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The Crossing: Jumping from an In-Office Job to Full-Time Freelancing

In Michael Connelly’s The Crossing, retired LAPD detective Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch does something he swore he’d never do: He reluctantly agrees to cross over to the defense to help half-brother Mickey “Lincoln Lawyer” Haller clear a client from a murder rap.

After a career spent putting murderers behind bars, Bosch finds working for the defense to be extremely problematic, even if it requires a similar application of his detective skills. Apprehending criminals is what he does best. That is his mission, and he is nothing if not a man committed to his mission.

But Bosch also has to accept that this crossing is not without its advantages.

“For the first time he realized how free he was to follow his instincts and cast his net in whatever direction he wanted.” (from Michael Connelly’s The Crossing)

In-house editors might feel something similar when contemplating a jump to full-time freelancing, a crossing that could entail pursuing more interesting jobs and clients—a crossing that could also promise a type of freedom unlike anything they’ve ever experienced.

Why Cross Over?

Throughout his career as a homicide detective, Bosch had numerous run-ins with his superiors and with those who didn’t share the belief in his mission.

“With the department he had certainly employed his instincts. But there was always a lieutenant and sometimes a captain to be briefed and an approval needed. There were rules of procedure and rules of evidence. There was a partner and a division of labor. There was a budget and there was the constant, never abating knowledge that every move he made, every word he typed, would be reviewed and possibly turned against  him.” (from Michael Connelly’s The Crossing)

Escaping office politics is one reason editors might want to embrace freelancing. Editors are often introverts who shy away from socializing, so freelancing would seem to allow them the freedom to do their work with less social interaction.

And going it on their own works well for many editors.

The flip side of this, however, is that office camaraderie is not always a bad thing, and some enjoy daily, face-to-face interaction with colleagues. Some even need this interaction for their health and mental well-being.

Even when working in isolation, though, freelancers can still find avenues for connecting with colleagues, whether that be through social media, industry conventions, or community meetings at libraries and other local institutions.

The Mission

Bosch always demonstrates a strong sense of mission. His mother was killed when Bosch was just a boy (a crime Bosch himself solved years after), and Bosch is relentless in the pursuit of murderers. 

“He remembered a time long before when he had been told his mother was dead and that he was alone in the world.” (from Angels Flight)

Bosch is driven by the belief that, when it comes to victims, “everybody matters or nobody matters,” and he never wavers from this belief, so no case is too big or too small. (Editors do well to apply this same sense of mission to each and every job.)

Freelance editors have to be similarly driven. They are required to motivate themselves and organize their own time. Freelancers have to do their own marketing and their own accounting. They have to set aside money for taxes and pay these on a quarterly schedule.

“I have accomplished everything in my life by channeling negatives into motivation.” (from Michael Connelly’s Angels Flight)

Many rise to these challenges and even enjoy the administrative side of freelancing (these tasks allow editors to turn off their editorial brains for a bit while still feeling productive), but some simply aren’t suited for this kind of work and need the greater structure that traditional office work provides.

No Boss, But Many Bosses

Most editors have never knocked their boss through a sheet of glass, like Bosch did in a memorable confrontation, but even so, the idea of working for yourself appeals to many. Certain personalities feed off the chance to call all of the shots and to succeed or fail entirely on their own efforts.

As the saying goes, though, if every client is a boss, freelancers can find themselves trading one boss for many.

Benefits of the Office

Full-time staffers enjoy a variety of benefits that cannot be discounted: health care, paid vacations, employer contributions to retirement plans, and even (for some) yearly bonuses.

In addition, offices provide computer equipment, software, and supplies, and some employers will even fund training and cover the costs of conference fees and professional associations.

On the plus side, freelancers can save on commuting costs and can also enjoy tax breaks for a variety of expenses. Freelancers can also save on clothing costs (the classic image of the freelancer is of someone working in his or her pajamas).

