by Erin Parker
On March 19, Editors BC will present Ruth Wilson and her half-day workshop The Art of the Query, which teaches participants how to set the tone for fruitful author–editor relationships through effective and efficient querying.
Ruth has more than 30 years’ experience as an editor. She worked for many years with Vancouver publisher Self-Counsel Press, and since 1998 she has offered a wide range of editorial and training services as a partner in West Coast Editorial Associates (one of her colleagues, Barbara Tomlin, will also be presenting a half-day seminar on March 19, Introduction to Applying Proofreading Markup to PDFs Using Adobe Acrobat Reader). Ruth is also a respected instructor at Simon Fraser University, where she has taught many courses in editorial skills for more than 15 years.
In 2011 Ruth was honoured as a recipient of the President’s Award for Volunteer Service from Editors Canada, and in 2014 she was recognized as a Certified Professional Editor (Hon) for the work she did developing and launching Editors Canada’s world-class certification program.
Erin Parker, a member of Editors BC’s professional development committee, recently interviewed Ruth about her journey to editing, some of the highlights of her impressive career, and what can go wrong when editors write artless, instead of artful, queries.
Hi Ruth! Thanks for chatting with us today. Could you tell us what inspired you to become an editor?
I was an English Honours student at the University of Manitoba not knowing what I wanted to do—or could do—after I finished my program. I started thinking about a career in book publishing after I wrote a major research paper for a political studies course: “The State of English-Language Publishing in Canada.” (Some things never change; that would still be a relevant essay topic today for that course. Sadly, many of the same challenges I wrote about 30 years ago remain.) My research for that paper included hours in the stacks reading old copies of Quill & Quire—on microfiche! And I read the entire two-volume report from the Royal Commission on Book Publishing. That experience sent me on a path to find a job in the industry.
Between my third and fourth years of university, I landed a summer job with the Association of Manitoba Book Publishers, which was housed in the offices of University of Manitoba Press, which in turn was housed in the bowels of the Engineering building. I spent the summer writing catalogue copy for the various publishers in the city, and I had the opportunity to visit most of the publishing houses in the city—all very small. In every case, the proprietors were kind and encouraging of my quest to become an editor. Some of them let me review manuscripts, some offered up career advice, and all shared their passion for the industry. I was hooked, and decided I wanted to be a book editor, although truthfully, I don’t think I really had a grasp then of what an editor really did.
That’s a long way of answering the question: my inspirations were 1) considering the industry from the angle of policy, not practice; 2) a wonderful English professor who recommended me for the summer job; and 3) all those publishers and editors who, that summer long ago, supported a young person’s dream of joining “the club.”
What’s the most memorable project you’ve worked on?
I don’t think I can narrow that down to one project. In recent years, one that stands out is my work on Ledcor’s 60th corporate anniversary publication, From the Ground Up. What started out as a call to do some substantive editing for a few weeks on a work-in-progress turned into an 18-month job that included writing much of the book (I am named as one of the co-authors), copy editing and proofreading it, and participating in many of the production meetings. I had the privilege of working closely with Dave Lede, the Chairman and CEO of Ledcor, who was so invested in telling the story of his family business—a slice of Western Canadian history beginning with the opening up of the oil fields in Alberta, and diversifying and growing internationally over the years.
Your upcoming half-day seminar focuses on the art of the query. Do you have any cringe-inducing stories of poorly worded queries that have led to disaster?
No disasters, but certainly some faux pas. In my early days of editing, too often I queried rather bluntly, and worded my questions in a way that allowed for a “yes/no” response. “Can you revise…?” Only to get a blunt “No!” In those instances, not only did I still have to chase down the answer, I had to repair a weakened author–editor relationship.
What do you think is the most common error (or assumption) editors make when writing queries?
Editors generally go wrong in one of two ways. The first is usually an error from inexperience. They query issues that are non-negotiable that allow the author to lose focus on what’s really important. Things like “Okay if I spell it as ‘ketchup’ instead of ‘catsup’?” “Okay to correct your grammar here?” (Really…I’ve seen these queries.) Applying a consistent style and correcting grammar errors shouldn’t be queried; permission isn’t needed for doing your job. The second common error is not being clear. An author can’t know what you mean by “vague” if you don’t explain. That’s the challenge—being as clear as possible, yet concise.
Could you share with us one of your personal or professional goals for this year?
I am no longer teaching in SFU’s Writing and Communications Editing Certificate program, and I very much miss the interaction with students, and the opportunity to support and influence up-and-coming editors. When I think of the generosity of editors who have helped me over the years, I am reminded of my own responsibility to do my part, now that I’m well into my career. I hope to find new ways to informally mentor younger editors and to provide leadership where I can.
Great answers, Ruth! Thank you for your time today. We’re looking forward to your workshop on March 19!
Erin Parker is a professional bookworm and full-time freelance editor of trade fiction and non-fiction for adults and young readers. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto and has worked in publishing since 2013.
Image provided by Ruth Wilson