Interview 16: Ayesha Chari

Years editing: 16
Job title: Academic editor
Job description: Specializes in language editing and rewriting, editing (what is curiously labeled) non-native English, and copyediting in a wide range of subjects (including the humanities, social sciences, and STM [science, technology, and medicine]
Location: Norfolk, UK

EXPERIENCE

How did you get your current job?
I moved continents for love, reluctantly leaving full-time employment as an editor with an independent publishing house. I didn’t intend to be self-employed, but full-time editing jobs didn’t materialize and freelance ones did.

I spent three years yo-yoing between job hunting and juggling work that came my way (mostly from word of mouth, membership networks in a professional association, previous contacts, responses to adverts, and opportunities to take editing tests), with no business plan of any sort. By serendipity, the more frustrated I got about not bagging that full-time job, the more freelance projects came my way. I was exhausted and upset. I was afraid to declare defeat but also afraid to declare ownership of an editorial business.

Then, I hit my best year in business, moved cities, and braced myself for parenthood — the good professional year helped me decide to focus solely on being self-employed. I love being my own boss, wouldn’t go back to being employed, and finally am not afraid to admit I am the owner of an editorial business.

What copyediting training do you have, and what positions have you held?
I received strong foundations in on-the-job training with both my previous full-time publishing house employers in India: At Macmillan Publishers (now MPS Ltd.), I had exceptional mentors who taught me all I needed to discover my editor self and helped create the foundation on which I continue to grow. As assistant copyeditor, I learned the fundamentals of STM editing and journal publishing.

Seagull Books gave me wings. Besides honing editing skills, I learned the craft of bookmaking with six exceptionally talented co-workers. I was involved in contracts, printing, and everything in-between.

I have since taken formal courses in core skills as well as business-related ones, and I am always looking for new courses to improve my expertise and stay up to date.

DOING THE JOB

Are there any complementary skills that are important in your job?
Does humor count? It’s useful on the job and outside, especially as a freelance provider of services that may never require human contact. Humor helps build and maintain long-lasting relationships with authors, if used sensibly. It keeps your feet on the ground and your sanity intact when owning up to/taking responsibility for avoidable editorial errors (it’s not the end of the world, and we’ve all been there). It also lets you get away with holding roundtables with four-legged editorial assistant-friends (sadly, I have none).

Do you use any editing tools to get the job done (e.g., PerfectIt, Adobe stamps)?
I work almost exclusively in Microsoft Word, using Track Changes and other tools to work faster and maximize efficiency.

For both purposes, macros and PerfectIt make up an essential kit. The former I find very helpful for analyzing text and making changes globally or instituting preferences I set to suit the project. The latter is a consistency checker that I use as an additional eye, cast over a manuscript at the start and at the end of an edit.

TextExpander is another time-saver for repetitive tasks — author queries in particular, as well as admin stuff, such as emails, quotes, and estimates for jobs, signatures, contracts, etc. I am also about to try the Editor’s Toolkit.

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS

How do you and your colleagues talk about editing with each other?
I am the only editor in my business, but I’m part of virtual communities of international editors, the most significant of which are the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP, formerly the Society for Editors and Proofreaders), the Norfolk Proofreaders and Editors Network (NPEN), and the Indian Copyeditors Forum (ICF, an informal Facebook group).

All three provide safe spaces for professional and sometimes personal discussions about the art and science of editing and about running a successful business. Safe spaces, as we are all increasingly acknowledging, are important regardless of whether one is self-employed or employed with an organization. Discussions in these groups (via online forums or, now, virtual meetings) have been vital to my becoming a better professional editor.

Do you participate in a community (or communities) that supports editors?
I’m a member of the CIEP (Advanced Professional), NPEN, and ICF.

Do you have any thoughts on the need for editors to network and talk about what they do?
I partially agree that the work is the work, in so much as my editing speaks for itself with my present client/job. But it ends there. We all still need to do a whole lot more if we want to make uncompromised success (success that is not weakened or sabotaged or diminished because of the lack of professional regulation) of an unregulated, yet essential, profession. We need to set and uphold high standards (not as the grammar police or from a moral high ground, but more as sharers of common sense) and talk about the importance of clear communication in ever-evolving languages. Such clarity is driven by context.

