Monthly Feature: The Editor Q&A

  • Print

Alison Strumberger is the first to take part in our new series - The Editor Q&A. She has been editing for five years and her field is academic texts. She answers our probing questions:

How has your month been?

This month began as several others have before: with a panicked email from an academic with a 90,000-word PhD dissertation set to be published as a book. She was in need of an edit and proofread to meet the publisher's deadline in two weeks' time. 'It's not a big job,' she said. 'It shouldn't be a heavy edit.' Academics invariably say this, and it invariably is. I quoted. I sent a contract. I cleared my schedule, letting a long-term, ongoing client know that I had a rush job to do, and that I'd be taking a little longer with Chapter 9 of her tome on exercise science. I also lightened my load at my part-time job as the manager of a bookshop.

Ten days passed, during which I moved between my workspace - a narrow glass-surfaced table and replica Hans Wegner chair set up in the corner of the bedroom in our small Brunswick apartment - the refrigerator, the shower and the bed. I went full days barely speaking to anyone. I drank too much tea. I tried hard to avoid spontaneously leaping from my chair to fulfil the usual procrastination fantasies, which include doing the laundry, brushing my teeth (I really have to quit this one, as I'm developing an increasingly more rational fear of receding gums and the resulting exposed nerves), watering the plants, playing embarrassingly out-dated games on my mobile (Temple Run and Bejeweled) and moisturising my hands. I went for runs to deal with my innate restlessness. I made a lot of eye contact with the neighbour's cat. I became a mini-expert on the films, main players and communist fears that figured in McCarthy-era Hollywood. I finished editing it and re-emerged.

Most academic work comes to me in this way, and there's something satisfying in the binge-editing process: it starts, I do it, it's all I do, and then it's over. This client paid me immediately - I've had to wait six weeks for pay in the past, despite terms laid out in my contract; university bureaucracy always wins - which made it a perfect job. After a couple of days off I returned to the ongoing project, which is editing and development of a book as it is being written. This is a first for both me and the client, and so far has been a nice, pressure-free way to work, which allows me space to take on projects such as the above.

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?

Some of the biggest challenges I face I assume are typical of most other freelance editors: garnering work, quoting well, making sure I get paid, etc. With academic editing, one of the biggest challenges - especially when I was first getting into it - has been trying to discern the incorrect, grammar-error-riddled sentences from the mystifying, discipline-specific mutations of usage.

Admin tasks still get me. Through a combination of my website and the Freelance Register, I receive on average between one and five inquiries each week from potential clients, ranging from novice writers to academics to start-ups to design firms. Knowing what to take on, how much time to devote to communicating with them, and what to charge (which always varies depending on the type of client) is an ongoing learning curve.

Last month I had a voicemail from an author who had finished her book and was looking for an editor. The contact number she left was unclear, and in calling her back I had to try several numbers. When I finally got through I asked to speak to Claire, and the person on the other end said, 'Claire speaking'. I asked her about the project, and it soon became clear that I was speaking with a child. While she didn't understand what I meant by the terms 'fiction' and 'non-fiction', she was pleased to tell me that it was 40 pages long in a Word document, and that it was her first book. This is an extreme - and pretty adorable - example of the administrative time-wasting that I'm still working on reigning in.

What do you love most about your work?

A year ago, a friend of mine quit his full-time job in journalism to, as he put it, 'pursue a more interesting life'. To me, they were the perfect words. I try to remember them regularly and use them to describe my own life, particularly when work is slow and things are uncertain.

How did you get here?

After years spent writing, teaching English full-time and doing some tutoring and editing here and there, I enrolled in the Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing program at the University of Melbourne. While studying I worked part-time in-house at Hardie Grant and over the course of my degree built a network of colleagues, teachers and peers. In my second year I focused on writing a thesis of my own, and spent much of that year buried in academic and theoretical writing. While many find these texts tedious and boring, I love reading them. I tend to work primarily with the humanities and social sciences, but enjoy branching out into other disciplines as well.

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

Due to the isolation of freelance editing, late last year I took a part-time job managing a bookshop. I work in four-hour shifts, spending half the day on my editing tasks and the other half interacting with actual people in the actual world. I've also recently taken on a third job - in the name of the 'more interesting life' thing - teaching writing to undergraduates at La Trobe. The editing workload absolutely varies: some months I work constantly while others allow me a bit more time for myself. So far this seems to work out financially for me, and so far I have not detected a pattern of busy periods.

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

If I'm going to be working, then this is the job I would like to be doing. Stasis frightens me; my work is always different and the topics are various and in-depth. Editing academic writing allows for diversity in subject matter and, I hope, is making me a stronger asset to my weekly trivia team.

Thanks so much, Alison!

Alison Strumberger is a full member of Editors Victoria and helps out on two subcommittees: Communication and Freelance Affairs. You can find her at alisonstrumberger.com.