Interview 20: Chris Obudho

Years editing: 15 years
Job title: Owner of CJO Writing + Editing LLC
Job description: Writing and editing technical and marketing copy
Location: Indiana

EXPERIENCE

How did you get your current job?
I work with a broad array of clients to write an equally broad array of products, including blogs, product descriptions, press releases, articles, social media posts. I also edit scientific journal articles, LinkedIn articles, corporate training courses, government agency newsletters, and many other materials. Every day is truly different!

I fell in love with the process of editing about 15 years ago while working on political campaigns. Polishing press releases, campaign plans, and other documents was (and is) intellectually stimulating. Finding the right words, correcting mistakes, and making the message clear is fascinating (and can be fun)!

I’ve always had a desire to work for myself. The opportunity arose when I left an advertising agency (where I served as the primary proofreader) here in Indiana. I landed my first client after offering to help them create an in-house style guide. They’re a copper fittings manufacturer and their long-serving marketing manager had been struggling with consistent messaging and style. I thought a style guide would be a great first project. 

The president of the ad agency I’d left actually referred them to me. Maintaining relationships throughout an organization is key. That first client led to others, and now I’m going into my third year and (fingers crossed) many more.

What training do you have in copyediting, and what positions have you held?
I have a liberal arts B.A. from William Paterson University — so no specific copyediting training. Over the years, I have gained an appreciation for the nuances of the language. I had the opportunity to work for many political and public affairs campaigns, which, obviously, require strong language skills. 

I also was lead writer and editor for the Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in New Jersey, an effort that involved working with architectural, engineering, community planning, and public affairs experts. 

At the ad agency, I worked with many corporate clients (Whirlpool, Fifth/Third Bank, Amway, Stryker, etc.) to write and edit various documents (digital and print).

DOING THE JOB

Are there any complementary skills that are important in your job?
I’ve come to realize that basic graphic design and layout skills can improve your chances of landing a project. Even if it’s just understanding how to lay out something in Microsoft Publisher, you can offer that extra service and add value to your client. 

I have a love-hate relationship with social media. On the one hand, I think it’s an important skill to have. But I’m seeing some transfer of the “240 character” mindset to other types of writing, and I don’t really think that’s healthy (though linguistic evolution is a thing!). Being able to distill a fairly complex thought into short, concise content is an important skill to have. 

I’m a generalist, and I know that’s bitten me in the backside looking for jobs, because many employers feel that their industry is so unique that you have to have a graduate level of knowledge to even walk in the door! I think generalists with skills and interests in writing, editing, leadership, communications, discipline, attention to detail, patience, curiosity, and teachability are just as valuable as someone with a degree in mid-century Venezuelan agricultural history (apologies if that’s a real degree)!

Do you use any editing tools to get the job done (e.g., PerfectIt, Adobe stamps)? 
Most of my editing is done in Microsoft Word, so I don’t use any other tool. I don’t use macros either! I do some editing in Adobe and just use the edit option. Pretty basic stuff.

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS

How do you and your colleagues talk about editing with each other?
When I was the proofreader and editor for the ad agency, I was responsible for training my backups. We would have periodic discussions (once a month or so) about the in-house style guide, proofreading marks, other style guides that clients used (AP, Chicago Manual of Style, etc.), and other grammatical topics, to make sure everyone was up to speed. They weren’t “word nerds” necessarily but understood the importance of consistency with the different client documents.

Do you participate in a community (or communities) that supports editors?
Unfortunately, I don’t. I’ve often meant to join something like ACES: The Society for Editing or Society for Technical Communication, but I never seemed to find the time or resources to attend conferences. I’d like to one day!

Do you have any thoughts on the need for editors to network and talk about what they do?
It all depends. What are your career goals? If you want to head a large copyediting operation at a corporation or newspaper, then networking, interning, having great clips and samples, etc., will definitely help. Obviously, you have to get work in that organization, but once you do, it definitely won’t hurt to network both internally and outside the company.

Starting your own shop means you definitely have to network. I hate cold calling, but this is where social media may be a good place to start. For example, find local people you’d like to work with and connect with them on LinkedIn. Ask for a coffee or lunch meeting to pick their brain about their industry and begin to build that relationship. Be patient. Don’t focus on what you want from them, but on what you can give to them. Be open. Be friendly. Be humble.

A colleague of mine said his secret (he’s in financial public relations) is simple: “Do good work.” That’s stuck with me. My first client liked my work, which built my confidence and pushed me to seek more work. I did good work for the next client, and so on and so on.

