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Barbara's Virtual Pen

In Response to a Student's Wondering about her Career Choice

March 1, 2012

Tags: student, editing, editor, career choice, course

One of my students in my UC Berkeley Grammar Course sent me an e-mail asking me whether I thought she should become an editor. She was feeling very insecure about everything that day. Here is what I wrote to her.

I don't know whether you, or anyone, should be an editor. That is a personal choice as well as a professional one. But I cannot say you shouldn't. But consider this: when someone begins training to become a doctor, the first-year medical student cannot be expected to treat people. Neither can the first law student. Why should you, after several assignments, be ready to edit for Knopf?

Years ago, becoming an editor was a different process. At least for most editors I know. We went to work for a major publisher (or even a small independent press) as an editorial assistant, and basically learned "on the job." Every project taught you something new. I also found that working at several different places offered the opportunity to work under people who could give me something different.

The point at which you feel "I am really an editor" happens when somebody has given you editorial work, and they are very happy with it. When I first graduated college, and someone gave me something to edit, I felt totally at sea, and I had studied linguistics and gone to schools where they taught a great deal of grammar. I was frozen. I didnít know what to do with what I was holding in my hands. I needed to go through at least some apprenticeship; at that point, I didn't even know how to mark up a manuscript!

These certificate programs are a wonderful thing. Not just because everyone cannot come to New York and work for a publisher, but because very few people in New York can do that any more. It's a different world. This is the apprenticeship. And at this moment, you have unrealistic expectations. There are a few people in the course who can edit right now. But they have been working at it for some years (weíll keep that secret). But Iím glad they are conscientious enough to want to make their work even better. Thatís dedication.

Donít think about whether you should be an editor. Think about learning grammar. You see, learning grammar can do amazing things for you even if you become a lawyer, a community organizer, a teacher, or even an architect. Thatís one of the great things about this program. It is actually useful to people in all occupations.

But what I love most about being an editor is that I am always learning.


  1. May 2, 2013 5:33 PM EDT
    Barbara, your message in this blog entry was exactly what I needed to hear today! I have dreamed of a career working with words since I learned to read, but it wasn't until the last couple of years that I honed in on editing as a potential career path. And yet...I have no clue whether or not I'll be good at it, or whether or not I will be able to unlearn all the poor grammar habits I've accumulated over the years.

    Enrolling in the UCB editing program is my first step towards discovering if editing will be the right path for me, but I'm nervous. What if I discover I don't have a gift for grammar or for editing? What if I can't find an editing job? What if a lack of self-confidence impacts my potential career path? What if it turns out I find editing to be drudgery or repetitive or too difficult?

    The questions continue to loop inside my head, but after reading your blog entry I feel more at ease. Whatever I eventually choose as my career, solid grammar skills will only enhance my work output. Thank you for the reminder--it was much needed and quite appreciated!

    Looking forward to being a student in your UCB grammar course in a couple of weeks,

    Stephanie G.
    - Stephanie Gorlick
  2. May 3, 2013 10:57 AM EDT

    Your concerns are normal, but they are also unnecessary. After all, you can deal with things only one step at a time. No matter what, you are correct in realizing that grammar is important for whatever you do, and many students have taken the course because of the thought that it would help them in another career (such as law or teaching). As for success in the grammar course, I believe that anyone who is willing to put in the time and energy can do well, and many do. And success in a careeróany careeródoes not necessarily follow a predictable pattern. What is important is finding your particular path. Deal only with the immediate situation, and you can allay all those voices in your head.

    The world keeps changing and we canít control very much. When I began working as an editorial assistant many years ago, sitting in a cubicle in a high rise office building, who could know that most of us sitting there, within a short number of years, would all be working at home on computers! Who could imagine that most editing would become an onscreen activity, and that most editors would be freelancers? Consider the next right step, and the rest will show itself to you by the time you are ready for it.

    It will be my pleasure to have you in the course, and I will not remind you of what a difficult course it is. I wonít have to. Just try to enjoy it as much as you can, connect with other students, and ask lots of questions. If there is one failing among students, it is not asking enough questions. You ask until you understand. Whatever needs clarification.

    All the best,
    - Barbara Magalnick

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