Schedule

A 9-to-5 routine allows a certain ease to scheduling and a predictability that many enjoy. The ability to work when and where you want is, however, one of the main draws to freelancing, and any number of life circumstances can make this very appealing indeed.

Freelancers, on the other hand, might find themselves scrambling for work and taking every job that comes their way. This so-called freedom, then, could seem like anything but if a freelancer is essentially forced to work all the time.

Finding Clients

Bosch is not a sit-behind-the-desk type of detective. One of his mantras is “Get off your ass and knock on doors,” which is exactly what freelancers have to do in their search for clients.

“Sometimes you don’t know what you are looking for until you find it.” (from Michael Connelly’s Suicide Run)

One of the advantages of being in an office is that the work is essentially given to you, and you don’t have to go out and find clients. But freelancers need to be on the constant lookout for prospective clients, and as such, they are never not working.

Getting Paid

In-house staff generally don’t have to worry about their fees. They agree to a yearly salary and the checks come (usually) on a regular basis.

Freelancers, however, have to first figure out what to charge, which isn’t an easy thing (and freelancers inevitably also face the challenge of raising their rates and successfully communicating these increases to clients).

The truth about editing is that two seemingly similar jobs could require vastly different time commitments, and an editor won’t be able to gauge the amount of time required for a job until after sampling a chapter or portion of the work, all of which makes setting a fee difficult. A freelancer also has to decide whether to charge by the page or by the hour (something that might scare off clients who would be reassured by a fixed price).

For assistance in this regard, Rich Adin at An American Editor has published numerous informative posts about setting fees, and freelancers can also find helpful resources at the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA).

Another question for freelancers is whether to list their rates online or provide individual quotes for each job. As with so many things, there are no wrong or right methods, and one approach might work well for one editor and not for another.

Security

An office gig might seem to offer more security, with freelancers often unsure of whether they will have work, or enough work, from month to month, but layoffs are also a reality, and editors working in-house might feel that all their eggs are placed in one basket. They might reasonably feel that if they lose their job, they lose everything, while freelancers have income being channeled through a number of sources.

The Way Forward

As Bosch found in The Crossing, some decisions tear at your gut, and a clear path isn’t always easy to discern.

Having a strong sense of mission, though, can go a long way toward ensuring that whatever choice you make, you’re going to end up doing the work you were meant to be doing.

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Hyphens, Hauntings, and the Architecture of Sentences

Outside the James Brice House, purportedly the most haunted structure in Historic Annapolis, night had nearly fallen, and it felt as though the brick-lined streets—once trod by no less than Founding Fathers—were themselves absorbing the last of the daylight.

I stood among the skeptics and believers assembled for one of the city’s nightly ghost tours, and emerging wraith-like from the guide’s tales of hauntings past and present, a particular word caught my attention.

The guide had referred to the connecting passages between the wings of the “Big Brice House” as hyphens.

Apparently I love horror and punctuation matters in equal measure.

Far from a student of architecture, I’d never heard the term hyphen refer to part of a structure, but of course it made complete sense. The hyphens I work with are connectors as well, connecting syllables and words, prefixes and suffixes to roots, fragments ripped unceremoniously apart by end-of-line breaks.

Even creepier, suspended hyphens appear to connect words to thin air, but those seemingly empty spaces are in fact haunted by words that aren’t visible, but which nonetheless occupy that space, if only in our mind’s eye.

Mr. Hyphen, I Presume

For a book, going out of print can be a kind of death, and while digitization has made books more accessible, even instantly accessible, printed works can still (and do) go missing from the world—or they become exceedingly rare, moving into that hard-to-find territory you used to reserve for absinthe or Cuban cigars.

Such was the case with Meet Mr. Hyphen and Put Him in His Place by Edward N. Teall. In her book Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris mentioned this work, calling it the “best thing ever written about hyphens.”

Teall’s book was also referenced on the Merriam-Webster website, where I learned that the folks at my favorite dictionary had introduced Norris to Mr. Hyphen.

