Alumni Stories: Whitney Magruder Talks about the Ups and Downs of Editing

On average, the English Department graduates between 300 and 400 majors every year–in 2012-13, the number was 375. These people go on to a variety of surprising and exciting careers. In this new series, Alumni Stories, we ask alumni to talk to us about where English has taken them.

First in the series is an interview with Whitney Magruder (’11E), who talks to us about her experiences as an Editorial Assistant at Wolters Kluwer Health in the heart of Center City in Philadelphia. Magruder, who is originally from the Bay Area, transferred to Cal in August 2010, graduated in December 2011, and moved to Philadelphia in January 2012. She is starting at a Post-Baccalaureate Pre-Health Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania this fall, after which she intends to apply to medical school.

We should begin by getting a general sense of what you do day-to-day at your job, because you seem to have a lot of different responsibilities. What does it mean to be an Editorial Assistant? What do you do on a typical day at work? What’s fun, and what isn’t so fun?

The best part of my job is reading through medical texts or looking up medical conditions. Sometimes I’ll be flipping through a textbook trying to find a certain piece of information and before I know it, I will have lost 15 minutes reading about a completely unrelated topic that caught my attention. A few weeks ago, I read briefly about the physiology of Alzheimer’s disease while at work, which inspired me to spend hours on PubMed later that night. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in those texts. As for what isn’t fun, I’m really averse to anything involving the copy machine – I jam that thing on a weekly basis. My daily duties include reaching out to customers through email to make sure they are enjoying a positive experience with the software, writing form letters, copy editing the many various documents that come across my desk, processing invoices and tracking payments, maintaining internal databases, aggregating product reviews, parsing user analytics, compiling metadata, tracking information, and just generally being the go-to person for any and all miscellaneous projects.

It’s very interesting that he company you work for focuses specifically on medical literature. Had you read much of that before taking the job? Since one of your jobs is copyediting, I have to ask: how much of your day do you spend looking up the spelling of really obscure medical terminology? Did anything you did as an English major prepare you for that?

I work for the Lippincott Williams & Wilkins division of Wolters Kluwer, which publishes only academic and professional medical texts. I hadn’t read too much medical literature beforehand, but it wasn’t completely foreign to me, either. I’ve always been very interested in science and medicine, which is one of the reasons I was so drawn to the position. When I first interviewed for the job, I thought I would be working on many different LWW titles, but I actually work on only one title. It’s an educational electronic healthcare record for nursing students and it teaches them how to document in patient charts. It’s a computer software, not a textbook, but there is a lot more editorial work that goes into publishing software than I ever imagined. Surprisingly, there isn’t too much arcane jargon that I have to look up, but my knowledge of Greek and Latin roots, suffixes, and prefixes is very helpful, and that familiarity certainly came from studying English literature.

Other than spelling long words, how has your English degree helped you? Do most of your editing colleagues come from English programs? What is it about an education in reading literature—and writing about it—that prepares a student for a career in editing?

The majority of my colleagues have backgrounds in reading and writing-intensive majors: English, journalism, and even creative writing. Strong writing and keen attention to detail are the two most important skills one needs to succeed as an Editorial Assistant, and these skills are finely crafted as an English major.

You mentioned writing and research as two things you do a lot at your job. What is research for your work like in comparison with research you did as an English major? What kinds of things do you write? How did writing papers on novels and poems get you ready for the kind of writing you do now?

The more you write, the better a writer you will be. The sheer volume of writing I did as an undergraduate at Cal is what most prepared me for the work I do now. The research now is much less in-depth than before. I usually just need to find a simple, objective answer. Any English major will tell you that is just about the opposite of what researching for an English paper entails.

Focusing on the research aspect of your work for a moment, I’m wondering if you would say that “close reading” plays a part in what you do as an editor. Do you ever find yourself applying skills to medical literature that you learned first to apply to novels or poems?

The type of research that I do isn’t nearly as in-depth as what I did when I was writing papers about novels. If anything, I’ve had to rein in my close reading tendencies because I found myself getting too caught up in the minutiae rather than focusing on the big picture, which is more important for the work I do now. (I go into further detail below.)

Going along with that last question, people talk a lot about how doing an English major trains them never to read without a pencil, even when reading for fun. Do you think that’s also true of having a job as an editor? Do you “read with a pencil” (either literally, or just in the sense of “read carefully” or “with attention to detail”) more or less now than you did as an undergraduate? Do you still notice (or underline, to continue the pencil image) the same kinds of textual details that you were trained to observe as an undergraduate, or are you now less attuned to things like rhyme and alliteration and more attuned to, say, sentence construction and word choice?

When I am reading for work, I always read carefully, but I am much more attuned to the syntax and grammar rather than the style. A misplaced modifier or split infinitive in a text I’m copy editing is usually an error, not a stylistic choice. I still notice literary devices when I come across them, but I don’t scrutinize them as I once did. That applies only to work, however! When I’m reading a novel, I absolutely still read with a pencil – literally. More often than not, a pencil is what I use for a bookmark. I find that the pleasure of reading is in those very textual details that I leaned to appreciate as an undergraduate.

You mentioned reading a novel–can you talk a little about something you’ve been reading and enjoying recently? Is it weird to do something for pleasure (reading) that you also do for work. Has being, in some senses, a professional reader changed how, when, or what you read for pleasure?

Absolutely! I’ve been an enthusiastic reader since childhood, and while my reading pace has changed depending on what was happening at a particular time in my life, I can’t think of a phase when I wasn’t reading for pleasure. During my time at Cal, the amount of books I chose to read outside of my classes significantly diminished, but I still consider that a time of greatly pleasurable reading. After all, I got to read my favorite novel, Lolita, for three different classes. Since graduation, the amount of books I read for fun has gone back up. Right now I’m reading J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy. Like many people my age, I grew up reading Harry Potter, so reading Rowling’s newest novel – completely different from Harry Potter though it may be – is a little bit like literary candy, and I am fully savoring it. Thankfully, since what I read for pleasure and for work are in vastly different spheres, reading at home doesn’t feel like a continuation of my workday. I can still read a book to unwind after a long day, and that is wonderful.

If you had to give one piece of advice to would-be editors, what would it be?

I think knowing what type of content you want to edit – e.g. literary fiction, science texts, photo magazines, etc. – is just as important as knowing that you want to be an editor. With the amount of time you’ll spending reading and writing about a particular subject, you’ll absolutely want it to be something that interests you.