When Mother Knows Best

Editing Honored Instructor Cathleen Small talks teaching, career choice

Cathleen Small is enthusiastic about teaching.

That enthusiasm and ability to engage a class stems from her experience teaching freshman composition while pursuing her master’s degree in English at Sacramento State University. Cathleen enjoyed teaching so much—and editing!—that when she saw an open position for an instructor in our Professional Sequence in Editing, she applied. And for this Honored Instructor, the rest is history.

“You should be an editor.”

Almost from the beginning, Cathleen’s future as an editor was foretold—although she didn’t realize it at first.

“I’ve always been an avid reader: I started when I was three years old and was pretty much never without a book after that,” remembers Cathleen. “I would read anything and everything: books, magazines in the doctor’s office, newspapers, shampoo bottles in the bathroom, you name it! I would comment whenever I saw a mistake in the newspaper, and that led my mom to tell me a number of times, ‘You should be an editor when you grow up. You’re always finding the mistakes!’”

Fast-forward to life as a college-aged student. Cathleen was adrift: Her father passed away unexpectedly, she didn’t have a stable job and she hadn’t completed her undergraduate degree.

“My mom encouraged me to enroll at Arizona State University to finish the last two years of an undergraduate degree, but I had no idea what I really wanted to do,” Cathleen recounts. “I had enough general education units that I had to declare something as a major, and I heard my mom’s voice in my head saying, ‘You should be an editor. You’re always finding the mistakes!’ And I loved reading and writing, so I chose English.

“Once you graduate with an English degree, you can do one of three things, really: pursue a teaching job of some sort, get an administrative job or be an editor,” quips Cathleen. “I set my sights on becoming an editor.”

As it turns out, she would do all three.

“She brings real-world experience and expertise to our editing program.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree in 1999, Cathleen moved to California and landed a job as an administrative assistant at Prima Publishing, the only publishing house near Sacramento. During her two years there, she worked her way up to editorial assistant and then editor.

Cathleen was laid off when Random House bought the publisher, but continued to work as an editor for a solid-waste consulting company.

“Gradually, some of my contacts from the publishing world began reaching out and asking me to take on side projects, which I’d do at night,” Cathleen recalls.

“At some point, I realized that the side projects were earning me as much income as the consulting job, so I quit the consulting job and launched my freelance editing business, Snyder Editorial Services.”

“She is a working editor and knows what potential clients/authors expect from a copyeditor.”

Editorial Workshop I: Introduction to Copyediting student review, Spring 2018

Cathleen then enrolled in the master’s program in English at Sacramento State University “to maintain some human contact because editing is a solitary profession when you work at home.”

By the time she was hired as one of our instructors, Cathleen had been in the editing field for nearly 15 years, freelancing exclusively for almost 13 of them.

So how does she leverage her years of editing experience in her online classroom? By fostering active discussion and encouraging personal connections.

“Her participation in our discussion board was invaluable and on point.”

Comments such as she “is available to answer questions,” “offers invaluable feedback” and “knows what potential clients/authors expect” fill Cathleen’s course reviews for Editorial Workshop I: Introduction to Copyediting, Editorial Workshop II: Intermediate Copyediting and Advanced Editorial Workshop.

Her teaching approach boils down to common sense: “I encourage students to engage in the online course by first telling them it’s an easy way to earn points toward their grade!”

She fosters engagement with and between her students by:

  • Actively participating in the discussion boards herself
    “I don’t respond to every post, but I always respond to all of the introductory posts, and then I pop in and respond where appropriate, daily, during the week. (Weekends are my time for my family.)”
  • Incorporating her experiences into comments and feedback
    “I try to share relevant stories from my own work where I think it can provide a good learning experience, and I also offer suggestions when students ask how they might approach a particular situation in their work. For example, one question that always comes up during a course is how to know whether a client wants a light, medium or heavy edit. Early on in my editing career, I learned that what clients say they want and what they really want isn’t always the same thing—clients will often say ‘this just needs a light edit,’ but what they really want is a medium edit. So I bring in my own experiences with matching client expectations with the reality of a job, and I share the types of leading questions I ask clients to draw out what sort of edit they really want for their work.”
  • Connecting with students with humor
    “I connect best with people who have a good sense of humor, so I assume many students feel the same. I think it’s helpful for students to get to know you as a person so they feel comfortable sharing concerns and questions with you. While I don’t make it a point to overload them with details about my personal life, I don’t hesitate to answer when someone asks.”
  • Acknowledging mistakes and using them as learning examples
    “I don’t shy away from sharing my own editing challenges over the years. I think people learn best from their mistakes, so when I have students who are upset that they did poorly on an assignment or who are kicking themselves for missing something they think they shouldn’t have, I remind them that we’ve all done that. And I remind them that for every one mistake they failed to catch, they probably caught 50 other mistakes, so their success rate is actually pretty high! And honestly, I think once you miss something you consider to be a silly mistake, you don’t usually make that mistake again—which is why mistakes like that are a great way to learn.”

“I started working the day after this course ended, and I was more than well prepared.”

Advanced Editorial Workshop student review, Fall 2018

Her open-door policy appeals to many of her online students, making it more comfortable for them to share their questions and concerns. “So far, in quite a few years of teaching, no one has ever asked anything that I felt uncomfortable with,” Cathleen shares. “I’ve found students to be very respectful of professional boundaries, so I don’t mind sharing tidbits about me here and there. For example, many of my students have learned that I’m married, I have two sons (both with disabilities) and I love to travel. Is any of that related to editing? Not really—though the ‘two sons with disabilities’ part brings up relevant and engaging discussions about unbiased language, ableism and microaggressions in writing.”

“Cathleen shared a lot of practical copyediting advice.”

“I’m pretty much an open book as far as my editing and freelancing experience goes,” she admits. “There are often discussions that come up about how a student might handle a particular situation in the real world. Chances are, I’ve come across a similar situation in the last 20 years, so where appropriate I’ll share my experience and talk about how I think it worked or how I might approach it differently in hindsight.

“For example, early in my career, I made the terrible mistake of underpricing for my services. It took a long time to remedy that. Now I always caution students and share how it impacted my earning potential early in my career. I also tell them what I’d do differently in that respect, if I had it to do all over again! It seems like every session, I have students say, ‘I don’t want to charge too much because I’m new at this,’ so my own experience with doing just that becomes part of a relevant and important discussion.”

Her practicality as an editor is just one of the many reasons Cathleen is an Honored Instructor. Another is her enthusiasm for learning something new by incorporating her students’ backgrounds, editing experiences and careers into class discussion.

“I’m always excited when we have several working editors in the class because they bring different experiences. I’m especially happy when we have students with fiction experience as the bulk of my experience is in nonfiction editing.”

Cathleen believes that the Professional Sequence in Editing provides an excellent core education but that it is difficult to say what a “typical” course lesson could look like because the course community is different each time.

“Writing and editing are ever-changing landscapes,” she says. “Does the sequence cover everything a student will find in a real-life editing job? Of course not. That would be impossible, because every client, every manuscript and every audience is a little different. But the sequence covers many of the things that students will find themselves faced with when they progress through their own editing career.

“The online forums are a great place for students and teachers to share bits and pieces that might not be covered in the course materials. For example, editing on hard copy is given very little attention in the course materials because it’s rarely done anymore. But inevitably, there’s someone in class who has done it and can chime in when a question about it arises.”

“She excels at meeting students wherever they are in their training and helping them move forward.”

Part of Cathleen’s appeal as an instructor is that she listens to her students. She recommends participating in the discussion forums and interacting with classmates as they are excellent resources—advice she also gives to instructors like herself.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve learned something new just by listening to what students have to say,” she enthuses. “But everyone approaches things a little bit differently, and sometimes when I’m grading a student’s assignment, I’ll think, ‘Wow, what a neat way to approach that fix! I never would’ve thought of that.’ I don’t think any editor ever masters everything, so there’s always an opportunity to learn from others—whether you’re participating in the class or teaching it!”