Interview 32: Amber Riaz

Years editing: 8
Job title: Owner of A4 Editing
Job description: Editor, subject matter expert on South Asian literature, translator (Urdu to English)
Location: British Columbia, Canada

EXPERIENCE

How did you get your current job?
I worked part-time as a copyeditor and content creator for four years before launching my full-time freelance business. I have worked as an academic and an instructor of academic writing, research skills, study skills, and feminist literary theory. I have been editing academic manuscripts, memoirs, fiction, and children’s fiction since 2017.

A freelance editor relies very heavily on word-of-mouth referrals and industry contacts. Before launching my business, I enrolled in a seminar and learned how to write a business plan. I drafted a networking strategy that includes maintaining a social media presence on sites like LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter; researching and then attending networking events hosted by local chambers of commerce or other groups; volunteering with professional organizations (such as Editors Canada and ACES: The Society for Editing); and identifying opportunities to engage with editors, writers, and the general publishing community.

What copyediting training do you have, and what positions have you held?
I have completed professional development courses through Editors Canada and completed courses on editing, indexing, and copyediting through Simon Fraser University’s Continuing Studies Editing Certificate program. I also have a doctorate in English literature. 

DOING THE JOB

Are there any complementary skills that are important in your job?
One of the most important skills a freelancer needs is an understanding of marketing and social media. Being a subject matter expert can also be important, especially when copyediting academic manuscripts.

Do you use any editing tools to get the job done (e.g., PerfectIt, Adobe stamps)? 
I’m a huge fan of PerfectIt and have begun experimenting with macros. I don’t rely completely on PerfectIt, but it does make it much easier to check for consistency. I run it twice: before beginning the editing process (to get a sense of the errors and issues I will need to address) and again after completing my editing (to check if I’ve missed anything). 

When I’m working on content development or website editing, I use Word’s readability scale and the Hemingway App to address appropriateness of style and tone. The two scales differ, but a comparison of both — and a closer look at sentence length, and verb and adverb usage — can help fine-tune a document’s style so it’s appropriate for the target audience and maintains authorial voice and intention.

COMMUNICATING WITH OTHERS

Do you participate in a community (or communities) that supports editors?
Some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned have come through volunteering with Editors Canada and engaging in thoughtful conversations with fellow editors in online forums.

I am most active on Facebook, where I follow some private groups. Editors’ Association of Earth is a public group, with multiple affiliated private groups like Ad Space; a group for academic editors; and a group for funny errors, called Stickleback Corner. I also follow the Editors Canada members-only Facebook group and the organization’s LinkedIn group. The public group Binders has multiple affiliated “binders” for editors and writers that are good places to build community.

Do you have any thoughts on the need for editors to network and talk about what they do?
Networking, participating in communities and events, and talking to people about what you do are key to establishing and maintaining a presence in the field. One of the hardest moments for me was when I had to start asking for work on social media. I agonized over the perfect “editorial ask” and still worry about how few people see my posts and attempts to get clients. 

But when I was struggling for clients, new ones were sent to me by editors who had worked with me on volunteer committees. My relationships yielded results.  

I have had to adopt an extroverted persona when I’m engaging with people at networking events. My instinct is to try to remain in the background, but that does not generate any business. So I’ve learned to ask questions and get other people to do the talking. Figuring out how to introduce myself without boring other people is another difficult process. It takes time, patience, and experience to get the script just right and to sound natural in an unnatural setting like a networking event. I’ve learned to be less critical of myself as well.

How might we get buy-in during the editing process from authors who may not be receptive to changes?
First, it is important to recognize that we are only there to make something better. The work still belongs to the author. We may feel strongly about a specific issue, but our author could have a completely different point of view and may feel just as strongly. It is important to explore why we feel so strongly about a specific change and find a way to back up our suggestions with evidence from a dictionary or a style guide. If the author insists on rejecting all or most of the changes we have made, it is best to let the issue slide. 

Freelancers are lucky; we get to choose the clients we work with and we are usually hired by people who recognize us as experts. It’s a good idea to complete samples and to establish clear expectations and guidelines right from the beginning of the working relationship, so there are no nasty surprises later. 

