When I grow up

It has recently struck me that I’ve always wanted to be an editor. I just didn’t know what it was called.

In infant school, I found it a bit odd that all the girls wanted to be nurses and all the boys wanted to be firemen or train drivers. I knew I didn’t want to be any of those things. But what did I want to be?

I had been reading at home already (thanks, mum and dad!) and so when we learned about letters and started spelling out words at school, it sparked an obsession that hasn’t gone away.

Our class had a large yellow grid thing, into which letter tiles would slot, so that you could make words appear in rows – magically, or so it seemed to me. I was fascinated. I used to beg to take it home, in the same way that others would bid for custody of the hamster.

At the age of four, I produced some ‘books’. Each ‘book’ was a folded piece of A4 paper with the words ‘POEMS by Emma Jones’ on the front and two illustrated ‘poems’ inside. I can remember two of the ‘poems’ very well. The first was “I will sing / To my ring”. It was illustrated by a stick figure with an open mouth, wearing what was probably supposed to be a diamond ring. The second was “You lie / That I am shy”. I don’t remember the drawing that went with it, but I do remember feeling that the poem made a very important and immensely personal statement.

My parents, of course, were happy to humour me. They’re both wordy people, although they may not describe themselves as such. It was mum who read to me as a child and to whom dad would direct me for help with spelling homework, but it was dad who sent a complaint to Birds Eye in poetry form, complete with silly puns, when we bought a faulty packet of Chicksticks.

English continued to be my favourite subject throughout school, although not every teacher noticed quite how much I was enjoying it. In third year juniors, Miss Bolshaw got very cross at something my giggly group of friends and I were doing and decided that, instead of going to the PE lesson, I should stay behind in the classroom to complete some exercises of my own. She plonked a Mainline English book in front of me and told me it was my punishment. English comprehension exercises! I pretended to pout, but inside I was cheering.

I also kept diaries from an early ageThroughout my childhood, and into my teens, I wrote a near-daily diary and produced more and more ‘books’. One, “The Book Of Fun!” has detailed instructions of how to play some of the games that my sister and I had made up during the summer holidays. I remember taking notes as we played and writing them up into bullet points afterwards. (Then showing the book to my Auntie Maureen and feeling rather miffed that, despite praise for my comprehensive directions, she didn’t want to engage in a game of “mummies”, whereby two people wrap themselves up in a single blanket and wrestle until one falls over.)

So, although I couldn’t answer the question “what would you like to be when you grow up?”, I knew that I wanted it to involve words. I wasn’t interested in news, so journalism wasn’t really on my radar as a child, but I knew that my favourite hobby of an evening was writing (especially instructions and photo captions), and cutting and pasting from magazines to produce my own pieces of work. I wanted to be an editor.

How to be an editor

At grammar school, no longer top of the class, I found it harder to focus. I was an immature teenager and had no comprehension of how lessons might prepare me for the real world of work. I didn’t want to go to college – I wanted to get out of the system as soon as I could – but our school seemed only to worry about getting us into the right university. Even our English classes, with their endless dissection of famous fiction, seemed to be at odds with the way I felt about writing.

It seemed so much easier for my friends. Tracey, who loved maths, told me she would be an accountant (and indeed she is). Seran, who loved biology, explained that she would like to become a teacher or a doctor (she’s now a biology teacher). The school wanted to produce teachers, doctors and lawyers, but I couldn’t see a path for me. I looked into becoming a speech therapist or a librarian, but never really felt strongly enough about any of it. My teachers fretted while I began to spend more and more time on my other great loves; music and boys.

Despite my lack of focus, I managed to gain some good grades at GCSE. But I still didn’t have much direction. I felt I should do an English A Level but, despite the school’s emphasis on where English Lit might get us in academia, I knew I would be bored if I studied more literature. I wanted something that would reflect my love of the language and give me an opportunity to play with it, rather than an analysis of others’ work.

Luckily, the local sixth form college did an English Language A Level, so I left grammar school to study subjects like etymology, language during child development, IPA, accents and dialects – and thoroughly enjoyed it. We analysed others’ work, but we studied their writing style, not their philosophies.

But the kicker was the timed exam. To my delight, they gave us pages and pages of photocopied material from press releases, news articles and encylopedias, and told us to come up with “400 words on the subject, suitable for a women’s magazine”, or “200 words on the subject, suitable for an advertisement feature in a broadsheet newspaper”. It’s the only exam that I’ve ever felt excited about, and even looked forward to taking.

I had found my calling.

By now I thought I wanted to be a magazine editor (and yes, if I’d known then that the internet would exist, I would have wanted to be a website editor). But how did people become editors? The answer was vague then and it’s just as vague now.