I searched for the book in vain, finding it had gone out of print, but earlier this year, at the American Copy Editors Association (ACES) conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, I bumped into Merriam-Webster’s Peter Sokolowski on an elevator and asked him about it. He responded that he had a copy of the book sitting on his office desk, and he encouraged me to continue my search, insisting that I should have no trouble finding it.

Reenergized, I did indeed locate a copy, though obtaining it was a bit pricey. I work with a number of talented typesetters and would like to make it more easily available, but from what I can see there are some concerns about whether the 1936 work is in the public domain (in that time period, it hinges on whether the book’s copyright was renewed, and I haven’t been able to research that yet).

The search for Mr. Hyphen made obtaining it all the more enjoyable, though, and I would encourage anyone who is able to lay hands on it to give it a read. Its corporal form may be fading from the world, but its spirit is strong, and Mr. Hyphen should be rattling his chains and bumping around the attic for years and years to come.

The Blueprint of a Sentence

While an architect might use a blueprint to assemble a structure, a writer can refer to a sentence diagram to see the underlying grammatical arrangement. Earlier this year, at the above-mentioned ACES conference, a ghost from the past—sentence diagramming—leapt out at me in the form of a session (“How to Diagram Sentences—and Why”) conducted by Bremner Editing Center coordinator Lisa McLendon.

Someone outside the editing community might harbor an understandable skepticism about a group of adults having a grand old time while diagramming sentences, but I witnessed the phenomenon firsthand, and if you haven’t diagrammed a sentence since childhood (or ever) I’d highly recommend grabbing a blank sheet of paper and a writing implement.

If you want a little help getting started, pick up a copy of Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: The Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences by Kitty Burns Florey. You can almost hear the cackling of that elementary school teacher, that terror of your youth, can’t you?

Bigger on the Inside

Elaborate literary construction entwined with a fictional structure hiding infinite space can be found in Mark Z. Danielewski’s masterpiece House of Leaves. Incorporating unreliable narrators, found manuscripts, academic study, extensive footnotes, letters from a psychiatric hospital, and references to a documentary film that may or may not exist, House of Leaves is as haunting a novel, if it can be called a novel, as I’ve ever read.

Haunting as well is Danielewski’s proposed 27-volume series, The Familiar. Four volumes have been released to date, with another scheduled to be published this Halloween. Beautiful works constructed to replicate the viewing experience of such bingeable TV shows as Breaking Bad, fans of typography (and all readers) should not deny themselves the pleasure of exploring this ambitious series.

Hauntings and Structure

In Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places, Colin Dickey explores the idea that unusual architectural features are closely connected to hauntings.

“Ghosts fester in places untended to, where the usual patterns of behavior aren’t or can’t be enforced, where once-regular places become strange, where it’s no longer clear what a building’s function was, where the shadows multiply and nothing restricts your mind from projecting your thoughts and dreams and nightmares onto the walls and corridors.”

That passage puts me in mind of the great writer Peter Straub, whose literary stylings and intricate constructions birth horrors both supernatural and all too real. Writers can look to the structure of their sentences, their paragraphs, their chapters, to see how that architecture serves as a viewing screen for the projections of their readers’ fears and deepest desires.

Sentences are built, like homes, with words as the materials of construction. Sometimes a structure has a good foundation but needs to be knocked flat so the writer can build anew on the palimpsest-like ghost of the old. Writers should never be afraid to tear down their homes and build grander mansions. Those previous structures remain, if unseen, haunting always the new works they have spawned.

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Sorry, Darlings: Depression, Rejection, Revision and Publication

When I was seventeen, my mother and sister were killed in a car accident. I’ve said this, almost word for word, to many people over the years, and saying it has always been more than a statement of events. It’s always been a self-aware explanation (at least in part) of who I am.

