This post is the first installment of “Editing After Academia,” a series that spotlights editors who have found fulfilling careers outside academia.
Nearing the end of her PhD, Erin Parker realized that academia wasn’t going to be a sustainable path for her. “There was so much I loved about the PhD that I wanted to retain,” Erin reflected in our Zoom interview, “So I was kind of flailing to figure out what else I might do.”
After discussing options with supportive supervisors, Erin decided to make a clean break from everything academic. She enrolled in two editing courses at Toronto Metropolitan University: one in copyediting, the other in editing books for young children. The experience, she said, was eye-opening.
When Erin made the decision to go freelance, she credited both her PhD and in-house work for preparing her for the transition. While the in-house work gave her insight into the business side of the book industry, her PhD primed her for the hours of close reading and literary analysis that she brings to editing nonfiction and trade fiction.
In the following interview, Erin reflects on her trajectory from literary criticism to fiction editing and how to break into in-house fiction editing after your PhD.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How grad school prepares you for editing
Grad school came in handy in ways I couldn’t have articulated when I was a student: I was wondering about my transferable skills and trying to imagine a path different from academia, which we’re so trained to think is the only path. Looking back, as I’ve built my business and have worked with publishers and independent authors, I have been so happy to fall back on close-reading skills, my ability to read quickly and very carefully, and my ability to see how a text is producing certain effects.
I think that’s easier for me to say because I trained so much in working with texts. In my PhD, I had exposure to many different literary traditions and techniques and devices. The PhD has given me the confidence to talk to authors about what they’re doing, and to pinpoint what they could change. Working with independent authors, which I really love to do, also relates to some of the work I did when teaching undergrads. For both contexts, I need to be able to explain my suggestions and coach them through writing.
On what writing the dissertation teaches you
Writing the thesis is such a long and lonely process and it takes so much grit and self-direction. No matter what kind of books your clients are working on, the experience of writing a dissertation will give you a closer connection with them. Going through that process gives you a lot of empathy for when your client is overwhelmed with that blank page.
On working in-house
If you’re lucky to find one, you’re often starting at an entry-level position. You may not be in the editorial department, but you can learn a lot from being in sales or marketing or rights. It’s not impossible to move into editorial work, but it’s a long path and takes a long time to be promoted out of entry-level positions.
Those entry-level positions require a lot of administrative work, so often you’re not doing what you may initially want to be doing. But once you get going, it’s very rewarding and teaches you a lot about the business. Once you get experience, you can make those connections that later lead to referrals and help you in the long term.
Are internships necessary?
It’s not the only way to get experience, but it helped me with networking, and I still have friends I’ve made over those years that, as they’ve moved around in-house to different places, have opened doors for me to freelance for new publishers. Trade book publishers send a lot of their copyediting and proofreading out to freelancers, since that’s typically work that’s not done in-house.
Working in-house gave me a certain level of credibility with independent authors. I was able to see how editing was part of the bigger picture of the production cycle. You could read about it, but to see it firsthand was really valuable.
The nice thing about editing is that you can come at it from so many different angles. There are so many different kinds of text you can edit. Projects may come along that don’t fit your particular branding or specialization and no one will tell you, as an owner of your own business, what you can or can’t do.
On loving to learn new things
You don’t get as far as you do in a PhD without really loving learning, which is an important skill to bring into freelance editing and running your own editing business. There’s so much to learn all the time. You do a deep dive into all sorts of elements of writing craft, which I love to do. Professional development energizes me.
When I started, the whole business side was just a complete mystery to me, and so there was such a steep learning curve. You need to love learning about editing and running a business. You need to love trying things out and being willing to course-correct and learn from a supportive community. That enthusiasm for learning really takes you a long way.
On finding a community
Editors are friendly people! I’m part of an extremely supportive community of editors. Some editors’ associations have discounted student rates. If you go to in-person or online meetings that are happening, you can meet people and learn from their experiences. Everybody is happy to share and be transparent about what it was like for them starting out. They can lend a helping hand or send a referral your way. What I had found completely intimidating became a lot easier when I had a community like that.
But can I actually edit fiction?
Honestly, imposter syndrome is an ongoing battle. I joke about it with my friends. That’s partly why I’m like, “Oh, I need to take this course and that course because then I’ll know everything I need for this work!”
The bottom line is: You know more than you think you know. Sometimes you might not have the words for your knowledge, but you can trust your instincts. I wasn’t specifically trained in grad school to be a copyeditor or to substantively edit a novel. But I gradually gained the vocabulary through studying craft books, taking courses, and reading for fun.
I kind of stopped reading for fun in grad school. Studying eighteenth-century books was fun for me at the time, but that was a different kind of reading. If you have a huge interest in speculative fiction, for instance, and you read a lot of it, then you learn about other comparative titles, the larger conversations in the genre, the common tropes, and what authors may be doing differently. A lot of confidence comes from trusting your instincts and reading widely.
An editor and professional bookworm based near Vancouver, BC, Erin Parker has helped authors develop and refine their stories since 2013. She specializes in structural and stylistic editing of trade fiction and non-fiction for publishers and independent authors. For more about Erin, please visit erintheeditor.com.