Unfortunately it took years of bumbling around and accidental introductions before I managed to make a career out of editing. I did some proof reading as a favour to a friend who worked in an ad agency, then found work writing advertorials through sheer chance. From here I graduated to website editing and have spent many years honing these skills… which is where you find me now.

I suppose if I had done things ‘properly’ I would have been to university and gained an apprenticeship somewhere after that. But I’ve never been one for doing things properly.

I love editing

I’ll sum up: I love editing.

The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines the word ‘edit’ as: ‘prepare (written material) for publication by correcting, condensing, or otherwise modifying it’ and it’s this that really excites me. Not the ‘having of ideas’ in the first place – although I love it when that happens – but the manipulation of content to fit a purpose. The psychology of defining a market; the aesthetics of page layout. Re-presenting ideas. Explaining, translating, simplifying. Getting under the skin of a piece. Understanding a readership and speaking its language.

I am an editor. I’ve always been an editor. I love being given two brochures, nine press releases and a grubby flyer, and being asked to produce 100 words for a website’s ‘about’ page. I love taking something complicated and boring – like Capital Gains Tax – and trying to make it simple and interesting. I love it.

And now that I’m freelance, with over fifteen years of editing experience, I have the ultimate control over my career. I have always wanted to be an editor, and I am an editor. What an extraordinary privilege.

8 thoughts on “When I grow up

  1. I kind of feel the same as you. I’m very sad and love proofreading stuff, and would love to turn that into a career, but it’s such a hard thing to get into. I’m a magazine editor at the moment so I get to do writing and editing, which is pretty good, but as a long-term career I’m a bit lost.

  2. That’s a beautiful post. I always wanted to be a librarian, and I mourned when I lost that career the first time. But you know what, editing’s better. Shh (that’s the librarian in me). As I’ve said before, best of luck for your continuing freelance career!

  3. What a great post! In a strange way, the recount of your life-up-to-editing mirrors mine, though I still find myself awaiting the accidental introductions to “make it”. I, too, struggled to define what I wanted to “be” when I was at school. I was good at a few things and was pressured by teachers to consider sciences, but I thought my love was in art not language… until I took an English Language A Level to fill up the required course amount alongside photography, art and media. I fell in love. Perhaps we are both geeks, but discovering how the way we speak, read and write came into existence, in the way it exists today, fascinates me still. Like you said, the exam itself was a party for people who love it! I’m glad you got to do what you love, and I hope some day that I will too :)

  4. Well, thanks for the lovely comments and well wishes.

    I’ve been worrying about this website since I’ve become a full time freelancer. I want to keep writing the blog in the same style – long, personal posts that are as much memoir as anything else – but I’m aware that the website as a whole is now a primary showcase for my work. A post like this one is bridging a gap that it probably shouldn’t. Tricky.

    Emma and Hannah, it sounds like you are both on the right path to doing what you want to do – go for it. To be honest, I sometimes feel as if the only thing holding me back over the years has been the confidence to JFDI. Apply for work that you want to do, whether you think you have the experience or not. And definitely keep up the blogging. The good thing about writing and editing in the digital age is that anyone can set out their stall! Good luck.

  5. Hello. I think I came across you on Twitter and added you to my Google reader…
    Just wanted to say I found this very inspiring. I’ve got some kind of skill involving language but it sounds like you were much better than I was at recognising at a young age what you DIDN’T want to do. I’ve wasted time doing a degree in German (I loved translating into English), dabbling in journalism and must have begun a thousand unfinished pieces of fiction and I’m still flailing around. Writing over-long blog entries seems to be all I’m capable of and I’m having trouble finding how I can direct this into anything professional. Fingers crossed, I’ll get there somehow!

  6. I’ve just found this by chance…anyway…I’d not realised I was quite so definite about my career direction at school!

    Also now understand a lot more about why you left school for college. Wish I’d known that then, or maybe I did, but was too wrapped up in why I didn’t fit in either! It is funny that neither Tracey nor I (your fellow misfits!) took the straightforward route to those careers we find ourselves in now…. seems silly if we were as definite as you remember!

    Thanks for this, really found it interesting!
    Much love in misfitdom

  7. Hey, Seran! I’m sure you’re right and it wasn’t as straightforward as I am making out here.

    I definitely remember Tracey saying that she would be an accountant, though. And I do remember you saying that you wanted to teach… (but then, so did half the class at that time. I guess when we were 14 or 15, teaching was the only career choice into which we had any insight!)

    I suppose – with the benefit of hindsight – it was as obvious that I would become a writer/editor as it was that you and Tracey would end up in your respective careers. It was difficult to know what to do with those thoughts at the time, though.

    I do feel the school seemed to promote certain career paths over others. But I can appreciate that it probably wasn’t easy for anyone else either, so I’m sorry if I misrepresented you to make that point!

    Much love to you too – and thanks for your friendship throughout those years (and Tracey too, if you’re reading this). xx

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