Updated: Oct 25, 2022
I know it's a cliche, but that's what my corporate graphic design coworkers called me, back in the days when we worked together in an office: Word Girl.
Remember offices? God, I sort of miss them.
In return, I called the designers Picture Boys and Image Girls. Over time, as print faded and html arrived, there were also a few Web Wenches thrown in there.
Words have always been my thing. I remember being very young, standing in my room—not much taller than my twin bed (with its Bambi bedspread)—holding a word in my mouth. I rolled it around to see how it felt, how it sounded, what it meant. (I wish to God I could remember what that word was.)
If I'd known then what an editor was, I would probably have known that I'd grow up to be one.
When I was a child, I was that girl who always had a book in front of her face. Anne of Green Gables, James and the Giant Peach, all the Little House books, Walter Farley. Marguerite Henry. The Children's Big Book of Knowledge. Beverly Cleary. Judy Blume. If you were a child in the seventies and eighties, you know the gang. My aunt would take me to the Seattle Library's annual book sale, and that was how I met Betsy and Tacy. Digging through books in a closet in my grandparents' farmhouse, I discovered The Happy Hollisters, who I much preferred over Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. When I was older, my sister and I spent one entire summer reading our way through a brown paper bag full of Agatha Christies.
In high school, I hated writing. Hated it with a passion. But teachers told me I was good at it. In fact, they mailed my AP history essays off to the AP headquarters as examples of excellent student work. And they read my essays out loud to class. Each time they did, I wanted to sink through the floor. I didn't want any attention. I was the dorky girl reading Tolstoy, Austen, and Betty MacDonald in the library while hiding during lunch. I preferred books over people. The less attention I got, the better.
When I graduated, my high school surprised me with the senior class writing award. More attention. Those bastards.
I was confused. I mean, did I mention that I hated writing? Writing an essay was like performing a bloodletting on myself with a #2 pencil. How could I possibly be good at something I hated? Something so painful? As far as I was concerned, whoever chose me for that award had made a huge mistake.
When I started at the University of Washington, I had my sights set on law school. I was not—NOT—going to major in something useless like English literature. I took my first English class (a requirement) as a freshman. And I hated it. For the first time, I failed to read an assigned book for a class. (Actually, two: Waiting for Godot and Nightwood.) That was how much I hated it. I swore I'd never take another English anything ever again.
And I didn't. For an entire year. After changing my mind multiple times about majors, I finally had to break down and take comparative literature to satisfy my writing requirements. (I'd be damned if I was going to take another English course.) But somehow, I didn't hate it. Plus, one of my comp lit essays ended up in an undergraduate literary magazine.
I was closing in on the end of my sophomore year, and I still didn't have a major. So I decided that maybe I should give the writing thing another try. Maybe, I thought, I hoped, that comp lit success was just a fluke. So I signed up for an expository writing English class. And I got a 4.0. I thought it might be a fluke. So I took a second. Another 4.0.
I had to face the possibility that maybe there was actually something to this writing thing. And here was the surprising part: after spending a year not writing a word, writing had become a whole lot easier.
Something that I'd hated—something that had tied me up in knots of agony in high school—was now easy.
I'll never forget how I felt the day I declared my major in English. It was a damp spring day in the Pacific Northwest. The memory is tied up with an image of drippy cherry blossoms and watery sunlight. As I left the English Department office, I felt like a million pounds had been lifted off me. It was my first experience of feeling at one with the Universe—in step with my destiny, following my true path. Answering my soul's calling. It was bliss. For the rest of my undergrad career, I could count on my English classes being easy. Almost fun. I took science and history classes, too, just to feel like I was doing real work.
I had NO idea what I was going to do with this education. No one who's not a teacher goes out and gets a job in Romantic poetry or Chaucer. But here was a clue I should have paid attention to: when a professor would read another student's paper out loud or hand out copies for the class to critique, I zeroed in on the grammar. The punctuation. The structure. I vividly remember pointing out, during a class discussion, a place where a grammar error was impeding my understanding of a student's point. My professor (a glamorous and impeccably dressed Romanian woman who always sat on a desk in the front of the class with her stockinged legs gracefully crossed) waved away—literally waved away with expensively manicured hands—my input as "unimportant." She was beautifully cavalier about it.
I felt like I'd been unfairly, but elegantly, slapped. How could she not care about the grammar problems? I wondered. It IS important if it gets in the way of comprehension. I said nothing, but in my head I grumbled and gave her a little mental side eye. She was entitled to her opinion. Even though I knew I was right.
An editor was born.
Shortly after I graduated, I realized that, even though I'd had a fabulous time studying modern American literature and rolling with laughter at "The Rape of the Lock," I would probably be poor for the rest of my life. So when a job came along with a Seattle insurance company, I took it. My title: administrative assistant to the manager of Claims Audit. I had a beige cube on a beige floor in a beige building.
I wondered how'd I'd ended up answering phones and unjamming a copier for poverty pay. Nothing in college had prepared me for that. At the end of my first day of work, I went home and cried.
I'm happy to say, things got better. Thirty years later, I'm still working for that beige company. And never let first impressions fool you: I love that goddamn place. It's been the best job I could have ever dreamed of. Turned out, the manager of Claims Audit immediately sicced me on the department newsletter. And I never looked back. Moving through various departments, I've edited and written benefit brochures and contracts, provider manuals, newsletters, countless brochures, and 18 million flyers. I've written or edited every kind of document that company produces for every kind of audience it has. I've worked under and learned from amazing mentors, and collaborated with other writers, content experts, PR people, web developers, and graphic designers. And I've had an unexpected amount of fun doing it. It has been better than any graduate or PhD program in communications. I couldn't possibly summarize thirty years in a blog paragraph. So let's just leave it at that.
So why am I also a freelance manuscript editor?
The short answer is that several years ago, my younger son was admitted to a private high school and I had to come up with my share of the tuition. I'd transitioned to full-time home office for the insurance company several years earlier. With no commute or personal life to speak of, I had extra time. I briefly considered getting a night shift at the local Chevron. Anything to make a little extra money. But I'm terrible at making change and have never worked a cash register in my life.
I deal in words. I actually have no other skills.
I'd done freelance for a few years about ten years ago and liked it. So I decided I'd stick my toe back in and see how it went.
How it went is that I love it.
I still punch the corporate clock, usually in pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt, hair in a neglected bun. Starbucks coffee mug close enough for me to knock over. Again. But in my spare time (and believe me, as a single mom to a teenage boy during a pandemic, I have PLENTY of that), I work with self-publishing authors to make their publication dreams come true. The first eighteen months back freelancing sold me on it. So I doubled down and took the University of Washington Professional Course in Editing.
I'd been eyeballing that course for years. It was a good way to spend the first year of the pandemic. (I'm proud to say that I sailed through the Corporate Communications portion.)
In freelancing, I've found the second half of my true calling. My time is full, I help people tell their stories, I make friends, I enrich my life, and I have a purpose. My circle of fellow word-lovers grows daily. My greatest joy in freelancing comes from being invited along on a writer's journey. I cheer them on from day one of editing—all the way up to when they find themselves featured on Lifetime TV, talking about their story and their book.
(Yes, that has really happened.)
Each day I wake up excited about helping words do their work.
And tuition is paid.
So that is my Word Girl origin story.
More next time.