July 2017 Q&A: Renée Otmar

As an administrative assistant in a university research centre, Renée Otmar completed her first editing task in 1989 without realising that editing was what she was doing. Then, in early 1992, when her son was six weeks old, she started in the GradDipEdPub at RMIT, under the tutelage of the excellent John Curtin (deceased), Ruth Siems and Colin Jevons, and joined the Society of Editors (Victoria). She had found her tribe.

Renée has edited fiction, non-fiction, reference, trade and more; across a huge range of disciplines and genres; in print, electronic works and online. These days she mostly works in health and medical research, and when she edits it’s in academic publishing.

How has your month been?

Pretty insane, actually – thanks for asking! Usually I like to think that I have a great balance of commitments and activities, but truth be told: I thrive on being active and having a great variety of challenges in my working and personal life. Unfortunately, life doesn’t bring challenge and variety in ideal chunks. The saying that ‘it never rains but it pours’ could have been coined just to describe how this year has been panning out for me.

Over the past month or so I have been juggling a very full calendar, chock-a-block with work, travel for work, IPEd Council duties, some voluntary work, moving house, organising a big surprise party for my partner, supporting a friend in need … It hasn’t helped that our new house, which was supposed to be ready in February/March, was completed just at the very same time that my boss resigned to go overseas.

Needless to say, quite a few things had to take back seat for a while, including my exercise, running and yoga activities, and the year-long Women in Leadership (WiL) executive program I started in January. Oops. But I’m happy to report that things are back on track. I returned to yoga last night, am getting enough sleep again and I’ve started working on module 3 of the WiL program, which is all about resilience and managing stress. Oh, the irony. Wish I’d tackled that module before things got ugly in my diary!

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

I love a good challenge – I find it inspiring and energising, and there is plenty of that in my work.

But there is a different challenge – another beast altogether – that is not inspiring nor energising, and that is the new paradigm of work in the twenty-first century, which underpins global economic trends, including:

  • the ‘gig economy’ (which I think makes editors particularly vulnerable, especially novice and early career editors)
  • a convergence of global employment patterns, work trends and the ubiquity of mobile telephone and data services that promote the idea of ‘busy’, so that as workers we are expected to be ‘on’ 24/7
  • unprecedented growth in publishing, resulting in a mass of books being spewed out in ways that must surely be unsustainable. As New York Times reviewer Bryan Burrough so aptly put it: ‘Of the sprawling mass of books that spill across my desk, far too many just aren't very good ... some are too technical, some not technical enough. Some topics are hopeless …’.

This presents a particularly difficult personal challenge for me: accepting that I cannot hold back the tide: writing, editorial, design and layout, and publishing standards have been in decline for decades now and are showing no sign of reversal. Yes, yes, perhaps I’m a bit fuddy-duddy, but I am no pedant – never have been and never understood why some editors take pride in identifying as such. But, I digress. Even for someone like me, who embraces change and loves the fact that our languages are dynamic and have to be so to survive, the changes in editorial practices and approach often seem to be to the detriment.

What do you love most about your work?

Ha-ha – the variety and challenge! These days, only about a third of my time is spent hands-on, reviewing or editing textual or other content. Most of the time I am leading, managing and mentoring novice and early career researchers and creators, and I get a great deal of satisfaction from that. In the past, the most rewarding aspect of my editorial work was being able to support authors and watch them shine; now I can steer others to do the same – or better.

How did you get here?

Hard work. Diligence. Tenacity. Ambition. A wicked sense of humour. Being a chameleon, open to new possibilities, new ideas and approaches.

As an editor, becoming involved with my professional association was one of the best things I did early on in my career. Not only did I learn a heap of stuff I never would have on my own, but I made a bunch of good friends, colleagues and collaborators around the country (and internationally). The many hundreds of hours I volunteered over a couple of decades have been paid back to me in spades.

What is your average weekly workload? Does it vary throughout the year? 

Paid and unpaid work takes up about 55–60 hours a week. It does vary but not too much. When my paid work slows down my volunteer work seems to increase, or I use the time to do a bit of creative writing myself. I’m a member (researcher category) of the human research ethics committee of a large regional hospital, which meets 10 times a year. That takes up a chunk of my ‘spare’ time. The IPEd Council meets monthly, with three-hour phone meetings on Sunday mornings or Monday nights, but an awful lot goes on behind the scenes, so every day there are emails, papers and proposals to deal with. I travel quite a bit for work, which I rather enjoy. It gets me out of the office and allows good thinking time and opportunity to meet with colleagues and stakeholders in far-flung parts of the state or country.

If you are comfortable discussing salary, can you give an idea of an indicative rate of pay for the kind of work you do?

I am comfortable discussing salary and I have been known to agitate far and wide for more discussion on this topic! However, I’m currently employed full-time on a salary band that is not relevant to editing as such. My work includes executive-level tasks, managerial tasks and operational tasks (like reviewing research proposals, writing grant applications, writing or editing manuscripts). As a consultant researcher and editor I used a sliding scale of rates, from about $95 to $150 an hour, though I very rarely quoted or charged on an hourly basis – I feel it is much better for client and supplier to work on a quotation per-project basis.

If you are an Accredited Editor and experienced at your game and yet you gasped in horror (or admiration) at that sliding scale, then ask yourself why and see if you can answer it honestly. Discussion and correspondence on this topic is warmly encouraged.

If you didn’t have the job you are in now, what would you like to be doing?

Unpacking a garage filled with boxes of my books so I can park my sports car inside instead of on the street in the middle of a Victorian winter. Lying on the beach on a Greek island. Walking the Camino de Santiago.

Oh, you meant work, right? Probably being a publisher or commissioning editor for a reputable academic publishing house, with a generous allowance to wine and dine my coterie of bestselling authors.

Thanks for answering our questions, Renée.

Renée Otmar is an IPEd Distinguished Editor and Honorary Life Member of Editors Victoria. You can contact her at cr-edvic@iped-editors.org.

From the July 2017 newsletter