When You’ve Found Your People: In Conversation with Letitia Henville

To mark Editors Canada’s 40th anniversary celebrations, an interview with a representative from the up-and-coming editing professionals seemed in order. I had the great pleasure of chatting with Vancouver-based Letitia Henville about her perspectives on editing-related subjects. She had just moved, so internet connection was not guaranteed leading up to our scheduled discussion. However, the stars aligned and Letitia generously took time out of her evening—the night before she was to begin her new job as Coordinator of Graduate Programs for UBC Arts Co-op programs—to talk with me. Letitia was the 2018 recipient of the Claudette Upton Scholarship, and that’s where our conversation began.

How did you arrive at editing?

I did a PhD at the University of Toronto, completed in 2015, and I knew a research life was not for me. I decided to conduct informational interviews to see what other opportunities existed. I stumbled upon research grants facilitation—helping academics secure funding for research projects. I did a ton of informational interviews, and the more I found out about this line of work, the work seemed to resonate with what I enjoyed: helping people, being detail-oriented, caring about words, and working with people who really care about what they do.

I entered this field after my PhD, and it was only after I entered it that I talked to a friend of a friend, who is an Editors Canada member and who suggested I might learn things from doing some professional development in this field. “If you want to edit things,” my friend asked, “have you considered learning about it?”

That seems like such an obvious thing to say now, but at the time, I didn’t realize how much there was to editing. I just didn’t know; I was coming from the outside. I had taught first-year students writing, how to write English papers, and studied poetry extensively, so I thought I knew everything I needed to know in order to edit effectively. I knew some things, but I didn’t know so many things.

It’s a very mysterious kind of profession, I find. People don’t know.

Honestly, I think of a lot of things as being gendered. Editing is one of those forms of invisible labour that very often women do, that when it’s done well, you don’t see it. And so, the more that I took classes, the more classes I realized I needed to take. I was fortunate enough to win the Claudette Upton Scholarship after about two years of slowly picking away at classes here and there, and it enabled me to attend my first editors’ conference in spring 2018. It was so fantastic! One of the things I loved about it was the quality of the conversations—especially in the stream dedicated to decolonizing the profession, emphasizing Indigeneity, and centring Indigenous voices. I appreciated editors’ ability to say, “Okay, what if everything I’ve dedicated my life to learning and working to do well doesn’t work to the best for the services of this population? Once I throw everything out the window, how do I then help them?” It’s just so wonderful that that’s what editors want to do! I came away from that conference even more excited by this editing profession than I was before I went to the conference.

My career has taken this different turn, but I like to think of myself as being one of those young millennial types with a portfolio career who assembles many different skillsets and applies knowledge from one field to another, and everything criss-crosses. The only editing that I’ll be doing over the next year is editing resumés and cover letters, and then I won’t really be hands-on. I’ll be coaching other people to edit themselves.

That’s a big part of editing though, right?

I’m going to want to just fix that comma problem, but I’m going to have to not, and go back to the teaching side of things. It’s going to be different, but it’s going to be fun.

It sounds as though you’re well on your way to taking up that millennial profile you talked about.

I think so. I think it’s how the work world works nowadays.

It sounds really organic, too. These pieces are falling into place and are naturally interrelated, and you’re taking up those interrelationships and leveraging them at the same time.

I see them as being interrelated. I still don’t have a job description, but it’s going to be wonderful.

So editing was a part of your previous job, right? The editing aspect wasn’t something that you were seeking out specifically?

I knew I liked working with words and I knew I liked improving writing. I use all this qualifying language now because at the time, I thought that I was editing. Now I realize I was only scratching the surface.

What did you think editing looked like before, in your earliest days?

I knew that it might involve changing the structure or the organization of a piece. I knew that I might do some copy editing type stuff. I already knew how to fix grammatical errors. I didn’t have the full toolkit. I didn’t have the language to describe what stylistic editing was, or structural editing, or developmental editing. When I was having conversations with faculty members as they were starting to write, or before they’d even started writing something, I didn’t realize that was also editing.

Did you come to a clearer sense of those different levels through editing work or was it more through the courses that you were taking?

Courses and reading. I have an editing book club that gets together once a month.

Nice! That’s really cool!

You know, there are divergent answers to whenever I tell people that my book club is an editing book club. And you had one of the two different answers. We’re reading Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook right now. We are going to discuss the second half of it in our next meeting, and wow, there’s so much!

I see you are enrolled in the Queen’s University Professional Editing Standards Certificate program. How are you finding that?

It’s definitely a lot of work. They really align themselves with Editors Canada. They are preparing you to write the tests; that’s what their structure is like. It’s closely aligned to Professional Editorial Standards 2.2, for example. There’s a lot to learn. I am fortunate that I’ve met a couple of people online through that program who are now Twitter buddies and who I would talk with on the chat feature of the Queen’s program. It’s always better when you have peers who you’re working with than when you’re on your own, especially for the online programs.

Has it crossed your mind that you are working towards certification?

