Alumni Spotlight: Elizabeth Schroll

Elizabeth (Symm) Schroll (MA ’13)

When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them that I play with words. My official title at the human-scale publishing company where I work is copy editor, but I’ve had authors refer to me as a fairy godmother, a wizard, a savant. The thing is, this isn’t about me. Any skilled, thoughtful, and compassionate editor is as Samwise Gamgee was to Frodo Baggins in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. A friend, encourager, truth teller along for the perilous journey of bearing an author’s words to their audience. In the decade I’ve been in publishing, I have yet to encounter an orc at the office, but so many things can get in the way of a book’s message, from the usual suspects of unconventional grammar or confusing syntax to subtler-but-more-dangerous varieties like incorrect facts or unchallenged assumptions.

You might be surprised to think of editors as helpful friends instead of Formidable Presences with Red Pens. And because, as our publisher likes to say, we “live in the truth,” I won’t deny that the digital version of red-pen editing is a thing in some quarters. But it certainly isn’t editing at its finest, editing that serves the writer and readers rather than the ego of the person behind the pen (the one with the You made a mistake, and I found it! mentality).

One of my favorite aspects of my job is that it’s so relational. Our publishing company tends to acquire smart, grounded, caring human beings who are deep thinkers and talented writers, and it’s an honor to interact with them and their words. Sometimes I get to meet our authors in person, which is delightful. More often, though, we’re engaging with each other in marginal comments on a Word document. And while I firmly believe in the power of written language as a tool for communication, I also believe it’s important to be careful how we wield this power. Absent an in-person conversation, with accompanying facial expressions and body language, discussing a writer’s work with them can be a tricky business.

An author I’ve worked with multiple times once emailed me a cartoon of a writer and an editor having dinner together. The writer’s head was a pencil tip; the editor’s was a pencil eraser. I got the joke, of course, but this cartoon also lingers in my mind as a cautionary tale. The purpose of editing is not to undo authors’ work but rather to enhance it.

A colleague once explained to my newbie self that copy editors serve as first readers of a manuscript. I’ve found this a helpful stance to take while winding my way through a book-to-be. Yes, I’m finding and marking “hard errors” (i.e., things that indisputably must be fixed, like a misspelled word, a comma splice, or a mixed metaphor). But I’m also responding to the content as an actively engaged reader. Sometimes this means noting what’s working well. Other times it means asking questions like “Is this true, though? Skeptical readers might argue _____,” gently remarking, like Iñigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” or suggesting a more reader-friendly presentation of data (#visuallearnerhere). When I make a marginal comment on a manuscript, I try to do so in the role of first reader, of advocate to authors and readers.

This opportunity for connection, for acknowledging what’s working well and helping when something isn’t yet, is why I wake up in the morning excited to head to the office. Not finding a misplaced comma or showing off my nerdy knowledge of the Chicago Manual of Style. Pursuing meaning with others via the craft of writing—that’s a beautiful thing.

If you’re reading this and thinking, “I could see myself in this career,” I must caution you: Once an editor, always an editor. It’s virtually impossible to turn off an editing brain in your nonworking hours. Seriously. Try as you might to keep it to internal monologue, edits will spill out. You’ll catch yourself correcting your speech in real time. Or mention to a stranger that you edit and suddenly find yourself in a deep conversation about their aspirations to be a published writer. Friends of friends will ask your services for their writing projects. But if you’re truly passionate about editing, you won’t really mind. Because like Samwise, you’re along for the journey, willing to imagine what could be, to find beauty and truth and understanding in fellowship forged through wordsmithery.

Elizabeth Schroll (MA ’13)

Elizabeth Schroll has worked in the publishing industry since obtaining her MA in English from Kansas State University in 2013. As a copy editor at NavPress, she plays with words, researches intriguing topics, and contemplates obscure grammar rules to her heart’s content. When she isn’t knee-deep in a manuscript, Elizabeth enjoys being in the great outdoors, snuggling with her two cats, and spending quality time with her husband, George, who graciously endures occasional dinnertime lectures on the merits of em dashes.

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