A Tribute to Nancy Flight

by Lucy Kenward

During the monthly meeting of November, Editors BC was happy to honour Nancy Flight and other long-time members, Peter Colenbrander, Ann-Marie Metten, Peter Moskos, and Ruth Wilson, for their significant contributions to the association. To start off the meeting, Lucy Kenward gave the following tribute speech to Nancy Flight.

Most of you in this room know Nancy Flight, whether it be as a colleague, a teacher, a mentor, a friend. And many of you know that she has just retired from her position at Greystone Books, 45 years to the day after she began her first publishing job—as an editorial assistant at the San Francisco Book Company. It has been said that “Nancy’s very person shines a spotlight on editing,” and tonight, I’m pleased that editing is shining that spotlight back on Nancy—and particularly on her long-time contribution to Editors Canada and to our profession.

As I’ve reflected on what I know about Nancy—and what I’ve come to learn about her through others—two aspects of her long career really stand out. In all of her work, Nancy has been an advocate and a champion: of writers and their stories, but mainly of the editing profession and especially of young editors.

So how did Nancy come to editing? I remember reading an interview in which she said that when she was growing up in Ohio, a friend of her mother’s told her that publishing companies hired people to read manuscripts all day long. And so, many years later, in the early 1970s, with a freshly minted master’s degree in Russian literature, she went looking for a job. She landed a position with one of the new publishing companies springing up in San Francisco at that time, and she said that she knew she had found her people. It’s a feeling many of us know well.

[The last manuscript Nancy edited in San Francisco before coming to Canada] was An Introduction to Genetic Analysis, a text co-written by David Suzuki that is still among the most widely used genetics textbooks in the U.S. As it turns out, science and David Suzuki have figured prominently through her career. Nancy has edited 18 of David’s books, including Genethics: The Art of Engineering Life, which he co-wrote with Peter Knudtson. In 1988, Editors Canada awarded Nancy the Tom Fairley Award for Editorial Excellence for her editing work on that book.

In addition to David Suzuki, Nancy has worked with hundreds of authors, coaching first-time writers and pushing more experienced ones to tell their stories to the best of their abilities. Over her career, Nancy’s ability to see a compelling book in the most marginal or unexpected of preliminary materials, and to champion those important stories and their writers, has become well known. She’s helped writers—from Brian Brett to Candace Savage, Wade Davis to Charlotte Gill, Lorimer Shenher to Jennifer Kingsley—publish books that have won or been shortlisted for many prestigious awards—among them the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize, the Charles Taylor Prize, the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, the National Outdoor Book Award, the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, and many, many regional book prizes.

But I really want to talk about Nancy’s contributions to editors and to editing as a profession. Because while Nancy is clearly an exceptional editor, what makes her an exceptional person is her desire to keep giving back and pushing the profession to greater excellence.

When Nancy married her husband, Pieter, a Canadian, and arrived in Vancouver in the early 1980s, she set up her own publishing company called Flight Press. And as soon as it was announced that a BC branch of Editors Canada would be starting (at that time the Freelance Editors’ Association of Canada), she immediately got involved. She hoped to connect with other editors and to get some professional development. She also felt strongly that editors needed to be more visible in order for the profession to be taken seriously, and so she set to work doing something about it.

By 1989, Nancy had gone from active participant in the BC branch of Editors Canada to branch chair, a position that she held for two years. At the same time, she joined the national executive of Editors Canada as the BC branch representative and spent the next 11 years on council. From 1993 to 1998, she co-chaired the association’s Long-Range Planning Committee with Käthe Roth. She then served two terms as national president, from 1998 to 2000.

But that’s not all. Nancy also worked steadily to develop and promote editorial standards. In the early 2000s, she helped create the first pilot tests for Editors Canada’s certification program. Then, from 2006 to 2009, she sat on the committee that overhauled Professional Editorial Standards for the first time since its publication in 1991. And Nancy oversaw the creation of separate standards for stylistic editing.

At the same time that Nancy was working with Editors Canada, she was also promoting the profession of editing within the larger book publishing industry. She held several positions, including president, on the board of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia. And then she moved to the national level, where she sat on the executive of the Association of Canadian Publishers Council. She has been an advisor to publishing programs, first at Douglas College and then at Langara, for 15 years.

In recognition of all these contributions and her work as a juror, panelist, and speaker on editing, Editors Canada awarded Nancy the inaugural Karen Virag Award in 2016. That award recognizes an editor who has raised the profile of editors and editing. Editors Canada then made her an Honorary Lifetime Member just this year. Nancy has truly been an incredible champion of editing—and also of editors.

I know Nancy best as a teacher and a mentor. She has championed writers, she has championed editing, and she has also dedicated a lot of time to championing aspiring young editors—one of them being me.

Nancy tells me that she taught her first course around 1985 when the BC branch of Editors Canada began to offer professional development. She thought she was going to be taking courses, but instead, she was recruited to teach them! And she has been teaching ever since.

