An American Editor

December 5, 2018

On the Basics — Giving back?

Filed under: Editorial Matters,On the Basics — americaneditor @ 12:30 pm

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

With Thanksgiving behind us and the commercial end-of-the-year holiday season well under way, it’s a good time to think about how, or if, we as editors might give something back in return for … something.

What might we have received that deserves a response of some sort? And what might be an appropriate response?

What we receive

When you stop to think about it, many of us receive a lot from various sources. As editors, and some of us as freelancers, we often receive answers to questions about our work, whether we have a confusing sentence to untangle, an unfamiliar phrase or usage to assess, a software or hardware headache to cure, or a business matter — sometimes even a crisis — to resolve. We might post those questions in online communities such as the Copyediting List, the e-mail discussion list or forums of the professional organizations we belong to, Facebook or LinkedIn groups, even Twitter conversations. We learn from blogs like this one and newsletters from various sources. Those of us who work in-house might ask for input from someone at the next desk or in another department. Many of us have vendors such as computer gurus to call on for help with technical or mechanical issues. We go to conferences, where we learn from colleagues in person. Some of us have gotten jobs or clients through recommendations and referrals from colleagues.

We can’t always give direct, concrete thanks to everyone who helps us do our work better. That’s one good reason to find ways to give back to the universe, if you’ll forgive a little psycho-babble, as is another: We don’t always even know who provides the answer to a knotty question or information we’ve absorbed without realizing it, and then used to solve problems — or perhaps just to feel better about life in general and our work, and selves, in particular. Finally, not everyone we interact with needs our information or insights, so we can’t always respond to someone who has been helpful with something of equal value.

How and why I give

There are so many ways to give, or give back.

In the professional realm, like many of us, I find myself giving back to colleagues through some of the outlets noted above: contributing to and answering questions through organizational memberships and their discussion venues, participating in online communities, speaking at conferences, editing the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) newsletter and presenting webinars for the organization, teaching classes at the Rochester, NY, Writers and Books literary center, hosting the annual Communication Central conference, etc. These activities have become as natural as breathing, and a regular part of every day. (And we might even benefit financially — the EFA, for instance, shares income with members who write booklets and teach classes or present webinars, and some organizations pay honoraria or expenses for conference speakers, or at least provide speakers with free access to the events.)

I might not be in a position to help someone who answered one of my questions, but I can provide perspectives to someone else that might be as valuable as what one of you gave me. And yes, I profit financially from some of these, but that isn’t my primary motive for doing them. It just feels good — and somehow right — to be of help to others when others have been helpful to me, whether they know it or not.

There are practical ways to give back — a commission, gift certificate, or box of chocolates to colleagues who provide referrals to new clients, for instance.

Another way I give back is by supporting organizations that have helped me in the past and/or promise to make life better for the larger world, especially women and young people. That means financial support, but also personal involvement whenever possible.

Two that stand out are the Encampment for Citizenship and the Minority Journalism Workshop of the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists (GSLABJ).

  • The Encampment has nothing to do with editing or freelancing, but was a major influence on my life. (Now that I think of it, though, that experience did have a connection to what became my profession, since I put together a yearbook for my program — my first effort at self-publishing!) I was 17 when I spent a summer at an Encampment outside New York City, and I’m still friends with fellow Encampers now. The program gave me exposure to kids from a variety of backgrounds, which was a valuable learning experience in and of itself, and opportunities to do community service in several areas; my group was involved in a youth conference at the United Nations, but we all participated in the whole Encampment’s projects. It also gave me confidence about my voice and my principles; confidence that I’ve carried with me ever since.

I helped revive, and now give back to, the Encampment because I believe it’s a program that we all need in today’s confusing, divisive, difficult world. The connection to my professional life is that I use my professional skills to edit material for the organization, which contributes to making the organization look better in its presentations to potential Encampers, parents, donors and others.

  • The GSLABJ workshop was an eye-opener. It wasn’t something I benefited from as a participant; it was a program I helped with (primarily as a provider of food!) in its first year, back in 1976. The high school students in the program wanted to be journalists and were considered the best and brightest of their schools. When we asked them to take notes and write up a presentation by a community leader in the first session (the program meets for seven Saturdays at a local college), the results were incoherent and incomprehensible. I was appalled.

(For those who are wondering, I got involved in the GSLABJ because I was a reporter for the St. Louis Argus, a black weekly.)

After those seven Saturdays, thanks to the dedication of the professional journalists who gave up their weekends (and a lot of time between sessions as well), those kids were writing stories and producing TV and radio programs that were on a par with the work of people working in the profession. It was amazing. There’s something indescribably exciting about seeing a kid go from almost illiterate to highly functional and productive.

The workshop has continued in St. Louis ever since, and colleagues and former student participants have launched similar programs in DC, Memphis, Pittsburgh and elsewhere. I’ve given financial support to the GSLABJ workshop over the years, but now that I’m back in St. Louis (see …), I can — and will — provide hands-on involvement in the workshop again as well.

The tie-in to our profession as editors is, of course, that a program like this is giving young people communication skills they will need to work with or for us in the future.

Why give back?

One business-related aspect of holiday-season giving involves whether we with businesses of our own should give gifts to our clients. I do that every year; something small but personal (and purple!) to show appreciation for the fact that they sent/send me work and pay well and promptly. Client gifts don’t have to be extravagant — a promotional mug, pen, jump drive, etc., works just fine. The point is to let clients know that we appreciate their choosing us over other freelancers. Some of my clients even send me something at the holiday season!

Whether you call it giving back, paying forward or just plain giving, the rewards of helping colleagues and others are common knowledge. For those here who haven’t experienced the fulfillment of helping others on some level, whether in person or through your checkbook; whether in professional circles or personal ones; whether visibly or anonymously … I recommend ramping up your participation in the human race and finding ways to thank your colleagues and communities for what they do. You’ll feel better, and the world will be a better place.

Do you have a way to “give back”? Let us know how and to whom you give back, and why.

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