Interview 25: Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri

Years editing: 20 years
Job title: Self-employed book editor (indie fiction and narrative nonfiction, such as travel and memoir)
Job description:
Location: Camp (COVID-era): Durgapur, West Bengal, India; residence: New Delhi, India

EXPERIENCE

How did you get your current job?
I have been working solo on books as an editor for five years now. Almost all the work has come from one agency, AuthorsUpFront (AU), besides a couple of individual clients. I first came in contact with AU when a book that I co-authored — Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambaniswas published by them in April 2014. This was a self-published project; the senior writer, Paranjoy Guha-Thakurta, a well-known independent journalist, financed it. The other writer was Subir Ghosh, also a journalist and copyeditor.

Paranjoy (with an eponymous imprint) and AU together would go on to publish a number of other books, and I was involved on the editorial side with almost all those books. At that point, I was on the staff of Mr. Guha-Thakurta, as an executive assistant, editorial assistant, office administrator, library custodian, researcher, writer, and copyeditor all rolled into one. In November 2016, this private office was dissolved, so the association with AU proved fortuitous. I was offered book editing projects by AU, and I segued into what today is termed the “new normal” — a work-from-home, primarily online mode of work.

What copyediting training have you had?
I trained on the job at my first job with the books team at the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, and later with their fortnightly science and environment publication and website “Down To Earth.” I had an excellent mentor in a senior on the copy team. I was introduced to the world of style guides and copy discipline. We had the house style, but I was also introduced to the Oxford Style Guide, The Chicago Manual of Style, and the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. I have collected and used other style guides as necessary. Beyond this, I had, and have always, taught myself.

I studied in an English-language-dominated school system, gained an English literature degree in college, and had a penchant for research and an obsession for reference lists and spacing errors in printed volumes.

Quixotically, it is only this year — because of the COVID situation and my (heavy) online engagement with a copyeditors’ cohort, Indian Copyeditors Forum — that I was exposed to some incredible resources through webinars and information on training programs. And I do intend to pick up a fiction editing training course soon.

While I believe in the mentor-mentee training model of the shop floor, which translates into experience over the years, a formal training program in copyediting or specialization (such as fiction) can certainly fine-tune one’s discipline of work and refine one’s craftwork. In the early days, when I began my work life, I would have joined a formal training program if I had had the opportunity.

DOING THE JOB

Are there any complementary skills that are important in your job?
Since I am offering a skill-based independent service, all of the above training is important. Marketing and social media are musts, for marketing oneself as well as for guiding writers in choosing the right book marketers and an efficient outreach strategy. A sense of design and typography is useful when working on layouts of a book, aiding visualization. Especially when editing nonfiction, a familiarity with the subject being edited is a bonus for the editor.

Do you use any editing tools to get the job done (e.g., PerfectIt, Adobe stamps)? 
I do not. I tried using macros after attending a webinar. They were quite effective, but I still depend on a combination of a deep read, intuition, and “Find and Replace” in Word. I always check a dictionary, especially the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, when I need. I find it much easier to reach out to my bookshelf on the left of my desk and flip the pages, or go to the index in the style manual and read up.

Sometimes I use a website like Grammarly. And I do use online dictionaries — Webster’s, Lexico, and Collins — as well as Britannica.

I feel tools like macros and PerfectIt (which I downloaded and tested out) could be useful for nonfiction. I keep myself open to ideas and would board the tools ship if I need to.

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS

How do you and your colleagues talk about editing with each other?
I work solo, so no department. However, I have networks of friends and colleagues (through the agencies who give me work) whom I may contact on a point of interest or to discuss a grammatical issue or the pricing of a service. I have formed a mastermind group this COVID season, but it is young and has yet to find its feet.

Editing, essentially is a lonely tread, and at the end of the day, it is one’s communion with the text on the desk that brings out the best in the product. Speaking to colleagues while on a project (about some query regarding the job) can sometimes bring in more confusion.

Do you participate in a community (or communities) that supports editors?
Yes. In fact, I’ve done more of that in the past year. Previously, I had mostly lived in my own silo, communing with books, work, and myself. And the engagement has been hugely beneficial, the weird year of 2020 turning into a period of conversations and learning.

Do you have any thoughts on the need for editors to network and talk about what they do?
Networking, yes, to stay updated, and get leads. But a solo worker like myself needs to strike a balance between the networking and the work. Actually, it is a tough call. The networking takes the “peace” out of the work. It can get a little crazy — especially within the social media buzz — if one does not strike a balance.

On the other hand, I believe, a publisher — or someone likely to farm out work, who is more of a businessperson than a craftsperson — could afford or need to network.

Regarding talking about what one does, yes, absolutely. It is good to let potential clients know about our processes and why hiring us will add value to their product. Editors are backroom people, but if we do not talk about our work, we will be a forgotten profession.

How might we get buy-in during the editing process from authors who may not be receptive to changes?
Have empathy for the writer. An editor can never forget that a manuscript, however awkward in their professional estimation, is sacred to the writer. So calmly take the author through your argument, and stand your ground. If an author understands that you are there for the project, they mostly see reason.

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? 
In India, the question of color probably needs to be explained in a different way than, say, in the US. There is a tilt toward someone who is “fair” rather than “dark,” but that is to do with beauty. As far as I know, that is not carried over into employment and merit. But I am always circumspect on issues like this, because it is also true that Africans have sometimes faced harassment in India — for example, in 2017.

The real barriers here often come down to issues of caste. (Let me just go by the Britannica note on this dark marker of social differentiation.) I have personally never faced or seen the effects of this stratification in the publishing sector, but that is because English-language publishing in India is extremely privileged and the staffers doubly so. There are indie publishing houses that focus on Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi literature, though trade publishing is dominated by an English-language educated elite.

These two paragraphs are at best a pixellated snapshot, let us just say barriers remain at different levels.

Any suggestions on what offices/employers could do to increase diversity in your field of editing? 
Editors— especially commissioning editors from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, and Muslim communities — need to be given opportunities in trade publishing. There is also room for a lot more translation activity within the Indian languages, an area that is already quite powerful.

THE PERSONAL

Tell us about a project that you’re proud of.
Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism and the Ambanis — without a doubt. This book brought my research, writing, and editing skills into play. This was quite a large project, and I was also deeply involved in the copy coordination at the publishing stage.

Also Grit, Gravel and Gear, a travel narrative I edited in 2018-19. It is about the solo cycling trip of Dhruv Bogra, the author, from the Canadian Arctic to the Andes. I do not think I have ever been as deeply connected to a book as I was to this one. The pleasure of traveling along with the author’s sublime narrative was unparalleled and inspiring.

Any hobbies you’d like to share with us?
My hobbies have never been clearly defined and sustained, except for books and reading. I was excited about yoga for a few years but could not keep up with the rigor. In 2020, I began to pay attention to plants, as I have had a garden around me for a few months in the town where I am shacking up with my parents to stay away from the big city in the COVID season. I was introduced to composting by a friend recently, and I intend to generate compost.

RESOURCES

What resources would you share with fellow editors?
The volumes I regularly use: Oxford Style Guide/New Hart’s Rules, New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, Concise Oxford English Dictionary, Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, The Chicago Manual of Style, and The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or about diversity in the profession?
I have begun blogging on LinkedIn and also at (the currently rudimentary) JC Edits. I invite visitors to these spaces and hope to continue the conversations that became the hallmark of my life in COVID 2020. Conversations, collaborations, and learnings will keep us going.

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