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? 
At networking events, one of the main difficulties for me as a woman of color is that I normally stand out like a sore thumb. I’m usually the only one — or one of two or three BIPOC attendees. This often means that people see me only as someone who edits niche work, and I have been infantilized on more than one occasion by senior editors. It’s often easier to just let the moment slide, but it does create barriers and difficulties when networking.

I have been a token voice and have been doing a lot of niche work because I am a woman of color and of faith. There are moments when I become the main voice for a minority just because I look like one, and I’ve been in situations where people have told me I’m a “diversity hire” (it’s an accusation and a clear microaggression). Moments like these are not big on their own, but over time, they begin to feel overwhelming. 

Systemic barriers have been the most significant for me. For example, I’ve been looking for a mentor — and am even willing to pay for one, because I need the stability of an in-house position (and I think mentorship will give me an advantage in applying for these positions). But I haven’t yet found one who would understand the complexities of being BIPOC and also navigating a system that relies almost exclusively on referrals and networking. One needs to know the right people in the right field at the right time — BIPOC don’t always make it through those hoops.

What lessons would you have liked to learn at the beginning of your career?
I am still relatively close to the beginning of my editing career, but one lesson I wish I had learned earlier is that we need to take our freelancing businesses seriously. We need to focus our energies on establishing a good workspace, investing in technology and in resources that make the job easier, and setting aside money for emergencies. In my first year of filing taxes as a freelancer, I learned, to my chagrin, that I had to pay an income tax. Now that I know, I set aside 15-20% from each freelancing job so that I have the funds to pay my taxes in April. 

I have also invested in a second monitor; a high-quality ergonomic mouse; the best possible laptop, with high RAM and good processing speed; an ergonomic chair; a foot stool; and an orthopedic cushion for lower back pain. 

Any suggestions on what offices/employers could do to increase diversity in your field of editing?
Diversity in editing is a complicated issue. Publishers tend to see their audience in terms of a majority (largely white, cis-gendered) and balance that with a minority that often groups multiple identities into one large mass. When diversity is brought up, there’s often this underlying notion of stereotypes and token voices that can be demotivating for many. 

We know now that getting a seat at the table is also not enough to bring any change in this system of discrimination, because the voices of BIPOC are clearly marginalized and ignored. Recognizing this systemic issue is the first step toward addressing the lack of diversity in publishing. Actively seeking input and then adjusting attitudes based on that input, without stereotyping and tokenizing, are helpful actions. 

Seeking out literary agents with real connections in diverse writing communities, training editors to work with diverse authors, and employing people with expertise in diverse and accessible marketing and sales strategies will also help.   

THE PERSONAL

Tell us about a project that you’re proud of.
I have felt proud of each project I complete, because the editing process is clearly a collaborative one. The authors I’ve worked with have improved their writing styles and found their voices as a result of the editing and publishing processes. I am most proud of the projects in which the editing is so silent that it is almost invisible and the author is greeted with high praise for a well-written manuscript.

Any hobbies you’d like to share with us?
I am an avid reader of fiction and am happiest when I have a good book to turn to at the end of a long day. My favorite genres are speculative and fantasy fiction, historical novels, and sci-fi by BIPOC authors. I just finished reading Binti, a trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor that I’m completely in love with!

I also love to knit stuffed toys, but rarely find time for it these days. TV shows have become an important escape this year, though I’ve always been an avid fan of TV and movies. 

RESOURCES

What resources would you share with fellow editors?
Hard copies of style guides and dictionaries are an absolute must for editors. The Chicago Manual of Style and APA and MLA styles for academic editors are highly recommended. I also recommend a subscription to PerfectIt (it’s a lifesaver!) and a subscription to Adobe’s services (if you’re going to be proofreading more than 50% of the time). 

A workspace with a door that can be closed and an ergonomic desk and chair, if at all possible, will help you separate your work life from your home life. I recently invested in an Ikea Secretaire. It’s a desk that can be closed off once you’re done for the day. It has done wonders for my mental health. Once I close the flap, I’m done for the day, and I can relax without feeling any guilt.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know about you or diversity in the profession?
Working with diverse voices, with people of color, or with people who are somehow pegged as different should not be about making room, or making space, or welcoming diversity. It should be about mutual respect, about understanding that a new way of looking at something is not necessarily a negation but an additional perspective. All professions, and languages, evolve with time, and embracing that evolution, that change, should be seen as growth and advancement, not just a rejection of the status quo.

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