Thursday, April 23, 2009

Careers in Writing, Editing, and Publishing (I)

I've been doing a lot of panels for students recently (grads, undergrads, and, most desperately, soon-to-be grads) on the ever-popular topic of "Careers in Writing, Editing, and Publishing," and I've been saying some of the same things often enough that distilling them into a blog post makes for a worthwhile pursuit. In order to keep my day job (in publishing) I'll lay this out in a few posts, tentatively to be:

  • Why "writing, editing, and publishing"?
  • What jobs are there in writing, editing, and publishing?
  • How to get the skills I need for writing, editing, and publishing jobs?
If anyone has any suggestions or questions for topics to explore, leave 'em in the comments and I'll try to answer them.

Why would I want to work in writing, editing, and/or publishing?

  • You like words.
  • You like ideas.
  • You like people.
  • You like to tinker.
  • You like books.

I've put these in the order in which they occur to me, but I think that's a pretty good indicator of their importance. Do you like to play with words, making puns, anagrams, or spoonerisms? That's a plus; it shows an appreciation for language and a sense of precision about word usage. You have to know the proper meaning of a word, after all, to be able to make a joke on it. You'll be dealing with words all day long, in one context or another. You'll be writing emails, reading manuscripts, editing on a line-by-line basis, or on a more global level. You'll be explaining how things work to authors; you'll be explaining the content of a book to others.

Liking ideas ("content" in the argot of the businessmen of the Information Age) is equally important. Do you get excited about your classes? Have you ever said, "This book changed my life!"? If your heart gets sped up by novels, history books, or biochem--or, better, yet, all of the above--then you can take a genuine interest in a field, or an approach to a field. Any job in publishing requires, to one level or another, an investment in the content of a book, and the more naturally you get invested in ideas, the easier your job will be.

Creating books (and magazines, and web sites, and anything else that one might read) is a social activity. Yes, sure, there have been some recluse fiction writers, but before you set your heart on a cabin in the woods with a typewriter and a cocker spaniel for company, note that J.D. Salinger hasn't published since 1965, and his biography is parallelled by others' (Djuna Barnes, for example, or, from another realm of artistic pursuit, Terrence Malick). Writing requires human contact; you bounce ideas off others, you say things aloud to see how they sound, you observe others' emotions and try to capture the rhythms of their speech. I'm reminded of the scene in Norman MacLean's story, "Logging and Pimping" (if I recall correctly), where the narrator realizes that the couple in the next thin-walled room (hooker and john) are enjoying each others' company in iambic pentameter. A true event? More or less, probably--but a probable one, one which was based on being in the company of others. I needn't even start in on scholarly or non-fiction writing as a social pursuit. Any ideas you're going to publish need to be battered into shape in a group of smart people who know the topic and the evidence before they're anywhere close to being ready for print.

Tinkering, bricolage, improvement--the process of editing, in particular, is one of taking a good thing and making it better. But so is book design, for example--you're taking something and making it presentable, giving it a handsome, useful, and also socially meaningful form. Writing just as much so--and it's even harder, since you have to be able to see the flaws in your own work, and flex your imagination to find patches for them.

I've put books last on the list of things you enjoy because, while books are pleasurable things, items of great utility and beauty, with virtues too numerous to list, they are historically contingent, and if what you're interested in is writing, editing, and publishing (and you're at the beginning of a thirty or forty year career) then you'll do well to think of formats other than the 100-1,000 page bound book. If you're passionate about books, then you can think strictly in terms of bookmaking (if you're passionate about anything, then go for it!). You can follow the model of Crumpled Press and make beautiful books by hand and for the love of it. Be aware, though, that you will be in the artist-to-artisan pay scale. You will work your tale (I meant that) off for the love of it, and the rewards will not necessarily be exchangeable for many goods and services. Ponder whether you love books...or reading. Look at your shelf of books: is it a collection...or a library? And decide whether you're interested in a career in books...or in words.

I knew I wouldn't be able to resist adding one more thing. Do you like systems and rules? Did you read the drivers' manual for fun when you were in high school? How about the Rules of Baseball? When you eat ice cream out of the carton, do you take careful scrapes off the top so that it stays level as you eat? OK, that last one may be a personal thing. But the sort of mindset that you need in order to take pleasure in many of the tasks of W, E, and P, is one that is aware of (and takes pleasure in) rules and consistency and the like. Yes, you can take pleasure in breaking those rules, but ignorance of them is by no means bliss. What is more, you can take pleasure in the creating of those rules, whether it's in the form of rewriting The Manual of Style or in creating a house style for an animal-behavior blog.

Tomorrow: What in the hell do you people do all day?

No comments: