they grew up. Freelancing has trained me to think on my feet, to be flexible and resilient — good life skills.

In recent years I have marketed myself more effectively; I generally have better clients and I’m earning more than ever before. I’ll make the best of it, but to some extent I will probably always be a reluctant editor, resenting the daily grind of juggling deadlines and helping authors to express themselves more clearly. I’m sure there must be others like me: still not quite sure what we’d like to be when we grow up.

In any case, I’m in good health, things could be worse, and I’m an optimist by nature. If this were Facebook, I would finish with a smiley face.

___

Are you a reluctant editor? What is editing to you — a dream career or a daily grind?

~~~

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


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15 Comments on “The Reluctant Editor”

  • What a refreshingly honest account! So interesting to read something that is not a hyped-up presentation of freelance editing. While I am currently in a place where I am content with my situation, it can be exhausting trying to keep up an I’m So Successful and Happy in My Business facade. Thank you, Brendan. And here’s a smiley for you 😀

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Thank you, Vanessa! 🙂

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    I also did a lot of business writing and started out as a high school English teacher. So I tended to tell people that I was «not really an editor.» Then somehow I ended up an honorary lifetime member of Editors Canada and often a pretty active volunteer for that group. I still can’t bring myself to care about em dashes or changes in grammatical usage. But apparently there is also an editing role for those who revise substantially – deleting lots of stuff, moving stuff around, telling people their document is basically terrible …

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Luckily there are roles for all of us, Anita. 🙂 Thank you for this.

  • Great post, Brendan!
    I started freelancing because it fitted my domestic circumstances, but in the back of my mind it was just an interim thing. Fast-forward 22 years and I’m still here.
    I do love the freelance life, despite the feast/famine. I love the variety and the constant challenges. But I’m still not sure what I’ll do when I grow up…

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Thanks a lot, Helen. 🙂

  • Dave Henry

    says:

    I can’t help commenting on the image accompanying this article.
    There’s a new coffee out for editors and executives. It’s called «Rat Race»; it’s a regular grind. ; )

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    Any career or hobby becomes boring after a while. My solution has been to diversify – constantly seeking new challenges, skills, and colleagues. To give some examples, I switched from largely scholarly editing to trade, from mainly wide-ranging copy editing to heavy-duty structural / stylistic work, and from in-house to freelance a few times. I took the idea for a full publishing program to a university, then directed it for close to 20 years. That led to developing classroom and online courses and to teaching professional seminars and workshops in many different cities. I went into partnership so we could take on the editing and project management of large government reports. And I’ve expanded my areas of expertise from history and international relations to biography, memoir, law, and art. Recently I’ve edited several online art books and been editorial director for elaborate packaged books, funded by individuals or foundations but published by major houses in North America and Germany.

    Other editors I know have developed different clusters of specialization, often involving indexing, design and layout, production, and teaching (including webinars). Every new outreach is a challenge and, yes, a bit scary if you’re doing it on your own, outside the framework and coaching you’d get with an in-house position. But more and more people are operating on their own, so, if you want to develop your business in new ways, you’ve got to make that leap. Get a good mentor, have confidence you can do it – and you probably will. Then you in turn can mentor and volunteer – and expand your scope even further.

    [With apologies for writing such a long response, Brendan.]

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Thanks for this, Rosemary: yours does sound like a good strategy.

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    «Every new outreach is a challenge and, yes, a bit scary if you’re doing it on your own, outside the framework and coaching you’d get with an in-house position.»

    But now Editors Canada is offering a mentorship program. Check it out on the website, editors.ca.

  • Sarah Boon

    says:

    A refreshingly honest post, Brendan. I started training to be an editor back in 2000, but then my science PhD got in the way. Now I’m back at editing due to health circumstances and, while there are aspects I enjoy, some tasks feel quite onerous. Editing is something I can do given my disability, but I find writing is more of a vocation for me. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Thank you, Sarah. I hope you’ll have time and space to develop your writing before too long.

  • Hilary

    says:

    Great post Brendan, always interesting to hear how people got into this field.
    I got into editing through a series of happy coincidences and am so glad that I did, it suits me much better than my previous career (in science). Working from home can certainly be a bit isolating, but I counter that by being in lots of groups (e.g. the local Chamber of Commerce, co-working group and mastermind group), and just downing tools and cycling into town for a coffee most days.
    Going freelance was a huge factor in motivating me to get on top of technology (having always been the office dunce), and I counter my dislike of admin by finding ways to do it more efficiently. I’m also easily bored, so to vary the workload I’ve branched out into training.
    After nearly 20 years of editing I still love the work, and feel incredibly grateful to be doing something I enjoy, that gives me a good living and allows me to work from anywhere.

    • Brendan O'Brien

      says:

      Thanks, Hilary. That all sounds good. If I were a bit closer to town I would cycle in for coffee too. As it is, I’ll have to be content with downing tools and taking the dogs fora walk (and coffee at home). I’ve been quite involved in the local community as well.

  • Dave Henry

    says:

    There’s a coffee for editors. It’s a regular grind called «Rat Race.»

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