Interview 24: Thomas Hill

Years editing: 20 years
Job title: Copyeditor and freelance developmental editor
Job description: Copyeditor at weekly arts and culture magazine; provides developmental edits on nonfiction and scholarly manuscripts
Location: New Mexico

EXPERIENCE

How did you get your current job?
In 2017, I had recently moved to New Mexico and came across a copyediting role at a local magazine. I thought it would be the perfect place to familiarize myself with the diverse and rich cultural history of the region. After two interviews — involving an editing test, some trial runs with proofreading in production, and an opportunity to meet the staff — the editor offered me the job. 

My first copyediting gig came in 2003, but it happened by mistake. Two years prior, I had been learning as much as I could about how editing works and had landed a few temporary jobs as a proofreader at an advertising agency. In 2003, I was assigned to be an entry-level graphic designer, but my copyediting skills came in handy quite often. Needless to say, I made fast friends with the editorial staff.

What copyediting training have you had?
I was so inspired to have a career in publishing that I started out learning the basics of editing on my own! I did a few informational interviews with book editors at publishing houses when I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, and I learned how they do what they do. They recommended that I buy a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style (can’t remember which edition that was!) and start thumbing through it. 

This prepared me well for internships in the Manuscript Editorial and Acquisitions Departments at the University of Virginia Press (UVAP), which occurred in 2004 — some two years after the informational interviews. I was able to use the editing skills I had learned to proofread UVAP’s titles and help to critique author queries in acquisitions. It was such a rewarding feeling to have authors give me personal shout-outs in their books!

A year later I landed a gig as a proofreader and copyeditor for Rowman & Littlefield. Five years later, I landed a job as a book production specialist for a company that conducted seminars in which participants wrote first drafts of manuscripts. They assigned me more manuscripts than I could handle. So I built a team of editors and designers to help me fulfill the various needs of my client. I also ventured into ghostwriting at that time.

DOING THE JOB

Are there any complementary skills that are important in your job?
All of the abovementioned skills are important, especially if you are working with independent authors. The editing process should involve some time spent discerning how a project will be marketed. Also, having conversations with the author throughout can make the editing process easier.

I actually learned how to design books before I learned how to edit them. As I mentioned earlier, I was so enamored with the business of building and publishing books that I wanted to learn as much as I could about the process. Design appeared to be a more marketable skill at the time, but then I branched out into editing, where I found my true home. 

The social media component came much later in my education. I wasn’t afraid of social media (introvert editor here), but it seemed daunting. The lessons I have acquired in that arena have taught me about using concise language in social media posts, search engine optimization, and the importance of consistent messaging and having a desire to connect with your audience.

Do you use any editing tools to get the job done (e.g., PerfectIt, Adobe stamps)? 
I find Grammarly very helpful. The plug-in will review anything you write or read in a word processing program and flag anything that looks suspect. It is a great way to remind yourself of grammar rules and some style elements (though I wish there were some way to plug our style guide rules into Grammarly as well). Microsoft Word’s editing tools are also effective, but I think Grammarly is better. 

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS

How do you and your colleagues talk about editing with each other?
I’m the only copyeditor in my department at the magazine right now. Due to the pandemic, we had to lay off our other copyeditor — which is unfortunate, because she was a valuable asset to our team. So now, it’s just me and the magazine editor. The editor trusts me to handle specific grammar, style, and word-use issues. I knew that she wanted to make some substantive changes to our house style. The editorial style was all over the place — essentially a hybrid of newspaper and book styles. We retained some of the basic elements and aligned everything else with Chicago. I have since codified everything into a live Word doc for the writers’ reference. 

Do you participate in a community (or communities) that supports editors?
I embraced networking with people in the publishing industry early on in my career. And I attended several events and conferences that put me in touch with editors, literary agents, and publishers. For a long time, I was a member of a publishing listserv (when I lived in the Washington, DC, area), and I do subscribe to a few editing-specific groups on LinkedIn now (Publishing and Editing Professionals, University of Chicago Professional Certificates, Society for Scholarly Publishing). 

Yes, back to social media I go! I started a LinkedIn group called Book Production Freelancers, which currently has over 4,000 members — all folks who have a specialty in anything book related and who freelance. I am also a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA). 

Communities are so important. You can learn of opportunities through them; you can hone your editing skills through them. You meet great people, some of whom may need a new team member for a large-scale project. But communities are also helpful sometimes for commiserating with like-minded individuals about job-specific functions.

Do you have any thoughts on the need for editors to network and talk about what they do?
I think a high concentration of editors are introverts. For many editors, the job is appealing because you can settle into a comfortable little bubble, not talk to anyone, and still get your job done. It was one of the reasons why I wanted to go into the profession: I could do my job anywhere and not have to make an effort to talk to others. That said, career advancement doesn’t happen in a bubble. Editors who are looking for work need to spend time networking, meeting people, and shaking hands (though not this year). 

The work does speak for itself, though. Most of the jobs I’ve landed happened after I successfully completed an editing test, which was more important than a face-to-face interview. So a healthy balance is ideal. 

How might we get buy-in during the editing process from authors who may not be receptive to changes?
I received feedback from some of my author clients early on that I was being too heavy handed with the editing process. The author-editor relationship can be dicey. I like to prepare the author (especially in developmental editing, where author-editor dialogue, discussion, and brainstorming are often necessary) by telling him or her of my primary responsibility, which is to keep the reader in mind. 

