Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Uh No, I Don't Do That

Normally I don't talk about work here due to a healthy fear of being dooced. But four different conversations this week involving the "What Do You Do?" question have got me thinking. Describing my work to people I've just met inevitably leads to misunderstandings.

If I just say "I'm an editor," most assume I mean a copy editor -- a professional grammar cop who ferrets out spelling and syntax mistakes. Anyone who reads this blog can guess that is NOT my area of expertise. In fact, (SHHH, don't tell anyone who hires me) but I'm just a wee bit dyslexic. To occasionally spot a howler of a mistake in a manuscript is indeed possible for me, but being a stellar copy editor under the circumstances? That would be like putting a color-blind guy in charge of picking all the tints for Revlon's lipstick division. Not a pretty thing.

But, I must fit the nerdy, persnickety personality profile of a copy editor, so this is the conclusion most people draw. To dissuade people from this assumption I started saying, "I'm a book editor."

But "book editor" also carries heavy assumptions. Many automatically think I work on fiction. Not just any fiction -- best-selling stuff. The excitement and interest that warms people's voices when I say "book editor" flatters me, so sometimes I don't elaborate further, but look away and blush with equivocation. (Hey, I'm human and I need to be loooved. Just like everybody else does.)

Except sometimes people sound too excited about my job. Then I must hasten to add, "I work on nonfiction" as I back away slowly. Otherwise someone whips out a 1,000-page manuscript written in a sestina verse variant that retells the story of Moby Dick from the whale's perspective. And that person will always expect me to take their manuscript home and spend the next six months of leisure time reading and editing it for them (for free, of course) before I short track them through the rest of the publishing process to fame, fortune, and Oprah's book club. There really isn't a nice way to say "Oh hell, NO!" under these circumstances. All you can do is run away and hope the manuscript doesn't give you a concussion if the person throws it as you retreat.

Usually saying "nonfiction editor" stops this process dead. But a small, diligent group of memoir writers still gets too excited at this news, which leads me to add "I work on educational books. You know, for college?"

That ends all conversation. Because apparently university press is like tampax: something a lot of us use and need at one point in life. But not something we want to think about.

Meantime, people STILL have absolutely no idea what it is I actually do to the books I edit. Probably they assume I'm a copy editor.

I really envy DH when people ask him what he does. "I'm an animator" inevitably brings cheers of "Wheee!" from all age groups, no strings.


Julia said...

So as someone who has to, on occasion, select a text for a college class, I have nothing but respect for educational editors. Wheeeeeeee.

Animation is pretty cool too.

niobe said...

When I try to describe exactly what it is that people I know do for a living, I often find myself at a loss for words. Because, it turns out, I really have no idea what anyone else's job entails.

But, that said, yours sounds way cool to me.

Ann said...

I used to be a newspaper reporter. Whenever I gave people this information, they would often come back with, "Hey, you should write a story about me!" My in-laws (who lived in a different state at the time I was reporting) would always bring it up when something they thought was interesting happened. "Hey, Ann, you should write about this!" Except, um, that I wrote for a local newspaper, and they lived two hours away.

I think it's the whole publishing thing. It throws people off.

meg said...

Yeah, your job does sound cool. I have no idea how to describe what I do most of the time to people. Mostly 'cause they have no idea what I am talking about. Blank stares, yup.