Questions for a Senior Editor: James Harbeck
James Harbeck has been an editor with MediResource for 13 years and has been editing, designing, and language loving for even longer. He delights fellow word geeks with his Sesquiotic blog and his column for The Week.
What route did you take to your current position as Senior Editor at MediResource [online publisher of health information for Canadian consumers]?
It’s the second full-time job with editor in the title that I’ve had—before it, I was briefly a page editor with the newspaper Metro—but my editorial experience goes back somewhat further than that; in grad school, I edited a newsletter, and in my first job after grad school, as a copywriter, I did layout and edited a newsletter. After that job ended, I picked up freelance work mainly doing desktop publishing and editing. I’ve always been a language geek kind of person, and I took opportunities and advice as they came.
How is the work you do writing and speaking on editing, language, and linguistics different from the work you do at MediResource?
The stuff I do on my own is fun and creative and performative; I do it for audiences, but not for much money. The work I do at MediResource is not usually so creative, and there’s not much performative aspect to it; it’s more like gardening. It can be very rewarding, and sometimes I get to figure out some interesting ways to make things work better in a workflow, but it’s a quiet job at a desk. No glory. But money.
Other than the money (very important!), what do you find satisfying about working with health-related content?
It does something useful for people. Reliable health information is a valuable thing. And I learn things while I’m doing it, too. And of course there’s just the aspect of doing something well and producing good results. Again, like gardening, but with cleaner fingernails.
What fascinates you about English and linguistics?
What fascinates a pilot about flying, or a climber about climbing, or a skier about skiing?
Which resources (books, websites, etc.) do you use practically every day?
For my blog, I use the OED online a lot, and Wikipedia (!), and Dictionary.com, Bartleby.com, and the Corpus of Contemporary American English. At work we have so many well-developed in-house resources that I seldom need to refer to standard references anymore.
What fortune-cookie-sized advice would you give other editors?
Rules exist to serve communication, not vice-versa.
Words are known by the company they keep.
Any favorite editing techniques or tips?
I’m particularly fond of good find-and-replace stunts (often working between two or three applications) such as the ones I describe towards the end of my presentation on desktop publishing workflow.
What is the most memorable project you’ve worked on?
Hmm. Hard to say. There was the booklet that went through more than 50 revisions, most of which after it was already in layout. I realized after a certain point that the client had a budget he wanted to make sure he spent. There was the francophone client who insisted that the automatic hyphenation in our English layouts was wrong—she was going by the rules of French hyphenation. I just turned off hyphenation to get around this. There was the client who stalled on giving any revisions for a long time, and then called the night before we were supposed to go to press with an incredible welter of changes.
If you weren't editing, what would you like to try as a career? What's a job that fascinates you?
I tried to be an actor, but that didn’t really work out so well. I’d still enjoy doing something performative. When I was a kid I fancied going into radio, and I’ve always enjoyed every radio thing I’ve done. Hmmm…
Check out the rest of the Q&A series for more editor interviews!