Sometimes feelings get hurt; sometimes an author is just not in lockstep with you on an editing decision. And that’s okay. You don’t have to be in complete agreement on every word in every line of every sentence. 

If I am working with an author who appears to resist my editorial role, I try to help the author see things from an objective, rather than subjective, standpoint. That usually gets the author thinking outside his or her own head, and oftentimes it leads to quite an aha moment!

BUILDING DIVERSITY

How diverse is your office? 
I am the only Black male in the department. We have a much higher concentration of women (design), and the writing staff is mostly men. So the gender proportion is about evenly split. The racial makeup is overwhelmingly White. Within the company itself, there is a more diverse makeup.

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? 
One mentor I had at UVAP was really looking out for me. She, citing the fact that there are few Black editors in the university press system, encouraged me to learn all I could during the internship. I’ll never forget the day she told me what she hoped would come of my internship with her (an acquisitions editor): “I want to see you as an editor at a publishing house someday. We need more Black editors!”

Given the current focus on incorporating BIPOC voices in publishing, and the intense scrutiny that publishing houses themselves are facing where the gender and racial makeups of their editorial staffs are concerned, her comments to me were ahead of the times. But working with her set the tone for the rest of my career. 

Editing is one of those roles for which you can prove your competency quite easily. If you can go toe to toe with someone about the fact that a particular sentence uses split infinitives and comma splices but shouldn’t, people suddenly forget what you look like. There is a vein of blindness that an editor can employ that is not available in, say, a sales profession, where you are in direct, face-to-face contact with others. That’s something BIPOC editors can use to their advantage. 

I can’t say that I’ve faced any hurdles, per se. I’ve certainly applied for positions that I didn’t get, and I don’t really know why. It’s possible that race or gender or some other criteria was a factor. Having confidence in yourself and your abilities goes a long way in combating such things. If you can prove your worth to an organization (not merely with competency in the skill set they need but also with things they didn’t think they needed) and your commitment to excellence (of primary concern for copyeditors), you should be okay.

Any suggestions on what offices/employers could do to increase diversity in your field of editing?
Internships are extremely important. It’s one of the best ways to get your foot in the door in any profession, really. Organizations committed to diversity in the workplace need to target minority recruitment. Maybe partnerships between academic departments (English and creative writing departments, for example) and publishers could help to encourage minority participation in publishing.

THE PERSONAL

Tell us about a project that you’re proud of.
The project I am most proud of is the one on which I’m currently working. It’s a novel set in the 1600s in what is now Senegal, in West Africa. It’s an adaptation of a sci-fi novel that my co-author, Mamour Dieng (a native of Senegal), commissioned. It involves intrigue and adventure, but it’s also a story about the clash of cultures and what would eventually come to be known as the transatlantic slave trade. The hero, a teenage heir apparent to a vast African kingdom, must use his royal and internal gifts to help save the kingdom. It’s set for release sometime in early 2021 through Lampas Books.

Where editing is concerned, I’d like to mention a project on which I worked with Catherine Carrigan in a developmental capacity about seven years ago. Her book had a low word count, and the content was very choppy. After working with her for a few months, she doubled the size, and it became her top-selling book on Amazon.

Mostly, my pride in my work comes from seeing authors grow into their writing. Seeing them digest the nuggets of information I convey to them and seeing them take off is one of the greatest pleasures of my life!

Any hobbies you’d like to share with us?
I have two dogs, and they keep me quite busy when I’m not in front of my computer. We really enjoy going to the mountains nearby, going for long hikes, and exploring. I also like to camp and travel — and read, of course!

RESOURCES

What resources would you share with fellow editors?
1. Definitely check out the EFA to learn about best practices and tips on editing. The organization has great online classes that can help sharpen your skills. There’s even a job board for freelance projects.

2. Take a few practice tests for editing or command of the English language. Discover where your strengths and weaknesses are, but focus on reviewing anything that may turn up unsatisfactory. 

3. A book I’m reading right now — The Subversive Copy Editor, by Carol Fisher Saller — has been really effective in my current role. It’s published by the University of Chicago Press (UCP), is written by a UCP contributing editor, and has great advice on not only editing but also working with writers.

4. Don’t be afraid to reach out to an online community to ask for help with a specific question on editing. People who love what they do will bend over backward to be of service.

5. There is no such thing as a perfect editor. By that I mean, mistakes happen. I know that it can be quite a blow to work on something and later discover a misspelled word or an oddly constructed sentence that starts an online discussion once it is printed. Learn how to be okay with near perfection, and keep your eyes focused on what is truly important.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or about diversity in the profession?
It’s great to see so much focus on diversity in the workplace in the last few years. When I started out, I didn’t see any Black faces. I didn’t know anyone who was Black who was an editor at a major publishing house. Social media has turned this dynamic on its head; there are entire groups devoted to Black professionals of every stripe. And now we are seeing open calls from publishing entities to increase the racial, ethnic, and gender makeups of their staffs. 

Having diverse editors to meet the new challenges in the publishing industry is essential. Consider yourself part of a rising tide that will not abate anytime soon.

Also, feel free to contact me with any question you might have. I would love to be a mentor to the younger generation!

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