(a postscript to a four-part series)
As a follow-up to my interview with Hallowed Ground editor Mary Koik earlier this month, I asked her, “If a young woman wanted to get into Civil War-related publishing, as a writer or author, what advice would you offer? In other words, if she wanted to follow in your footsteps, what should she do?”
Here’s Mary’s answer, applicable for aspiring writers—female and male, alike!
Mary Koik: The best way to start a journey to being a competent writer and editor in ANY subject area is to become, first and foremost, a reader.
Not just that, be a voracious reader. Consume fiction of all genres and formats, paying attention to the way language can be used to convey tone, convey subtlety, convey gravitas. Read nonfiction on many subjects—and not just because you may not start off working in your dream field. You’ll be amazed at how good writing can be compelling regardless of what it covers. Plus, knowing a little about a lot of things gives you a better sense of what you DON’T know and need to query authors on. And, as a bonus, it makes you very good company at cocktail parties. Read essays and opinion pieces to discover the many ways that an argument can be structured to persuade.
Be a critical reader, as well. See if you can identify and articulate why you like or dislike something. This applies to both the macro and micro levels—how the history is presented and how paragraphs or even sentences are structured. Are you a sucker for a non-linear or chronological presentation? Do you think multiple transitions between areas of focus and perspective should be left to novels? Does it bug you when an author hides behind the use of qualifiers rather than boldly stating a fact? Are you known to soliloquize on your belief that too many historians insist on torturously using the conditional in the belief that it creates suspense, even when we’re talking about Pickett’s Charge and we all know how that ends up? (That one might just be me…)
If that last example left you scratching your head, then heed my next point: Pay attention in English class, because grammar truly does matter. I’m not saying you need to be the Grammar Police at all times, because different venues allow and even require different tones. But you need to know the rules to know when to bend them. Nor am I saying that you should endeavor to be the walking index of a reference book. Heck, for many years, my personal copy of the AP Style Guide naturally fell open to the entry on possessives because I always questioned myself on instances of joint ownership. But you need to know what you’re talking about if you’re going to rewrite someone else’s work, and calling it a tense, when you really mean the mood (conditional versus indicative or subjunctive or imperative) or even the voice (active versus passive) really undermines your authority.
Cultivate an eye for detail: and not just typos. Ensuring parallel structure across all your headings or uniform information in photo captions and credits fall into this category, too. And depending on the product, you may be looking for alignment between columns or color matches. And recognize that different publications have different style guides and consistency is the goal.
Learn to be flexible. Editing isn’t like a math problem where there is only one correct answer. Sure, there are things that are outright wrong, but there are probably multiple way to fix the problem, any of which could work. And just because you have a preferred way of doing something doesn’t mean that it is what will sound most natural among that author’s prose.
Know your strengths. There is a world of difference between substantive editing and copyediting and proofreading. I would never dream of billing myself as the latter—but I’m much more comfortable indicating significant rewrites than my friends that would place themselves in that category.
Strive for excellence but realize perfection is elusive. I hate making mistakes and I can beat myself up over particularly bad ones—I doubt most people have a persona list of their five lifetime-worst typos! But every issue of Hallowed Ground runs close to 25,000 words, and with the staff and resources at my disposal, expecting zero errors in every piece of that length just isn’t reasonable. Frankly, by the end of a production cycle, I’m sure I could make two passes and find one new thing to change each time. But there comes a point when you need to ask yourself—and maybe others—“Is this ‘Stop the presses!’ worthy?” And, more often than not, the answer is no. That said, always triple check your headlines. When you’re using capital letters and fancy fonts, your eye just glosses over problems. The instances I can remember of pulling a page as we approach the very last moment have all been headlines/titles.