But even with the impact (crash terms naturally enter my writing when I think about their deaths), I’ve never written explicitly about the accident (or, to me, THE ACCIDENT). That changed, however, with my story “Sorry, Sis” (which has been published over at Liquid Imagination).

[I break down the story below, so if you’d like to read it without spoilers, now would be a good time.]

Three Stories, One Ending

I wrote “Sorry, Sis” nearly a year ago during a period of depression, which I’ve experienced to greater and lesser degrees for most of my life. I cried a lot while writing the story, and it’s as personal a tale as I’ve written. The mixture of sorrow, dark humor, and self-recrimination is very me.

You might even say those are my calling cards.

I wrote two other stories during this period. At some point I stepped back and recognized that all three ended with a type of suicide, and I thought (1) ending every story with a suicide would make me a bit of a one-trick pony and (2) I probably needed to stop “winging” my depression and address it seriously.

I did address it, and I developed what I believe are helpful tools for moving forward. I find myself in a good place, with many wonderful people in my life. Still, I’ve been living in my skin for forty-six years, and I know a lot about myself, and I know depression can descend at any moment, without warning.

Those tools are going to come in handy.

Kill Your Darlings

Most writers have been advised to “kill their darlings,” which, essentially, means that you should edit out writing that is too self-indulgent or is more important to you than to the story itself. As I went through the process of getting “Sorry, Sis” published, I had to take heed of this advice—no easy thing given the emotions invested in the story.

When I wrote “Sorry, Sis” I employed what I thought was an interesting structure, one that I believed made sense for the story and also kept the reader off-balance.

I was thinking of the story being published online. Knowing that an online audience can click away from your story at any moment, I thought that I could maintain that audience’s interest by giving readers a number of different looks.

That was my hope, anyway.

But hopes, like too many of us, oft die early deaths.

In my first drafts, the story employed a three-part structure in which the first part, describing a childhood incident, was told in the third person. The second part, in which the main character reveals that he is being haunted by his dead sister, was told in the first person past tense, while the third part, which brings the story to its conclusion, was told in the first person present.

I also employed lists in the story, and I was, quite frankly, in love with the structure. This is brilliant! I can’t wait for the raves to pour in!

It turns out that reality is less kind than a writer’s initial impression of his own work.  

Rejection Can Be a Good Thing

Six submittals. Six rejections.

Your stories are going to get rejected for all kinds of reasons. That’s part of the process, and it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to revise your story with each rejection.

But it does provide you with an opportunity to revisit your work and to take a hard look at what’s working and what’s not.

I’d already made some substantial revisions even before sending it out. In the earliest version, the character had lost both his mother and sister to a car accident. While that was true in my life, it was too much for the story to bear.

So my mother was expelled from the tale.

Sorry, Mom.

The more substantial structural revisions came after comments from one of the editors who rejected the work. (While having your story accepted for publication is the ultimate goal, receiving helpful comments is a pretty damn good thing too.)

The editor’s critique made me realize something I already knew: the first person voice was, by far, the strongest part of the story.

So I also jettisoned the opening third person passage, and the story was immediately stronger for it.

A common criticism of fledgling (and not-so-fledgling) writers is that they don’t know where to begin their stories. An editor might look at a story and determine that the real beginning is actually three pages in.

That was certainly the case here.

When you’ve put your heart into your work, it isn’t easy to step back, approach it again, tear it apart, and reassemble it. But that’s art, and you have to be merciless.

Kill your darlings.

All’s Well That Ends Well

So the story was published, and in the introduction to the issue editor Edwin Riddell called it “a creepy cracker if ever there was one, with some great writing, searing truth, and insight into little-explored aspects of the duality of our motives and actions.”

Kind words.

Words that made me proud and made me happy I wasn’t too proud to heed a professional’s advice and kill my story for the sake of my story.

I hope my mother and sister would have been proud as well.

