What it’s really like to be a once-a-year copyeditor…

It was a huge blessing to find a job as soon as I graduated from college many moons ago, and it was an added bonus that it was close to where I lived, and exactly related to what I’d hoped to do professionally. Just before finding the tiny ad in the newspaper that my mom dutifully cut out and sent to me each week, however, I was feeling hopeless and maybe even a bit desperate. Our graduation date was quickly approaching, and it seemed that I had no prospects for employment other than something minimum wage at the drug store or department store where I had previously worked. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for all the work that had gone into my college degree in American Studies. In any case, when I thought I’d pored over every paper and every entry, a small ad caught my eye. Although I can’t remember the exact words, it seemed to be the perfect fit for me: an editing job about 15 miles from my parents’ house. It was just two weeks after graduation that I walked into Gale for my first interview, and within another week, I got word that they hired me for a temp position. It was (and still is) amazing how swiftly my situation had gone from seemingly despairing to right on track. (What a lesson in waiting on God and His plan…)

Not only did I love my job at Gale Research (it has changed names a few times since then), I met some people there who are still integral parts of my life. Within a few weeks of starting, the empty desk next to me was filled by a fellow temp worker named Amy Barrett. It would have been enough to say that we had a fun summer and got along well enough, but she is one of those kindred spirits kind of people and we hit it off almost immediately. I am almost certain that Gale would have been just OK had it not been for Amy Barrett. As we worked on a book named Brands and Their Companies (I mean, really; doesn’t the title alone seem riveting?! Let me assure you, it wasn’t. Gale Research produces mainly reference materials for libraries, schools, and businesses. It was more about the process of publishing that was fabulous and less about cataloguing brands such as “Cricket Licket.”) and other similar crazy-interesting book titles, we became close friends. Amy and I spent countless lunch hours together and went over every detail of the previous evening’s Must See TV on Friday mornings; it was a super summer.

Even though the subject matter was a bit different than I expected, it was a fine learning experience in all things publishing and I became well-versed in typesetter talk and publishing speak. The only rub was that I technically only had a summer job and was set to be let go in August. The first editor that I worked for, however, shared that if there were openings within the company, temps were sometimes the first ones considered for the jobs, so I was hopeful that there would be a timely opening for me to move into. Thankfully, that was in fact the case and I left my temp job on a Friday (very sad; Amy, who was also a temp, left for something else) and moved to the permanent position the next Monday.

I spent the next many months working in the Education and Research development and found that I actually missed the beloved Brands and Their Companies (and its sister publication, Companies and Their Brands) line, but I missed working with Amy more. Imagine my surprise and delight when I found out she too had landed a permanent position back at Gale a few months later! We didn’t work together anymore, but we still had lunch. (And we were both planning our respective weddings in the spring and summer, so we had plenty of things to talk about.)

When Todd and I made plans to get our TESL certificate and go overseas to teach in Korea, it was an almost entirely happy time, with the exception of leaving my family and leaving Amy and Gale. Regardless, I left in June of that year and moved on with the rest of my life.

I’m happy to say that since 1999, Gale has been an annual part of my life. The editor I worked for in Detroit recommended me to another editor and I was contacted out of the blue that year about doing some independent contractor work. I was pregnant with Patrick at the time and only had one child. (I honestly don’t know what I complained about in those days when I lamented to Todd that I couldn’t seem to get everything done…..) In any case, I was hired as an IC to work on copyediting for the book Encyclopedia of World Biography, which has proved by far to be the most interesting book I’ve worked on. With the exception of a few years where I wasn’t contacted for work, every January, February, and sometimes parts of March have consisted of essays about intriguing people throughout history scattered all over the house and multiple lists in varying degrees of checked-off-edness. It’s been a huge blessing to both our household (in terms of extra income) and me personally (in terms of doing something that I love to do and getting paid to do so).

Every year, it seems, I get behind the eight ball in terms of getting the work completed, letting it pile up when it first arrives. It’s almost like I have to look at it and walk past it for a while to get in the mood of doing the work. Inevitably, I end up cramming at the end to get the entries completed before the deadline. This year, however, was the worst in recent memory.

First of all, after agreeing to the deadline, I got an email from the editor that his typesetter deadline had been moved up, so he had to move up my deadline by a week. Not the greatest news, but it seemed attainable. 87 essays, 1,800-2,000 words long, copyedited not only for content, but also coding, source citing rules, and other requirements. It wasn’t the largest amount of entries I’d ever had, but it was close (the year after Chloe was born, I had an even 100 to complete. That was a rough winter). Everything seemed to be going well, and I had my schedule laid out, and then the waves of sickness started to hit our family. Since it didn’t leave me out of the attack, I lost many days to either taking care of kids or taking care of myself. I’d planned to work most afternoons during the kids’ quiet time (2-4pm), but grocery shopping, laundry, prepping for my classes, and just plain old fashioned procrastination seemed to take over and keep me from making that slow, steady progress I had mapped out in my mind. Add to that an impromptu house decluttering (which was very necessary, but poorly timed on our part) and the days slipped by and the entries sat, virtually untouched. And add to that the fact that I received the last 16 of the entries on February 23, which was probably the latest date I’ve ever received entries with such a quick expected turn around.

