Interview 11: Melissa Brown Levine

  • Years editing: 9 years
  • Job title: Owner and senior editor at Brown Levine Productions
  • Location: Georgia

EXPERIENCE

How did you get your current job?
I created my job after working in corporate America for several years. I always had a side hustle when I worked for other people, so the foundation for the move from employee to business owner was in place. The biggest hurdle was making the leap from the perceived security of full-time employment to the often unstable world of freelancing. In essence, my fear presented as the largest obstacle. 

To get over it, I set a date to leave my job. I saved aggressively during the lead-up to the transition, and I confided in a close friend who held me accountable. Every time I doubted my decision or considered pushing my leave date back, she would challenge me to stay the course.

As I prepared to shift into freelancing full time, I created a résumé that featured the freelance editing and writing I had done over the years and developed a letter that I sent to publishers and other potential clients to introduce myself and outline my services.

What copyediting training have you had?
My entry into copyediting was not traditional. I was not employed as a copyeditor before I shifted into freelancing full time. While employed as a technical service librarian, I freelanced as a book reviewer and copywriter. The book review service I wrote for focused on the work of independent authors whose books were often in need of copyediting. So a lot of my efforts beyond reading the books and writing the reviews involved detailing for authors the problems with grammar and punctuation, as well as structure and organization, in their books. This led to requests for copyediting services, which meant that I needed to hone my editing skills.

Regarding training, I have a master’s degree in professional writing, but when I was preparing to freelance full time and afterward, I also took online courses that focused on copywriting and proofreading. However, I would say that the best training I have received as a copyeditor has come from client feedback. That can be a rare thing in freelancing (often, feedback will come in the form of not sending subsequent assignments if the first one wasn’t to the client’s liking), but those clients who take the time to remark on what went well with a project and what they expect for future assignments offer what amounts to valuable on-the-job training.

DOING THE JOB

Are there any complementary skills that are important in your job?
Marketing is an important factor in freelance copyediting. The initial introductory letters that I sent out during my transition to self-employment helped me build my client base. I maintain a website for my business, and I also have a presence on LinkedIn. In fact, the owner of Dragonfly Editorial found me on LinkedIn a few years ago, and I’ve completed work for the company on an ongoing basis since then.

Subject matter expertise is another tool that has helped me. My degrees and experience in psychology and counseling have been important when completing copyediting assignments for academic and nonprofit clients.

Flexibility and the willingness to learn are significant skills for copyeditors to hone. For example, editing government proposals and journal articles based on clients’ specific style guidelines requires copyeditors to be accommodating of their clients’ needs. Copyeditors may also need to learn unfamiliar software, such as SharePoint or a specific project management system.

Do you use any editing tools to get the job done (e.g., PerfectIt, Adobe stamps)? 
I have what I call a “setup process” when I begin a copyedit. I run PerfectIt first. This program does a great job of identifying inconsistencies in spelling, capitalization, and hyphenation. It does a fairly good job of identifying acronyms that have been spelled out in more than one place in a document. For government proposals that are often acronym heavy, running PerfectIt first allows the copyediting to flow smoother because I don’t have to keep stopping to run them down. And if the client requests that a list of acronyms be added to the style sheet, PerfectIt is an extremely valuable tool during a copyedit.

Next, I run spell-check. This helps me to clear out the obvious spelling and grammar errors before I begin reading the doc. If the program brings up hundreds of possible errors, then I know I’m in trouble. Once I complete that review, I do a search for any client-specific requirements. For example, number ranges that are separated by a hyphen instead of an en dash. More specifically, I have one client who does not allow the use of the ellipses symbol (…); instead, the preference is spaced periods (. . .). Some clients have macros that make the specific housekeeping changes to the document, so I will run those before starting the edit.

After the edit is complete, I search for extra spaces after punctuation and run spell-check again. Instead of running PerfectIt a second time, I often use the PerfectIt Consistency Checker, which is an add-in for Office 365. It covers the basics of the PerfectIt program (spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, numbers, etc.) but faster.

Finally, I plop the document into Grammarly. I have found that this program is really helpful when editing the work of writers whose first language is not English. Such writers often leave out definite and indefinite articles, and Grammarly catches the instances of this type of error that I miss because my brain filled them in during the edit. The program is also often better at spell-check than Office 365.

These programs help the editing progress faster, but they also serve as another set of eyes after I have completed the copyedit.

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS

How do you and your colleagues talk about editing with each other?
I am the sole employee of Brown Levine Productions, so if I am facing problems or concerns about a project, I go directly to the client, offer my suggestions for how I think issues should be handled, and then ask for further guidance. 

When I work on group editing projects with Dragonfly Editorial, I have the opportunity to discuss editing with the lead editor and others on the project via chat, which helps the editing process move along faster and smoother, because I’m not making all of the decisions about the edit on my own.

Do you participate in a community (or communities) that supports editors?
Outside of my contact with clients and the editors I work with on specific group projects, I have taken classes with editors. This provided insight into how other people approach editing and broadened my understanding of how to respectfully approach a writer’s work when embarking on a copyedit.

Do you have any thoughts on the need for editors to network and talk about what they do?
I do think that a copyeditor’s work can and does speak for itself. In my case, doing good work means that I receive more projects from my clients and even have people seek me out to offer me work. 

I think networking and talking about the profession are important, but engagement should also be based on the individual’s preferences and personality type. I am a solid introvert, so the work I am doing now as a freelancer is pretty much my dream job. I don’t do a lot of networking, but I do happily respond to inquiries from people interested in getting into the field. I also consume quite a bit of information about copyediting from blogs, listservs, and articles.

How might we get buy-in during the editing process from the non-editor colleagues with whom we work?
I think we gain buy-in by positioning ourselves as part of the writer’s/non-editor’s team. This happens when we clarify the writer’s expectations before the edit, and during the editing process, when we ask questions and make suggestions about the material based on our experience and what we are seeing in the text. 

I also think that using the right language in queries helps to put writers at ease about the editing process. I use “we” a lot when asking questions about a document (e.g., “Should we include a quote from all five of the presenters mentioned in the text, instead of only two?”). I think this gives the author a sense of being supported, instead of feeling reprimanded for not being thorough. 

I do a lot of fact-checking and add live links for information that I introduce in a query, so the author can make a decision about information based on more than my suggestions. 

I think it’s important that we communicate to writers that they are still ultimately in control of their work; we’re simply here to make it better.

BUILDING DIVERSITY

How diverse is your office? 
My business is Black and woman owned, but I do work with clients and other editors who represent a diverse body in regard to race and gender.

Any suggestions on what offices/employers could do to increase diversity in your field of editing?
I find that the field of copyediting is not one that a lot of people are aware of outside of traditional book publishing. Perhaps more outreach to students at state universities and historically Black colleges and universities, as well as the creation of editorial internships, will increase awareness of this field for a diverse population.

Have you faced any hurdles in getting into/advancing in the copyediting profession because you are a person of color? (These can be systemic, personal, environmental.) Or have you observed such barriers for others? Tell us about that.
I think (perhaps naively) that this may be a problem that a person of color would encounter more often when applying for or seeking advancement in a traditional, direct-hire position, as opposed to freelancing. I am generally hired based on the successful completion of a copyediting test. 

Now, it is possible that I have submitted my résumé to a managing editor who looked at my website and my LinkedIn page and decided not to hire me because of my race, but frankly, that doesn’t touch me directly. There are numerous opportunities for work in this field as a freelancer, so if I am actively seeking clients, I just keep reaching out to organizations until I add the number of clients I feel able to handle at a given time. 

Ultimately, it’s my skill set that gets me hired and keeps clients coming back to me. If I haven’t been hired because someone took a look at my website and saw my Black face, then they did us both a favor, because that’s not the type of company I want to invest my time and skill in. 

I do think that it would benefit the field to have more people of color copyediting in businesses and as freelancers, because we bring different perspectives to the content that is being produced.

THE PERSONAL

Tell us about a project that you’re proud of.
I recently received an urgent request from a nonprofit client to complete a substantive edit of a personal account of one of the firm’s representatives who participated in the George Floyd protests in Minnesota. The representative, who lives in the neighborhood where Mr. Floyd was killed, reported several occurrences of outside agitators coming into the community with the intention of destroying property. The representative even found a car stocked with gasoline canisters. 

The story was relayed during a conversation over the phone. So I was given an extremely rough draft, with instructions to bring all of my skills to the project and to return the edit as soon as possible. Three hours later, I’d restructured the piece and completed a copyedit. 

I am proud of that assignment because I was able to help an activist in Mr. Floyd’s community express her version of what was happening on the ground, as opposed to the mix of often-distorted stories that were provided by the media.

Any hobbies you’d like to share with us?
I am currently working on a novel. I’ve been writing the book for almost two years and hope to have a readable draft by the end of the summer. Most people probably don’t engage in their “hobbies” between midnight and 3:00 a.m., but that is the time that works best for me: there are no emails, no text messages, and no calls — just me and the characters and their stories.

RESOURCES

What resources would you share with fellow editors?
The current edition of the style guides your clients require you to use, as well as AP vs Chicago, Conscious Style Guide, Copyediting-L, and Power Thesaurus.

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