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Gerunds at the Airport

Last night, after dropping my girlfriend off at the airport, I sent her a text that included this sentence: “Don’t worry about me driving home” (her plane had been delayed, the hour had grown late, and she was afraid that I might be too tired to make the hour-and-a-half drive home).

Spoiler alert: I’m fine.

In the text, “me driving” is what is called a fused participle, and people are often unsure whether to use that construction or a possessive followed by a gerund (which in this case would be “my driving”).

Helpful discussions on the matter can be found in the Chicago Manual of Style, Garner’s Modern English Usage, and Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. (This is going to be a short post, my main point being that the matter here, while a relatively minor point, is worth investigating for those attempting to fine-tune their grammar).

In my sentence, “me driving” follows a preposition. Looking to Chicago, we have this: “When the noun or pronoun follows a preposition, the possessive is usually optional.”

If you’re worried about making the right choice, “usually” is often reassuring, because you can at least feel some measure of confidence that you’ll be able to make a good argument.

The main consideration for choosing between a fused participle and a possessive plus gerund is usually (there’s that word again) whether the emphasis is on the noun/pronoun or the verb (action). In my case, I’d like to think that my girlfriend’s concern was all about me, and that shifting the emphasis to my driving would miss the mark.

Perhaps if there had been another option, like flying a helicopter home, then “my driving” (as opposed to “my flying”) would have been the better choice.

But as it is, I’m going to stick with the me-first approach!

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Editing Is a Lot Like Shaving—Really!

[Please note that I am not a shaving professional and cannot be held responsible for any injuries that occur while shaving. The following is for entertainment purposes only.]

 

The badger-hair shaving brush I received for my last birthday (Thanks, G!) posed a challenge. I’d seen old-fashioned shaves in the movies, but, looking at the brush, I have to admit I wasn’t exactly sure how to go about the process.

Not to mention that I felt some apprehension over possibly leaving my face and neck looking like something out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

But intrigue far outweighed fear. Shaving with what are generally considered antiquated—even dangerous—implements would be undeniably cool (dare I say, manly?), shimmering with the same mystique as an absinthe fountain or manual typewriter.

I vowed to do it, nicks and cuts be damned!

The Tools

An editor can’t edit without the proper tools, and these days that means a decent computer, a monitor (or two or three), a high-speed internet connection, software (Word, PerfectIt, etc.), dictionaries, and style manuals, for starters.

For my shave, I quickly realized I needed to further bolster my shaving arsenal. I was simply not going to use one of the modern five-blade razors with my cool new brush. Not being foolhardy—or perhaps manly—enough to wield a straight razor, I purchased a safety razor, and I assure you, turning the handle and butterflying the top open, then laying a bare blade within, felt plenty dangerous enough for me. Plus, the damn thing looks extremely cool hanging on the stand next to my brush.

Along with the razor I also bought shaving soap, a stainless steel bowl for working the soap into a lather, and some shaving oil and moisturizer.

I was ready to begin.

Prework

Editors don’t just sit down with a document and begin editing. An editor will resave the document with a new name, create a style sheet, perform basic cleanup on the document, and run macros and a variety of programs.

Much the same with shaving.

First, I place the brush in the stainless steel bowl and fill the bowl with warm water to soak the bristles for a few minutes. I then take this time to wash my face with my energizing face wash (Thanks again, G!).

At this stage I apply shaving oil and, pouring a tablespoon onto the shaving soap, dump all but a tablespoon or so of water from the bowl. Then I shake out the brush and swirl it over the soap.

Now for my favorite part!

With soap adhering to the bristles of the brush, I whisk the brush in the bowl to combine it with that little bit of water to create a nice lather. This takes time, and I find that the action of the brush and lather in the bowl centers my thoughts and relaxes me. It helps ready me for the day, and it reminds me a bit of making a roux for gumbo, where the oil and flour gradually assume that perfect peanut-butter color.

My mind clears, and when there are no more bubbles in the lather, I’m getting close.