How might we get buy-in during the editing process from authors who may not be receptive to changes?
Make them feel in charge of the process. Constructive querying helps set the tone for collaboration. Offer options for solutions wherever possible (there is almost always more than one way of editing a sentence).

Remember also that style guides are just that — guides, not set in stone. As editors and proofreaders, we can get quite set in our ways. (You need only to work on a couple of STM journals to become aware of the sometimes absurd style rules we are asked to follow exactly. If we’re not careful, these rules can become second nature.)

I try to take care not to transfer personal preferences onto a piece of writing. This can be difficult to do if the language needs a lot of help. The temptation is to rewrite in one’s own words. I always try to include multiple options for rephrasing text, in language-related queries particularly.

I think it’s also wise to know a little about your author, for example, their background, and be receptive to their rigidity if you want them to be open to your suggestions. After all, the writing is theirs!

BUILDING DIVERSITY

How diverse is your office?
In previous in-house workplaces, specifically the larger corporate publishing house, I can’t say there was much diversity. Now, my larger, virtual work environment is as diverse as I can make it. I have colleagues in different time zones and clients and authors across continents. Gender, race, and any other slot-labels are as varied as the planet itself.

Have you faced any hurdles in getting into/advancing in the copyediting profession because you are a person of color? Or have you observed such barriers for others?
I’ve been fortunate not to have faced such hurdles professionally. (I can’t say the same for female manager-mentors or colleagues at my first workplace.) But as an Indian and an editor of the English-language, a language no documentation allows me to identify as my first or native language, I make people do a double take.

Whether their interest is verbalized or not, I can tell when they wonder how/why/from where I acquired my English-language skills. Feeling the constant need to defend said skills can get exhausting, heighten impostor syndrome, and generally leave one feeling angry or upset or isolated. (And I know I’m not alone.) Finding support networks in editing organizations helps: I rely heavily on the virtual communities mentioned before and the colleagues-turned-friends made via the CIEP local groups, which are invaluable.

Any suggestions on what offices/employers could do to increase diversity in your field of editing?
Academic editing is, in part, reflective of academia, which is highly competitive and equally discriminatory. Make these spaces safe for uninhibited engagement across organizational hierarchies. Encourage questions. Respect opinions other than the organization’s own. Don’t employ for the sake of meeting diversity criteria or checking a box. Employ to empower, to give diverse voices a platform, to make the most of collaboration. It can only enrich a space.

THE PERSONAL

Tell us about a project that you’re proud of.
It’s difficult to pick just one. Probably the international development piece I wrapped up last week. (A mentor once said as an editor, you’re as good as the work you’ve just completed.)

The scores of fiction and nonfiction translations of world literature I worked on while at Seagull Books will always hold a very special place in me. They introduced me to some of the best works I’ve ever read and to exquisitely crafted books.

Any hobbies you’d like to share with us?
I’m a serial walker, occasional doodler, and closet crafter.

RESOURCES

What resources would you share with fellow editors?
The Chicago Manual of Style and New Hart’s Rules are fundamental guides. Besides these, I’d signpost blogs, Twitter feeds of professional editorial organizations, the two e-newsletters from the CIEP (The Edit, for members only, and Editorial Excellence, for everyone), Samosapedia (because we all need an aside), and a handful of interesting podcasts (The Editing Podcast, the Deliberate Freelancer, the Edit Boost Podcast, Grammar Girl, Because Language, and Talk the Talk).

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or about diversity in the profession?
I didn’t think about diversity in the same way in India as I do in the UK. (The former has its own systemic issues around gender, caste, class, and other manufactured hierarchies. These issues were likely aggravated in the editing profession by the outsourcing dragon that was unleashed by the West decades ago. Discussion of these problems is growing in public spaces, but not so much behind closed doors.)

Naively, perhaps, I don’t think I realized how much of a problem diversity in the industry is until I moved to the UK. I certainly didn’t think in addition to being a woman, a mixed-heritage Indian with scattered ancestral roots, and a multilingual (non-native) English speaker, I’d also have to become conscious of the color of my skin. So I’m learning as we speak and am encouraged that these issues are being articulated, today, in public — but also at the dinner table in homes and across generations.

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