Our editorial industry is made up of people carrying out a huge range of tasks across many different sectors. Although we are bound by common aims – to make text consistent, accurate and clear – our chosen areas of work can differ in fascinating ways.
Sue Browning is a freelance proofreader and copy-editor. She has answered some questions on her main specialism: linguistics.
- Briefly, what’s your work background?
I have a degree in linguistics and spent 22 years in speech technology research, first in academia and then for a government research establishment. I started freelance editing in 2005, and have worked on a range of humanities subjects as well as linguistics.
- How long have you specialised in this particular kind of editorial work, and how did you get started?
I’ve been editing linguistics right from the start of my editing career. My early work came mainly from students, through ex-colleagues in academia, advertising on free online directory sites like Freelance Proofreaders, and then by word of mouth. Later, a project management company for which I was already copy-editing a range of subjects happened to ask about specialisms, and since then I have edited many academic linguistics books for them.
- What specific knowledge, experience or qualifications do you need?
Linguistics is a huge field, encompassing everything from phonetics and phonology (the sounds) to pragmatics and discourse analysis (entire conversations or even larger language elements), to parts of cognitive science and psychology, and it helps to be familiar with the terminology and conventions of all these different fields. My specialism is phonetics and phonology, so I need a good working knowledge of the phonetic symbols and how to code them so they print correctly.
- How do you go about finding work in this area?
I started by making sure that academics I had worked with in linguistics departments knew I was an editor, and that brought me work on linguistics PhDs and occasionally for academics preparing papers for journals. Most of my work now comes by word of mouth or repeat business with existing clients. So I just make sure that relevant clients know my specialisms and that all my online profiles mention linguistics.
- What do you most enjoy about the work?
Learning! I’ve recently edited a number of books on evolutionary linguistics, which wasn’t a thing when I studied linguistics, so it was entirely new to me and I find it fascinating. I also love learning how speakers of other languages view the world. Did you know, for instance, that while speakers of Indo-European languages (like English) talk of events in the past as behind them and those in the future as in front of them, speakers of Aymara, an Amerind language that privileges knowledge gained at first hand, talk about past events as in front of them, so open to inspection, and future events as behind them, so not visible. That kind of blew my mind when I first read about it.
- What are the particular challenges?
I’m not sure there are any particular challenges. Being interested and knowledgeable about language, most linguists write pretty well, even non-native speakers, but they make the same lapses that all authors do. Sometimes an author will use a specialist phonetic font that gets mangled in the pre-processing so I need to be able to spot that and check what it should be with the author. Wrangling linguistic examples so they align correctly can be tricky too.
- What’s the worst job you’ve had – and/or the best?
Like most editors, I’ve had nightmare jobs, but it is rarely because they are linguistics books! I also edit fiction, and one of the jobs I enjoyed the most was for a sci-fi author who had made up an alien language. We had great fun making sure it was internally consistent.
- What tips would you give to someone wanting to work in this field?
Make use of any links you have with people in the field, and tell people about your specialist areas.
Oh, and while linguistics gives you a great understanding of what grammar is and how language works, you still need the basic training in editing and proofreading.
I find that a knowledge of linguistics sometimes helps in explaining the need for a change and it also helps counter some of the ridiculous pet peeves you might come across (like those that Geoff Pullum spoke so entertainingly about at the 2015 conference).
- What is the pay like – and are there any other perks?
The pay is pretty typical for the academic humanities, i.e. not great. I do it more for the pleasure of being able to read fascinating books by erudite authors, and I have to confess I get a particular thrill from editing books by my linguistic heroes.
- What other opportunities do you think editorial work in this area might lead to?
A knowledge of linguistics is very useful for teaching English to both native learners and non-native speakers, and I edit in these fields too.
Sue Browning is a Professional Member of the SfEP, specialising in copy-editing linguistics and other humanities and social sciences. She mainly works on books for academic publishers but also edits for individual academics and authors. As well as prowling the halls of academia, she also walks on alien planets, editing sci-fi and fantasy fiction.
The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP