Written by Frances Peck; copy edited by Karen Barry
Margaret Shaw is a Coquitlam-based writer and editor of mostly scientific and technical material, ranging from manuals and books, to reports and procedures. Besides EAC, she belongs to Plain Language Association International and the Society for Technical Communication. She holds EAC certifications in structural and stylistic editing and copy editing.
You’re kind of an earth girl, Margaret. Your B.Sc. was half in geology and your M.Sc. was in earth sciences and hydrogeology. What (on earth) led you to editing and writing?
I suppose I came full circle. I wrote my first book in Grade 1, at my teacher’s request. It was called In the Hospital and was a detailed account of having my tonsils out. It was bound with green construction paper folded in two and stapled.
I consider my dad, who was a chemist, to be my first and most important writing teacher, even though he never knowingly taught me anything about writing. He has always been a great natural writer and fantastic at explaining the essence of things simply. My mum, who was a nurse, was the one I asked about spelling. I remember how pleased she seemed as she spelled out words.
I won the English prize when I graduated from high school and then did two years of a journalism degree before changing direction. The later science degree was because I wanted to save the environmental world, and I loved all the biology and geology. But writing has always been in my soul. In my last year or two as a hydrogeologist, I remember rereading reports and letters and enjoying how skilfully I’d written them! I suspect that now I’d be less impressed.
Do you ever have to go out in the field for your work—visit a mine, say, or wield a rock pick?
When I wrote the procedures for the City of Pitt Meadows’ public works department, I interviewed subject-matter experts there about what they did. I donned a hard hat and spent an afternoon underground in a pressure-reducing-valve station (part of the water distribution system) learning what all the pipes and valves did. When I helped Golder Associates redesign their course on geotechnical field methods, I spent two days in the field with the students, two drill rigs, and a backhoe, while the students learned how to drill rock core and log test pits. The last time I wielded a rock hammer was when I worked as a field geologist as a summer student—unless you count using the back end of it to hammer in tent pegs on family camping trips.
It’s no surprise, since you specialize in scientific and technical material, that you’re a big plain language advocate. Do you ever have to sell your clients on the value of ordinary English?
My clients seem to appreciate it when I simplify language. I think sometimes they’re surprised that the language expert is the one who wants to use shorter words and simpler sentences, but they can see that it adds value and makes sense.
Tell us a bit about your experience with EAC certification.
I was among the first editors to obtain the then-new Certified Structural and Stylistic Editor designation. I’m not even sure I was an EAC member then, and in my naïveté, I jumped in and took the test. Luckily it turned out well. I’m also certified in copy editing. For both exams, I studied 60 hours or something—maybe more than some people because much of what I do is write or manage projects, so I had a lot to learn. And I learned a great deal. Studying for the certification exams is a great way to broaden and sharpen your skills.
I know you sometimes—often?—carry a heavy workload. How do you fit it all in? Take us through a typical day.
My typical day? Up around 6:15, to the gym or pool. Home for breakfast. Walk Twix, our miniature schnauzer, sometimes with a friend. Make coffee. I aim to be at my desk by 9:30 every day. If I have time, I spend half an hour to an hour answering email and reading the EAC email list, LinkedIn articles, or other links or readings that seem important for keeping up to date. Then I work until around 5:30. I usually take at least an hour for lunch—long enough to make and eat lunch and take the dog for a short walk. I actually find it very challenging to sit all day (I’m up and down for tea and water endlessly), so I’ve taken to eating my lunch standing up in the kitchen. If I stand an empty one-gallon ice cream container on the counter and set my plate on that, it’s at just the right height for me to enjoy my lunch and a view of the street at the same time!
If I have a crazy deadline, I do like most editors and work evenings and weekends if needed. I’m happy to work to the exclusion of all else occasionally, and it can feel exhilarating for a few weeks, but I don’t like it as a lifestyle. I want time for other things: family, friends, hiking, cycling, skiing, book club, knitting club (more aptly called wine-drinking and visiting club), and EAC and STC meetings. I joined Toastmasters last fall, and to my surprise, I like being the centre of attention at the front of a room, at least sometimes. Then there are association commitments (like this one!) and piano lessons, which I started taking three years ago, starting pretty much from scratch. I like to keep a half-hour or hour most days to practise.
If I have a drier spell, I spend about the same amount of time at my desk, but I look for work and accept more volunteer work. Last spring my workload was lighter, so I volunteered to pilot-test a clear communication course funded by the EU and developed in part by Vancouver’s Katherine McManus. That was a great opportunity that consumed about 15 hours a week for I think 10 weeks—tipping the balance from not especially busy to very busy. Also last year, I contributed to the chapter on measurement for the new Editing Canadian English. I enjoyed working with the contributors and reviewers.
Now a few quick questions. What do you do to unwind?
Just before bed, I read. I love the feeling that the day’s obligations are over and I can enter my own little world with my book. Occasionally I have coffee with a group of neighbourhood women. I often hike with my husband and some good friends on the weekend. Even better is when our kids, who are both at SFU and live at home, come with us.
What’s your earliest memory of writing or reading?
I have a lovely memory of sitting on my grandfather’s bed while he read me Winnie-the-Pooh. I was four. As for writing, besides the book in Grade 1, when I was about 10 I was at a friend’s house playing in her family’s car one very windy day, and I felt that wind in my soul, so I wrote a poem about it.
What are you reading for pleasure right now?
I just finished Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward. I really enjoyed it. Now I’m reading Writing Science in Plain English by Anne E. Greene. It’s short enough that it’s a pleasure to read.
Beyond the usual—dictionary, style guide—what’s your favourite editing resource?
The EAC list is one for sure. I’ve learned a great deal from fellow EACers over the years. Other than that, my resources are diffuse. I’ve been influenced by Subtleties of Scientific Style by Matthew Stevens, but I don’t know that I’d call it a favourite resource.
Pet grammar peeve?
I can’t think of one. I’m fascinated by how quickly language evolves to suit a changing world, and I think it’s good to remember that not everyone is a language professional—nor would we want them to be!
Serial comma or no serial comma?
If I get to set the style, I use serial commas. But if I receive a document and they’re not used, I go with that and don’t quibble. I don’t think it matters as long as the serial comma is used when it’s needed for clarity.
Frances Peck, a partner with West Coast Editorial Associates, has been an EAC member and volunteer for nearly 20 years.
Karen Barry is launching into freelance editing and is currently enrolled in SFU’s Editing Certificate program. She has a background in biology and over 15 years’ experience writing and editing research papers, technical reports, grant proposals, and promotional and educational materials.