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“How did you end up as an editor?” I have lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked this question. Friends, colleagues, and people with whom I grew up were surprised that I took up a career quite unrelated to that for which I originally trained. I still don’t have a ready answer, because it was chance that brought me to where I am today. However, to the many science graduates contemplating an alternative career today, I can tell you that it is possible to succeed in an editing career with your science background, and you don’t need to worry about getting that master’s degree in mass communications.
It is all a question of whether you are prepared to commit yourself to start afresh in an area outside your training and are willing to go that extra mile to succeed!
When I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in science in the late 1970s, there weren’t many career choices for me. I could have become a biologist, a teacher, or even a businessman like many of my peers. In fact, my first job offer was as a teacher, but I thought that was too mundane a job for me. Being more of the outdoor type, I preferred something more adventurous. So, when I was offered a reporter’s position in a small news company, I cheerfully leapt into the unfamiliar world of publishing.
The metaphor of the world of news publishing then was an array of megasized printing machines working through the night churning out black-and-white newspapers. Technology was more fundamental then, and we were still very much dependent on manual transcriptions of interviews and hand-typed manuscripts. When I started, I took a basic course in stenography: the art of rapid writing using symbols. In those days, you couldn’t dream of being a reporter if you did not know shorthand. Although cassette recorders were already on the market by then, seasoned reporters were still most adept at such manual recording of news and interviews, which they did at incredible speed. That is a skill I admire, even to this day!
As a small company with little international presence then, we were heavily dependent on news agencies such as Reuters, Xinhua, and Bernama for international news coverage. Reporters not only had to explore and write local news but also transcribe telegrams from international news agencies. Without the luxury of present-day multiple modes of real-time news transmissions, we had to work much harder to get news into print. Thus, I was gradually inducted into the world of publishing.
I literally grew with the industry. After a few years, I was promoted to associate editor. As an editor, I learned how to distill a reporter’s information and crystallize it into simple but accurate news. In news publishing, our primary constraint was always space. As an editor, my role was to make the optimum use of our space to deliver as much of the best to the readers as possible. I learned to judge the newsworthiness of each story and make important decisions on what stories were headlines, breaking news, or features.
Years later, as a more experienced editor, I started receiving requests from friends who owned companies to privately write or edit their writings. It was quite a dilemma for me then. Being a full-time employee, moonlighting was out of the question. However, after serving the company for so many years, I was also yearning to break free to be on my own. Following discussions with family and friends and much deliberation, I relinquished my editor position to become a freelance writer/editor.
Freelancing gave me more flexibility with my time. However, the first few years were daunting, as I was suddenly on my own and had to be responsible for everything concerning my livelihood. Moreover, all my employee benefits–medical coverage, provident funds, travel allowances, and complimentary insurance–were suddenly gone. My sole motivation then was the determination to succeed on my own.
My first freelance contract was with a technology firm owned by a friend from school. He was about to launch some new products and needed someone with sufficient scientific and technical knowledge to help polish up product information brochures. I was a perfect fit for the role. With their business booming, I enjoyed many years of working with them. As a ghostwriter, I also wrote speeches for the company. Eventually I gave up on writing to focus on editing.
Today, I only edit scientific and technical writings–from press releases and corporate newsletters to advertorials and product information brochures. This kind of editing often proved more difficult than news editing, because the drafts–usually written by inexperienced writers–could be so poorly written that sometimes it was hard to figure out what the author was trying to say. This problem is more prevalent with traditional Chinese companies that use the Mandarin language. As an editor, I have to ensure that the information being put forth is actually intended by the client to be for dissemination. Often, this means many follow-up discussions and verifications with the company before finalizing a piece.
Unlike being an employee, in freelance business, assignments may come at unexpected times and often in lots. You can burn yourself out or at times find no work. During peak periods, I often have to meet multiple deadlines. However, I always make it a point to deliver my work on time. Although you work in the background, often in anonymity, personal integrity is vital for a freelancer. It is hard work, but the fact that you are working for yourself makes everything a little more worthwhile.