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Manuscript editor: Her role is to ‘make clear what is unclear’

By Kelsey Baker
University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Like many of individuals who end up in editing positions, Ann Baker didn’t always see herself as an editor. And she didn’t follow the typical path of reporter moving up to editor.  For Baker, it was different.  She worked for an insurance company in communications. Over time, Baker discovered an enjoyment of editing, and it wasn’t long before she was working as a manuscript editor at University of Nebraska Press, which primarily publishes nonfiction books, scholarly journals and the occasional regional prose or poetry. In the past, it also has published reputable fiction.

Now,, Baker is the manager of Editorial, Design and Production. While still using skills from past editing positions, her role encompasses a lot of other responsibilities. In this email  interview, she offers insight based on her  editing experiences.

Q: What is your educational background?

A: Bachelor of Arts from UNL with emphasis in 18th-century British literature, go figure; some post-grad work not in English.

Q: What is your editing history?

A: My first professional job in the field was as a communications specialist in a large corporate insurance company. I handled the materials required for the sales force (agents) plus a wide variety of in-house materials, including the monthly employee newsletter, annual report, sales convention and special event materials, some speech editing, and review of mundane forms used in other departments. In 1991, when my first child was 6 weeks old, I began freelance editing from home (never returned to the corporate job), first for a management consultant with several national clients and then for University of Nebraska Press and eventually a few other university presses too. When my youngest child started first grade (in 2002) I began working in house for UNP part-time as an assistant project editor… went to full-time a year later. In 2006, the press went through a reduction-in-force; I was named supervisor of project editing as the result of the RIF. I was promoted to manager of Editorial, Design and Production when the Manuscript Editorial department and the Production department were combined into EDP in 2009. As of today I have several shelves at home with my gratis copy of books I copy edited and a really lengthy list of books I worked on here as the project editor. I’m proud of both, but especially proud of the relationships with authors.

Q: You said that you came up from Manuscript Editorial. How would you compare that to your job now?

A: I’m a working manager, which means I carry a full complement of book projects every season (usually anywhere from 10 to 14 per season – 20 to 30 per year – depending on the content of the seasonal list), so that work is exactly the same: ushering a book project through transmittal, preliminary review of manuscript and illustrative materials, launch, disk prep, copy editing (including supervising the freelance copy editor), cleanup and prep for design and composition, page proof review and corrections, indexing when needed (which includes supervising the freelance indexer, editing the index itself, and reviewing index page proof), cover review, catalog entry copy editing, database management for the project, applying for cataloging-in-publication data from the Library of Congress and acting as the main press contact for the author while the book is being produced. When time allows I usually also try to copy edit at least one manuscript per season as well, just because I like to do it (and it happens to save the press some money).

As manager of EDP I’m also ultimately responsible for enforcing our house style, which is based primarily on “Chicago Manual of Style 16th ed.” and  “Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 11th ed.,” so the manuscript editorial element is the background noise for all the decisions made for all the projects. For example, I often weigh in on new book projects as they go through the launch process even if those are not my own specific projects for the season. And when sticky editing issues come up for other project editors’ manuscripts, we four PEs (project editors) will usually gather and talk about it, then come to a consensus decision. Our house style is a constantly evolving being, because new things always come up.

The main differences are representing the department on and contributing to the leadership team  (which recently includes strategic planning), performing supervisory role for EDP staff and students, fulfilling central role in managing the publishing grants the press has received, resolving human resources issues (such as hiring, disciplinary, accommodation), approving and processing purchases and invoicing (for freelance services, for art used on covers, etc.) and preparing the department’s budget.

Q: What is your average week like at Nebraska Press?

A: Percentage-wise, I’d say my week generally consists of 25 percent meetings, 30 percent email correspondence (with authors, in-house staff, etc.), 25 percent project editing work (specific books), 10 percent human resource issues and 10 percent “other” (like database issues, special projects, random editing, or anything else).  A good share of every day is spent in resolving author issues or problems, resolving book production issues or problems, or resolving manuscript issues or problems. Mostly this happens through email, but we’re small enough that we accomplish a lot in hallway conversations.

Q: Did you ever imagine yourself as an editor?

A: That’s a good question and I have a funny answer—no! I always did well in English classes – though writing is definitely not my top skill – and have an eye for errors. In college it was just a matter of enjoying reading. Only during that first professional job did I realize editing was also something I truly enjoyed and could do easily. I most definitely did not have a plan. I don’t think I knew what “copy editing” or “full-length manuscript” even meant. But after I had done that for some time and was able to develop both some confidence in my ability and a body of work experience to show, a project editing position opened up, so I never got the opportunity to try freelance copy editing on a full-time basis. Maybe in my old age? Let it be said that I owe a large debt to one particular project editor here at UNP who was willing to spend the time and effort to train me up, way back when. I know that feeds into my commitment to mentoring students when I can, whether by inviting them in as interns or granting interviews.

Q: What aspect of editing do you enjoy the most?

A: Also a good question. First would be working with words. I just plain enjoy it. Second would be the relationships with authors, especially ones who appreciate a good edit (as compared to those who can’t be told anything and spend all their effort in defending mediocrity or lack of clarity). In a nutshell, the role of a copy editor is to make clear what is unclear. It’s nice when you have the latitude or the time to actually help make a manuscript  better—that is, read smoother, be more concise—but acting as the eyes of the reader or audience is an important function. Too many authors have worked with their texts so long and at such length that they don’t see what’s actually written, only what they think is written. A mind can play tricks on you! It also explains why you don’t need any specific background knowledge about a subject area. If a writer is articulate, the average reader should be able to follow along without either losing the meaning or losing their way. It can help if a copy editor happens to know some specific random fact to correct an error, but the facts are the responsibility of the author, not the copy editor.

Q: Are there particular grammar rules or general writing errors that you encounter frequently?

A: Inconsistency is the most widespread. But there are a lot of repeating errors that you’ll find in every field: it’s vs. its is a common one (but I really don’t get why it gives people so much trouble). Who/whom mistakes. Important vs. importantly. Use of “their” when “he/she” or “his/hers” is correct. Misuse of italic for a variety of reasons. Wrong hyphenation (adding a hyphen with -ly adverbs is wrong). Noun-verb disagreement. Should I go on?

Q: If you were to give advice to someone looking to be published, what would it be?

A: Read anything and everything you can get your hands on. A beautifully or just plain well-written manuscript will naturally emanate from someone who has an ease with language and who knows how others write, (i.e., mistakes to avoid, techniques to employ, etc.). Even an uninteresting or esoteric subject matter in the hands of a good writer can be an enjoyable thing, and will float to the top of the pile on an acquisition editor’s desk. As part of that, try to expand your vocabulary – it makes you sound interesting and authoritative. Then shop your manuscript to small publishers or university presses. It’s a competitive market and every writer is facing about 150,000 other writers for the public’s attention.

For more information on publishing through University of Nebraska Press, click here.

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