Through the Looking Glass: A Profile of Sylvia Taylor

by Larissa Warren
October 24, 2010

“Curiouser and Curiouser” are the words Alice says at the start of her adventure through Wonderland. It’s the story I’m reminded of when speaking with Sylvia Taylor, a freelance editor, about how she got started in her current profession. It’s a complicated beginning, one that threads back to childhood, and carries that “once upon a time” feeling – or perhaps it’s her soft spoken voice that makes me think of fairytales and fair godmothers. Though editing is her fourth formal career, she remembers certain hints as a child; a natural affinity to words. Before she entered school, Taylor’s curiosity towards writing exercises, the follow-the-dot variety, sparked a love of the written language. She was fascinated with how the dots evolved into a picture. Growing up she was always good at telling stories, in fact it was so organic that it never occurred to her to pursue it as a career. Instead, Taylor went on to work in engineering, health care, counseling and adult education. Her last profession was teaching nursing until she was laid off due to a lack of applicants that term. This unexpected turn of events gave her the freedom to go with her natural ability and pursue it professionally.

Taylor stresses that this was not a decision to re-visit an old hobby, but rather a serious choice to become an entrepreneur in the literary world. This distinction is what led to her success and she advises others that, “if you want to become a professional in the literary world at some point, you must see yourself as an entrepreneur first, and an artist second.” Taylor says this is because as a freelance writer or editor, you are essentially self employed and your writing skill is your product. She reveals that her success has led to some jealousy among her colleagues who felt she hadn’t “paid her dues” – as if twenty years of education and career experience isn’t paying your dues. Taylor doesn’t seem to be affected by this, perhaps because her work keeps her too busy.

So what does a day in the life of a writer/editor look like? At the time of the interview, Taylor has already spent two hours on the phone with a potential client, finishing up last minute projects, including eight profiles to be completed by the end of the night, as well as packing for a flight the following afternoon – after teaching a creative writing class of course. Her process in completing each project is fairly simple. She prints out the manuscript from Microsoft Word off her computer, brings out a red pen, and reads; marking the page as she goes. Then she will type up a feedback report for the writer with things to work on. This could include strengths, weaknesses, comments, and recommendations. And so it goes until the manuscript is complete. This is the type of editing Taylor prefers, where the content is the focus, rather than spelling or punctuation – her reaction to this part of editing was similar to forcing vegetables on a child.

If you’re thinking that this process of editing sounds very clinical, you’d be wrong. It is a myth that an editor is detached from connecting. The truth is that connecting is at the very heart of editing. Throughout the fourteen years Taylor has spent as an editor, she has been given many names to describe her role in the process. Some have called her a literary midwife, or claimed that “she whispered the book right out of me”. These accolades allude to the profoundly intimate relationship that occurs between writer and editor as they toil tirelessly over the words placed on the page. Because of this unique connection, often a writer’s emotions and darkest secrets come forth, revealing a vulnerability that must be appreciated and treated sensitively. I asked Taylor how she is able to handle such difficult emotions when they appear, and wasn’t completely surprised when she explained that having a background in counseling helps. Being able to recognize whether a person is writing for others, or writing through their own grief helps as it determines the readiness of the writer, and whether that story will engage readers, or make them shy away from the words bleeding on the page.

Another aspect of the human connection was a topic Taylor discussed at length – networking. If one was curious as to the importance of networking, just remember this simple concept: “Networking is to writers and editors, what location is to Real Estate”. Taylor believes this is mandatory for aspiring writers and editors and recommends joining a professional association. She explains that by networking in this profession you become recognized as a person. Your face, your name, your work, is seen as a whole piece and becomes a living resume; a verbal business card being passed from person to person. This necessary part forces writers and editors to be professional in every interaction. Everything you do, how you conduct yourself even from the very first moment, counts. This means if you are a jerk, a prima donna or unprofessional in any way, you are earning the mark of death.

As well as teaching, writing/editing freelance, Taylor often speaks at conferences and workshops to provide insight to literary hopefuls. She tells them about the importance of networking and presents it logically that you must come “out of the cave and into the village”. This advice is precisely how Taylor became the professional she is today. Once she had decided to become a freelance writer/editor, she placed herself in the village. She began volunteering for writing associations, she wrote for online publications, went to every public reading, every book launch that was available. This was fairly easy for her as she considers herself to be tribal by nature, so the village has always been a comfortable place. Her drive to be a part of the literary world led her to the Federation of BC Writers where she is currently the executive director. Her self-proclaimed “practical and pragmatic” steps towards her career are the key to her success story.

What started out as a curiosity of what words looked like as a picture, and later what they could mean, led Sylvia Taylor down the rabbit hole and into the Wonderland of the literary world. Through her various careers and passionate pursuit of writing, she has never lost sight of her belief in being a committed artist, a business person and most importantly, a human being.

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