Passion for woodworking leads to unlikely editing career
By Doug Norby
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Roger Holmes didn’t set out to be an editor. In fact, after two semesters at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and three at Yale, he didn’t have any idea what he wanted to do.
Ultimately, he decided to focus on his interest in woodworking, and he pursued an apprenticeship of sorts in southwest England.
Holmes also had a passion for writing. Having been a loyal reader of Fine Woodworking magazine for years, he decided to combine his interests and see if he could freelance articles about English woodworking. After sending the magazine examples of his writing, the editors hired him as a freelancer in 1979.
Although Holmes didn’t have any formal education in editing, he said he was fortunate to work under Fine Woodworking’s editor John Kelsey, who guided him. He also read some helpful books that taught him editing basics.
“I’m a big fan of William Strunk and E.B. White’s ‘The Elements of Style,’” he said. “From that I learned the three words that should be emblazoned on the eyeballs of every editor: Omit needless words.”
In 1982 on a trip back to the United States, Taunton Press, publishers of Fine Woodworking, asked Holmes to stop by their office in Connecticut. That led to a full-time job at Taunton Press and a move back to the states.
He was officially a magazine editor.
“You have to constantly be asking yourself questions, like what is this word doing here? Does this make sense? Do I understand what they are trying to say? You’re the eventual readers’ last advocate before this material reaches them so you constantly have to be asking yourself the questions that they will be asking themselves when they read it.”
Although he successful as a magazine editor, Holmes eventually tired of working for others and decided to strike out on his own as a freelance editor. This move led to a career he didn’t even know existed: He become a contract book packager.
The duties of a book packager combine the roles of editor and publisher, he said. He put together a team of former Taunton Press employees, who specialized in gardening books. Together they would brainstorm and develop an idea for a book, then hire authors and illustrators, as well as writing and editing material themselves.
One of the challenges was editing amateur writers. “I dealt a lot with people who were writing ‘how-to’ pieces who were expert craftsmen but amateur writers,” he said. “I spent a lot of time organizing and narrowing the focus on pieces that you probably wouldn’t have to do if you were dealing with a trained journalist.”
Holmes and his team were paid a set fee as the book packagers, while the marketing, production and sale of the books were handled by the people who had hired them. Roger edited a number of titles in the Taylor’s Guide series, published by Houghton Mifflin, including the highly regarded “Taylor’s Master Guide to Gardening,” as well as “Gardening in the South,” “Gardening in the Southwest” and “Natural Gardening.” With his co-editor, Rita Buchanan, Holmes also produced the Creative Homeowner Press series of home landscaping guides for the Midwest, Northeast, Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions.
Eventually, Holmes returned to the passion that led him down the path to being an editor — woodworking. He runs his own woodworking shop in Lincoln. “I just got tired of it,” he said about editing. But still he has advice for students who want to find work as editors.
“Just be open-minded and think outside the box,” he said. “There will always be a need for editors and sometimes in unexpected places. You don’t have to work with journalists to be an editor.”