After the lather is perfect, I apply it to my face, and I really go after it, working the bristles vigorously. The whole point is to raise my whiskers and ready them for the blade, but a pleasant side effect is that the bristles feel wonderful.

The Work

These days, editors have quite a few tools that make editing easier, but at editing’s heart there is always an editor working the text, poring diligently letter by letter over a document. This is where the real work is done, where an editor’s attention to detail and ability to concentrate for extended periods of time come into play.

This is the stage where the editor’s training and experience and knowledge really pay off.

If a mistake at this stage can leave glaring errors in a document, a mistake at the same point while shaving can result in the aforementioned nicks and cuts. But do it correctly and you’re left with smooth skin that you, or your loved one, can’t resist touching (or, for that matter, a clean, error-free document that invites reading).

But let’s make no mistake, shaving with a safety razor is not for the fainthearted.

Even secured in the casing, the blade is lethal, so you can’t shave quickly and recklessly, as you might with a more modern blade (no need to even reassert the editing metaphor here). With a safety razor, the weight of the handle itself is enough, so you let gravity do the work, bringing the blade down, always down, a half inch or so at a time, over and over.

I’ll admit that my first couple shaves with the safety razor could easily have put one in mind of The Wild Bunch, but I learned. Slow and extreme care can literally save your neck (or, when editing, your client’s).

Cleanup

Once a job is complete, an editor can wrap up the work, which of course entails returning the document to the client and, presumably, getting paid in the not-too-distant future. With shaving, this is the point where a hot towel (or cold, as some prefer) would really come in handy, but I haven’t incorporated that into the process. Maybe someday.

Until then, I’m going to enjoy the slow pleasures of a good shave—and I’m going to try to always bring the same level of extreme care to my work.  

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But If It’s a Good Enough Story, No One’s Going to Care About a Few Typos, Right?

You’ve just put the finishing touches on your masterpiece and cannot wait to share it with the world. Readers are going to shower you with positive reviews. You just have to get your story out there. There’s no reason to wait another second, right?

It’s easier than ever to self-publish your work, and we’re farther and farther from the days when the vanity press was viewed with near-universal disdain.

When done right, self-publishing can be profitable—even, dare we say, respectable. Just look at the growing number of authors who have made it going the self-publishing route (E.L. James and Hugh Howey are two well-known examples).

The tools available to self-publishers also make it possible to create beautiful books with relative ease—books with your name on them! How can you resist?

The temptation is almost too much for any writer, one of whose ultimate goals is, of course, to send a written work out into the world. But the ease with which writers can now publish their works can be a trap.

Remember, once you send something into the world, you can’t pull it back, and that first impression can turn off a reader for life. Sure, you can reload a cleaner version, but by then a significant amount of damage may already be done to your reputation.

The Delusion

If you think self-publishing is a good fit for your goals, then there’s every reason to pursue it. But it’s a cruel world out there, and you should make every effort to give your work its best chance for survival.

When we want something badly enough, we are extremely adept at picturing our desired outcome, often turning a blind eye to harder realities. And this can lead to rushing out a work before you’ve helped it achieve its best form.

Think about how fragile your feelings are in regard to something you’ve written, and then think about what lurks online. Have you been on the internet lately? Can’t you hear readers sharpening their knives? Do you really want to let an audience, emboldened by anonymity, take potshots at one of your darlings?

It’s not uncommon for hopeful writers to say to themselves, “But if it’s a good enough story, no one’s going to care about a few typos, right?”

The truth is that the only people who don’t care about typos are the imaginary readers you create for your work.

Again, have you been on the internet lately? Have you seen how people savage each other over minor grammatical gaffes in comment sections? Comment sections!

Eliminate Stumbling Blocks

Some of the best writing advice you’ll ever hear is simply this: Don’t ever give your readers a reason to stop reading.

Dense paragraphs at the beginning of a work might convince your readers that your story is simply too difficult to wade through. For this reason many writers suggest always throwing in dialogue on the first page.

