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My Copyediting Journey
"I felt fulfilled: skills unconsciously acquired thanks to a lifetime of obsessive reading were being productively exercised and honed."
After completing my bachelor's degree in electronics from REC Trichy (now NIT Trichy) in 1987, like most Indian engineering college students, I cut myself loose from the engineering mother ship. Why this happens is a topic for another day.
IT-related jobs—punctuated by modest successes in my lifelong passion, chess—soon relegated electronics to a distant memory, until, in 2004 I found myself at the crossroads again. I just could not shake off a mental staleness. I felt I was ready for a new challenge, something off the beaten track.
Just then an intriguing opportunity presented itself in the form of an editing position at a publishing services start-up. As a passionate nonfiction reader and book lover with some claims to literary fame in school and college, I felt I would be at home working with academic books. Why not catch the IT-enabled services wave powered by the Internet?
This was a career gamble, a leap into the unknown, and a decisive break with the past. I took the plunge. My new workplace was a boutique editing company set up by a pair of seasoned publishing professionals, a couple (Mohan and Girija Nair), who had decided to settle down in India after long editorial careers in the United States. Girija, a native Floridian transplanted to California ("California is the best—and most expensive—place in the world for eating out"), was responsible for hiring and training, and the first few months were spent under her eagle eye. I couldn't have asked for a better apprenticeship. She was an excellent trainer.
Over the next several years, I learned the craft, working on textbooks and specialized handbooks, mostly in the physical sciences and the life sciences but also in the humanities. I soon found that I enjoyed the work a great deal, as I've been a dedicated reader all my life and enjoy good writing. I felt fulfilled: skills unconsciously acquired thanks to a lifetime of obsessive reading were being productively exercised and honed, and I was also able to put my IT capabilities to good use, for example, developing a Perl script for consistency checking (this was before the appearance of the consistency checker PerfectIt).
The job, however, entailed much more than this: an eye for detail, monk-like powers of concentration, power-user-level computer and software skills, and immunity to the monotony of reading page after page of gobbledygook (for some of the books were highly specialized textbooks in esoteric fields). Confronted with a mysterious sentence, I enjoyed the process of teasing out a glimmer of meaning through online research, a glimmer that was usually enough to illuminate the grammatical structure underlying the sentence and animate it to some extent, though I would never fully comprehend it. (Now that I'm no longer an employee, I enjoy the luxury of turning down work that drags me far outside my comfort zone.)
"We were all refugees from our original professions."
What made the work even more enjoyable were lively colleagues with diverse backgrounds, thanks to the unique recruitment policy of the company. My bosses had spent some time in a large typesetting company before setting up their own company. There, they immediately saw that the Achilles heel of typesetters and packagers in India was language editing. Everything else was in the process of being automated (to the extent that today most of the books I get come with the tagging and reference editing done semi-automatically), but language editing was their gaping weakness. The language editors in this typesetting company, youngsters fresh out of college, were mostly those who were biding their time until they got a better-paying job in, typically, an IT company. They had no interest in editing.
So when my bosses set up their own company, which offered only language editing, they set out to hire not freshers but experienced employees with excellent language skills who were on the lookout for a career change. That is how they put together a team of editors consisting of engineers, bankers, physicists, dentists, doctors, a journalist, and a retired professor of English literature. We were all refugees from our original professions. There was also a college fresher who had ambition and interest; he was the odd man out, a youngster. We were given a relatively free hand, got along well, learned together, and had fun. The intimacy of a small office was a pleasant change from the larger workplaces I had been used to.
"Nine years later, in 2013, when my employers shut up shop, I was ready to hang out my shingle."
Today, I work on the same types of academic books that were my bread and butter when I started out. I've also branched out into new areas. I copyedit reports on economic development and the environment for a think tank and case studies for a business school. I also copyedit nonfiction books for a general audience when they come my way. I have copyedited course material for a US e-learning company and developed language-related content for them. I have copyedited training material for multinationals.
I also copyedit papers in applied mathematics and engineering, in particular, electronics. My bachelor's degree has armed me with the vocabulary and conventions of the field—if not dexterity in the lab. So I have not said goodbye to electronics, after all. I had mixed feelings about the subject in college but can now regard it with something bordering on affection. Distance has mellowed both heart and mind.
As Pema Chödrön has said, nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.
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