Yes. From my perspective, because the field within which I work is so narrow, like academic writing only, my learning really benefits from the structure of preparing for these tests because it forces me to delve into areas of editing that I wouldn’t otherwise go into. For someone like me who has worked within quite a narrow field, preparing for certification is something that opens my horizons and helps me to see more of those unknowns. It helps me to see more of what I don’t know about. Who knows how that will apply back into what I’ve done previously or forwards in what I might do in the future. I don’t think certification is required; for me, I’m learning a lot, so I’ll take that. But I also have the good fortune of working for a university, and so I get professional development funds. I definitely spend more on my professional development than those funds ever cover, but when you have someone to subsidize those costs, it makes it much easier to say yes.

Do you see yourself ever stepping outside of academic editing? Do you have any aspirations to edit fiction, non-fiction or poetry?

Well, every time I talk to someone who edits poetry, I always want to know, how do you do that? I have a deep interest in and affection for fiction and for poetry, given that I spent a solid portion of my life heavily invested in those materials. For now, I am really loving working in the academic editing field. As a grants facilitator, I worked with health sciences researchers. Every single person I was working with was invested in improving the quality of life of vulnerable populations—people with chronic diseases or disabilities. Everyone was like, “I want people to have better lives and be able to do the things that bring them happiness.” I want that, too. So, when you are working with people who are doing good work, it’s hard to imagine that more exists elsewhere. But other people edit poetry and then you think, oh, I want to do that, too! I imagine that I would be pretty well equipped to edit many different types of poetry because I understand a lot of the technical aspects of it to a great depth, but it’s not something that I’ve pursued at all.

Is there a favourite type of editing or aspect of editing that you’ve encountered so far?

I know it’s not copy editing because I’m doing that right now, and it’s just the hardest thing. I think it’s either structural or developmental because my background comes from teaching university students. It’s that sort of ‘coaching’—not just making a change but saying this is where the change comes from, and here’s the effect that I was trying to achieve, and did it achieve this effect for you? That sort of back and forth I do still enjoy a lot. I consider myself a fine-details person, and when I was an academic, I described my approach to literary analysis as something like “I found this interesting comma on page 67.” Whereas my friend’s approach was “What is it to be human?” I was always this fine-details person, but when it comes to editing, I do like the stepping back a little bit and saying, “What is this piece doing as a whole, and how are the various parts contributing to the whole?” When something is still a malleable hunk of clay as opposed to a stone tablet, you think about them differently, you touch them differently.

What do you think constitutes an “ideal” editor, based on what you know about editing now?

I would say the ideal editor would be informed, meaning that they’re not as naïve as I was when I started. I would say they are conscientious, not only in how they make their changes but also in how they query. And I would say that they’re probably a team player, somebody who sees themselves working together with an author towards a shared goal and working together with a reader towards a shared goal. Working with academics, I sometimes have to strongly advocate for the readers’ needs in a way that academics may not be accustomed to thinking about.

Yes, and I might add ‘curious’ to that list. Someone who’s naturally curious about whatever the subject is so that it helps them formulate questions and get inside the subject a little bit.

Yes, an openness to have their minds changed. A willingness to rethink their ideas, all of that.

What advice would you give to someone who’s considering becoming an editor today?

I think it’s the same advice I would give to someone who’s considering any profession, which is talk to people who do it, and talk to many people who do it. Invite them to have a coffee with you, find out what their day-to-day is like, find out what they are like as individuals, and see if the way they think about the world kind of fits with you. You learn more that way. Obviously, I recommend that because that’s what I did when I was trying to figure out my own profession. I really think just having a coffee with people who do the kind of work you are interested in getting into is the best way to figure out if it’s the right fit for the kind of life you want to live, and if the culture of the work is going to be a good fit for who you are.

How did you find editors to talk to?

Through a friend of a friend. We went out for coffee and she invited me to an Editors BC branch meeting.

What advice would you give to someone considering becoming a member of Editors Canada? If they were on the fence, what would you say to them?

It’s only worth it if you have the time and capacity to get stuff out of it. Joining wouldn’t be worth it if you weren’t able to attend the workshops, or able to attend a branch or twig meeting, or interested in going to a conference. It’s the kind of thing where you get out of it what you’re willing and able to put into it, which is true of a lot of things, I suppose. I went to the 2018 conference, and to the 2019 conference because I found the 2018 one so interesting, so valuable and so generative. I loved being in the room with all these other wonderful people who have so much more experience than me, and such depth of thought and experience that they’re willing to share. I’m happy to show up and I was happy to pay for my flight to Halifax. If I wasn’t that invested in meeting Editors Canada halfway, it wouldn’t make too much sense to be involved.

What were you looking forward to the most about the Halifax conference?

It’s just a lovely environment to be around and it situates you well for learning. You’re well-placed to learn and to develop and to add nuance to your skillset in an open and curious environment. It’s similar to my editing book club, but it’s scaled to such a great degree by the sheer number of people. They’re just a really lovely and smart group of folks.

Would that encapsulate what you see as the benefits to having a professional editorial community? Yes, it sets you up well. It allows you to have your guard down, your defences down, your mind open enough to change your mind and to open you up to new ideas. The feel of an editing conference was so different from the feel of an academic conference that it felt like I wasn’t there to perform. It felt like I was there to listen and learn.

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