Fast forward to last Thursday, February 24, when I received an email from my editor checking in on me. I knew it was coming, but still dreaded getting it nonetheless. “What is the latest possible date you’d like to have these back?” I emailed him. “I’m hoping to get them all back by the end of the month,” he responded, and with that simple sentence, I went into all-out panic mode. As I surveyed my completed work and to do work, things looked worse than grim. By Thursday morning–and I’m so embarrassed to say so–I had copyedited a total of 43 essays, but only on the paper hard copies. I hadn’t made any of the electronic changes to the files and had virtually nothing to send my editor. That also meant that I had not even touched 44 of the essays my editor hoped to have back by the following Monday. Never before had I been so far behind my deadline. Enter the total freakout mode Deb, stage left.

I spent as much of Thursday as I could making changes to a few entries so I would have something to send him, despite having a class that evening. The kids really helped with the house cleaning and other class prep, so that allowed me to complete 13 essays and send off. 13 down, 74 to go. Yikes does not even touch what I was feeling. Thankfully, I had a great class Thursday night and was able to walk away from the responsibility for a couple hours. But the work waited for me. While I worked, I came up with the best plan I could, but looking honestly at the number of hours between then and Monday–and thinking about all the other responsibilities I couldn’t put off–it didn’t look good. I tried not to let fear creep in, but I also wasn’t ready to cry uncle and ask for an extension. I knew the editor was up against his own deadline anyway, so I didn’t think asking would go very far.

My plan was simple: On Friday, I had to work until I completed all the already-read-already entries, making all the changes to the files and sending them back to the editor. On Saturday, I had to work until I read through the remaining 44 (!!! Remaining!?!? Can you really call it a remainder if it’s more than the first number?!?! AAAUUUGHHH!!!!!) entries. Sunday, my hope was to make corrections to as many of the files as possible and leave only a few to do when we came home from our homeschool co-op on Monday. It didn’t seem possible, but it was all I could do.

I stayed up until midnight on Friday and didn’t do much of anything else besides sit at my computer, but I finished making the changes to 27 entries. Lynsay and Michael took the kids to the dollar movie late that afternoon, which left me with a quiet house and an appreciative heart. (It was Lynsay who said I say I will never get it all done every year, so I tried to remember that when I was close to despair!) I was too anxious to sleep well that night and woke up Saturday, focused to just knock the work out. I was a grubby mess and didn’t even shower or change my clothes, but I just felt that if I did ANYTHING else, I’d miss precious work minutes. I literally spent 14 hours reading essays that day, alternating between editing and praying that somehow, somehow, it would get done. Todd and the kids were so gracious once I explained how much work I still had to complete and helped out in other areas of need wherever they could. Todd cooked, the kids did laundry, and they got their presentations together on their own. By 9pm Saturday night, I was down to having 6 more entries to read. My eyes hurt so badly, but I still kept going. Although many of the entries were fairly clean and didn’t require a lot of extra work, I stumbled upon a gaggle of essays from authors who apparently either hadn’t read the guidelines or had thrown them down and trounced upon them. Sources were overused or not cited, causing me to hunt them down in the source material and re-write parts of the essays. That always irritates the fire out of me. Spelling mistakes and stylistic errors I can live with, but flagrantly ignoring the rules of the assignment is quite another. After 14 hours, I had done all I could for that night. I had to adjust my plan slightly, but I was honestly amazed that I had actually managed to read through 40 2,000 word essays in one day.

This was my nice, neat stack of entries on Saturday night after I'd finished reading them, but before I tore them apart trying to get the changes made to the electronic files.

The next morning we all went to church and I’m so glad I took a couple hours’ break. My eyes were so fatigued that it felt like I had pulled muscles in my face. How weird is that? I already have muscle issues with my eyes, so I’m sure my marathon weekend did not do me any favors with future vision tests, but I felt like it was a price I had to pay to get the work done.
After church I went back to my computer and began making the changes electronically. In between I prepared for my class on Monday morning, but really did not give it my all. (In addition to my constant prayer for help in miraculously getting the work done, I also prayed that my students would not be able to sense my weakness on Monday morning and would instead show me grace and mercy.) By the end of Sunday night–or was it Monday morning?–I had finished 38 entries and had them sent off.

Despite being gone from 7:30-3:30 on Monday (and being totally exhausted when we got home), there were still files to be completed, so before going to bed that night I sent 7 more out. That left the last three entries. One was so bad that I asked the editor to contact the original author to make the changes, so I had to postpone that. The other two were just loose ends that needed to be tied up. By 7:30 this evening, all the entries had been sent to the editor and I was finally, finally able to do the happy dance. The tired happy dance, but happy nonetheless.

In total, it had taken me roughly 38 hours out of 72 to make the deadline. It was absolutely and totally by God’s grace that I made it. The amount of work I was able to complete and the resolve and focus necessary did not come from me; clearly I’ve proven I’m a procrastinator. Reading an estimated 88,000 words in one day boggles the mind (this one, anyway…I’m not used to it!) I cannot express how thankful I was to send that last essay today, be able to make the deadline, and not hold up my editor’s deadline.

It should not come as a surprise that when I got my hair cut today, my beloved stylist Stephanie exclaimed that she found grey hairs on top of my head. (I was surprised; I secretly thought I would escape that bullet, but how I’m not sure. Both my parents have their share of the greys.) After getting over the initial shock, I thought to ask her if she’d seen any before today. She said no–and it had only been five weeks since my last cut. Apparently, at my ever-increasing age, editing=grey hair. Bummer.

Actually, I’m not sure what I’m doing at the computer right now, writing about this whole saga. I really thought I’d want to chuck my laptop out the window when I finished. And yet, here I am, checking my sentence structure and verb tenses. Maybe tomorrow I’ll take a small break. Then again, maybe not.


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