Wednesday, August 15, 2007


by Gina Sestak

Of all the many jobs I've held, my favorites have always been the ones in which I've had to learn new things. One of the best of these was my position as an academic editor.

The company I worked for was essentially a one-woman operation that combined word processing with editing services, back when word processing was still a novelty. I heard about it through a friend and got the job because I knew how to type, although I had to teach myself WordPerfect -- I'd been using WordStar and Multimate until then. I found the experience of learning a new word processing program a challenge that was remarkably similar to learning how to drive a different kind of car: you know there's a brake there somewhere. You just have to figure out which pedal to push.

I took the job after I'd left private law practice (see my blog of June 6, 2007) and had been freelancing -- selling my services to law firms -- for a year or so. I was broke and exhausted. The job didn't pay much, but it was steady work and, best of all, I was constantly learning things I'd never known before.

Sometimes I just typed student essays, editing out the obvious grammatical mistakes and trying to figure out how to express mathmatical/Greek alphabet terms from a standard keyboard. One was entirely in French -- I had to trust the student's spelling and grammar because, despite having studied that language in both high school and college, I had no idea how it should be written in a college-level paper.

Dissertations and theses ran the gamut from religious philosophy to Saudi Arabian politics, with a dose of sociology thrown in. Every one I worked on was full of interesting information. For example, I'd heard the term "grass widow" many times without ever having a clear idea what it meant. One dissertation (about the development of social welfare policy) explained the distinction between "sod widows" and "grass widows" -- a "sod widow" is alone because her husband is under the sod; a "grass widow" is alone because her husband decided that the grass was greener elsewhere. A major distinction.

Working with theses and dissertations was a new world to me. My J.D. (Juris Doctor) degree hadn't required me to write either. In fact, aside from reading a few when I worked as a library page (see my blog of January 13, 2007), my only contact with such academic writings had been drawing pictures of partially dissected flat worms to illustrate a roommate's thesis. [I wasn't paid for that and, since I didn't have to draw the poor dissected little worms from life, did it for fun.]

So what did I learn from this job? LOTS!

This job helped me as a writer by giving me the opportunity to edit other peoples work. It let me develop my word processing skills -- it's easier to write when you don't have to put a lot of thought into the act of getting words down. Most of all, it exposed me to a wealth of knowledge that is now accessible as background for my fiction.

What jobs have you held that allowed you to acquire interesting information?


Martha Reed said...

Gina, interesting comment about knowing how to type so you "don't have to put a lot of thought into the act of getting words down" - I was a typesetter for 15 years before I turned to writing and it never occurred to me that my writing might be faster/better because it's an effortless transition from my brain to my fingers! I can't even imagine writing do you edit/revise without cut and paste?

Nice post!


Joyce Tremel said...

Gina, yet another interesting job!

It's amazing how much we can "borrow" from other things we've done and put it in our writing.

Anonymous said...

I had a pang of nostalgia when you mentioned WordStar, Gina. Occasionally, I still try to use some of those commands, and I haven't used the program in 20 years. I guess that's muscle memory.

Anonymous said...

I like to think that all of my jobs, even the crappy ones, have taught me something--some more than others. The best part about changing jobs, as you point out, is that you get exposed to so many different environments and learn so many different things.

Nothing better than life experience for a writer.

Anonymous said...

One of my most educational jobs was as a unit clerk at a hospital. My upbringing in rural Ohio was backward--women talked to women and men talked to men, so I didn't know how to talk to men. This job forced me to learn to talk to adult men, which was most useful for me. We were a most primitive tribe amidst the corn fields.

Thanks for another interesting and educational blog, Ms. Gina.

Joyce Tremel said...

Cathy, I was a unit clerk too, way back BC (before children). I quit to be a stay at home mom.

Ramona said...

Gina, this wasn't a job, but a nurse friend studying to be a physician's assistant asked if I would edit some of her class papers. I was nervous about it, as I have no medical knowledge other than which end of an aspirin to swallow, but I ended up enjoying the work. (Well, except for the sections about mucous and secretions and...well, you get the picture. Yuck.) However, I learned that, basically, editing is editing, if you can get beyond the language/jargon barriers.

I think I 'm a pretty good editor (of other people's work, only) but I'm a terrible typist. Terrible. I bless Spell Check every day.

In other news (harking back to a previous blog, if you don't mind), guess what was in my morning newspaper today? The local police dept. is currently seeking applicants for a Citizens' Police Academy! They must have read this blog.

Joyce Tremel said...

Ramona, I hope you're going to sign up!

Ramona said...

I'm thinking about it, Joyce. I wonder if they need a class clown??

Anonymous said...

Maybe they need a good editor, Ramona?