Packing too much information, too much world-building, into the beginning of your story can also give your readers a reason to stop reading, so a better approach might be to let your audience acclimate a little more slowly to your world.

And whether you’d like to believe it or not, misspellings and grammatical errors are a huge reason to stop reading. Your audience will question your professionalism, and if readers have paid for your work, even if it’s only a few dollars, even is it’s only 99 cents, they are going to feel ripped off.

Writers owe their readers, at a minimum, crisp, clear copy that contains none of the stumbling blocks a professional edit could have eliminated.

Before sending your darling out into the world, ensure it’s edited properly, which means another set of eyes. The world’s best editors realize that no one can successfully edit his or her own work. Writers are simply too familiar with their text. So do the right thing and treat your darling to a good edit. You—and your story—deserve it.

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Talk About Bleary Eyes

While attending the George Washington University, I picked up extra scratch by proofreading patents for a law firm. Back in the early nineties, twelve dollars an hour seemed like a lot of money (though, being a college student, the firm might as well have sent my checks directly to the M Street bars).

The gig entailed traditional proofreading, not the popularly held catch-all sense that can seemingly mean almost any kind of copy editing. The job was to proof already-printed patents against documents the law firm submitted to the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). I worked as part of a two-person team, taking turns reading the office copy while the other proofreader followed along in the printed patent. (In practice, I followed along about 90 percent of the time. Yes, I had the more difficult task, and no, I didn’t make a cent more for my efforts!)

If the patent had already been printed, you might wonder about the point of proofing it. Would the patent be reprinted? No, but if the clients, who were billed for our services, thought the change important enough, an errata sheet could be filed with the PTO and permanently attached to the patent.

Lest you’re thinking, “Wow, you must have gotten a sneak peek at some crazy-cool inventions!,” I can assure you that wasn’t the case. These were chemical and electrical patents detailing processes for such things as substrate application for computer chips. The patents were highly technical, and their proofreading often involved the reading of long chemical strings and formulas, along with such text features as superscripts and subscripts.

Wait a minute. This was college. Shouldn’t I have been out kidnapping the rival school’s goat?

The work had to be done in the law firm because the firm, for obvious reasons, wouldn’t allow client files to leave the office. So my partner and I would steal into the office at odd hours (usually Saturday or Sunday mornings), grab the files, and find an empty conference room to spend the next six or so hours performing the incredibly tedious work.

And the work was tedious, but I credit it for helping me develop the mental muscles that allow me to concentrate for long periods of time. It’s common for people to see an error in text and say, “How could an editor miss this?” But that question presumes that the editor has had that bit of text and only that bit of text laid before him or her, when these instances are usually missed not because editors aren’t capable of picking up a specific error, but because of a lapse of concentration during the course of a long day of editing.

This is why frequent breaks are so important. When reading text, the mental red flags that go up when something is amiss might very well not be raised if the editor is fatigued. If tired, editors can easily read right over something that would jump out at them if they were fresher.

I can now look at all the work I did proofreading patents as training for my editing career, but I suppose the training would only have done so much good if I didn’t love the work as well. Even when proofing materials that were largely impenetrable to me, I loved finding errors, and while some patents were fairly clean, any problem that could go wrong at some point inevitably did. Missing lines or even pages of text. Words run together. Even an innocently introduced case of profanity. (Yes, I once caught the f-word in a patent.)

One of the fun parts of the job was that, because we did off-hours work, almost no one at the firm knew who we were. We felt a bit like secret agents Mission: Impossible–ing our way into the office, knocking out our work, and getting the hell out of Dodge.

Or maybe that makes it sound a bit cooler than it actually was. Maybe you wouldn’t think there was much cool about a job that involved making sure every little syllable was correct in a word like dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. But I enjoyed it, and in many ways I miss the job that I will forever associate with a particular time in my life.

 

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