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Advice from a Medievalist Working in Publishing

Hwæt! It’s a medievalist … in publishing!

Yes, it’s true. My name is Sarah Kelley Brish, and I am a medievalist. What’s more, I’m a medievalist employed in a job directly related to my degree! Gasp, shock, disbelief!

That’s a common response from people when they hear what my degree is in. Just as often, I get asked, “What on earth does someone do with a degree in that?

This really is a great question. What do I do with my degree? I have a pretty cool job: I work as a desk editor for Medieval Institute Publications at Western Michigan University, and also for ARC Humanities Press.

I bet you’re wondering, “What does a desk editor do?” Well, I get to read a lot of fascinating works on a variety of medieval (and sometimes other academic) topics. There are books (monographs), collections of essays, journals, and various other types of materials that I get to help prepare for publication. What kind of prep work gets done? The biggest thing that I do is proofread and make notes on things that really stand out – typos, missing dates or page numbers, inconsistent formatting – things that need to be added or corrected by the author(s) before the copyeditor can give the volume a really thorough cleaning. Each publisher has a special set of guidelines, style guides for the technical term, which authors need to follow when they submit a volume for publication. I go over each volume I receive to check that the authors have indeed followed the guidelines, and I make notes where things don’t follow the guide. After I make all my notes, the volume is returned to the author so that the formatting and other minor issues are corrected so things are up to snuff before the copyeditor works on it. This may not seem like a critical job to some, but it really is a useful step in the editing process that can save time and effort.

So, how did such an intriguing career opportunity come about? While I was studying at the Medieval Institute, I was able to forge relationships with those who worked and studied at the Medieval Institute and Medieval Institute Publications, and through them I was able to make connections with others in the world of academic publishing. Making connections at the university, and the International Congress on Medieval Studies, was invaluable in achieving this opportunity.

If working for a university press is something that might interest you, I’d like to offer some words of advice: Look at a few different style guides, especially Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) and the Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA) Style Guide. You don’t have to be an expert at them, but get familiar with them and learn how to use them. Also, ask for help. You may be afraid of asking too many questions at the beginning, but, in my opinion, it is much better to ask many questions and learn from them. Take the feedback you get from each editing job and use it to improve your methods and knowledge.

I’d like to offer a little bit of personal advice as well: Don’t be afraid to start something, or fret yourself into inaction. These things are very easy to do, and it creates a vicious cycle. The best thing you can do is try. Jump right into a project, ask for feedback. Learn how you can improve, and carry on. Enjoy the opportunity each project offers – some will be to work with very interesting material, others to learn something new about the style guide for a particular volume. (This is constant! The CMS is like an ever-evolving puzzle, with something new to discover every time you work with it.)

I really enjoy what I do. I get to work from home, in my own space and on my own time. Even though I work apart from many of my colleagues at the universities and publishers, I get to work with some really great people. I also get to read a variety of fascinating material. My first-ever project was to work with a volume on Anglo-Saxon law codes! Talk about some kind of excitement! And how about learning that a scholar whose work you read during your own studies is putting out another volume, and you get to help get it published?! Honestly, there is some fangirling (for me, at least…) that goes on at times (behind the scenes, of course – professionalism is always key!).

And with the recent fascination with medievalism in the media, I can be extra useful in trivia games. “Yeah, I knew Thor’s hammer’s name before it was cool.”

By Sarah Brish