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S. Robin Larin

Ask an Award Winner: An Interview with James Harbeck

Photo of James Harbeck
Photo of James Harbeck
Copyright: Aina Arro

The Editors Canada student relations committee recently completed a series of interviews with Editors Canada award winners. Each month, we’ll bring you the highlights of our interviews in the hopes that those featured may inspire student editors beginning their careers, as well as editors who are already established.

This month, S. Robin Larin shares the committee’s interview with James Harbeck (Toronto, Ontario), who was the winner of the 2018 Karen Virag Award.

What inspired you to become an editor?

James Harbeck: When I was back in Canada in the late ’90s after finishing my PhD in the U.S., and I had managed to blag my way into an advertising copywriting job, and that led to my learning Photoshop and QuarkXPress and HTML, I happened to chat with someone I was in a choir with who was an editor, and she told me about what it was like and what it involved, and I thought, “Yes, that’s what I would like to do.” And so, over time, I managed to shift my career to doing it.

What has been your biggest challenge in your editing career?

JH: It was pretty hard to get started and to make connections and find clients at first. What I learned is that the best thing to do is just to make friends. The upside of this is that you will also have more friends, who will always have interesting ideas and insights and will be good for commiserating with. And sometimes they will connect you with work.

What is your favourite editing-related resource (book, website)?

JH: The one I use the most is The Chicago Manual of Style, but I got a lot out of The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage too. There are quite a few others that people might get a fair bit from, including some fairly new ones such as A World without “Whom” and Dreyer’s English.

What advice would you give to student affiliate editors?

JH: Don’t just look for the jobs that come with cachet; look for the ones that come with cash, eh! Don’t work “for exposure”; there is none in editing, and anyway every Canadian knows you can die of exposure. And free work just gets you more free work. Do volunteer work to get experience, but always be aware of the value exchange.

But also: first, do no harm. If you really like fixing everything that’s “WRONG!” step back and consider whether you’re doing it to make the communication between author and reader as effective as possible or whether you’re just trying to make the world fit your vision of tidiness. Don’t have hills to die on; you’ll just end up dying on them. If someone does something you think is dumb, they still did it for a reason; try to find out or figure out what the reason is, and then you can assess what would be the best way to accomplish what they’re trying to accomplish.


Previous post from S. Robin Larin: Ask an Award Winner: An Interview with Margo LaPierre

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About the author

S. Robin Larin

S. Robin Larin holds master’s degrees in literature and creative writing and specializes in developmental editing and stylistic copy editing of fiction. A lifelong logophile, bibliophile and ailurophile, Robin lives in Ontario among more books than she can count.


5 Comments on “Ask an Award Winner: An Interview with James Harbeck”

  • Anita Jenkins


    Brilliant. Everything this guy says is true. Friends bring work, don’t have hills to die on, look for jobs with cash (my first question was, “Do they have any money?”).

  • Wendy J Barron


    Great interview, James! So many gems, I plan to share the whole interview with my students.

  • The Harbeck haiku ought to be poster-sized in every editor’s office:

    Step back; do no harm
    Don’t end up dead on a hill
    Look for the cash, eh

    • Haha!! I love it!

  • Rosemary Shipton


    Everything depends on the kind of material you edit. If you’re working on day-to-day writings for an organization or a department, you’re wise to edit lightly and quickly to keep up with the flow. It’s quite different if the lifespan of your texts is measured in years or decades – if you’re working, say, for large scholarly or trade book publishers, online publishers that are building a library, or for commissions of inquiry whose reports and recommendations, if accepted, will change legislation and the implementation of regulations into the future. These projects need editors with experience, mastery of structural / stylistic / and copy editing, and the courage to challenge authors and persuade them that there is a better way to organize and present their texts. There is a strong demand for these creative editors – and every university and college training program should prepare students who want to work in this environment to meet this standard of excellence.

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