“Failure is impossible,” or so said the Susan B. Anthony throw pillow I used to have in my living room. Anthony may have been right about the woman suffrage movement; she was wrong about me. And when failure strikes, it is humbling.

After more than 35 years editing daily newspapers, I’d have sworn there wasn’t an editing job I couldn’t handle. Deadline pressure? The breaking news stories I’ve gotten into various papers ranged from Nixon’s resignation to the Polish shipyard strikes in 1980 to any number of Oscar and Grammy nights – four editions in four hours. Style? Who’s more rigid about style than The New York Times? Technology? I have yet to meet the piece of software I can’t master. Or so I thought.

Last week I underwent training for an online editing service. It shall remain nameless; to paraphrase Shakespeare in “Julius Caesar,” the fault was not in my stars, but in my self. Its ad said freelancers who made a minimum commitment of 12 hours a week could earn $150 to $1,500. (As a point of comparison, Broadway ushering pays $50 a shift, topping out around $400 a week.) Having a fair amount of free time in Vancouver, I thought I’d give it a try as a way to keep a little revenue flowing when the semester and my salary end.

In the immortal words of Desiree Armfeldt: Disaster, darling.

For sale, cheap.

The online screening should have been my clue. On a multiple-choice test of 42 questions, I first scored only about 76 percent, out of the 95 required for further consideration. The spelling and grammar were easy; what surely tripped me up were the citation styles for the various academic style manuals this service uses — Chicago, Modern Language Association, American Psychological Association, Council of Science Editors and more.  I assumed I was disqualified, but to my surprise a senior editor phoned almost immediately to say I had actually done well. She encouraged me to become more familiar with the styles and try again in a couple of weeks. I did, and this time scored almost 92. So I agreed to undergo training, which luckily fell during UBC’s spring break.

It consisted of two one-hour telephone sessions to walk me through the company website and basic procedures. Then I was assigned my first of 10 training documents, a fairly technical 1,000-word assessment of a scholarly article apparently being considered for publication. The editor needed to see it by then end of her shift, eight hours away. 1,000 words in eight hours? In a newsroom, you have 30 minutes if you’re lucky.

But I had to change my computer to settings I didn’t know existed and make copies of the document under at least two different filenames to avoid overwriting the original. I fielded instant messages and e-mails from the senior editor asking when how I was doing, when the copy was coming, why I was having problems after she’d explained everything. (That felt like working in a newsroom.) When I proudly sent off my edit, she sent it back with many revisions, not least the fact that there were at least a dozen instances of double spaces after sentences, when MLA style called for just one. That struck me as rather anal, but I had spent decades working on typesetting systems where those extra spaces didn’t matter. Apparently, they do to the MLA.

By the end of the evening, I was mentally exhausted and ready to quit, but I didn’t want to be a quitter. Three more documents had already landed, due back in less than 48 hours. I saved them for the next day, by which time three more documents had landed. They ranged from a straightforward press release to a highly technical scientific paper to a couple of student essays – one labeled as a journalism class assignment, one possibly ESL or possibly middle-school. Moreover, they called for at least three different styles. Now I’m no stranger to stylebooks; I’ve even helped to rewrite one, The Boston Globe’s in the 1980s. But this was too much, too fast. In the meantime, the instant messages, e-mails and, worst of all, revisions kept coming at me.

I couldn’t do it. I could not believe how hard this work was.

In three and a half days, I completed only six documents. My hands ached; my laptop was visibly slowing down because of so many windows open at the same time and so much added software. Two nights in a row, I had to take a sleeping pill to turn off my brain. “For this kind of stress,” I told a friend, “I might as well go back to The Times.”

“I see now that I was unprepared for the kind of editing you do,” I wrote in the e-mail announcing my bailout. “The learning curve is just too steep.” I’ve edited two doctoral dissertations, but even they had not prepared me for what a different world academia is. Thank goodness I teach journalism, not academic writing. If ever I’m hired for a publish-or-perish job, journalism is what I’ll have to publish.

Now that my hands have stopped hurting and I can sleep again, I see an opportunity to learn from failure. In some ways, those three and a half days were a waste of time; I could have spent them working on an article on Vancouver’s Chinese heritage that would pay three times as much as a week of this editing. Still, I tried something new and learned that it wasn’t right for me. In the finite amount of time I have left of this planet, I need to focus on the things I do well. You wouldn’t believe how much better I felt once I got myself up and out to Chinatown to start on that article.

Judging from what I saw, I respect this company’s rigor, efficiency and professionalism. As a teacher, I do have reservations about letting students pay to have their work edited: shouldn’t their teachers see their raw copy and know just what they’re capable of? But overall, my hat is off to the editors who do for this company what I ultimately couldn’t. At The New York Times, the tryout for a copyediting job is (or was when I did it 24 years ago) a week on one of the news desks. I suspect these people would do well; they already know AP style.

The manuals in which I invested will go to either the UBC bookstore, if it will pay cash, or to Koerner Library as a donation. As a revenue stream, ushering on Broadway is a lot less stressful and a lot more fun. I’m also thinking of starting my own service, Real World Editing – no academic convolutions, just good solid English communication. Your documents may not come back 100 percent perfect – what piece of writing ever is? — but they’ll be much improved. Any takers?

One thought on “Flunking out

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