This is the second of our blogs delving into the innermost thoughts of some of AFEPI Ireland’s accomplished editors. Today Máire O’Dwyer talks to Brendan O’Brien, an environment and science editor with a rich background and reams of wisdom to share. Brendan talks about his early work with the Institute of Metals, Daniel O’Donnell’s biography, and how being open to different ideas and perspectives makes for a better editor.
Brendan, can you briefly describe your background before you became an editor.
I worked in Dublin City Libraries (various branches) for around four years in my early- to mid-twenties. I had started a science degree at UCD, but didn’t finish it until later, through the Open University.
How did you start in environment and science editing?
I started editing in 1988, when I was 28, with a Dublin free newspaper that never really got off the ground. A stint in London followed, working first on journals for the Institute of Metals and then on civil engineering books and journals with Thomas Telford. In these two jobs I learned a lot about editorial and production work, often under pressure. It was invaluable training. Landing my first ‘proper’ editorial role was a breakthrough: I had been working as a temp in a law library when I saw an ad in Bookseller magazine; I applied, did an interview and got the job.
I also worked for a schoolbook publisher in Dublin before going freelance in 1993. I was able to get work with former employers and with companies such as Elsevier (Shannon), which was publishing numerous science journals at that time. I worked for the Environmental Protection Agency from a fairly early stage, and for publishers such as Routledge. I’ve worked on about seventy journals in all, and on hundreds of books and reports.
What skills are needed to work in the field of environment and science?
The author supplies the subject-matter expertise. The editor mainly needs editorial expertise, but it would help to have at least some knowledge of science concepts and conventions so that you know what to change, what to check and what to query.
Can you briefly describe the services you offer in both this specialism and generally.
I do a lot of copyediting. I also do developmental editing and proofreading, and often manage projects from manuscript through to publication, dealing with authors, typesetters, etc.
What have been your most exciting/interesting project/s?
Most of the material I work with is functional and not at all exciting, although it can be interesting. I’ve enjoyed working on some memoirs in recent years, of people such as Feargal Quinn (RIP) and Daniel O’Donnell. I also enjoyed a sports book by Weeshie Fogarty (RIP), a Kerry broadcaster who was a very nice man and pleasant to work with.
I once worked on a six-volume reference resource on Irish history, containing millions of words, which included biographies of the 2000 or so members of the eighteenth-century Irish parliament. It was challenging, but very interesting in terms of the insight it gave into the Ireland of those times. Many of the MPs were very colourful characters.
What advice would you give to people writing in this field?
I think trying too hard to impress is a major pitfall in any kind of formal or technical writing. Many authors tend to write long, complicated, jargon-laden sentences and paragraphs. It’s better to aim for simplicity and clarity: the important thing is that the reader understands the message with a minimum of effort. Plain English is big these days; there are books and online resources that can help.
Has this type of editing led you into other areas and if so what?
I have worked on virtually every type of non-fiction, as I found that being a generalist rather than a specialist was the best way to ensure a steady flow of work. There is something to be said for specialising, though, and it might be worth considering for an editor starting out. Advice on career paths is readily available through the networks I mention below.
Any last thoughts to share?
I think humility is a great quality in an editor (and one that we may learn the hard way – everyone makes mistakes). It pays to check things and look things up. It certainly pays to be open to different ideas and perspectives as to the editor’s role, and in terms of language use. Also, when you make decisions, try to bear in mind that you may need to defend them. Will you be able to?
I would emphasise the importance of networking for freelance editors. I joined AFEPI (then AFEP) in 1993, and used to meet up with colleagues from time to time, in cafes or in members’ houses. We produced a booklet containing our details, which was sent to every publisher in Ireland. But after I moved out of Dublin in 1998, I had less to do with the association. I did virtually no networking from then until 2013. I was isolated.
Facebook changed everything for me professionally. There are perhaps 500 editors, based all over the world, among my Facebook friends. For a time I became more involved in AFEPI Ireland as well, having got to know some fellow members online.
You learn a lot in editors’ networks. The main thing I have learned is to take a less prescriptivist (following the rules) and more descriptivist (being aware of how language is actually used) approach in my work: to be flexible and context-aware. Before I was in regular touch with other editors, the imposed rigidity of in-house ways was hard to shake off. Also, these forums can be a good source of work. My advice to anyone who hasn’t already done so is to join online editors’ groups, some of which are great resources for new or inexperienced editors in particular. We now have the tools that facilitate sharing of our experiences. Let’s make full use of them.
AFEPI Ireland would like to thank Brendan O’Brien for sharing his thoughts. See his biography below.
Brendan O’Brien is a 61-year-old freelance editor who grew up in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary; he now lives near Virginia, Co. Cavan, with his wife, Pauline, and their terrier. Their daughter, Susanna, is a speech & language therapist; their son, Sean, died suddenly in 2010, aged 19. Please see www.brendanedits.com for details of recent projects etc.
The views expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of AFEPI Ireland.