Editing is a very solitary exercise, but being around people can be helpful to both your mental and emotional health, and your professional progression.

Another way to network is to go to a co-working space. You never know who you’ll meet there. I actually picked up a client that way too.

How might we get buy-in during the editing process from authors who may not be receptive to changes?
Writing is a very personal process. Spending all of that time developing an idea, writing, rewriting, and having the courage to put it out there is a big deal. Empathy and professionalism are the keys, in my opinion (and all of the editors and proofreaders I’ve met have been authors at some point). Understanding what the author has gone through is a great way to connect. Explain your editing process so they know what to expect. After you’ve read their piece, compliment them on it (regardless of how it looks, reads, or feels to you!). You should already know the purpose of the piece, so explain that your editing is part of reaching that goal and you look forward to teaming with them to make it happen.

Once you’ve made the suggested revisions, walk the author through each one and have a justification for each change (no matter how small). Be professional about it. The first edit for a new author is always the toughest, but once they see that you’ve “done good work,” they’ll be more receptive to the editing process.

BUILDING DIVERSITY

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? 
Thankfully, I haven’t faced any racial issues with respect to getting jobs or clients. Now, maybe I didn’t get a job along the way because I’m black, but I never knew about it. Throughout my career, I haven’t worked with very many people of color (POCs) in the writing, editing, and proofreading space. I do see many online.

Any suggestions on what offices/employers could do to increase diversity in your field of editing?
Whew! That’s an interesting and tough question. I think that it has to be addressed from both sides (i.e., what can employers do and how can we get more POCs interested in the field?). As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t see many POCs working in this field. That’s got to change. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019, only 15% of editors were POCs.

Our broader mission as editors is to make communications clear between our clients/companies and their audiences. It can’t just be on the employers to do this. POCs often have unique perspectives to bring to editing. Building a love for precision, curiosity, and attention to detail is a great way to become more attractive to employers. Are these intangible skills being taught in schools now? I don’t think so. That may be the more fundamental issue. 

THE PERSONAL

Tell us about a project that you’re proud of.
One of the largest documentation projects I worked on was a statewide disaster recovery plan called the Recovery Support Strategy. The plan involved multiple federal and state agencies and laid out how FEMA and other federal agencies would assist New Jersey with recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Over about 10 months and thousands of hours from dozens of agencies, we wrote, edited, revised, and sought approval for this plan, which would help my home state recover. I had the opportunity to work with some of the smartest, most talented, and dedicated people in the country. As the process went on, I was given the responsibility of leading the project to completion (final edits, final approvals, and submission to FEMA leadership and the governor).

On some days, a stack of copies of the plan that had been sent out for reviews by various stakeholders was piled on my desk (3-4 feet high!). I had to make updates to the master copy. Lots of nights and weekends reviewing, revising, and pulling my hair out attempting to keep things on track. We used hard copies for most things, so daily, my supervisor (or another reviewer) would drop an additional reviewed copy on my desk with a thud and say, “Here are more revisions. Good luck!” 

I learned a lot from that process: I worked with people of varying experience and interest levels. I learned more about grammar. I saw how a large government project works. That’s when I really knew I loved editing!

Any hobbies you’d like to share with us?
I’m a super Star Wars nerd and spend way too much time thinking and reading about what’s canon and what’s not! I also became an accidental gardener when I started feeding birds and squirrels in my backyard and they dropped or buried some seeds. Surprise! Sunflowers, sorghum, and corn sprouted up. That pushed me to find out what else I could grow, and now I have fresh basil, lettuce, cilantro, and, hopefully next year, a bounty of fresh vegetables!

RESOURCES

What resources would you share with fellow editors?
Match and search games. I spend a lot of time using these to help hone my attention to detail. Games like Find Objects, June’s Journey, and Find the Difference are great detail-oriented games that can keep editors sharp.

The more traditional resources I use a lot include the Title Case Converter and Google’s Ngram tool. Ngram has helped me justify a word choice on many occasions.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or about diversity in the profession?
I really appreciate the chance to share some thoughts with your readers. Increasing the representation of POCs in the writing, editing, and proofreading space is a noble goal, and I think there just needs to be more interest in the precise use of the language. Whether you’re a prescriptivist or descriptivist, there should be a baseline of accuracy before you can start “riffing” with words. How do you get there? It’s got to start young. Read to kids. Correct mistakes (lovingly). Play word games. We can build future generations of editors by starting early!

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