“In some cases, I’m more like a book counsellor”: Developmental Editor Lesley Erickson

This post is part of Editing After Academia, a series that spotlights editors who have found fulfilling careers outside academia.

Lesley Erickson has seen attitudes towards academic editing shift over the years. Early in her career, few academics or PhD students would admit to hiring an editor. When she started working in-house for a university press, resistance to editors ran deep among some—as did assumptions about editors with a PhD.

“Some people would think you were a failed academic,” she mused in our interview, “As though it’s inconceivable I might enjoy editing and prefer it to being an academic.”

The skepticism towards academic editing has eased in recent years, particularly with the professionalization of editors and as more academics are enlisting the help of editors to prepare their research for a wider audience.

After gaining a PhD in Canadian history and realizing that teaching wasn’t for her, Lesley enrolled in SFU’s Master of Publishing program, which led to an internship with the University of British Columbia Press. After working for five years as a freelancer, she moved in house. In her role as senior production editor, she worked on scholarly books and helped develop books in the press’s new trade imprints. Lesley discovered her niche.

Lesley transitioned back to freelancing largely because she wanted to spend more time working with authors to develop their books.

In the following interview, Lesley shares her extensive experience with both in-house and freelance editing and the advantages of both working environments.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

The paper degree matters less than the skills you’ve learned

For me, my PhD was very useful in the end, but not so much at the beginning when I was working in production at a university press. Production departments at university presses don’t care if you have a PhD: they want to know that you can edit and have experience and training as a copyeditor or proofreader. Familiarity with academic conventions and referencing systems is also an asset.

In contrast, if you want to be an acquisitions editor at a university press, you don’t need training in copyediting or proofreading. Rather, you need to know your discipline, field, and the literature that’s out there.

In-house editing

My master of publishing degree was useful for getting an internship. The program brings in industry experts, so it’s a good opportunity for networking and meeting people and feeling like you’re part of the publishing industry. Most of the people I did the program with ended up getting jobs in-house at publishers.

I think in-house positions are great because you get a steady paycheck. There’s something psychologically comforting about that. Then there’s the pension and benefits that you get for working at a university. Keep in mind, though, that the pay at trade publishers is much less.

I loved having colleagues and the fast pace of working in-house. Working in production as a managing editor I could be working on up to 14 to 16 books with different authors. I was responsible for hiring and managing the team of freelancers—copyeditors, proofreaders, cover designers, copywriters, and indexers—for each book. It was challenging, rewarding, and exciting. I loved participating in title and cover discussions, learning about the printing process, and figuring out the best way to position a book in the market. I was also responsible for developing a system to produce electronic versions, or ePubs, of our books, which was an exercise in change management.

In freelance work, your clients want your services

In the end, I got into substantive editing and back into freelancing because the press was developing more books for bigger audiences. I really loved working with authors to develop their books. I decided I wanted to return to freelancing so I could focus on writing and editing. I’ve since branched out into trade publishing, which I enjoy because there’s a stronger focus on storytelling.

I like working directly with clients because people are coming to me and paying me to edit their work, whereas sometimes, if you’re working through a publisher or working in-house, authors aren’t always open to being edited, which can be a difficult situation to navigate.

When I first started freelancing as a substantive editor, I was actually shocked that people sometimes wanted me to edit their work even more. University presses tend to take a lighter approach because peer reviewers, not editors, are responsible for commenting on the structure and content of the research.

When editing includes what you love about the PhD . . . and none of the bad

I did my PhD without thinking about the fact that I don’t love public speaking. I also don’t like teaching for that reason. But I have always been interested in learning. I love school, and I still take classes just to get that feeling back. I’m always seeking to upgrade my skills through things such as Editors Canada workshops and other writing and editing courses.

That’s what I like about being an editor: it’s a never-ending learning process, and the projects are always changing and so fast-paced compared to working on a PhD or research project for years.

On being a writing coach

In some cases, I’m more like a book counsellor, and I’m talking to people about the difficulties of finishing something or getting it published. It really helps to have been through a PhD program and the book-writing process and to talk people through it. I can say, “There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and here’s what you need to do. You’re so scattered right now, you need to just focus on your book. Let’s break it down.”

Lesley Erickson is a freelance editor and writer. Her book Westward Bound: Sex, Violence, the Law and the Making of a Settler Society, won the honourable mention from the Canadian Law Society in 2011, and she was a finalist for the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence in 2019. She lives in Vancouver.

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