By 1993, the year after Nancy and six others co-founded the editors’ collaborative called West Coast Editorial Associates, she became an instructor at the annual Banff publishing workshop. It was one of the first summer intensive programs developed to teach publishing. Each session was two weeks, one for books and the other for magazines. She then taught in Simon Fraser University’s Writing and Publishing program for a couple of years. And when SFU took over the summer editing workshops from the Banff Centre, Nancy became an instructor or guest lecturer in that program every summer for more than a decade. And that’s where we met, 20 years ago.

I’m not really sure how I made an impression on Nancy that week. She wasn’t my direct mentor, and I didn’t ask highly educated questions or network with abandon. But she must have seen some potential. And when a job came up at Douglas & McIntyre, she tracked me down and championed me to the staff in-house as a promising young editor. And, like she has with so many other editors, she worked with me until I started to figure out how editing books was done. Over the years, Nancy’s continued to give me lots of advice and support—and for both, I am very grateful. When I won the Tom Fairley Award, she was the first person to offer congratulations and send a lovely bouquet of flowers. Still, today, whether I’m obsessing over a point of grammar or tearing my hair out over a project that’s gone sideways, she both empathizes and makes me laugh. And I’ve seen her do this for many, many young editors after me.

When SFU developed its Masters of Publishing program, Nancy got involved first as a lecturer, a consultant, and a panel moderator. And then in 2004–2005, she became an adjunct professor in the program, teaching editing to two cohorts of students. I remember her coming back to the office so energized by the students she was working with and so excited to hear their ideas and see their work. She stayed in touch with a lot of them, mentoring them and encouraging them to pursue their passions for editing and writing. At D&M, we hired many editors because Nancy had taught them and been struck by their enormous potential. And she was right—they were all smart, thoughtful, and engaged. A few more since have found their way into jobs at Greystone Books and into successful careers as editors—largely because of Nancy.

I asked a few of Nancy’s students what influence she has had on their careers, and this is what they had to say:

From Iva Cheung: “Nancy was my editing instructor in the MPub program. She was always patient, tactful, and generous in her guidance, although I’m sure there were times we drove her bonkers insisting that surely what our Grade 8 English teacher had taught us (and what we had been doing in our own writing ever since) couldn’t be wrong.

“Not everyone in that MPub cohort became an editor, of course, but every one of us emerged from Nancy’s class with a profound appreciation for the value a careful editor can bring to a text and to her authors’ lives. (Just ask Evelyn Lau.)

“Nancy helped me get my internship, which led to my first job after graduation, at D&M. I will never forget how she gave me much-needed feedback on my first substantive edit. She also encouraged me to pursue certification with Editors Canada, which led to becoming involved with the certification steering committee—where I met some of my favourite people. And she wrote me an incredible letter of support for my Tom Fairley Award, which I think was instrumental in the judges’ final decision.

“There’s no question that without Nancy, I would not be the editor I am today.”

From Shirarose Wilensky: “I’ve learned so much from Nancy’s nuanced, generous, and gentle guidance as well as her passionate, curious, and smart (in brains and in attire) example. Nancy encouraged me to do the SFU master of publishing. Later I worked with her at D&M Publishers and then joined her on the adventure of Greystone 2.0. I’m now even luckier to call her my friend as well as my colleague. (I knew things had shifted when we started meeting over wine instead of tea!)”

From Jen Croll: “I’m one of the lucky students from Nancy’s MPub editing class of 2004. If I’d ever had a stereotype of an editor in low, comfortable shoes and a frumpy sweater, Nancy certainly destroyed that idea. Despite the five-inch heels and gigantic earrings, the thing I really learned from Nancy that semester was restraint.

“Our assignment was to complete a full edit of a real manuscript, and Nancy brought in a doozy from Greystone. Up till that point, I’d assumed the authors of books could write, and this manuscript showed me that’s not always the case. I undertook a brutal edit of the thing, which involved a lot of crossing things out with a black pen and instructing the author, ‘Rewrite this.’ It looked like a redacted government document by the time I was done. Nancy told me I was right about the writing, but I needed to deliver my criticisms more constructively and find something to praise in the work.

“I remembered that and really took it to heart, and these days, I’m much better at hiding my true feelings, and thus much better at editing.

“10 years after that class, I began working at Greystone and was thrilled to be able to learn from Nancy on the job. Her feedback and encouragement helped me grow, and watching her work collaboratively with authors to transform their work into something great was truly inspirational. I’d never be able to fill her shoes—I would quite literally fall over—but I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the influence of Nancy Flight.”

Whether you’ve met Nancy or not, you’ve been touched by her legacy. By a book she’s edited, a talk she’s given, a course she’s delivered, professional certification she’s pushed for. She’s been unstintingly generous with her knowledge, her vision, and her commitment to building and shaping a strong future for editors locally, nationally, and even internationally. So, thank you, Nancy. Congratulations on an incredible 45-year editing career, and thank you for all your advocacy work and all that you’ve contributed to our organization and to editing, personally and professionally. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter brings.

Image provided by Virginia St-Denis,

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